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Harlem-bred singer/songwriter hopes to ruffle a few feathers wi
NEW YORK -- Nellie McKay isn't afraid to admit that she was a "band geek" in high school.
The 19-year-old singer/songwriter was teased because she prefers slacks, flats and shoulder-padded blazers to tight, trendy jeans. She doesn't own a TV. She's a vegetarian, but she doesn't like vegetables. She usually stays up until 7 a.m. reading or playing piano. She has an old-fashioned partiality for old movies, music and fashion -- and a time when things were more "innocent."
McKay, pronounced "Mc-High," doesn't go out of her way to be the fish that swims upstream. She simply is, and she'll be the first to tell you that she prefers to have things done one way -- hers.
"I don't like compromise," the lyrical prankster said over a glass of grapefruit juice at her favorite cafe in her Harlem neighborhood. "I read about Norah Jones and her band and that's great, but I don't really want a band that's a communal thing. I've always wanted to be the star."
She's well on her way, currently touring to support her debut album before heading to Germany to open for Sting on his European tour. The album title, "Get Away From Me," is a "sarcastic allusion" to albums like Jones' "Come Away With Me" and Jane Monheit's "Come Dream With Me."
"That's not something you can say in real life if you're going to be considered a nice person," McKay said. "But I often think it."
McKay, who co-produced her debut with longtime Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick, wants to produce her sophomore album (due out in October) herself. She plays cello, saxophone, piano, xylophone -- "all the mallet instruments" -- and is considering learning to play the violin for the album to cut costs.
"I've always been a troublemaker," McKay said. "Especially when I believe in something."
Spend five minutes with McKay and it becomes clear how the petite musician was able to strong-arm a major label like Columbia into releasing her debut CD as a double album. The record, which has sold 45,000 copies since it's February release, is a mishmash of fun, jazz-influenced pop songs that skip between styles much as McKay skips between subjects during conversation.
In "Sari," McKay weaves stream of consciousness banter and oddball rhymes in a rap-like delivery: "Sometimes I feel like I shouldn't apologize so much / that it's jive it's a crutch / I just used when I'm judged I'm sorry for the mess / the stupid way I'm dressed / I guess I failed my test I don't mean to offend, much." Then she fervently declares, "I'm a savage inside!"
Before signing with Columbia, the London-born McKay bounced between Pennsylvania and Washington state before settling in Harlem. She gave music and voice lessons and played in New York's gay bars and cabaret clubs when she was just 17 years old.
She landed a record deal soon after dropping out of the Manhattan School of Music. "I think a lot of college is about conformity and knowing how to write a good essay," she said. "I know that I never fit and it kind of fills you with regret. But you're glad you're out of there. My life is better."
McKay and her mother, former actress Robin Pappas, treat McKay's career like a small family business. The pair answer fans emails, manage McKay's hectic schedule, book shows and make creative decisions concerning photographs, artwork and promotional materials.