n interview with Nellie McKay, the British-born, American-raised singer/songwriter and vocal stylist who performs a solo show this week at Cincinnati’s 20th Century Theater, can be as unpredictable as her career itself. But it’s also frequently greatly pleasurable, just like her music.
McKay’s first album, 2004’s Get Away From Me, was two-discs’ worth of original material — an audacious debut for a newcomer. In 2006, after her second album, Pretty Little Head, she temporarily veered away from contemporary songwriting to star as Polly Peachum in a Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera.
In 2009, she surprised again with her fourth album, the sincere Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day.
After returning to original material with 2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home, which was co-produced by her mother, McKay took another radical detour. Her 2015 full-length, My Weekly Reader, features McKay singing interpretations of 13 Rock songs from the 1960s.
There are some familiar melodic standards — The Beatles’ “If I Fell,” Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” — but also some really eccentric selections, like The Mothers of Invention’s caustically satiric “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and Moby Grape’s just-plain-angry “Murder in My Heart for the Judge.”
Because McKay, 33, has a background in stand-up comedy and a quick wit, you have to wonder if it’s all a conceptual put-on. But because she’s also a fiercely eloquent activist for progressive causes, you also wonder if there’s a political statement behind the project. After all, the 1960s were idealistic.
Her website contains some indications it might all be a prank. There are words of praise for the new album attributed to Charles Manson and Dick Cheney, both hardly respected sources for album endorsements.
So a recent phone interview with McKay starts with an attempt to ask about those quotes, especially Manson’s.
“I know he spent some time in Cincinnati,” she answers. (He was born here.) “So I guess I had your paper in mind. And I guess he had some free time.”
Not sure where to go with her response, I ask why she picked someone so infamously horrible for an “endorsement.”
“I think we also have one from Dick Cheney,” she answers. “They go together.”
But her facetious tone turns serious when I ask if she agrees with those who think that twisted hippie Manson effectively killed the countercultural idealism of the ’60s with the murders his cult committed in 1969.
“I think Reagan had as much — if not more — of a role in attempting to kill the 1960s as Manson did,” she replies. “Even in that time, the hopes and dreams of the 1960s presented such a threat to the ruling class, to capitalism, to the principle… that immediately there was a counter movement to that.”
Even in the 1960s, she says, Ronald Reagan started fostering anti-counterculture ideology as a rightwing governor of California, home of youth rebellion.
“What the 1960s had was hope — truth and hope,” she says. “That’s different than irony, which seems maybe to rule today.”
McKay wasn’t alive when the songs on My Weekly Reader were new, but her mother, actress Robin Pappas, was. Pappas introduced McKay to many of the songs on the album when she learned of the project.
“She first heard ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ when she was applying for a job in a cookie-cutter house for a real-life Mr. America and his family,” McKay says. “She heard (Steve Miller Band’s) ‘Quicksilver Girl’ in a supermarket in Northern California. And she was living around San Francisco at the same time Moby Grape was playing around there.”
Pappas also gave her daughter a copy of Greenwich Village Folk duo Richard and Mimi Fariña’s 1965 album Reflections in a Crystal Wind, from which McKay covers “Bold Marauder.” Two songs covered in a medley on My Weekly Reader — “Poor People” and “Justice” — were composed for a 1973 film McKay says her mother worked on, O Lucky Man!.
And one of the album’s highlights, a version of the Small Faces’ dreamily psychedelic “Itchycoo Park,” also wouldn’t have happened were it not introduced to the singer by her mother.
“It represents what I would hope for the world,” McKay says of “Itchycoo Park.” “To me, it’s such a beautiful song. It shows how drugs can unlock your imagination. Imagination along with empathy are the two things systematically beaten out of us from such a young age. If we can hold on to those two things, it is possible the world can be better.”
“Murder in My Heart for the Judge” is hardly a sterling example of empathic outpouring, but McKay sees the relevance of the song in terms of her own political outlook and recent troubled times in the U.S. She says the “non-indictments” of police officers in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y. came out around the time My Weekly Reader was being made.
“In the wake of so much protest,” McKay says, “(‘Murder in My Heart’) is so relevant and will continue to be.”
McKay’s quick mind is never far from political awareness, but her offbeat humor is also always close-at-hand. That’s evident in the outro of “Murder in My Heart,” during which recent quotes and slogans related to the ensuing protests, like “No justice, no peace — for us or the police,” are spoken or chanted. But amidst the passionate outrage, an unlikely chant creeps up: “What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!” McKay saw those words on an actual protest poster and it inspired her.
“You need to have some whimsy,” McKay says. “You need to have a sense of humor to get through this stuff. So even while facing the reality and horrors of the world, you have to lighten things up once in a while.”
NELLIE MCKAY performs Thursday at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com.