McKay’s body of work includes several critically acclaimed albums, two original plays, acting roles both on stage and on film, stand up comedy and articles for the New York Times Book Review. The upcoming cabaret event at the Flynn will be “an evening of songs, stories and comedy,” according to the Lane series website.
The Cynic recently sat down with McKay to talk about success, the National Security Administration (NSA) and being a “greedy motherfucker” in this exclusive interview.
Nellie McKay is a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence behind every single flourish. She combines heart-on-sleeve sincerity with supremely arch, dry wit; she’s utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.
Her Cafe Carlyle debut, nuttily entitled “Nellie with a Z”, is as edgy as anything I’ve seen at that rarefied venue – she sings something about “motherfuckers” at one point – all the while displaying musical taste and restraint so impeccable you dare not take issue with her cabaret bona fides. It’s 100% a solo act, just Nellie in a sophisticated, spangled dress accompanying herself on piano, and exceptionally expressive, um, ukulele (I’d go so far as to call her a virtuoso of the uke).
Nellie McKay Sings Homemades and Standards at Café Carlyle
With a head full of blond curls, and wearing a glittery blouse, Nellie McKay flounced into Café Carlyle on Tuesday evening, ushering a gust of downtown freshness into this elegant uptown precinct. Ms. McKay, 31, has been a presence on the cultural scene for at least a decade. But she still wears the mystique of a willful prodigy who is smarter, more talented and hipper than everyone else: a performer who answers only to herself. Gifts that others spend years refining seem to come naturally to her.
Ms. McKay has merely to sit down at the piano, open her mouth, and out comes the sweet lilting sound of a classic pop-jazz singer, a mixture of Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, paradoxically sophisticated and girlish. There is a subtle bounce in her delivery as she lingers behind a phrase just long enough to convey a steady pulse of swing.
Her new show, “Nellie With a Z” is a 50-50 mixture of standards and original material. Because of the uncanny accuracy of her ear, she can write and sing in any style, and you can’t always be certain that one of her original songs is not an obscure period piece. Her impeccable renditions of “Skylark,” “Midnight Sun,” “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Moon River” (in Portuguese) were dreamy and light. If you closed your eyes and listened, you were transported to the land of long ago and far away. But she also delivered an original up-to-the-minute hip-hop ditty, “Russky Rap,” timed for the Winter Olympics.
The old and the new dance a strange and thrilling pas de deux in the singer-songwriter’s Café Carlyle debut.
By Zachary Stewart
The star of the evening emerged from behind the bar, doddering slowly through the dining room like an 89-year-old weighed down by the burden of decades of showbiz memories. No, it wasn’t Elaine Stritch, returning triumphant to Café Carlyle. It was 31-year-old Nellie McKay, making her Carlyle debut in Nellie With a Z. For a little over an hour McKay infused the Great American Songbook with a quirky hipster ennui that was at once non-threatening and subtly subversive.
“It’s so nice to be back at Feinstein’s,” she said in her opening moments before launching into Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson’s “Did I Remember?” from the 1936 Cary Grant-Jean Harlow drama “Suzy.” Her ghostly voice will sing you into another era. She’s like listening to Jonathan Schwartz in a haunted house.
McKay is a one-woman juggernaut. She accompanies herself on the piano and ukulele. She tickles the ivories with the greatest of ease, drawing out the kind of improvisational jazz riffs that were always meant to echo off the painted walls of Café Carlyle. She gives fresh life to old standards like Mercer & Carmichael’s “Skylark” and the Fats Waller/Harry Brooks/Andy Razaf collaboration “Black and Blue.” “What did I do to be so black and blue,” she sings in her wispy-yet-crystal-clear voice. Later she strums out a sotto voce rendition of “Rio De Lua” (“Moon River” in Portuguese) that is sweeter and softer than any lullaby.