By Mark Egan
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay dropped out of music college with failing grades two years ago but now the precocious 19-year-old has a double album climbing the charts amid a flood of critical acclaim.
To hear McKay tell it, it’s about time. After all, she’s talented and she’s been working at this for “a long time.”
“I’ve been telling (my friends) for years that I’m going to be famous,” McKay said with a sly smile over coffee at a Harlem coffee shop. “When I look at me in the mirror, I see someone on the front cover of US Weekly.”
“Apparently everyone else sees a regular girl. I’m very disappointed in that. I want them to see me as Frank Sinatra or Bill Clinton ). It tends to get on my nerves when people say, ‘Wow, can you believe this is happening to you?’ I say ‘Yeah, I’ve worked hard for this.”‘
If that sounds like cocky bluster from a teen-ager hawking her first album, it is. But at the same time, music critics have been almost unanimous in predicting that McKay will be a big star.
“At just 19, this supremely gifted, charming and darkly funny New York oddball has all the makings of the first great singer-songwriter of the young century,” Washington Post reviewer Joe Heim gushed of her debut CD, “Get Away From Me.”
And The New York Times called her first Columbia Records outing, “a tour de force from a sly, articulate musician who sounds comfortable in any era … she’s blithely formidable, and just getting started.”
British-born and Harlem-raised, McKay went to college at Manhattan School of Music at the tender age of 16 but she dropped out, disenchanted with her singing and piano studies after just two years.
GAY BARS TO BEATLES
“It was very structured and they tend to be heading you toward either the life of a sideman or the life of a teacher,” McKay said of her college experience.
“I didn’t want to be either of those things, I wanted to be a star and there is no class for that.”
Unemployed in New York, McKay began playing cabaret at gay clubs but soon began writing her own songs to broaden her appeal. Then in March last year, a glowing review of a performance at New York nightspot Tonic in Time Out New York led to a flurry of interest from record companies and her eventual deal.
Now her album, produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and released in February, is on shelves and McKay is already back in the studio writing and recording her next effort.
Even before hearing McKay’s music, the cover of her debut signals there is something unusual within. Dressed in a buttoned up red coat, hair in curls and arms thrown up to the sky, McKay looks more in tune with the fashion of Doris Day than Britney Spears . Offsetting that wholesome image is a parental advisory sticker warning of explicit lyrics.
The 18 tracks on “Get Away From Me” — the title is a play on fellow music-school dropout Norah Jones ‘ Grammy-winning “Come Away With Me” — range from the Tin Pan Alley influenced to cabaret-style tunes a young Bette Midler might be proud of, to raps that sound like Rosemary Clooney doing an Eminem ) impression.
Whether she’s singing about getting blasted on gin, bashing President Bush ), lamenting the death of her cat or roasting misogynists, her songs are infectiously catchy.
Most reviews of her album have noted that it’s a coup for any first-time artist to convince a record company to release a double album. McKay explains what happened simply: “I felt like I was having a baby and I had twins. There was nothing I could do about it.”
And while Columbia has not released a single or a video to promote McKay, she is climbing the Billboard charts and is among the top 100 bestsellers at Amazon.com. Her song “David” is a radio hit, reaching No. 2 on the Organic 20 — a chart which tracks airplay on 47 noncommercial adult rock stations.
“I’d like to make a lot of money,” McKay said of where she wants to take her music career, before adding, “I just really want to change certain things.
“I’d like to get rid of carriage horses, I don’t think they belong in traffic. And I’d really like to raise the minimum wage … and I’d like to get more money put toward education and health care.”
She started playing piano and saxophone when she was eight years old and said she was heavily influenced by seeing Bill Clinton playing sax on the Arsenio Hall show — “He (Clinton) looked divine and I wanted to be like that,” she said.
Later, as a teen-ager she was heavily influenced by seeing the Beatles movie “Hard Day’s Night,” which she said made her want to be a pop star.
Now that she’s on her way, her sights are set even higher. “I wouldn’t mind hosting the Oscars ). That would be fun,” she said.
And that’s not all.
“I’d like to do a musical and I’d like to do it on film,” she said, getting wound up at the prospect. “I would write it and be in it and direct it. I’m a bit of a control freak but, I think, necessarily so. You shouldn’t trust the professionals.”
“If I’m going to be in a string of flops I might as well direct them myself,” she said with a chuckle.
If “Get Away From Me” is any indication, McKay may well do all that and more in the years to come. In the meantime, she hopes her second album will be in stores by October.