Nellie McKay: 21st Century Renaissance Woman Page 3


Photo by Rick Gonzalez

She did enjoy appearing at the 2009 Celebration of the Arts Festival in the Delaware Water Gap; Mobile Home's final track, "Bluebird," is a semi-big-band live recording from the show. "The quality of that recording - just the sound on the violin - I don't think you could replicate that in a studio."

She also needn't have worried about the three gigs I saw, where she was ever the pro, from her happy-go-lucky, show-stealing numbers at the packed Town Hall and her wide-ranging sets at the Deer Head Inn (a venue she likes for its "convivial, hometown vibe") to her intimate WNYC radio spot, on a bill with producer-cum-bandleader Mark Ronson.

"He's just playing New York and L.A.," McKay points out. "I love that!...If you like where you live, you don't want to leave. I've started to sound so much like the locals I know in Pennsylvania. A friend of mine was voted Most Likely to Never Leave the Poconos. He doesn't want to travel. And now I'm just like that. 'I don't want to leave. I'm staying right here!' "

GETTING BACK TO TALK OF THE STUDIO, I ask whether the dynamic between Robin and Nellie when they're working together is different from the times when they're "simply" mother and daughter. McKay laughs: "Unfortunately for her, no. I'm very needy, and she really never escapes it."

Is Robin involved in the creative process of the sound of a record?

"She's certainly part of it. But if the arrangements were ever up to her completely, she would go for a more stripped-down sound. I have that bit of Liberace in me. 'Oh, I can do this, and I can do that.' And, of course, as my manager, she's in charge of the financial picture, so she knows just how much we're spending. I would like a herd of elk to come through one of my recordings, and maybe an airplane."

McKay does seem to get a kick out of sound effects, such as the loon on "The Cavendish" (a track she wrote and recorded as an NPR challenge; see Project Song at and the foghorn on Normal as Blueberry Pie's "I Remember You." And then, on "My Buddy" - one of four Mobile Home bonus tracks available by getting the album's "Deluxe Fan Pack" version at - there's a police-car siren.

"That was Robin. See, that's the kind of thing I wouldn't have thought of, but she did. When I was little, we used to watch Cops all the time; maybe there's an element of that in the siren. And I guess it's the idea of, one person is coming for the other person."

Sound effects are but one resource available to an arranger - a role that McKay, judging from her arrangements on Blueberry Pie and Mobile Home, seems to be relishing more and more. But first, she says, "the song has to be there. I'm always concerned that the song is there."

Then she admits: "It's all very daunting. Every time I sit down to do a song and start an arrangement, it always feels like the first time, like I have no idea what I'm doing. And often, when you try to do something that you've done before, but it doesn't work this time, you're astonished. 'But I did this before!' Yet, of course, it's going to be different each time; you have to start new again."

Does she hear an arrangement in her head from the beginning of composing a song? Or does it only come to her when she gets into the studio?

"It's pretty much all in my head from the start. Many of my ideas head toward the cheesy, and they need to be pulled back. Of course, the musicians in the studio bring so much. For example, bass lines. I started out not writing bass lines, and then I got into writing them, and now I'm heading back to not writing them. A friend of mine who writes arrangements knows how every form of music is supposed to sound. But sometimes, I feel quite clueless about that. What Bob Glaub did for 'Bruise on the Sky' - I wouldn't have known that's what you play on bass for that style of music. Those L.A. players, they just brought the music to life. So did the players in Jamaica."

Occasionally, though, there are conflicting approaches for arrangements. The haunting recording of "The Portal," for example, was her third attempt at the track.

"That song has never sounded like what I thought it was going to sound like. I quite enjoyed a version we did in the Poconos. And then we did one in Jamaica. But the one we did in L.A., which we used on the album, just had that feeling of weightlessness. Maybe people like listening to it when they're in a certain mood. But for me, I always thought the song should be more like . . . Jimmy Buffett, like something that's almost Easy Listening. I guess it found a different place."