Nellie McKay's 'Pretty Little Head'



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Nellie McKay's latest CD is Pretty Little Head.
Nellie McKay's latest CD is Pretty Little Head.

There's more Nellie McKay to love on her new CD. The singer-songwriter now produces her own music — on her own label, and on her own terms.

She talks to music reviewer Christian Bordal about what she says is her "attempt to get across a very personal statement."

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Ms. NELLIE MCKAY (Singer, Songwriter)(Singing): Do you know you're always on my mind, I know to seek and we shall find.


This has been a busy year for singer songwriter Nellie McKay she starred in a Broadway Revival a Three Penny Opera; she started work in a movie; and in between all that, McKay managed to complete her second CD Pretty Little Head. Here with the story and a review is music critic Christian Bordal.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Nellie McKay gets things done her way. For her debut album she somehow convinced major label Sony Columbia to put out a double disc -that's quite a feat. But when she tried the same trick last year with her follow up "Pretty Little Head" the label balked.

Sony wanted to release a single disc with 16 songs. Nellie had 23 songs and she wanted them all released on 2 CD's. Well a year later McKay has left her major label deal and is releasing her version of the album on her own label.

Ms. MCKAY:(Singing): Better love's on your plate get your fill and dig in. We're going to get some food in the house tonight, get some food in the house tonight. We're going to get some food in the house tonight, get some food in the house. We're going to...

BORDAL: McKay has some strong, left-leaning political convictions showcased on her new album in songs on topics like soulless corporatization, tenants' rights and animal cruelty. On the opening track, called Cupcake, the protagonist is trying to talk her girlfriend, or maybe his boyfriend, into ignoring the social stigma against gay marriage because Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote and Jesus, as she calls him, would approve.

(Soundbite of song, "Cupcake")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Come on, honey, stop denying, or I'm forever going to be a bachelor. Leave the steps of your house, get down to the courthouse, give me a G and an A, Y! 'Cause it's true, baby. I need you, I'm damned if I say I do. Jesus would approve.

BORDAL: Part of Nellie's style includes delivering sometimes serious, emotionally raw, oblique lyrics over jaunty, tongue-in-cheek, jazzy, piano-based pop music. This disconnect between words and music feels like it comes directly out of fundamental contradictions in McKay's own personality.

In a pretty, 1950s-style pop song called Long and Lazy River, McKay sings: You've got a lot that's lame, and royal alibis. I've got a lot of shame, and things are dead inside. Those are heavy lines for a light song, but Nellie doesn't miss a beat.

(Soundbite of song, "Long and Lazy River")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) You've got a lot that's lame, and royal alibis. I've got a lot of shame, and things are dead inside, but do you know you can't be wrong. How do you know you can't be wrong? You've got a long and lazy river to your soul.

BORDAL: Pretty Little Head is self-produced. The result is a little raw and unfinished at times, which I interpret as a deliberate attempt to get across a very personal, unvarnished statement. I looked out alongside her fight with the label over the CD. The impression I'm left with is an artist that has a very clear idea of what and how she wants to communicate. Now, that said, there are some weaker tracks on this album.

And I'm not sure that Sony's 16-song version would've been any worse. I also would be interested to hear her work with a producer like John Bryan(ph) or Mitchell Froom, who worked with Elvis Costello and Crowded House - people who might widen and compliment her sonic repertoire. But for the time being, Pretty Little Head is Nellie McKay coming straight at you.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) If you're in the clear, it's on a (unintelligible)...

BRAND: Music critic Christian Bordal comes to us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Nellie McKay's new album, Pretty Little Head, is in stores now.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Hold your head up high. Then we'll see it through. Dry your little eyes. Don't mess up your life by seeking truth. It isn't hard to get an education, know you want to come to good, but you can hardly bet on imitation. I see no reason you should. You don't have to know to say if you're in the clear, it's (unintelligible). You won't find it. Anything you hear, it's (unintelligible). Don't you mind it. Walk right down the stairs. Then we'll see it through.

BRAND: Stay with us. There's more to come on DAY TO DAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.