Nellie McKay finds a lot of her musical inspiration from the past. But unlike Americana artists, she's not digging through old scratchy vinyl folk records.
McKay's inspiration often comes in more mass-market form: classic Hollywood movies and Broadway show tunes from the mid-20th century.
"There's a danger in looking to today too much," McKay says. "That happens all the time—you know, how everybody says ‘hey' now. That's huge. And there's the ubiquitous ‘awesome.' These words—everything is so homogeneous."
McKay herself is anything but homogeneous. Her music bristles with ideas, melodies, and textures that sound familiar, yet fresh.
Her fourth album—and her favorite—is 2009's Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day. On the album, McKay brought a modern twist to Day's artistry without seeming irreverent or insincere. The album is comprised of songs Day recorded, as well as an original penned by McKay, "If I Ever Had a Dream." Unlike other pop-culture nostalgia, McKay doesn't pretend this idealized vision of the world ever really existed. It was always a dream, but intoxicating still. As she sings, "If I ever had a dream/I would dream of sunny skies of blue/Clover 'neath the fields of cream/Bougainvillea and the roses, too."
She's not naïve about the world portrayed in those old Hollywood films.
"Yes, there are no black people in those movies, or they're in these demeaning roles," she says. "But there's still wonderful things to be got from old movies, in terms of the artistry in them. I like those strings. I love the songs. I like music where you can hear the person's voice. There's so many effects these days. I've actually asked people not to put Auto-Tune on my voice. You keep things natural in this unnatural world."
More recently, McKay has written and performed two musical shows. I Want to Live! is about Barbara Graham, the third woman killed in a gas chamber in California. Graham was played by Susan Hayward in the 1958 movie of the same name. The New York Times' Steven Holden wrote that the show "combines McKay's virtually unlimited gifts as a singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, ukulele player, mimic, satirist and comedian into a show that is much deeper than its surface might suggest. Directly or indirectly, the songs, which come from here and there and include three originals, address America's post-crash economic woes with references to crime and the Great Depression."
Earlier this year, McKay performed another musical show: Silent Spring: It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, about the life of the environmental muckraker Rachel Carson. Dramatizing the life of Carson, McKay admits, was much more difficult than that of a condemned killer.
"We looked for any personal drama, and there was zip," she says. "Where's Rachel Carson's dark side?"
Instead, McKay drew on "the drama of what was happening" for inspiration: "The environmental devastation, and all the different aspects of Rachel."
But, she says, "I think the Rachel is still a work in progress. Her story is so important. We're going to get there."
Neither of those shows has been released on CD yet, but McKay says she would love to make a movie of I Want to Live!
McKay is apologetic when asked why she hasn't recorded in a few years. "I never know what people want," she explains. "I love being in a studio. We want to get out a record of the I Want to Live! show. We'd like to do that this year. I'm not sure what happens to records anymore. Who buys them? Who puts them out? What would create press? We'll find a way to put one out."
For the Knoxville show, McKay will perform a mix of material from those shows and her albums. Opening for Madeleine Peyroux poses a challenge for McKay, as she seeks to find the right tone and balance.
"I hate for anyone to leave disappointed," she says. "I feel like they either want a hell-raiser or an ingenue. Half the audience wants one thing, the other another.
"I think Madeline has a great audience. They seem smart and kind. And they're too good of an audience for the likes of me."