Five Minutes With Nellie McKay

On her new Doris Day tribute, showing too much flesh, and why drag queens make good icons

By Elizabeth Bougerol
|  Friday, Oct 16, 2009  |  Updated 1:39 PM EDT
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Five Minutes With Nellie McKay

Verve

Nellie McKay with her dogs Hank (l.) and Bessie (r.).

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While you were listening to Duran Duran or New Kids on the Block, Nellie McKay was holed up in a bedroom in the Adirondacks mainlining music by Doris Day.

Thing is, she's following in the living legend's footsteps in more ways than one. McKay is an actor-musician, plus she's known for being outspoken about her passions - like creative differences with her record label (resulting in a fairly high-profile spat in 2006) or advancing the cause of animal rights, a cause she shares with Day (who still helms her influential Doris Day Animal League). And it's specifically because of her sound, drenched in musical influences from the '30s and '40s, that McKay cut through the din in 2003. So it's no surprise she tackled the challenge of a tribute album to Day. On "Normal as Blueberry Pie," out this week on Verve (and supported by her Jazz at Lincoln Center show on October 29), she reinterprets Day classics such as "Crazy Rhythm" and "Send Me No Flowers" with sweetly uncomplicated arrangements. Still, all she wants is to be trapped in an elevator with Jackie Chan.

Doris Day was huge long before you were born. What's the appeal? Well, she wasn't weak, and yet she wasn't a sex object -- she really was kind of her own entity that way. And she has thousands of recordings. Her musical legacy has sort of been passed over - mostly, she's known for the image - but I think people are just starting to really appreciate her now.

But she was certainly sexy. Oh yes. My Uncle Patrick thought she had the sexiest voice. She intrigued everyone from the Beatles to John Updike, who wrote an essay about her.

Yet she passed on the role of Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate". She did! Robert Redford was supposed to play the Dustin Hoffman part, but he passed too. I can certainly see why she turned that down.

Too sexual? You wrote in the Times that Day had a "distaste for the new permissiveness." I consider myself a healthy prude, but I've definitely shown too much skin on some occasions. You can get so used to seeing a lot of flesh, so it seems like no big deal to wear a strapless dress. But it changes the context in which you're seen and how your music is taken.

So Doris Day sort of… de-sexified sexuality? Well, because the times were not good for women, I do think to see someone who had her own strength without being threatening -- sexually or otherwise -- was appealing.

She was the spoonful of sugar that made the idea of strong women palatable. You know how they say about women, that as they move into positions of power, their hair gets lighter? It seems more feminine, so you can accept whatever news is being given to you. And back then there was less equality in society, so women onscreen were allowed to be stronger.

And nowadays? Isn't it the opposite? Completely! Women have more power now, so onscreen, they're put in dumber roles or lighter roles, or just lesser roles. In one movie I did, the wardrobe people steered me in the direction of ever-sheerer tights. The idea seems to be that actresses and singers should show skin, or if they don't, they're dressed to seem as close to naked as possible.

So has Doris heard your album? I assume she's busy with other things. I'd be a little scared of her hearing it, frankly. If you ever saw a biopic of your life, wouldn't you have a lot of criticism for the person playing you?

You're this throwback, but you're still a child of the 1990s. What artists of your era did you listen to growing up? None. I remember being kind of peer pressured into getting a Green Day album. No offense to Green Day, but I never listened to it. I was into Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, I loved Rosemary Clooney and of course Ella [Fitzgerald].

Wow. So what posters did you have on your bedroom wall? I had a "Goodfellas" poster, and a "Batman" poster - but the one from 1966 with Julie Newmar as Catwoman. And "Bambi".

What are you listening to these days? I listened to this Ethiopian big band the other day. It's wild! Like an American big band but in outer space or something. And I was just listening to Peggy Lee's "Latin a la Lee" -- it's nice and light, perfect for moving around the house pretending to clean.

Peggy Lee kind of doesn't get enough respect. It's like Anita O'Day and Blossom Dearie. I was speaking with this guy at Verve the other day, and asking him why he thought they weren't as well known as say, Ella Fitzgerald. He thought it was because they lived too long and they were white.

It does help to die young. Instant legend status. It's true. It also seems that the kind of people who make good icons are the kind who make good drag queens - the message can't be subtle. Subtlety can make it hard for the public to latch onto you as an icon.

So if you don't die young, what's the other way to achieve iconic status? Surviving! Surviving is so underrated. Doris Day is a survivor -- personally and professionally, the woman never stopped. She could be forgiven for wanting to put her feet up, but nope, she's still tirelessly working for animal rights.

Doris aside, who's another of your idols? Who'd you most like to be trapped in an elevator with? Jackie Chan. Though he'd probably wind up killing himself because I wouldn't stop quoting all his movies back to him.

"Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day" is out now (Verve). Find it on Amazon here or at Sounds, 20 Saint Marks Place; 212-677-3444. She'll also be at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 29; find tickets here.

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