Songwriting and Social Activism: An Interview With Nellie McKay

This interview with Nellie McKay took place on the second floor lobby of the Driskill Hotel in Austin during the second day of this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival. She was informally attired in slacks and a blouse, with a sparkly gold bracelet and well-coiffed blonde hair. McKay would be performing later that day at a church venue and speaking on a panel about playing in odd places the next. Her publicist said that McKay did not really want to schmooze with industry folk and probably wouldn’t attend any shows before taking off back to New York.

SXSW helped launch McKay’s career back in 2004. The buzz about her live shows quickly spread and her first album, Get Away From Me could be found on many year-end best-of polls. She has a distinctive style that combines pop, rap, jazz, and show tunes with an acerbic wit and provocative intelligence. Her singing voice an be endearing one moment and cutting the next as her mind freely associates across the musical and intellectual spectrum. Her talent came across on her next two albums as well (Pretty Little Head, Obligatory Villagers but by the time she recorded these she was also involved with a host of other projects that included composing music for and appearing in movies, writing book reviews for the New York Times, and starring as Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of Threepenny Opera, for which she received a Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance.

McKay had a serious look on her face as she sat down to talk, but her irrepressible smile emerged frequently as she spoke about her current projects, social activism, and philosophy of life in general. She paused and thought before responding to questions and gave deliberate answers. McKay did not speak loudly, but was always clear, firm and articulate in her manner.

Our discussion took place under the head of a giant Longhorn bull. Her publicist urged McKay, a well-known PETA activist, not to turn around. “Look, you know, I mean if cows are out in the field for any length of time that’s more than the life of most farm animals,” McKay quipped as she acknowledges the cattle industry’s historic role in Texas history. She ordered a Shirley Temple from the waitress, and the interview began in earnest.

What have you been up to musically since your last record?

I’m doing the music and lyrics to a play based on the book and movie Election. This means I get to decide what parts are emphasized, which creates a lot of pressure on me. I hoping it turns out all right, but there are so many people involved in the making of any one of these shows that it’s hard to know what fingers to cross.

Of course, being part of a group is also what makes it fun. I love writing for dancers. You don’t have to worry about the lyrics. I think to write words without music must be so frustrating. It must be always be so good, so perfect. If you write with music, you can write complete gibberish, you know, “Ooooh ooh ooh, what a little moonlight can do,” and you have a standard for all time.

How did you get involved with this?

The producers had the idea. I think they bought the rights from MTV. And they brought together me and the book writer [Tom Perrotta] who also helped write the screenplay.

So they went searching for you?

Yes, I actually turned it down the first time. I thought the movie was a bit prurient. I thought I should make a musical about a nun. (laughs) I grew up during the Sister Act era.

The four leads are Tracy, the teacher, Tammy and Paul, and the focus will be evenly divided among them. Musicals tend to be mostly male or mostly white, or all of both. Or else it’s the complete opposite. I am trying to give as many parts for women as for men. I’m trying to make it diverse. It complicates things because you don’t want to make all your negative characters nonwhite and you don’t want to do reverse stereotyping either. You want everyone to be real people. That places a pressure on me to create real individuals and that’s hard.

I know she’s not a nun, but I met your mother at one of your shows. How’s your mother doing?

Um … ah … She wrote a poem the other day. “My life / a faucet / dripping blood.” I’m just trying not to mess up in life. It’s hard not to, I mean look at Obama and all he has to deal with. So I feel, ‘C’mon Nellie, Get your act together. You can do it.’

But life can be confusing. Sometimes you do bad shows and people really like them. It just goes to show you people have no taste.

Did that ever happen? Have you ever read a review and wondered, was that my show?

Oh dear yes, some of my worst shows have been in New York City and have gotten the best reviews by the so-called tough critics. And sometimes you do a really good show and they write it up badly. They don’t get the humor. It’s really funny, but not.

What else have you been working on musically?

I’ve been working with Geoff Emerick [the audio engineer for The Beatles who also produced McKay’s first record] on “Yellow Submarine” for a tribute album to Revolver. We’re thinking of making it kind of Bollywood. I loved the soundtrack to Slumdog Millinaire. It had such energy. And it was the Beatles who first brought Indian music to the consciousness of most Westerners, so it seems appropriate.

In a way it reminds me of those subway musicians. They are so talented. It’s just incredible how proficient people can be and not have a job. Or like the street musicians here in Austin. And when you have, you should give, or even when you don’t have, give a little. I used to play in the subway. If everyone tossed in a quarter at the end of the day it would add up. It shows you aren’t invisible. And it’s better than being ignored, or kicked in the head, or worse.

What else are you up to these days?

I am writing the foreword to a new edition of Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat. She actually comes from here in Texas. You can imagine the opposition she faced. She’s a vegetarian feminist that saw the beautiful landscape and looked deeper into things. It’s a seminal work.

I can understand if you care about the heartland, and you want to eat meat, and you believe in the small farms. There’s a legacy to that. But we don’t need to eat meat anymore. And there is such a difference between the small farm and the factory farm. Agricultural processes today are bad for the communities, the people that work there, the environment. Everything.

While I am not involved with it, I am very glad to learn that Death on a Factory Farm will be shown on HBO. When you see the life that an animal lives on a factory farm, it’s not just isolated cases, it helps people get off meat. If you keep your opinions and knowledge to yourself, it doesn’t change anything.

When did you first decide to become a songwriter?

When nothing else worked out. It kind of just happened. I was just sort of hanging around different places and looking for myself. Somehow, I found myself doing it and feeling like a Trilby, a puppet, that seemed to be controlled by outside forces — or maybe inside ones. I’m not sure.

* * *

At this point in the conversation a stranger intrudes and asks who we are and what we’re doing. This is one of the perils of doing an interview in a public place during SXSW. His name is Mark Weiss. And he’s a concert promoter. When Weiss learns who McKay is, he volunteers that he’s a friend of the musician Ian McKaye (Fugazi) and proceeds to get him on the telephone because the two share the same last name. The two musicians have never met before and chat briefly. I hear a mention of Washington D.C. and the names of shared friends. The two people share a history of combining their music and social activism. After the call is over, I ask McKay what they talked about and if it felt like an historic moment. She laughs.

“He’s in San Francisco at a party with Shirley McLaine. So it’s a “Mc” kind of day. The Scots must be out in force now that St. Paddy’s is over.”

When did you first get interested in animal rights? It’s not just farm animals, but all animals, isn’t it?

When you grow up with animals, they tend to be dogs and cats. So you know them and learn about their personalities. This gives you empathy. You see that they have distinct personalities and beings. They are not machines, like they are sometime treated in this culture.

Certainly as I child I tormented my animals. Like most children, I would dress them up in doll clothes and such. We had nine cats at one point, and I would get them all in my room and say, ‘We’re going to Pluto’ and pretend to be in a space ship and take them with me, the poor cats.

Later, seeing pictures of animals in laboratories and farms just horrified me. The idea of a cage, of limited movement and of mothers being separated from their babies, brrrr. That just strikes you as immediately wrong. Children have a natural empathy with animals. They carry around a teddy bear and are taught to love animals. All those fairy tales have animals in them. Then kids are taught to accept their exploitation and death. I do think people try to do the best they can, but they get hit by mixed messages from every direction. They get confused and need to learn.

I know you have written for the New York Times Book Review. Do you have any articles that you are working on now?

Yeah, I recently turned one in. I don’t know if they are going to print it (laughs). I turned it in late. It’s about a biography of John Lennon. I wish they would print it, but I think I muffed it up, so I learned my lesson. I wrote it in the style of John Lennon, using puns and wordplay. This complicated things since now they would have to print it as an essay, and since they only print one essay a week, as opposed to 20 book reviews.

They assigned me the book. It’s really well researched. You might not agree with everything in there, but the amount of time detailing the past, my god! What a lot of work a biography is, to go back to past events and people. It’s a mammoth undertaking. But reading about someone like Lennon gives you ideas about how to live your own life.

Have you ever met Yoko?

No, I’d love to. I’d love to work with her. I’ve never met Sean, either. I have a mutual friend though. Sean makes beautiful stuff, too. But what Yoko’s had to endure. What she’s had to take from people. She’s a noble person.

The thing is, the sycophancy people have in the music business can be appalling. They say things to please their bosses even when they know no one is listening and their phones aren’t bugged. They will see a video full of fast cars and women in bikinis and say, “What a great video” even when they know the video isn’t great. I don’t know if it’s the corporate state of mind or what it is.

But the thing is to be real. Like John. Like Yoko. That’s the difficult path. That’s the one I want to walk down.