Nellie McKay has three loves - animals, the Poconos, and Doris Day.
She's penned her share of songs with pithy social criticism on subjects such as gay marriage and feminism. But the tartly lyrical vocalist and pianist's dedication to animal rights and pet advocacy, her favorite cause, shows through in songs like "Columbia Is Bleeding" and "The Dog Song."
"I'm on all the PETA lists," says McKay from her apartment in New York City where she resides with her dogs, Bessie and Hank.
The Poconos have long been part of McKay's tale, one that took her from her London birthplace to the Poconos, where she lived with her mother and went to high school (her age has been variously reported; her publicist says she's 27). She has returned to the Poconos repeatedly, hanging at the Delaware River Water Gap, befriending Pocono jazz giants such as Bob Dorough (who mentored her during summer classes) and Phil Woods, working with them, and recording 2007's Obligatory Villagers.
"Snow days were the best," McKay says, laughing. "Every time I go back, there's such a sense of fun. Plus, the greatest musicians in the world live there."
And her love for America's Sweetheart?
At first, the reclusive octogenarian - known for her sunshine vocals, and wholesome film roles in light comic fare such as Pillow Talk - seems an odd choice for McKay, an acerbic lyricist with a cutting voice. McKay performed (as Polly Peachum) in Brecht's dastardly The Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 2006 - a musical whose biting wit sounded completely in accord with her own material. Then you listen to McKay's curious new Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day and all becomes clear.
McKay, like Day, knows how to handle a saccharine lyric or two. In her 1975 autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, Day writes about making the most of silly lyrics and an on-screen image that made her seem virginal.
"From a woman's perspective, Ms. Day says a lot about her times as a popular icon that reconciled the conflicting ideas of what women 'should' be - the quest for love and fulfillment as homemaker and wife," McKay opines.
Day didn't truly revere the sunny sentiment of hits such as "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," the likes of which McKay avoids on her fourth album. McKay prefers Day's lesser-known tracks, such as the moody "Meditation" and the pensive, haunting "I Remember You" - songs that reveal Day as a woman of many faces. And on Normal as Blueberry Pie, McKay wears just as many masks, singing as Day the coquette or the depressive, with challenging arrangements all produced by McKay and her mom, Robin Pappas.
"I was in high school when I picked up an album of hers because of the cover," says McKay, referring to It's Magic: Her Early Years at Warner Brothers (1998). "She was on a big fake boat and I adored it. It was soft and gentle and warm and sweet."
Then, of course, there's Day's own avid activism, which manifested itself in the Doris Day Animal League. "It's easy among activists to feel like a raw nerve, but she's been fighting for [animals] for decades so she has a Zen quality, caring and kind," says McKay, who interviewed her hero for Bark magazine in 2007. "If I could have crawled onto her lap through the phone, I would have."
Dorough, a pianist and singer with an exceptional jazz pedigree of commercial classics (he wrote and recorded much of the Schoolhouse Rock! television series' songs) and sessions with Miles Davis, says that "though Day went on to make some silly movies, I think musicians were generally in agreement that her musicality was high."
In McKay's mind, the complex dichotomy involved in Day's music and image made the '50s ideal of woman "palatable." "There was always more going on that meets the eye," she says.
The same can be said of McKay herself. Though she might claim to hate homework - both when she was a kid, doing schoolwork, and today as an adult, working on the intricate arrangements for Normal as Blueberry Pie - her mother and coproducer clarifies her daughter's position.
"When inspired, Nellie's a hard worker and a huge dreamer with no sense of time," says her mother, Robin Pappas. "This is great if a project is open-ended, but proves tricky when there's a deadline."
Pappas has worked with her daughter since the start of McKay's recording career. Pappas produced the demos for McKay's snarky 2004 album Get Away From Me, her first major-label release (her only one, too, until Normal as Blueberry Pie, on Verve.)
In coproducing Blueberry Pie, Pappas says that the pair "relaxed into the crazy of the creative moment" and let the sweetness seep through, naturally. "Nellie's extreme sensitivity and willingness to take risks keeps her open to the most beautiful artistic impulses - it also makes her very vulnerable and in need of protection," Pappas says.
Dorough says that though McKay brought him in to sing and play on Obligatory Villagers ("listened to from stem to stern, it's a symphony") and arrange bits of Blueberry Pie ("her direction to me for "Close Your Eyes" was, "Make it Monkish, Bob") her aesthetic path is hers alone.
"Nellie knows exactly what she's doing," says Dorough. "I merely gave her what she wanted. She uses a great deal of variety - daring and original - in building her CDs."
For her part, the independent and daring Ms. McKay is happy, at present, singing the sentimental un-feminist lyrics out of which Day made a career. McKay uses the hokum of songs such as "Wonderful Guy" as part of her wry but honest characterization.