Maybe it’s the theatrical arrangements. Or the broad melodies. Or the florid singing. But Maria McKee’s songs always seem like they’re ready to be staged.
“It’s just my natural bent to go over the top,” says the songwriter with a self-deprecating giggle. “Those kinds of songs just seem to fall out of me.”
(Cooking Vinyl; US: 24 Apr 2007; UK: 23 Apr 2007)
Rarely have they done so with such flair as on her new CD, “Late December.” A signature track like “Destine” begins with arch Kurt Weill-like chords, escalates into blasts of Jim Steinman-type wails only to orgasm in a rock-opera outburst worthy of Queen.
Given that a songwriting peer of McKee’s, Duncan Sheik, now has a smash on Broadway (“Spring Awakening”), while another equal, Patti Griffin, is about to hit New York with her own musical (“Ten Million Miles”), has McKee ever thought about writing for the theater herself?
“It’s a passion, and it’s something I will try to do,” she vows. “I was reared on Stephen Sondheim. He’s my original songwriting hero.”
Such an inspiration might surprise those who know McKee only from her most popular work, as front woman of the hit Americana rock band Lone Justice. In the `80s, McKee enjoyed two successful albums with that L.A. act. Yet she never felt comfortable in that guise. “I was really just a kid,” she says.
For the last 10 years, McKee has built a cult following for her finely chiseled solo works. But her latest finds the clearest throughline for McKee’s music, linking two of her oldest songs with new pieces that bring her songwriting to a fresh level. The CD includes the song “Too Many Heroes,” which McKee wrote back in her Lone Justice days (but never recorded), and “A Good Heart,” a piece she penned at age 18. It became a huge European hit in the `80s for the Undertones’ ex-lead singer Feargal Sharkey.
While those pieces represent very different genres (“Heroes,” rockabilly; “Heart,” R&B), each shows the solid anchoring of McKee’s songwriting. “Late December” displays a dizzying command of genres, from the title track, which exudes the gritty New York yearning of Laura Nyro, to “Scene of the Affair,” which could easily be covered by a goth-metal band. Small wonder McKee’s songs have been interpreted by big-name artists over the years, from Bette Midler to the Dixie Chicks.
If the formalism of McKee’s songs seems to date from an earlier era, it could be because this 43-year-old has a family link to that time. Her half-brother, Bryan McLean, played guitar for the psychedelic L.A. group Love. He also wrote key tracks for that band, like “Alone Again Or.”
“Bryan is actually 18 years older than I am,” McKee explains. “Yet he was such a big crazy lovable bear who was always screwing up that it was almost like having a kid brother.”
It was McLean who first encouraged McKee to start a rock band, when she was just 15. “I wanted to study theater,” she recalls, “but he heard me sing to a Bonnie Raitt record and said, `I’m going to turn you into a star.’”
This fifth-generation L.A. native got into a local scene brewing in the early `80s that mixed punk and country. While still a teen, she and Lone Justice were signed to Geffen (at the suggestion of Linda Rondstadt). They were pushed hard to become stars, putting out albums quickly in 1985 and `86. She now refers to that time as “a blur. I can’t identify at this point with this blond child being twisted and turned. I was really unsure of myself, terrified of doing the wrong thing—of selling out, of not selling out, of letting down the fans, the corporation, my parents.”
McKee wrote the new song “Too Many Heroes” about that time—when “so much was expected of me, so fast.”
She put out her self-titled solo debut in 1989, but she didn’t feel that she found her voice until 1996 with “Life Is Sweet.” “The company was so appalled by that album—it was me trying to break the roots-rock stranglehold,” she says. “But after that experience I could do whatever I wanted.”
Not right away, however, and not with Geffen. It took her years to disentangle herself from her contract with the label. Her next album, on an indie imprint, didn’t appear for seven years: 1993’s “High Dive.” McKee’s most recent studio album, 1995’s “Peddlin’ Dreams,” trod a softer path, stressing acoustic ballads, in defiance of what McKee refers to as her “normal histrionics.” But its words burned with brutal realizations. “It’s a constant struggle for me to maintain hope,” she says. “But I manage.”
Keeping busy helps. McKee plans to tour to support the new album and teach a course this summer in England on songwriting. In private, she has been working on several theatrical works. One is a musical that borrows songs from both “High Dive” and the new album. The other is a straight play about a mentally unstable divorcee in L.A. who steals a baby Jesus from a Nativity scene. McKee remains a bit dubious about their prospects. “It’s even harder to get a play out than a small film,” she says. “But I’ll give it a go.”
Here’s hoping it clicks.