Singer-pianist-actor-songwriter Nellie McKay is a kitten with a whip, which she cracks at any sign of cruelty against kittens, cows, donkeys, humans, or any other mammal.
Still in her midtwenties, McKay recently released her fourth album, Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day. On this warm and loving shout-out from one fabulous blonde animal-rights activist to another, McKay channels Day's bright-eyed optimism without a trace of corn. Covering a dozen standards Day made her own during the fifties and early sixties, McKay sounds older, wiser, and nearly even hipper than on her highly lauded and ridiculously clever 2004 debut, Get Away From Me (a response to Norah Jones's then hit album, Stay With Me). Pretty Little Head and Obligatory Villagers contined McKay's quest for a blithe jazz-pop sound that was both vintage and contemporary, timeless and topical.
Like Day, McKay initially comes off as a something of a disarmingly charming ditz. She tends to arrive onstage grasping a handful of disorganized sheets of music, which she delves into as the whim strikes her. Currently on tour with her group, the Aristocrats, McKay used to be known for halting shows nearly midsong to hand out animal-rights flyers to the audience. As she indicates below, however, McKay's been gradually shifting her focus back to music while still remaining deeply engaged in interrelated causes.
HeadCount: Who are your activist heroes? Who do you emulate as a social activist?
McKay: New York City Council member Tony Avella. He won’t even take a free parking pass. I’ve worked with Avella; he’s at every rally for every cause I support, he always shows up, he’s always speaking the truth to power. And that’s why he’s considered a joke. But he shouldn’t be. They always have to marginalize people who are actually fighting for something.
You always seem to be in the trenches for various causes, such as animal rights or protesting Columbia University expansion. How did you get into the activist groove?
McKay: I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s always the wisest thing. When my mother was in England, she ran into Vanessa Redgrave handing out flyers for the Workers Party and she thought, “Why aren’t you making a movie?” You can reach many more people by making a movie or, in my case, writing a song than by standing on some street corner. I mean, it’s good to have a hand in the trenches, but I’ve probably focused too much energy on going to protests rather than doing music work.
Do you feel your music reaches the audience and has the effect you'd like it to have as social commentary?
McKay: No, it doesn’t. I don’t really know what does. Laura Bush’s favorite musician is Bob Dylan you know, so what does that add up to? She obviously isn’t listening very closely. So it’s very easy to give up.
Well, Dylan gave up protest music in 1963 or so.
McKay: He talks big but it’s still there, from "Hurricane" [his 1975 song about accused murderer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter] to Infidels in 1983. He just went underground.
Any other icons of activism you'd like to acknowledge?
McKay: I like [deceased animal-rights activist and actress] Sandy Dennis. I like how both she and Doris Day not only fight for animals in a larger sense but also took them in at home. I was just looking at pictures of Billie Holiday and her dog. I like the thing, or at least the idea, of doing things for some other creature or person. It’s a very noble idea. I’m not sure it gets you anywhere, but I can kind of dig that domestic scene. I like how [comedian] Dick Gregory started out focusing on civil rights and became an animal-rights activist. I like how Alice Walker not only fights for civil rights and feminism – which is a difficult blend to pull off because it’s the whole divide-and-conquer thing; everyone's always trying to pit activists against each other or make it seem like they’re fighting separate or conflicting battles – but she not only fights for civil rights and feminism but animal rights, too. It’s great.
Do you prioritize the causes you're involved with?
McKay: The animals have the furthest to go in terms of sheer numbers and the level to which violence toward them is institutionalized. But no, it’s all the same fight. It's important for animal-rights groups not to use sexism to advance their cause. And it's just as important for feminists not to serve charred flesh for dinner. People need to see the interconnectedness of these things.
What’s your assessment of the Obama administration so far?
McKay: Oh boy, he’s up against so much opposition. They will do anything to break him down, so I don’t envy the man and I’m so happy for anything he’s getting through. But at the same time, you’ve got to stand up for the little guy. You’ve got to fight. He’s such a lover-not-a-fighter, and that worries me because it’s not about making people like him, or about maintaining a certain perception of himself. He shouldn’t only assume a fighting tone when talking about Afghanistan. That’s the wrong thing to fight for. It seems like such a no-brainer, spending all that money to blow people up. You don’t fight another war to keep the peace. But he's got to take a strong stand on protecting abortion services, the public option, and standing up to environmental criminals. He still hasn't cracked down on those issues and I think a lot of people were hoping he would. But I have hope for the future. I think his healing touch can do wonders and I hope it does. He has to tread a fine line, because the opposition is so powerful and relentless. There are three or four health-care lobbyists for every member of Congress and all that big money. It’s tough being a Democrat fighting the health-care industry, because they spend big money on every campaign in the House and Senate.
Have you had any experience with the plight of musicians and health care – or the lack thereof?
McKay: I don’t really know enough about the union plan. I’m not even sure what union I’m covered under. But certainly, musicians who aren’t in the union would be suffering right about now I would think, unless they’re married to someone [who has coverage]. And even if you have health care, it’s so precarious about what they’re going to cover. I know a lot of musicians who try to stay away from the unions because they don’t have enough gigs to cover the the dues. In the case of someone in New Orleans, musicians don’t even have a roof over their heads. When you see these kids going into music nowadays, you think, “Bless them.” It’s hard to make a living. It ain’t the Tommy Dorsey days.
Young musicians who don’t have health care are part of the so-called "young invincibles."
McKay: It always reminds me of the fable about the the grasshopper who plays the violin while the ants gather all the food, which they won’t share. The grasshopper was making beautiful music, but the ants regard that as just goofing off. That’s still how people who work at night are regarded, as though it’s not a real job, as though people in music are just fooling around for a living. There’s very little sympathy for our need to make an income, never mind having a little security.
When people ask your advice about how to get involved politically or with a cause, where do you send them? Any favorite organizations or nonprofits that could use volunteers?
McKay: Oh yeah. Farm Sanctuary is wonderful. The American Anti-Vivisection Society. Feminists for Animal Rights. The Jane Goodall Institute does great work. There’s a donkey rescue in Southern California I have a special sympathy for. The farm animals really bear the brunt of it. In terms of human groups, there are so many. But I think it's important just to figure out what’s happening and organize in your own community. It's always a David versus Goliath thing. Your community is always going to be facing some threat, so save yourself from industrial polluters or organize to get the big chains out of your town, which we need to do in New York, too. The best thing for the economy on a local and national level, is to have more small businesses. But the biggest thing you can do for the animals and for the environment is to go vegetarian.
Read any good books lately?
McKay: I read Steppenwolf. I read a good book called The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. I read a terrific oral history by Deborah Geller about Brian Epstein [In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story].
Have you seen Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story yet? What did you think?
There’s some really good things in there. But I loved Sicko. I went back to see Sicko ten times, and every time I pretended I hadn’t gone before, so I had to keep laughing even though I knew what the joke was. But I really wanted other people to see it.