“Nellie McKay is a genius in the jazz world, able to swirl together cutting comedy and caustic commentary with a voice charming enough to make bitter pills go down like sweet nothings.”
Nellie McKay sings melancholy standards about love on her new album: Sister Orchid. NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with McKay about her music that she performs alone.
Nellie McKay checks in with Todd Steed to talk about her instant classic, Sister Orchid. She also lets loose on social ills, swimming pools and more. Listen here!
Nellie McKay Brings ‘Sister Orchid,’ and Plenty of Wry Perspective, to Singers Unlimited
Nellie McKay has a longstanding history with Michael Bourne and Singers Unlimited — all the way back to her major-label debut, Get Away From Me, nearly 15 years ago. Now she has a new solo album of standards called Sister Orchid. She came in to talk about it with Michael, and to perform a few songs in our studio.
NPR Music: “The Nearness of You”
“The bottom line for McKay, it would seem, is that there’s always another level, a deeper layer…”The Nearness of You” is a veritable jazz standard — composed 80 years ago by Hoagy Carmichael, and recorded since by everybody from Harry James to Norah Jones. The song is invariably performed at a ballad tempo like this one. But McKay brings an odd bittersweetness, and maybe a whiff of sublimated tragedy, to her delivery. Could she be singing to a sense memory, or a ghost? Every possibility seems plausible.”
“The song ‘Small Day Tomorrow’ is a ramshackle anthem for those shucking the jive of ‘civil’ society while escaping into the night from the proper, deadly, proscribed existence foisted on us from cradle to grave. It offers an honest appraisal of smug success and the willful obliviousness of ‘winners’ – their decadent cluelessness and preening delusion. J. Krishnamurti wrote, ‘it is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ Turn your back on the cold light of day and embrace the warmth of a shot glass. The deck is stacked and all is lost so might as well be merry while ye may. ‘Good people are always so sure they’re right.’ [Those] were the last words of Barbara Graham, who became the third woman executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Society functions well on the smooth dispensation of fumes of potassium cyanide. It’s a den of thieves stretching up to the sky. Better to stick with the small time.”- Nellie
“Sister Orchid evokes dusty rooms, old photograph albums with fraying, yellowed sepia prints, ghosts, inebriation, faded beauty, and heartache.”
“I can’t stop thinking about Garrison [Keillor] and all the times I sexually harassed him.” The Dakota crowd laughed.
“McKay works without a firm set list – and without a net. Equal parts corny comedian, gifted jazz pianist, hopeless romantic, absurdist social commentator, inspired singer-songwriter and ukulele-plucking vaudevillian, the 36-year-old thrives on spontaneity onstage.”
“Think of an old, smoke-filled bar, not seedy exactly, but a place where down-and-outers congregate to drink and share their past troubles, usually romantic. It’s as if you’re in the coastal bar in the 1948 picture Road House where Ida Lupino is singing ‘One More for My Baby.’”