20 Questions: Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay
Obligatory Villagers
Hungry Mouse

Singer, songwriter, actor and activist Nellie Mckay calls her music ‘schizophrenic voodoo’. Schizophrenic because she jumps genres – from Tin Pan Alley pop and cabaret to reggae, rap and jazz — voodoo because these elements mysteriously gel with her evocative, playful, and bold lyrics. The fictional character most like her? A mix of Lassie, Scarlett O’Hara, Godzilla and Nancy Drew. These and other reveling facets of her character are discussed with PopMatters 20 Questions.

A contributor to The Onion and The New York Times Book Review, McKay won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera. She’s written the music and lyrics for the film adaptation of Katherine Arnoldi’s The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, and is currently creating the Broadway musical version of the book and movie, Election.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Richard LaGravenese’s P.S. I Love You – for all the wrong reasons

2. The fictional character most like you?

I’m sort of a mix of Lassie, Scarlett O’Hara, Godzilla and Nancy Drew.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Anything by Toby Keith.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

A Star is Born (the first one).

5. Your ideal brain food?

When politics intersect with art.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Dropping out of college: freethinking sustained by action.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

Being a great guy.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

The renegade Jews.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Rejuvenate! (It’s Never Too Late) by Eartha Kitt.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I can get really angry and no one can tell.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Please yourself.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A typewriter, a house, an idea.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

A tent.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?


15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I wouldn’t want to ruin my illusions, but I would love to live sometime between the ’20s and the ’40s in New York, to have an icebox and two roommates, one sassy, with a one-syllable name, and one brainy (me and the sassy one would work on getting the brainy one out of the house, and me and the brainy one would work on the sassy one’s failed relationships with no-good sailors).

All three making a go of it in showbiz, running around from auditions to night club jobs and stopping for a nickel coffee and circling the theatrical ads, and communing at delis and drugstores with my fellow creative types, all of whom would go on to great renown, and maybe stand outside the theater in the rain and get Lotte Lenya’s autograph, and be given a huge creamy bubble coat from a stage door Johnny who wouldn’t expect anything in return but to take me to dinner (according to Oscar Levant, that was often all they asked). And once in a while our gang would go to Woolworth’s for a big splurge, and we’d sit at the counter and order all the French fries and malts we could manage (these being politically unaware times with regard to animal products, but at least there were no factory farms).

During the holidays we would all troop over to a friend who had an office job and we would have the merriest time at their Christmas party on the 25th floor of some mogul’s extravagant tower, and later we would entertain ourselves just wandering around the Village in the falling snow, and sneaking to the top of the Washington Square arch where we would declare martial law throughout the city and set about writing a brief constitution that we would subsequently tear to bits and sprinkle down on the cops amassing below.

We would be dreadfully hung over the next morning, but we’d be all right because we still had a little orange juice, bread and celery in the icebox and that would tide us over until the next big payday, which was certain to be right around the corner.

That or…I would live in the 1960s and work part time for the national anti-vivisection society while attending marches and student meetings in all my spare time. I would wear a burnt orange/camel colored waistcoat and an old paisley dress and dark stockings with my granny shoes, and carry an old carpet bag which I would cram with flyers, books of poetry and calls to revolution. Long hours would be spent over spaghetti and wine designing our future utopia in which all the pitfalls of the human condition could be avoided with a little foresight and much compassion and forward-thinking.

The problem with evil, we decided, was in its naïveté; if Hitler had realized the Holocaust would not solve all his personal problems, he never would have felt compelled to make it happen. Our future must be grounded in the reality of existence, not over-compensating for miracles that had not and could not occur, or the basic injustice of life, never more obvious than at these meetings themselves, where the pretty people were deified as much if not more than in conventional society.

I would attend every be-in, every concert, absorb every opportunity to learn and grow that I could, all the while wearing my vulnerability with pride, an ability to be hurt not intrinsic to my femaleness but my humanity, not just to my humanity but my status as a living being, as comparable to a blade of grass as to a president.

Eventually I would meet a nice SDS member and raise him up like a puppy, teaching him the tenets of my burgeoning feminism and raising a family in the most organic, honest way possible. This leads to my eventual and complete fulfillment.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Ovaltine with Prozac.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Doesn’t matter, polluted’s good. It’s over.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

What leader?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Bringing it all back home.