Artist-activist Nellie McKay channels Joan Rivers with a voice of gold

The outspoken singer lands at Dino’s in Glenside this weekend.

Screenshot 2018-04-20 at 11.11.38 AM
Courtesy Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay

Sister Orchid! and The Big Molinsky: Considering Joan Rivers
Dino’s Backstage, 287 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside
Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22
Doors open for dinner at 7:00 pm. Show is at 8:30pm. $45 ticket / $20 food and beverage minimum


To Nellie McKay, the London-born singer-songwriter and actress who lands at Dino’s Backstage in Glenside this weekend, the coming of the apocalypse wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

“An apocalypse would mean an end to factory farms,” McKay said recently, while driving her mother to an opera singing gig in upstate New York. “Would that be worth it? I believe that it would.”

Since her start apprenticing in the Poconos at the feet of whimsical jazz practitioners Bob Dorough and Phil Woods, McKay has existed as an adventurous cross between sultry artist and provocative activist. She’s a recipient of PETA’s Humanitarian Award, and calls herself “an annoyingly vocal advocate against war, capitalism and the two-party system that sustains it.”

Her current predilection for brash one-woman-shows about bold heroines picks up on that thread.

She’s portrayed environmental pioneer Rachel Carson (Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature). Executed convicted murderer Barbara Graham (I Want to Live!). Closeted transsexual jazz musician Billy Tipton (A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton). And then there’s this weekend’s show of impressionistic sketches, The Big Molinsky: Considering Joan Rivers.

The link all these characters have is an against-all-odds strength and and an obvious individuality — through which McKay’s own singularity shines brightly through.

For Big Molinsky, since Rivers’ own material is protected by copyright, she had to approximate. “I’ve had to write my own bits instead of using Joan’s,” she explained, “but of course inspired by what I saw as her nature — and this moment.”

Which is where the desire for a cleansing apocalypse comes in. At this point in history, “I’m not sure anything sets my heart free,” McKay said.

“The relationship between Trump and Putin is not accidental,” she ranted. “Most politicians get money from defense companies and arms sales are predicated on our tensions with Russia. It’s a dangerous game of chicken as they are the only country with more nuclear arms than we have. That alone shows the insanity of our systems. They’re frothing at the mouth for war. The only people who are worse is our pro-war media.”

So what is it like making fiction-based art when the real thing is so manically and absurdly avant-garde?

“It’s frustrating,” McKay admitted. “Do you want to interpret this world? Why not save somebody instead. My mother reminds that this life as an artist now is like being the string quartet on the Titanic. I have a hard time living with that. I want to build a raft.”

Her music — including Sister Orchid!, the new album of spare, melancholy standards she’ll perform this weekend in Glenside — is reflective of that truth.

The threadbare arrangements on dusky Sinatra ballads like “The Very Nearness of You,” “Angel Eyes” and “Willow Weep for Me” also bring to mind hanging out, Edward Hopper-like, at “an all-night truck stop where you get whatever your drug of choice happens to be and you put a nickel in the machine,” McKay said with a laugh.

“In terms of the arrangements,” she said, “it’s more minimal than usual. It doesn’t sound arranged, you know? I found it difficult at first — that stripped-down feel. It’s like at those salad places where you can put everything on? I just got the chickpeas. But I really like the chickpeas — so it worked out.”

Topics

Music, Comedy