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March 2005
Singing in Tune

The Satya Interview with Nellie McKay


Nelly McKay. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

Glowing reviews in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, among scores of others, have positioned singer Nellie McKay (pronounced Mak-eye) as the “next big thing” in the music industry. McKay’s CD Get Away From Me on Columbia Records ranked high on many critics’ best lists last year. A long-time vegetarian and animal advocate, who writes and performs songs like “Columbia is Bleeding,” about Columbia University’s controversial animal experiments, Nellie will take home a 2005 Genesis Award for “The Dog Song” this March in LA. Nellie McKay discussed the sometimes-tenuous intersection between music and advocacy with Satya Contributing Editor Lawrence Carter-Long.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “The more fame and money you acquire, it gives you more power, and there are a lot of things I’d like to change about this world. Celebrity and wealth are some of the biggest weapons for social change because most people who have them don’t use them for anything but Versace.” How, in your opinion, could the notoriety that comes with fame be better used?
I do so many benefits, and I’d like to do more animal rights benefits. Incredible, wonderful organizations are doing such important work—stuff that dwarfs any creative arts, in terms of media importance and what needs to be done. They still rely so much on celebrities to get people to support them and draw attention to their cause. But on the other hand, in terms of notoriety, it’s so easy to be written off.

I know in some interviews, you’ve said that you like to court controversy.
Well, yeah. I don’t anymore.

Not anymore? Did it help or harm you?
Oh, I feel it definitely harmed. Personally, I don’t enjoy it. And often times you can say things in a certain way—either put humor in them or to exaggerate them in order to make your point, but it comes back to hurt you. There is so much to learn when you start talking to the press. I think the biggest thing to learn is just to watch what you say.

Does humor help?
I think it depends on the context and the type of humor used, and the weird thing about show business is that so much of it depends on the audience. They really are a huge part of anything you do, and that’s very rough. I think in terms of The Daily Show, humor is great. In terms of Politically Incorrect, humor is actually a wonderful way to make points. If you look at Dick Gregory, who later became a great animal rights activist, [through] his routines racism was brought into daylight, because [after him, then] all the comics started bringing it up. I think that applies to other things—women’s rights, like when you look at early Roseanne comedy routines or Brett Butler. You can find so much truth through humor. Like music, it’s a great way to get people to listen to you and hear what you are saying. I do think that’s important, but it’s weird because then people can dismiss you unfairly.

I saw a quote that said you think everything—including love, sex and, well, life—is political. So it must be impossible to not bring this into your music. I’m curious how the general public has received the overtly political songs, like “Sari” and “Columbia is Bleeding.” Are people ever like, “Jeez, I thought I was going to be entertained here—what’s all this political stuff?”
When I was opening for the Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morrisette, in Columbus, Ohio, I did this song about gay marriage. I got booed. I thought ‘Wow, that’s what you are booing?’ There’s something so weird about the whole anti-gay marriage thing. I don’t get where these people are coming from, and how they can be that obviously intolerant. It’s really frightening.

For the most part, politically like-minded people attend my gigs. Then when I do it on a more national stage, I’m not important enough to be truly threatening, so I don’t think people are very bothered by it—I’m just another left-leaning artist type.

But even with my own shows, I’d have to say “Columbia is Bleeding” gets the least immediate cheers because animal rights requires such a lifestyle and philosophical change for so many people, that they can’t handle it. That’s why it’s one of my favorite songs to perform, because I don’t like preaching to the choir. I like challenging them.

You went to PS 163, which you’ve dubbed the Alfred E. Neuman School, and you started the first animal rights society they’d ever seen. I’m curious to know, how old were you then and what inspired you?
I can’t even remember what it stood for, but it was called the BSPTA, and I was like seven. I remember seeing you at my very first protest. I remember I was so disturbed by the images. I think it was NYU animal testing.

Yeah, we were protesting the crack cocaine studies.
Did they end?

Well, the funding was eventually cut, but there are still different though similar projects going on. These things go in cycles.
Yeah, I know. There has been so much that has changed, especially in terms of having the alternative meat products in stores. Yet there is still so much more to do. It can get so depressing, so easily. Especially now, living so close to Columbia University. I can’t think of one Ivy League institution that isn’t engaged in utterly heinous activity, not only against the animals but also against their workers.

So what was the ah-ha moment? How did the seven year-old become an animal rights activist?
Well, it’s a very natural instinct to think, ‘Oh, the poor animal.’ There’s a great little vignette that’s written about how kids change their attitudes about animals. In the beginning, they are encouraged to love animals and as they get older, there’s a great switch that’s played on them. One minute they are cuddling a teddy bear, then the next they are asked to go bear hunting. When they ask what’s on their plate, they’re told an animal. And then they naturally ask, well how did the animal get there? It’s very wrong what we do to kids. We teach them to love animals in cartoons and in their play and to identify with animals and be nice to the family cat; but also to disregard the stuff that goes into so much of what they use on a daily basis—to just accept it.

That switch didn’t happen with me. My mother got into animal rights at the time when most parents would be indoctrinating the more callous way of life. So I became a vegetarian. I’ve been vegan for about nine months and I know I’ll never go back. But it took ten-plus years to become vegan. I’ve known all this time what battery hens go through. I just couldn’t do it. I know how hard it is.

What do you think helped flip the switch or what holds people back from recognizing that this is a problem or that this is wrong and then actually doing something about it?
If you look at a picture of say, a duck being made into foie gras, there are people who can look at it and then look away. There are people who can look at it, think about it, but kind of ignore it. While other people look, think, and realize they just can’t do this anymore. As a member of the last group, I think it is very hard to look, hate what you see, and still turn away from something you love, like food. It doesn’t look like the picture. It looks very nice on your plate. It smells nice. It’s the same with fur coats. People see the picture and they think ‘that’s awful,’ but still like the way the coat looks. There’s such distance between what goes into it and what they see.

One of your goals in making music is to make people happy and your concept of happiness is to make other people feel content. Is it possible to be content and political at the same time?
Content and political—no it isn’t. Gosh, I hate quotes. [Laughs.]

How do you reconcile those two?
I was talking to Gloria Steinem in Florida before the election. She was talking about people who can’t get out of their own misery, that they just have an overtly pessimistic viewpoint. She’s someone who obviously knows a lot about the horrors of the world, but she seems to keep this incredibly optimistic viewpoint. I just really admire that because I get mired down in it really easily. I think it’s easy to be content and political if you are doing something. For instance, if I play a benefit and see all these people working for something, and that makes me feel content. It makes me feel that all my work, support and hopes are not in vain.

So you mention Gloria Steinem and feminism. Your song “It’s a Pose,” sends up male posturing in a very funny way. How does being a woman and a feminist affect your outlook?
Obviously, it affects every part [of me]. I’ve read interviews with Ingrid Newkirk about PETA ads that are considered by some as sexist, and she just doesn’t. I still believe she’s a feminist, she doesn’t see the problem with it. But as a feminist [myself] I can have quibbles with the ads, but it’s nothing compared to the overall good I think they do.

But being a woman also influences my take on other causes. Within the political arena, I’m fed up with the democrats on so many levels. It’s still just run by white guys. All the corporations are still white. It can be very hard to get behind movements you feel excluded from. At a certain point, the people in power should reflect the people they represent. If half the world is women, then women should run half the world. If the majority of the world is darker races, then darker races should be running most of the world. The power should reflect this. Even though I feel it should all be one world and one race. I just feel it’s like apartheid, that power and influence is disproportionate to who they represent.

Did growing up in Harlem influence your world view and music?
Definitely. I think music comes out of observation and some sort of hardship. Although, obviously music can be used in all manner of escapisms. There are no good stories without troubles of some kind. It has to come from some sort of dissonance.

There’s a lot of music in Harlem. You also see a lot of poverty. The good side and the bad side. You see women who are making nothing and they’ll still buy bird feed for the pigeons—they’ll feed the cats in the alley. And then you’ll see the young men who sic pit bulls on the cats in the alley. That’s how poverty can both feed compassion and caring about someone even less than you, and how it can also feed rage, boredom, and picking on whoever is available to pick on.

Let’s get back to music. One of the things I was most struck by was that names like Doris Day, Eminem, Tori Amos, Phil Ochs, and Ben Folds were used by reviewers in reference to you. That’s quite an eclectic bunch. Do you think the need of reviewers and industry folk to fit you into a little box has hurt or helped your career?
I’m amused by some of the boxes they’ve put me in. I think it’s all how it’s said. I mean if it’s said in a nice way, then they could compare me to anything. It’s when they try to dismiss you. Doris Day and Eminem both stand for something culturally, which is why I think they were tossed together like that. Obviously I love Doris Day. Eminem has some good songs and a certain style; I’m okay with being compared to that. But I can be quite conservative when it comes to rap because so much of it is bullshit. I [disagree with] people who say it’s just music, it doesn’t influence the way people think. I think it does and it reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes and a lot of sexism. For someone who has known battered women, I just don’t find references to beating up women amusing in any way—especially when it’s done in an angry and serious way.

What are you working on now? I’ve seen a write up on something you were trying to do—a concert in a women’s prison à la Johnny Cash.
I must say prisons have changed since Johnny Cash’s time. They have become more corporate, more militaristic, and it seems like those that are intended for punishment don’t want music, because that would be something that wasn’t a punishment. Those that are intended for rehabilitation don’t want to hear angry music. They (women’s prisons) want to make the women well adjusted members of society, which apparently from the response we get is not what my music does. They don’t like the curses. They don’t like the tone of it and don’t think it would be good for their women. So we’ve run into a bit of resistance.



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