So I got to hang out with Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay

The awesomely talented Nellie McKay1 was gracious enough to sit down with me for a while after her set at a concert the other night. We talked about animals, food, activism and Columbus Day.

I got to interact with Nellie McKay, briefly, on several occasions. She had let me take a photo of her for POTD so I decided that the next logical step was to ask her to do an interview for my blog. And for some reason she agreed, so when she was back in time for this show we got together and chatted.

I did record the interview so that I could transcribe it in a Q&A format. However, due to extreme doofusness I only recorded the first three minutes. Let this be a lesson to always read the full release notes on apps, especially if there’s a “lite” in the name!

Basically I have a recording of Nellie offering me something to drink and apologizing for being boring for only having water, and me saying that that’s what we say when we have people over but that we have a reverse osmosis thing. Yes, I have a recording of me bragging about how cool our water is. AWESOME.

What follows is basically my recollection from that evening. Sadly there aren’t many direct quotes, but I did sit around for a while and make sure I’m remembering things accurately. So this isn’t really an interview, but rather more of a, well. A blog post about my experience. I still hope to post a real interview some day, but for now, here goes.

The first time K and I saw Nellie McKay in concert was at The Dakota, a restaurant/jazz club. Nellie, who is a vegan, poked some fun at them for not having any vegan food options.

They have since added very prominent “We now accommodate vegetarians!” I asked Nellie if that was her doing.

She said she didn’t even know they did that, and when she plays there (which she’s done on several occasions since) she has a big basket of fries. Which is cool since I always get that, too! In fact, it was a bit weird for me to watch her in concert without a big basket of fries.

I told her we’re still giving her credit for this. She seemed OK with that.

I asked about her show, I Want To Live!, which was playing at a theatre in New York. I asked whether she’ll take it on the road for those of us who think New York is scary.

They have definite plans to take it to Michigan in November (I remember East Lansing and Detroit). She said she’d love to bring it to Minneapolis, too, which I hope they will!

There are also plans for a live CD of the show. I suggested a DVD too, for those of us who think leaving the house is scary.

I asked Nellie if she’s considered releasing a live album of her regular concerts. I’ve always felt that Nellie has a much wider vocal range when she plays live than what what shows up on albums – she seems more playful on stage. She says she’s aware of that, and she does want to release a live album some day.

One of Nellie’s live show staples is the song Mother of Pearl2. On the album, this song ends with a jab at Dennis Kucinich, but that’s since been updated to Sarah Palin. Mrs. Palin has now been replaced by Michelle Bachmann, which got huge applause3. Nellie said that she’s sad she didn’t poke some fun at Columbus Day, which just happened to be the night the show was on. Nellie is apparently not a fan of Columbus Day, or rather the implications of Columbus’ journey on the native peoples of the Americas.

Nellie mentioned that she hasn’t played solo in a while and was really enjoying it. I was too. It’s great to hear her take some of her more songs and do simplified piano-only versions of them. She did a piano-only version of Beneath the Underdog4 tonight, and I asked her if that was an indication of her song-writing process, if she start out simple and then flesh them out into more complex forms.

She said that sometimes she does that. She said that Beneath the Underdog just kind of happened, which was cool. I told her I was jealous, since I actually managed to write one song once and it was a painful experience. She did congratulate me on having actually done it though.

Since Nellie’s albums are usually quite different from each other, I asked if she knows which artistic direction she’s going to take and whether she’s ever surprised by where she ends up. She said that she usually doesn’t really know. Sometimes she thinks she does – Home Sweet Mobile Home was supposed to be all Caribbean-sounding, but half-way through that ended up going a different way5.

I asked if she feels like she’s free to just roll with whatever direction she ends up going in, or if she feels that she’s a bit trapped in that whole Nellie McKay thing so she has to write more Nellie McKay songs.

I was a bit surprised that she replied that yes, she does feel that she has to give the people what they want to hear, what they expect of her. She’s learning a lot about what people want to hear in the current tour. And I really, really should’ve delved a bit deeper into that6.

I asked Nellie about her relationship, or lack of, with technology. I somehow managed to guess that she’s not really into it. All the vintage clothing might have been a bit of a clue. She doesn’t have a computer, or a TV, or even an MP3 player! I asked how she listens to music, and she said she listens to records, CDs, tapes and even 8-tracks. She has an old car lying around for that. She said she’d love to get an 8-track player for the house7.

Nellie definitely doesn’t want to buy anything on the internet, where everything gets tracked and recorded. She misses the anonymity of mega-music stores, and thinks they closed down well before their time. She likes small independent music stores, of course, but feels that you can’t really shop for your guilty pleasures there because the people at the counter always have to make comments.

Yes, did I ask her what her guilty pleasures are. She did mention one. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is8. I actually thought I misheard her but I just googled it and it’d just be WAY too much of a coincidence. But anyway.

Don’t expect a Nellie McKay facebook page or twitter feed anytime soon. Nellie feels that all that stuff just sucks you in and doesn’t really enrich your quality of life (especially TV).

I asked Nellie if she doesn’t feel that, as a performing artist, having a facebook or twitter feed is more or less expected. We agreed that there’s a lot9 of mundane information out there, but I asked if she wouldn’t like to use it to, say, inform fans that she’ll be doing local shows.

She pointed out that there’s already someone doing those things for her. Indeed, her official website has both tour dates and a news feed. Nellie, however, doesn’t care at all about her web presence.

I wish we could have debated the merits or lack thereof of technology for hours. I could debate it with myself fairly well. Part of me wants Nellie to have the exposure that jumping on the twitter/facebook bandwagon can get. On the other hand, I kind of like the idea of Nellie McKay being totally separated from that world. Lets face it – she’s a unique musician (and a unique person and artist) and this is just one of the things that contributes to that aspect of her10.

We moved on to talk about animals. Nellie is an avid animal rights advocate. I asked if she was always an animal lover, and if she had many pets growing up.

Nellie said that animals were always a part of her life. They had an ally growing up, and there were always strays around to feed. She said she thinks it’s important for kids to grow up with animals (and I could not agree more – I may not know a lot about kids, but I think my life is enriched by having grown up with animals).

I’ll admit to being a big nerd and showing Nellie all my pet pictures. That was before the interview (as if that makes it better). She said my dog is adorable11.

I asked Nellie if finding vegan food on the road is a challenge.

“Denny’s used to have a really good vegan veggieburger,” she said, “but they changed it.”

I don’t know why that surprised me so much, but I suspect me being a snob had something to do with it. I mentioned that I know a vegan store owner (he’s a vegan, and his store sells vegan products) who consistently eats at Taco Bell. Nellie made the good point that cheap and accessible vegetarian food is essential if there’s any hope to get more people to even try it.

Vegan/vegetarian food is a lot more ubiquitous than I really thought, and I am a vegetarian. Nellie mentioned that Burger King has veggieburgers, too. I guess I am a picky eater12. Ethnic foods are usually good, since large portions of the world subsist on beans and rice. Nellie said she’s found it fairly easy to find good vegan food just about anywhere, except Norway where it was a challenge.

Which lead right in to my last question. “It’s been a quiet day, no concerts, no stuff to do, nothing busy. What’s for dinner?”

I really, really wish I had this part recorded, because she went into much more detail than I can remember. I do remember that Nellie currently enjoys making herself a nice veggieburger on a muffin, with chips (possibly home-made, something was home-made) and ketchup, and some almond/soymilk with coconut flavoured rum. “Sounds like an evening to me,” she said.

At this point I felt that I really should let Nellie get back to her hotel. And that I should get back to my girlfriend, who was enjoying the rest of the concert.

“Go to her!” Nellie said. “And take these flowers.”


  1. Nellie McKay Official Website
  2. Nellie performing Mother of Pearl at TED. Oh my god I didn’t ask her about TED.
  3. I’ve been trying to think up a way to suggest Bachmann for that role for over a year. Turns out I didn’t have to!
  4. Somewhat odd Beneath the Underdog video.
  5. Which is just fine with me – I’ve mentioned before how much I like the non-Caribbean portions of that album.
  6. Around now I badmouthed Led Zeppelin for their complete lack of musical growth. I’m very glad that Nellie’s music does continue to evolve.
  7. I had a look and found a bunch of 8-track decks on eBay that could easily be wired into a current stereo. In case anyone is interested.
  8. Don’t worry, it’s not Bieber. I made sure.
  9. A lot.
  10. It does sadden me a bit that this all means that the chances of Nellie actually reading this are minuscule… but on the other hand I have to admit that it makes it a bit less scary to write.
  12. Dammit, K was right!

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