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Nellie McKay, Live on 'Fresh Air'

Obligatory Villagers, the new jazz- and cabaret-inflected album from singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, features sassy tracks that touch on topics as diverse as feminism and zombies.

McKay, a sometime actress and stand-up comedian, made a splash in 2004 with a debut CD called Get Away From Me — a play on the title of Norah Jones' album Come Away With Me.

Last year, she co-starred in a revival of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera alongside Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper.

McKay joins Terry Gross for a Fresh Air concert and conversation.

44:37

Other segments from the episode on November 21, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 21, 2007: Interview with Nellie McKay; Review of the television show "Project Runway."

Transcript

DATE November 21, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Singer/songwriter/pianist Nellie McKay talks about and
performs songs from her new CD "Obligatory Villagers," other
songs
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We know a lot of our listeners are on their way to their holiday destinations,
so we wanted today's show to be entertaining. And here's what we came up
with: a performance by songwriter, singer and pianist Nellie McKay. A New
York Times magazine article about her was headlined "An Alt-Cabaret Diva." In
the LA Times, she was described as "exploring modern life through music rooted
in the pop styles of Cole Porter and Billie Holiday." But that very true quote
leaves out the influence of rap on her music. She writes a lot of her own
songs, but as we'll hear, also performs some jazz and pop standards. Her
original plan was to be a jazz singer. Last year, she played Polly Peachum in
the production of "The Threepenny Opera" that also starred Alan Cumming and
Cyndi Lauper. McKay will do a song from that show for us later. Nellie McKay
released her third album. It's called "Obligatory Villagers."

Nellie McKay, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've brought your ukelele with you, so
let's start with a song. And how about you open with the song that opens your
new CD, "Mother of Pearl"?

Ms. NELLIE McKAY: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of "Mother of Pearl")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Feminists don't have a sense of humor
Tsk, tsk, tsk
Feminists just want to be alone
Boo, hoo, hoo, hoo
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone

They say child molestation isn't funny
(Speaking) Ha, ha, ha, ha
(Singing) Rape and degredation's just a crime
(Speaking) Lighten up, ladies.
(Singing) Rampant prostitution, sex for money
(Speaking) What's wrong with that?
(Singing) Can't these chicks do anything but whine?
(Speaking) Dance break

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Soundbite of McKay imitating tap dancing)

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da
Doop-de-doop-de-doop! Woohoo!

Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Speaking) Yeah. Take it off!

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, dum.

They say cheap objectification isn't witty
(Speaking) It's hot
(Singing) Equal work and wages worth the fight
(Speaking) Sing us a new one
(Singing) On demand abortion, every city
(Speaking) OK, but no gun control
(Singing) Won't these women every get a life

Feminists don't have a sense of humor
(Speaking) Poor Hillary
(Singing) Feminists and vegetarians
(Speaking) Make mine a Big Mac
(Singing) Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They're far to sensitive to ever be a ham
That's why these feminists just need to find a man

Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Speaking) I'm Dennis Kucinich, and I approve this message
(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, bravo. That was great.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Really, really fun. And that's Nellie McKay playing a song from her
new CD, and the CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

That song just kind of sums up some of the things I like about you. I mean,
it's really funny and trenchant, and you have a beautiful voice, and you're
singing about a very contemporary set of themes here, but the style of music
that you're playing, I mean, it was almost vaudevillian. Like tap dancing.
So you're bringing together these different eras, musically and lyrically.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, thank you. I think there are nice things about every
era. I wish we could just take the nice things.

GROSS: How were you exposed to, like, the vaudevillian style of music that
you were just playing?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I love--basically I like music by dead people.

GROSS: And have you learned about it like through movies and records?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, yeah. I've got a lot of records. It's fun at moving time.
They're so heavy.

GROSS: Yes. Yes, I know.

Ms. McKAY: But...

GROSS: Particularly vinyl. Yes.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah, but no. I'm very attached--I think there is a tendency to
romanticize the past, but I do think a lot has deteriorated, say, just in the
past century.

GROSS: Now, in the song we just heard about feminism, I mean, do you consider
yourself a feminist?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, yes, but I also know I'm a hypocrite, but not just in
regards to feminism, in regards to everything. I think that, you know, it's
unavoidable, but at the same time, you try your best to reconcile your belief
system with your actions.

GROSS: What makes you a hypocrist--a hypocrite in terms of feminism?

Ms. McKAY: A hypocrist? I like a hypocrist.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah. It's that political ideal and the personal reality. For
instance, even, you know, having a career, you know, and being ambitious in
that way is a capitalist ethos. It's not a, you know, all-for-all mentality.
There's a lot of me there, and maybe you want to be big so then you can spread
your communist message, but that in itself is a contradiction.

GROSS: One of the most quoted lines about you is from Blender, in which you
were described as "indie musical comedy." Do you see yourself as being
somewheres in between music and theater?

Ms. McKAY: I don't know. You know, I just had a theater thing the other
night, and I was discussing with my mother about how we don't get the appeal
of it. So maybe I'm the wrong person to be representing the theater. We'd
much rather go see a bad movie. But, you know, sure, I certainly like mixing
it up.

GROSS: Well, speaking of movies, you've made a movie that's going to be
coming out in December, did you say?

Ms. McKAY: That's right. Yes.

GROSS: And the movie's called "P.S. I Love You." And that's also the name of
a great song that I know was popular during World War II. So do you get to
sing it in the film?

Ms. McKAY: I gave the song out as a cast present, and when the director said
he wanted to use it in the film, my mother said, `Oh, I bet that means he's
cutting all your scenes.' And that was a big joke. That was very funny. Then
we went to a screening, and he'd cut all my scenes. So I'm glad they're at
least using the music in the movie.

GROSS: So would you do the song for us?

Ms. McKAY: I'd love to.

GROSS: Now, refresh my memory. Who wrote "P.S. I Love You"?

Ms. McKAY: Well, yeah, it's Johnny Mercer and someone. I'm afraid I don't
know. Maybe you can find it.

(Soundbite of "P.S. I Love You")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Dear, I thought I'd drop a line
The weather's cool
The folks are fine
I'm in bed each night at 9
P.S. I love you

Yesterday we had some rain
But, all in all, I can't complain
Was it dusty on the train?
P.S. I love you

Write to the Browns just as soon as you're able
They came around to call
I burnt a hole in the dining room table
Let me see, I guess that's all

Nothing left to tell you, dear
Expect each day seems like a year
Every night I'm thinking of you
P.S. I love you

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's great. That's Nellie McKay singing "P.S. I Love You." And, by
the way, our producer googled this song to find out the composers while Nellie
was performing. And it's Johnny Mercer and Gordon Jenkins who wrote the song.

Now, you said that you gave the director of the song your recording of it, and
he ended up using you singing it in the film. Is the movie named after the
song?

Ms. McKAY: No, no. I...

GROSS: Did the director not know the song?

Ms. McKAY: Well, I believe it's just a popular conceit, like--oh, I'm not
sure if he knew that song. I think most people know The Beatles song...

GROSS: They know The Beatles.

Ms. McKAY: ...which is of the same title.

GROSS: Yeah, right, right. And how did you know this song?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I've always loved this song. Gee, I don't know. Maybe I've
heard it first in an old movie, but I've just always adored it. I love just
some of the ideas that some of the great standards came from that you know, I
mean, it's just a terrific conceit for a song.

GROSS: My guest is Nellie McKay. Her new CD is called "Obligatory
Villagers." More music and conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter and musician Nellie McKay. She's
performing for us. Her new CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

You know, you are now considered indie rock, but you studied jazz singing and
it's clear that you have a great jazz feeling when you sing. But you gave up
pursuing that path as a jazz singer. You left school, I think it was the
Manhattan Institute of Music where you were studying.

Ms. McKAY: Well, some refer to it as the Manhattan Pool of Mucous, but that
does not reflect my feelings on a lot of the teachers that work there. It's
just, you know, the institutions of higher learning themselves are always
suspect.

GROSS: But why did you depart from the path of jazz singing?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, you know, I think I tortured the audience at my shows a
fair bit with my warped renditions of popular standards. But actually we were
going to record a standards album, but I've decided it isn't worth the
trouble.

GROSS: Why? I'd listen.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, I'm glad, I'm glad. But it's just those standards, you
have to be in a--I don't know. I find it hard to temper, you know, those
beautiful melodies with my essential Larry Davidness.

GROSS: Well, you know, you took a song where--there's something like so sweet
about some of the standards from, say, like the '20s and '30s. And you wrote
a song that was on your first album that's kind of in the manner of those
songs about, you know, getting married, having a little white house at the end
of Honeymoon Lane, that kind of song. But your version of it is all of the
things that have become cliches and for you probably undesirable in some way,
or at least that version of it is undesirable. And the song I'm thinking
of--I think I've not done a very good job of describing it, but the song I'm
thinking of is "I Wanna Get Married." It just seems to me like your take on a
certain kind of standard that you don't feel like you could really sing
honestly.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, no--well, I'm sure I will fall again and be able to sing them
honestly again, but at this moment, there's a certain breeziness that preempts
a maudlin rendition.

GROSS: Well, the...

Ms. McKAY: I dig very maudlin renditions, but now I'm breezy. I'm like
Ellen DeGeneres when she talks about walking around in a hospital gown. I'm
flap, flap, flapping in the breeze.

GROSS: Do you want to do a few bars of "I Wanna Get Married"?

Ms. McKAY: Yes.

(Soundbite of "I Wanna Get Married")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) I wanna get married
Yes, I need a spouse
I want a nice Leave It To Beaver-ish
Golden retriever and a little white house

I wanna get married
I need to cook meals
I wanna pack cute little lunches
For my Brady bunches
Then read Danielle Steele

I wanna escape
This rat race I've created
I'm feelin' enervated
I don't care if I make it
I just want to bake a sugar cake
For you to take to work in the morn
And I'll stay home cleaning the dishes
And keeping your wishes all warm

I wanna get married
That's why I was born

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay. What were you thinking when you wrote this song?
What were you thinking about?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, it was lament. You know, I wanted to get married but
I, you know, I realized no matter what you want, it's kind of a fantasy.

GROSS: So my take on it was all wrong, it wasn't your shout out and critique
of standards from the '20s and '30s?

Ms. McKAY: No, no. But, I mean, you can criticize something you strive for,
and you can avoid something you dream about.

GROSS: Now, you were born in London, moved to New York when you were two with
your mother after your parents separated, but you spent your high school years
in the Poconos. And there's a really interesting jazz scene there--Phil Woods
lives there, Bob Dorough, the singer/songwriter and pianist and, you know, a
whole bunch of other musicians. And Bob Dorough's on your new CD. As a
teenager, did you know the people in that scene from there?

Ms. McKAY: I did. I used to bug them when I was in high school, and now
I've come back to underpay them. So, I mean, they're all grateful to have
made my acquaintance, and they're just a bunch of pussycats there. But, I'm
serious about underpaying them. I do intend to do better next time. It's
just the career ain't going so well, you know, Terry?

GROSS: So when you were in high school and you knew Phil Woods and you knew
Bob Dorough, were you thinking then that you would be a jazz singer?

Ms. McKAY: Hm.

GROSS: Or were you thinking then that you would be writing your own songs?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, no, I've always looked for the easy way out and singing other
people's songs seems easier. But it just didn't happen for me. So, you know,
we're stuck here in this cesspool of bad poetry.

GROSS: I want to play a track from your new CD, and this is called
"Oversure," and it features Bob Dorough. And it...

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, in this case, I should say bad orchestration, then, as
well as bad poetry.

GROSS: I was going to ask if you did the orchestration for this.

Ms. McKAY: Yes.

GROSS: No, I really like it.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, when I said they were bad, you know I'd done them. Yes.
Yeah, there's--yeah, OK, well...

GROSS: Well, I know you wouldn't--you wouldn't be referring to anybody else.

Ms. McKAY: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: You'd be...

Ms. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: So, anyway, so the orchestration's really, really good. So it starts
as, you know, with this instrumental opening, and then we'll hear my guest
Nellie McKay and then Bob Dorough, and this is from her new album "Obligatory
Villagers."

(Soundbite of "Oversure")

Ms. NELLIE McKAY: (Singing) Maxine Schreck was a very lucky lady
Maxine Schreck was a very lucky girl
Who you wanna be
Maxine Schreck
Who you wanna see
Maxine Schreck

Have you got some time
Have you got some spine
Have you got something to begin with
Or are you in a sinwich

Have you got some nerve
Have you got some verve
Have you got something to depend on
Or do you fender bend on

And if you say no
Do you mean to go
Down below the earth with nothing

Now you've got my name
And you've got my fame
Have you got something to remind you
Of who you use to be
Or are you happy being me

Moonlight and roses
Starlight and fairy tales that won't come true
Good news for those who pine away
The day comes shining through

Mr. BOB DOROUGH: (Singing) Kittens hi-hattin'
Sitting on satin
With a host who's catnip fond
For those who seize the day
The way is paved beyond-er

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) I didn't know
The world was like this
If I'd'a known
Then I'd be psychic
If I had a clue
Then maybe I'd be blue as a mockingbird

Why do you think she laughs so much?

Mr. DOROUGH: (Singing) I didn't know
I had such problems
If I'd'a known
Then I'd'a solved them
But looking down the road the Oklahoma toad's beckoning to me

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Nellie McKay will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with singer, songwriter and
pianist Nellie McKay. She set out to be a jazz singer, but instead developed
her own style of songwriting and singing that draws on jazz and pop from the
1920s on, and hip-hop. Her latest CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

It seems to me you have like a really pretty voice. But in your songs you
usually don't want to be pretty. I mean, you're often saying pretty cutting
things in your lyrics. And I think it's just a really interesting paradox of
who you as a performer, that there's this--there's this like beauty in what
you're capable of doing, which you sometimes intentionally undercut by what
you sing about.

I'm going to ask you to do a few bars of a song called "Manhattan Avenue."
This is also from your first album. And this is an example of what I mean. I
mean, it sounds like really pretty, but if you listen to the lyrics, you know,
it's not so pretty. Can you tell the story behind the song before you play
it?

Ms. McKAY: Yeah. Well, yeah. But, I mean, I had a lovely, you know,
childhood, but you still see a lot of things, you know.

GROSS: And this is a period when you were living in New York City, I think,
in Harlem.

Ms. McKAY: That's right. That's right, in Harlem. And, you know, there was
a lot of beauty. The older people in the building--well, even they had some
problems. I mean, Lionel--there's a man named Lionel in the song, he did kind
of guard over the building. But he also eventually got evicted for having too
many prostitutes in his apartment. We had some good friends in the building
that we kept in touch with awhile. And not much education, you know, I
mean--and you can see that in the Christmas cards. That makes them all the
more poignant. Just when it's harder for them to do something and yet they do
a more beautiful job than people who have all the privilege in the world.

We got a lot of our cats from the alley next door, and the older women,
especially, in our neighborhood would put out food for the cats and for the
pigeons. And yet the, largely the young men, would sic their pit bulls on
them. And my mother once saw a cat's throat torn out in front of her by a pit
bull. And this was a cat we were probably going to adopt. So a lot of mixed
messages.

GROSS: And you mention the pit bulls in this lovely melody.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is "Manhattan Avenue." Why don't you play it for us?

(Soundbite of "Manhattan Avenue")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Send a breeze
A pit bull's yelp
A tender squeeze
A cry for help
Make it now
And make it fast
Such memories
Can never last
I long for the days
Music and mayhem
Mama's a smiling friend
In the scuzzy hue of the streetlight
Manhattan Avenue

Lionel, please
Watch o'er our door
The children tease
I beg for more
Chipping paint
The ceiling's spent
Aw, ain't it great
Can't make the rent
I long for the days
Kittens are meowling
Junkies are prowling
Deep in the jazzy hue of the streetlight
Manhattan Avenue

How wild it is
What strange a vice
That a mugger and a child should share the same paradise
Oh, but dreams come true
On Manhattan Avenue

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay performing her song "Manhattan Avenue."

You mention a mugger in that last line. Is there a specific mugger that
you're thinking of in that line?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I am. I am. I want to say hi to my mugger if I'm
listening--if he's listening. I'm sorry. I want to say hello. I want to
give a shout out because he only spent about, I think, a year in the joint and
then he got out and he was looking for us. But we were breaking down
somewhere in South Dakota. So he couldn't get us again.

Yeah, he came by and he said, `Give me the bleeping money or I'll bloop the
kid up.' And we just laughed. We thought he was a friend of ours. And then
he kept saying it. And then we figured out, oh, he wasn't a friend of ours.
But then my mother, being as swift and ruthless as she is, she didn't even
toss him her real wallet. She tossed him her dummy wallet. And then--and so
all he got was two bucks and a couple of bad credit cards that had no money on
them anyway. And then he took off sauntering down the street. And my mom was
yelling after him, `Yeah, you better run, you better run!' I don't know if he
did start to run. And then we got him in a line up. Then we were beginning
to think maybe it's time to leave New York.

GROSS: Your mother carried around a dummy wallet for muggers?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, yeah. But I think, for those listening, it's probably gone
up from two dollars now. You should always account for inflation.

GROSS: Now, we've been talking about the many different influences in your
music. You recently did music theater in one of the greatest pieces of music
theater ever written, "The Threepenny Opera." There was a revival of it in New
York with you and Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming. And tell us like what part
you played and which songs you got to sing in it?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I played the part of Polly Peachum. And I got to sing, you
know, the incredible music that you can't live up to, including "Pirate
Jenny," "Barbara's Song," the jealousy duet with Lucy who was played by Brian
Charles Rooney, and that was really fun every night. And some others.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you to do a song from "The Three Penny Opera"
if you wouldn't mind. And how about "Pirate Jenny?" And I should say that I
know that you're not used to performing this song solo at the piano, and I'm
grateful that you're willing to do it for us.

Ms. McKAY: Yes. I would love to. We'll just be winging it here, but that's
great.

GROSS: OK

(Soundbite of "Pirate Jenny")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) My good friend,
You have seen me washing glasses, pouring drinks,
Making beds, mending pipes that are leaking
And you give me a tip
And I nicely wish you well
And you see me badly dressed in this filthy old hotel
And you don't know to whom you are speaking
(Speaking) And you don't know to whom you're speaking

(Singing) But one evening soon you'll hear a screaming in the harbor
And you'll all be asking `What is that?'
And you'll see me slowing stir a cocktail
And you'll say, `Why, she's smiling like a cat.'

And a ship, the black freighter,
Fifty guns on the deck
Will glide up towards the pier

And 100 strong men will alight before noon
And they'll run through the shadows by the hill
And they'll grab every citizen whoever they may be
And they'll tie them all up and they'll bring them to me
And they'll ask me, `Well, which ones should we kill?'
(Speaking) And they'll ask me, which one should we kill?

(Singing) Over the great harbor a great silence will fall
As I ponder who will have to die?
And then you'll hear me say simply,
(Speaking) `All of them!'
And when the heads are cut off I'll say `Hoopla!'

And the ship, the black freighter,
Fifty guns on the deck
Will kindly go away

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Oh, wow. Nellie McKay singing a song from "The Threepenny Opera,"
which she starred in the recent revival along with Cyndi Lauper and Alan
Cumming.

That shows like yet another side of you. Did you have to learn to do things
you hadn't quite done before for the show?

Ms. McKAY: No, no, no you just fake everything.

GROSS: That's some words to live by.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: I think you're singing in a slightly different voice there than you
usually do in your albums.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah, yeah. The high register.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McKAY: The...(unintelligible)...key.

GROSS: Some of our listeners might have had this same sensation listening to
the songs that I did, which is that the lyrics didn't quite sound familiar,
even though we know the songs. And that's because the libretto was
re-written, re-translated by Wallace Shawn for this production.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah, well, that last one had a few liberties taken by myself as
well. But Wally's a lot of fun.

GROSS: Had you known the songs from "Threepenny Opera" before you performed
in it?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, definitely. Oh, yeah. And they're beautiful. And even if
people don't recognize, you know, exactly where they came from, they're so far
ahead of their time and they still have yet to be matched in so many ways that
just the sound of them, those vile chords and what Bertolt Brecht was saying
is as fresh today as it was when it was written, if not fresher, in spite of
what certain snotty critics may have had to say about Bertolt Brecht.

GROSS: Nellie McKay, you've been performing some songs for us, and I've been
choosing all the songs that you've been performing. So let me ask you to
choose one for us and tell us why you've chosen it.

Ms. McKAY: Thank you. This is called "The Broadway Melody" by Arthur Freed
and Nacio Herb Brown. And, oh, I just love it. I just love it. I just love
it so much, Terry. So I just want you to know, as I sing this song, I really
love singing this song. Even if I don't sing it very well, I really love it.

(Soundbite of "Broadway Melody")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Don't bring a frown to old Broadway
You've got to clown on Broadway
Your troubles there, they're out of style
For Broadway always wears a smile
A million lights, they flicker there
A million hearts beat quicker there
No skies of gray on the great white way
That's the Broadway mellow, Broadway mellow, Broadway melody

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Whoa! I was totally unprepared for that voice. Where did that voice
come from?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I just love it. Too many reel to reels, I think.

GROSS: And that song's from one of the Broadway melody movies from, what, the
'20s or early '30s, or '35 or something?

Ms. McKAY: It's from...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McKAY: Yes, it's from "The Broadway Melody" and it has, you know, such
great performances in it. It also has "You Were Meant for Me" was debuted in
that movie. And Anita Page stars in it, and she's one of the last silent film
stars living. And if you can get her on your show, you should.

GROSS: How often do you use that high, very vibrato-y voice?

Ms. McKAY: Well, at least once a show unless the audience is being nasty,
and then I use it many, many time.

GROSS: Is that your idea of retribution?

Ms. McKAY: Yes, it is. Yes. Oh, they run from the room. But the drinks go
faster, and the waiters like that.

GROSS: Now, is the voice that you just sang in your more, like, legit trained
voice from vocal studies, or is that like a voice that you just started doing
on your own? Because it's so different from like the voice you use on your
albums.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, oh, I'd like to think that's the real me. And, you know,
that's how I'd like to feel inside all the time, is kind of drifting by on a
cloud, singing really high.

GROSS: OK.

Ms. McKAY: With the pigeons in the sky. I love pigeons.

GROSS: Some people might be aware of the fact that, you know, your first
album was on Columbia, your second album was supposed to be released by
Columbia but there was some kind of dispute at the end between you and them
about--you wanted to have a double CD, they apparently didn't want it to be
that long--and I'm sure there were other things in the mix that I don't know
about, but anyways, you parted ways. What impact has that had on you in terms
of music and in terms of, like, money and career path?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, Jesus. Well, I've deteriorated since my split with Columbia.
They were my greatest inspiration and I didn't appreciate them. And, frankly,
I don't--you know, honestly, it's weird, I don't even really remember--that's
the good thing about life is that old pain is always replaced by new pain.
So, you know, was there some problem with Columbia? Because it isn't even
coming to mind. But apparently there was and we parted ways, and, you know,
I'm sure we're all happier for it.

GROSS: We opened with the first song from your new CD. Do you want to close
by performing the last song on the CD, "Zombie"?

Ms. McKAY: I'd love to, yes. Thank you.

GROSS: Introduce it for us. Tell us something about it.

Ms. McKAY: Oh. For any zombies that may be listening, this one is for you.

(Soundbite of @"Zombie")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Should you plan to travel way down South
Woman to woman, I got to tell you about a curse
A curse that rose out of the deep, green swamp
It hollers murder and it makes you jump

And it says
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah

When I was younger, just a little girl
Lennon glasses and a ponytail, uh huh
My mama told me, `Honey, pack your trunk
We're going to Mississippi, do the Bayou Bump'

Where they say
Do the zombie, rawr, rawr, rawr,
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah, rawr, rawr, rawr
Do the zombie, rawr
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah

One day I set out for a walk
The path soon grew quite dark
I saw my shadow running faster
Hurry, slow mo, coming after me
After me

And it said
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah, rawr, rawr
Do the zombie
Do the zombie, whoa, yeah

The sun is shining and you're feeling fine
As you pass the Mason Dixon line, uh huh
The forest echoes and the tree leaves snap
Hey, what's that sound? Spin around
Who dat?

Then they say
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa

Bob Dylan, do the zombie, yeah
(Impersonates Bob Dylan singing unintelligibly)
What do we do there?
What do we feel?
Come on, torture's no big deal

Do the zombie, ch, ch, ch-ka, ch ch
Do the zombie, ch, ch, ch-ka, ch ch
Now I'm, I'm, I'm wussy zombie
I'm very depressed, but go vegetarian
Go vegetarian, everyone!

Do the zombie, whoa, yeah
I didn't do the--what, how far are, are we
What is the, the--they don't hear them
I don't see them
They just hate us for our freedom
(Soundbite of evil laughter)

Elizabeth Taylor zombie:
`Oh, Montgomery, how come you're so gay?'
Um, wow, must escape the vicious nexus
Wonder what...(unintelligible)...ate for breakfast

See the--Dinah Shore, see the USA in your Chevrolet
America is the greatest land of all

(Soundbite of blowing a kiss)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Nellie McKay, thank you so much.

Ms. McKAY: Thank you so much, Terry. It was a real pleasure.

GROSS: Nellie McKay's new CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: John Powers reviews Bravo TV program "Project Runway"
TERRY GROSS, host:

The popular Bravo TV program about fashion, "Project Runway," began its fourth
season last Wednesday night. Our critic at large John Powers is a big fan,
and says that this is one reality TV show about something more interesting
that forcing its contestants to eat bugs.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Like much of America, I've put in my time watching reality TV. I've watched
gray haired couples swing over canyons in "The Great Race." I've seen muscle
men get booted off of the many locations of "Survivor." And I've loyally tuned
in to the juggernaut "American Idol" where Clay Aiken's loss in season two
prompted more public outcry than Al Gore's.

These are all watchable shows, but if you asked me to name the program that's
the most perfectly seductive, I'll tell you "Project Runway." It's concept
could hardly be simpler. The season starts with 15 aspiring fashion
designers. And each week they're given a specific task: Make an outfit from
objects found at a recycling plant, design a dress for a star to wear on the
red carpet, or come up with something stylish to be modeled by your mother.
At the end, their handiwork is displayed by runway models, after which the
show's judges name that week's winner and they vote somebody off. By the end
of the series only one remains standing.

Now, I realize that "Project Runway" sounds exactly like many other reality
shows. It has the same Darwinian structure. Each week a character becomes
extinct. It has the usual shameless product placements; every moment of the
show is branded. And it has a host glinting with schadenfreund. She's German
supermodel Heidi Klum, a woman not exactly crippled by compassion, wooden in
her line readings. Heidi only comes to life when she's giving that week's
loser the kiss off.

If Klum were "Project Runway"'s only face, I can't imagine that anyone would
watch. But the show's presiding spirit is Tim Gunn, one of the genuinely
original figures in our popular culture. An openly gay 54-year-old man, he's
TV's most admirable father figure since Peter Gallagher's Sandy Cohen on "The
O.C." Slim, elegant and self-contained with a hint of some great wound in his
past, Gunn watches over the contestants as they work, offering them criticism
and encouragement. Rather than tear into his charges like a football coach,
he encourages them with his famous catch phrase, "make it work."

Here in the season premiere he gives advice to a puppeteer turned designer.

(Soundbite from "Project Runway")

Mr. TIM GUNN: So, Lisa...

LISA: Yes.

Mr. GUNN: Talk to me.

LISA: Well, I decided since it was an expression of self that I would
start out first with something that I feel very akin to, which was the body
shape, the form. So from the front it's very clean, very clear, very lovely.
But it's revealed in the back having it off rolled up and so that it would
actually become untangled as she walks and she moves. So it...

Mr. GUNN: Is that going to work?

LISA: In the past when I've tried it, it's kind of worked. Mm-hmm.

Mr. GUNN: This ending here, to me, seemed really in opposition to the
finish of this dress. You have to really be concerned with, `Did I take this
as far as I needed to?'

LISA: Hm.

Mr. GUNN: All right. Thank you.

(End of soundbite)

POWERS: Well, if Gunn as the star, the show's true drama lies elsewhere. You
start getting involved with the contestants, many of them the kinds of new age
women and flamboyant gay men who would never appear on scripted TV, except to
be made fun of.

Fashion designers tend to be a temperamental, opinionated lot. Taste, after
all, is their business. And within a few weeks they start bickering and
feuding and generally behaving like high school kids. And we as watchers
chose our favorites.

What makes this tricky is the cruel truth that there's no correlation between
virtue and talent, between having a pleasing personality and being a pleasing
designer. In fact, the show invariably features at least one hugely gifted
contestant, who everyone hates because he's vain, boastful and contemptuous of
anyone, including the judges, who doesn't genuflect before his genius.

Within 10 minutes you could tell that this season's monster will be Christian,
a cocky 21-year-old with the look and attitude of a squirrel that's been run
over by a lawnmower. Christian is obnoxious, but he's also talented. So is
everyone on "Project Runway," especially this season.

And what makes the program work is that it shows us the flowering of their
creativity. Working under enormous constraints, the designers create an
outfit from scratch every single week, often in a matter of hours. If I lived
forever I couldn't make a dress out of plants. But the designers are always
doing something like this. And at show's end, we get to discover how well
they've done. Even after watching scads of episodes, I'm always fascinated by
the climatic scene on the runway when I finally got to see how the clothes
look on a human being. It's always a revelation, and that's the real appeal
of the show. It's not about colorful characters clashing, or about getting
America to vote. It's much richer than that. More than any television
program I've ever seen, "Project Runway" gives us a glimpse into the mystery
of the creative process, how one overcomes noise, stress, and one's own
personal flaws to produce something close to art.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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