It’s hard to find a more fitting act to open Lincoln Center’s annual Midnight Summer Swing series than Nellie McKay. Now, Lincoln Center isn’t new territory for McKay, who appeared in that institution’s Great American Songbook in March 2005, but the interesting development this time around is that she’ll be fronting a band called the Aristocrats, featuring musicians pulled from the Swingin’ Hot Shots. It may look like an idiosyncratic move for a singer-songwriter who usually backs herself on the piano live, but then McKay specializes in odd moves. And even when they don’t quite pan out, the results are never boring. Let’s not shy away from hyperbole here: McKay is possibly the most interesting artist to emerge out of New York in the past decade.Now 26, McKay started by playing tiny rooms in New York in the mid-’00s. I remember attending a few shows during her residency at Sidewalk Café, an East Village hole in the wall known for launching the antifolk movement that spawned the Moldy Peaches (reaping the benefits of landing several songs the Juno soundtrack years after they broke up).
Anyway, McKay’s solo performances were completely unpredictable: You just never knew what you were going to get. She’d play some of the originals that would then appear on her debut album, 2004’s Get Away from Me; she’d cover Tin Pan Alley nuggets; she’d ramble about whatever topic popped into her head in one of the most entertaining stage banters I’ve ever heard in 20 years of going to gigs. Sometimes she sounded like a young, female Randy Newman; others, she channeled Doris Day. She was both of her time and completely out of it. Her acerbic wit and utter lack of ironic distance made her stand out from her blasé, pomo contemporaries.
After one album on a major, she left/was dumped and self-released Pretty Little Head in 2006. That same year, she played Polly Peachum in the otherwise horrid Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera. Her highly stylized performance was decidedly at odds with what the rest of the cast was doing, but it was so bizarre that it became entrancing: You just couldn’t tell if she was acting or just being herself saying lines in a weird costume. It’s the only positive memory I have of that show.
In two years, McKay had gone from Sidewalk Café to being signed then dropped by a major label to debuts at Lincoln Center and on Broadway. Not bad, huh? It’s as if she had no career plan, unlike so many of her peers in the New York pop scene. And unlike them again, she looks equally at ease everywhere she goes, belonging and not at the same time. She embodies a straight line from Tin Pan Alley songwriting, a clever melodicist whose verbal agility is like the expression of an id unimpeded by any kind of super-eg—though her high level of craft suggests otherwise, too.
Last year, McKay released her third album, Obligatory Villagers. She’ll probably perform tracks from it—rearranged for a swing band, of course—and the press release announcing the show also promises “the American Songbook (the whole thing)” and “her score for Election—set to open on Broadway sometime before 2050.” Of course this being Nellie McKay, she could end up performing only June Christy songs, or big-band versions of rap tracks…