What's so good about Nellie McKay?

There are so many layers to Nellie McKay I'm not sure where to start. Perhaps I should give the opening lines to the New York Times which, in a review of a film-noir musical biography Nellie created, refers to "McKay’s virtually unlimited gifts as a singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, ukulele player, mimic, satirist and comedian..." Not a bad place to start, I would suggest.

Nellie McKay does have some formal post-secondary jazz training in voice - and you can tell when listening to the way she uses her instrument - but most of her training has been in the real world: she's won awards and acclaim for her work in theatre and film; her music has been heard on TV and in movies; live TV appearances include almost every major day-time and night-time talk show. What is is that makes her music so appealing? Here's a two-song sample which will explain a lot:

So let's chat about the first tune, "Mother of Pearl", a McKay orignial. When I saw this clip, the first thing that I noticed was her voice - crystal clear, a beautiful sound. As the tune got going, I found myself drawn in by the lyrics (in a "did she really just say that?" kind of way). And by the end, I was hooked by the simple but catchy composition, the sense of humour on display, and the almost mischievous way in which she presents it. I feel like there's almost always something deeper going on in Nellie's tunes - as if beyond the clean and cheerful exterior there is something cynical at work. It's a streak I enjoy.

Nellie's performance of the second tune in the clip, "If I Had You", a late-1920's-era standard, to me clearly indicates what makes her a great musician. Performing solo is always a challenge; it's rare to find a vocalist who takes it on. With her simple ukulele strumming the only accompaniment, Nellie presents a short but moving interpretation of the tune. Here, there is no extra meaning - just pure music.

When Nellie McKay takes the stage, you can be assured of great singing, interesting original tunes, and lots of hidden meaning (make sure you listen to the lyrics!). But beyond that, she can be unpredictable - she's just as likely to be singing a jazz standard as she is a folk, pop or reggae song. In this three-tune NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she seems just as comfortable singing in the caribbean, country and pop ballad styles:

Nellie McKay performs the second set on Saturday, June 30 at the Horseshoe Tavern. Emerging folk/jazz vocalist Becca Stevens opens up with her trio starting at 10 pm. For complete information, visit Nellie's concert page.


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