Nellie McKay — whose fifth album, Home Sweet Mobile Home, debuts this week — is ostensibly 28 years old, but she seems more like a displaced product of the Mad Men era: She is, at once, a ukulele-strumming, ivory-tinkling crooner with an affection for simpler times (her previous album, 2009’s Normal As Blueberry Pie, was a collection of Doris Day covers) and a fervent activist who sings numbers that protest against animal testing, rally for gay marriage, or skewer patriarchy and humorless feminists with equal aplomb. She’s traipsed across the stage (in a 2006 Broadway production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera) and the screen (a small part in the 2007 Hilary Swank rom-com P.S. I Love You), but didn’t even know she had a Twitter account until Vulture tipped her off. We recently interrupted her afternoon errands to discuss stage fright, third-party candidates, and cat ranches.
What are you doing today?
Oh boy. Well, I’m trying to make myself earn the Joaquin Phoenix movie. I’m trying to really get some stuff done so I’ll feel like I’m more due.
What do you think about it?
Oh, well, I mean, he’s a vegan — he narrated Earthlings, which was great. It’s like if Brando was a vegan, you know? And, you know, they’re exploring what is reality and is truth. I love that stuff. … Actually, my whole career so far has been a hoax. You’re the first to know … It’s all a cruel, sick joke I’ve been playing on the public.
So who is the real Nellie McKay?
I’m more like Taylor Swift.
Well, you have wonderful hair, like she does.
Oh, thank you. It’s so natural, too.
The week before a record comes out, what do you do?
I think everybody has their own little markers, you know, something that really thrills them — and, you know, I’m gonna see a sign up in a bodega and I’m probably going to wet myself. But it’s just always on to the next thing, you know. I think I have advanced ADD.
You’ve just finished recording a new album. When did you finish making it?
I guess about a week ago? It feels — it was all very rushed. Basically write the songs and then I become an infant. And my co-producer Robin, she comes in and puts everything together. So, past the actual song part, I don’t know — it’s like I’m sitting in the chair, I can just hardly move. Maybe the whole recording thing is just so much pressure, there’s so much money at stake.
The nerves paralyze you?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s fear, or Asperger’s. Everyone comes in and they’re so sociable and there are dirty jokes and, you know, it’s all a bit overwhelming. It’s great, but the actual work part, you know — I’m not too keen on work.
Do you get stage fright? You don’t seem to.
I don’t know. I kind of think of it as pure terror. But that seems kind of stupid, I mean. I saw a documentary on Tony Bennett and Alec Baldwin says in it, “Remember, this is supposed to be fun.” But then I guess he’s had his own share of problems. I don’t know. I picked up a copy of Rosie O’Donnell’s book Celebrity Detox, and in it she says that it’s not happiness but relief that’s the most intoxicating emotion. And it’s just so true— you’re like, “Oh, it went okay.” That’s basically the two emotions after shows: either the relief or the utter despair.
Have you had especially bad show experiences?
Oh God, yeah. There was one in 2008 where I had been out going door-to-door [to get out the vote for the presidential campaign] before, and I hadn’t slept all night because, well, for some reason I couldn’t sleep — maybe it was the election itself. I just wasn’t thinking about the show which was, you know, not very nice for the people who came to see it. I mean, we got through it but that’s the only note in its favor. That was easily the worst show I’ve ever done.
You were canvassing? I assume you were doing it for Obama …
Yeah. I mean, I did the Nader super-rallies. You know, Democrats are so indentured to the corporations at this point and they always concentrate on eliminating the third parties, but it’s only going to be the third parties that are going to push the country in a progressive direction. It’s like the so-called radical feminists versus the more so-called mainstream feminists — you have to have the vanguard so that the mainstream will move in your direction. If you don’t have that, you have this so-called centrist position which is, you know, fascist itself. But I did go door-to-door in Pennsylvania for Obama, as well as supporting Nader. Who knew there were so many militia members in Philadelphia!
Did people pull guns on you?
No, there wasn’t a gun but there was one guy who came out — oh my God, white people can be scary … What killed me was he was listening to Miles Davis. But, oh boy, did he not want to be bothered: “Get the fuck off my porch, get the fuck out.” I mean, actually, it was appropriate that he was listening to Miles Davis … But it seems a little incongruous. I went door-to-door in Wilkes-Barre, too … I just felt like we were using people. They opened the door expecting to see a friend or a neighbor and it’s just — we’re just there because we want something, even if it’s arguably for the good of all, and then after the election we don’t go back. I always felt we should go back with cookies …
Have you done anything for this fall’s upcoming election?
I hope to. I just feel like you’re bugging people. It’s like when you do the phone calls — I’ve done a fair amount of those. People just want to relax at home, they don’t want me bugging them. One time I got this little girl and she said, “No, we’re not gonna vote for you and the thing that kills the babies.” And I said, “Oh, you mean war?” So that was like the one moment I thought maybe I made a point in a phone call. But mostly you just feel like, generally in life, it’s a done deal — everything’s bought and sold and corrupted.
It’s so funny to hear you say something like that because I feel like your music is so upbeat.
Oh yes! That’s okay — we can go back to the positive! Look, you have to have hope to continue. It’s just that sometimes it’s just good to say, “Ehh, I’m just going to eat some potato chips and give up on the whole thing.”
I think you started writing music around the time that George W. Bush was in office, and I wonder if, in the almost ten years since, the way you incorporate your ideas about the world and politics and social issues into your songs has changed over time.
I think it’s very important. I just feel there’s such a level of cynicism among our generation. I keep wanting it to go back to the sixties and I don’t know how to do it. Because there are people who are doing political things … At all these benefits, you see these artist and musicians and comedians — it’s not like there isn’t political interest. In a way, people are more than ever tied together, with the Internet and everything. There just seems to be such a cynicism, and then there’s an ennui that sets in. I don’t know if it’s because we’re overloaded with information, but I wish we could become more of a cohesive movement.
I wonder if the Internet is really more divisive or atomizing than anything else.
Right, and isolating. And it fosters that culture where people just say anything. It’s just terrifying what’s out there.
How has the Internet affected the way you think about what kind of music you’re making? It looks like you do have a Twitter account, but it’s, um —
I have a Twitter account?
You do. Did you not know?
For some reason, I imagine you not even having a cell phone. You are just so very associated with the sixties to me, your whole aesthetic. You seem like one of those amazing people who somehow doesn’t spend 40 percent of their waking time on the Internet looking at cat videos.
Funny you should mention this! I don’t spend 40 percent of my time looking at cat videos. But once you have your own animals, you stop, I think, fetishizing … But if you go to CaboodleRanch.com — I just got sent these pictures, it’s this cat ranch. It’s fabulous! The cats, they go to church and they go to city hall — they go to all the most corrupt venues — and it’s just fabulous. This is what I’m going to be doing in my retirement, for sure. I urge you to check it out.
I’m there now. It looks beautiful. Oh, goodness: “Where cats aren’t treated like animals.” Wow, they look really happy.
So, you didn’t realize you had a Twitter account?
No! I wonder who set that up?
It’s a verified account, by Twitter itself. Lots of information about your album and tour dates …
This must be the label! Oh, they’re so sneaky. I can’t believe that they — Jesus. It’s like a parent who keeps taking you to the playground when you’ve made it clear that you don’t like other kids.
I wonder about this also — if, as a musician, you’re ever out in a store or some place and you hear one of your own songs. Does that ever happen to you?
Well, it happens so rarely to me that I tend to start jumping up and down and telling everyone. But there was this one restaurant we go to that’s called Vegetarian Paradise — it’s fabulous. And, actually, I think it was in New York that I mentioned it, and they saw that and so they started playing my music in their restaurant and that was really fun. But, no, that never happens.
You seem like the kind of person who would release your own records. And I was wondering if you’ve ever had any interest in that, or if it just works better for you to have a label structure to help you along.
It does help to have the label structure. We did release one — Pretty Little Head was on our own label — but it takes a ton of organization that I don’t have and really don’t aspire to. And the nice thing is now there’s just a lot more creative control. Aimee Mann compares record labels to an alcoholic father — you never know what they’re going to do next — but I feel like it’s getting better all the time. With these last two albums, it’s like the best of both worlds. You have that independence, but you also have a bit of a label muffle.
You got picked up by Sony/Columbia in this way that major labels just don’t do anymore. It wasn’t even all that long ago, but it seems like maybe you kind of sneaked in the door at the last minute as the house was on fire. Or maybe you sneaked out — that was a bad metaphor. It seems like you’re a dying breed of artist that got plucked from relative …
Yeah, for sure. I don’t know really why I bothered sneaking in that burning building —
Maybe it was more like you jumped on a battleship as it was sinking. Then you got into a dinghy —
Then they proceeded to fight even as it was going down. Yeah. I’ve heard it’s such a ghost town over there now. That’s what happens, though, when moneymen take over the business. It’s the same everywhere — it’s the same with movies. Short-sightedness seems to rule. I don’t get it. It’s just — you see the stuff that lasts and it’s not the disposable moneymakers. I feel like they would still make a little bit of money, you know, turn a profit if they made things with a little more substance. I remember them saying at Columbia that Dylan didn’t get that much respect because he didn’t go platinum enough times. It just seems ludicrous. So that’s why I think they went down, more than the Internet stuff.
It’s been since early 2002–2003 that you put out your first record, so you’ve been doing this for almost ten years now …
I haven’t learned a thing. I don’t know. Well, I’ve got two dogs now and they’re really inspirational. Like when I screw up, say, an audition or something, I go home and with their wagging tails and nodding heads they seem to say, “Aw, you fucked it up again!” and “You screwed up big time!” but I really want to do well for them. I really want to be able to buy them great dog treats. It’s like in Animal Farm where the horse says, “I must work harder! I will work harder!”
But the more that you work, I guess that would mean you’re away from the dogs more.
I don’t even consider that work so much as a waste of time, being on the road. I don’t know the right way to approach shows. It doesn’t really seem like it gets you anywhere.
Do you like playing live?
Um, I like the idea, if I’ve just read the right biography. You know, you read enough about Monk or Louis Armstrong or Ella and you think, Oh, that’s living! And then you’re at your first airport security and you just want to go home.
I realize it can kind of be almost a performance of a performance, because you’re also an actress — I wonder if there’s a sense of not just performing as a musician but performing as a character of yourself onstage.
Right, yeah. I think that kind of helped with the Doris Day album, to try to channel Ms. Day a little bit. But I think that can be difficult because I’m not a very good actor, and I think it’s difficult because you can’t retake. So often I wish I had one of those Men in Black memory guns to point at the audience and they would just forget that take of the song and just announce it again and pretend it never happened. Also, I think, with women performers there’s just a whole other level of stuff you have to worry about. A couple of times I’ve almost had a Janet Jackson moment. You just have to rush offstage. It’s self-consciousness. I should probably drink more. I know that helped Brett Butler in the beginning. The biggest thing is to have a sense of humor, but it’s incredible how self-important one can become, especially when you’re very worried about the quality of something and you just want to curl up in a little ball.
Your producer, Robin Pappas, is also your mom, right? How does it work? Other than weird Hollywood stage parents, I can’t think of anyone who works so closely making music with their parents. I’m not saying your mom is a stage parent —
No, I’m more the stage parent, kind of. I can, you know, yell at myself and tell myself, “More mascara!” … She just knows stuff. I don’t know how she knows it, but the one thing is she has a very strong work ethic, which can be a pain sometimes when I just want to goof off. But it’s good. Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done. I’m definitely not inclined to getting up in the morning or getting places on time or doing much of anything. And she listens when people play — I don’t listen. I just kind of want to eat something all the time. She’s the one who spent our welfare checks on piano lessons, so I guess she’s to blame.
The name of the new album, Home Sweet Mobile Home, is that a reference to some place that you lived?
My nana lived in a mobile home and I always liked it, but she would always say, “It’s not a trailer — it’s a mobile home.” … It also makes reference to Mobile, Alabama, which of course has been affected not just by Katrina but by the BP thing. It’s kind of set in Alabama, that song. I liked the phrase. I got it off this newspaper in Boulder, which was talking about this mobile-home community that was threatened by a developer. And so I went and I drove around the community and I remember on the cover of the newspaper they had a teddy bear next to a bulldozer and really had an impact on me. So I wrote down the phrase and I hope that mobile-home community is still there.