Road Trip with a Reluctant Raconteur

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 31, 2018
Nellie McKay performs Saturday, June 2, at SOhO

It would be sheer folly to expect a linear conversation when interviewing Nellie McKay. The British-American singer-songwriter and actress may be sharp as a tack in creating diverse albums that range from her brilliant 2004 debut Get Away from Me – a double-album from a 21-year-old that was full of clever and original pop songs and a title that played on Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me –to Normal as Blueberry Pie, her tribute to Doris Day, and My Weekly Reader, a covers album of songs from the 1960s both well-known and obscure. 

She was dead-on in her three acclaimed musical biographies/cabarets, which included “I Want to Live!”, the story of Barbara Graham, who was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin, and Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, which examines the esteemed environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

But over the phone, McKay has a penchant for straying off topic and making mid-sentence left turns.

When I apologized about calling a few minutes after our appointed time last week, she said, “Oh, that’s great. It boosts my self-esteem.”

Come again?

“It makes me feel extremely competent, because I’m usually late, so I really appreciate it when someone else is too.”

Uh, okay.

Ask McKay about why she left behind making albums of original pop songs in styles ranging from 1950s style cabaret to funk, rap, and more, several of which were used in high-profile TV shows such as Weeds and Grey’s Anatomy, in favor of cover material and other projects, and you might get a short, straight if somewhat hard-to-fathom answer: “It’s somewhat a lack of inspiration, as in an inability to express myself. I mean, Tom Lehrer quit to teach math, but I can’t do that.” 

But you also might suddenly be subject to a meandering meditation that wanders into political (“There are so many nuclear weapons. It’s insane!”) and sociological issues (“What do you want with mainstream so-called civilization? It’s a sick joke.”), or the economic realities of making it as a musician in modern times (“People can have mega-hits but still make peanuts. We need a universal basic income, so I go where the money is,” which wouldn’t seem to be any of those recent projects.)

Which actually, if somewhat obliquely, brings us to Sister Orchid, her new solo album of interpretations of material from the Great American Songbook featuring selections from the Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart catalogs, among others. The spare record on which McKay also plays piano and harmonica is meant to conjure images of lonely truck stops at night, or the darkness in between, and comes from her desire to more or less get off the grid, even as the songs are bright and often cheery. (The title, by the way, is a play on Brother Orchid, the 1940s crime movie about redemption through flowers. Go figure.)

Still, McKay once said she’d never tackle that classic oeuvre of music from the era.

“There are so many beautiful songs out there, it’s hard to resist the temptation,” she explained. “You grow up with these songs, the ghosts are always around.”

As for McKay, she hasn’t found the same sort of redemption through singing them. “Showbiz is such an inequity,” she said. “It’s funny that you write a song, and for some reason people want to watch you sing it for the rest of your life. It’s an odd concept for me. Why aren’t we watching surgeons operate? Life isn’t fair.”

Fair or not, McKay will offer her interpretations of music from her varied repertoire in a solo show at SOhO on Saturday night, June 2.

“It’s a very intimate evening. We’ll cover a fair amount of ground, take some requests. Just make people happy.”

Kids in the Classical Corner

The Ojai Music Festival, with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja serving as the artistic director for the 2018 version of the venerable and adventurous classical music excursion, gets going for a long weekend next Thursday, June 7. We’ll have more about the avalanche of artists and programs hitting the mountain village in next week’s column. But first, the amateurs get their show via the Santa Barbara Music Club’s annual Scholarship Winners concerts, featuring dozens of young pre-professional local musicians aged 9-20 performing excerpts on a variety of instruments in two joint recitals taking place on the next two Saturdays, June 2 and 9, both at 3 pm, at SBMC’s new home at First United Methodist Church, 305 E. Anapamu Street. 

It’s one of the more anticipated and exciting offerings of the classical club, and closes out its season of free concerts. Check out the SBMC’s website at for a complete schedule of the performances, musicians, their teachers, and the repertoire.

Dance Dimensions

State Street Ballet (SSB) is sending off Gary McKenzie, a founding member and its longtime ballet master and teacher at Gustafson Dance, with a gathering at the company’s Towbes Center for Dance on Monday night. The 5:30 to 7:30 pm event is to let alumni, students, friends, parents, dancers and others share drinks, snacks and memories to bid adieu to McKenzie, who is retiring to the countryside in the south of France, as announced during intermission at SSB’s closing night of its Modern Masters show at the New Vic earlier this month.

Everybody Dance Now! (EDN) Santa Barbara’s 2018 Day of Movement takes place from noon to 5 pm this Saturday, June 2, at Isla Vista Elementary, 6875 El Colegio Road, Goleta. Up first are the opening rounds of the 2-vs-2 kids category and 1-on-1 adult category in a freestyle dance battle with a $200 cash prize per division, followed by a free family dance masterclass with Chrybaby Cozie, a pioneer/creator of Harlem Litefeet who is one of our EDN! teachers in New York City. The day closes with EDN’s spring performance, which also features the semi-finals and finals of the battle. Admission is free, with donations accepted.

Back here in Montecito, DJ Darla Bea hosts and spins the tunes for the Four Seasons Biltmore Grand Re-Opening party inside the Ty Lounge from 7-10 pm on Friday, June 1, when dancers who have missed moving to the beat for the last six months following the massive mudslide will be crowding the floor at the lounge. That’s also the same night that Summer Nights on the Roof of the Canary gets going for 2018, with DJ aRod in control of the beats to keep the crowd moving as they glide above it all in downtown Santa Barbara.


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