(Soundbite of song, "Dig It")

Ms. NELLIE MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh, I can't dance. Oh, I really can't.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, yes you can. Come on, right, left, right, left.

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Really? You can teach me?

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh yeah...

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Nellie McKay has made a name for herself as a jazzy pop singer/songwriter who combines smart lyrics with unusual musical juxtapositions to create a fresh genre-defying sound. Now, onto her fourth album, she's still surprising fans, this time with a Doris Day tribute called "Normal as Blueberry Pie." It's charming without being cutesy, and McKay's smoky smooth old-fashioned voice is a perfect fit for her interpretations of Day's classics.

(Soundbite of song, "Dig It")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) I never could do the conga, could never get through the conga. But if you say do the conga, I ain't hip to that step, but I'll dig it. I never could do...

HANSEN: Nellie McKay joins us in the studio. How nice to meet you. Thanks for being here.

Ms. MCKAY: Oh, I'm blushing.

HANSEN: So, what's the connection you have with Doris Day?

Ms. MCKAY: I listened to her a lot when I growing up. And, you know, she was always kind of the voice of hope. She took me away from the crassness, you know, it was wonderful escapism.

HANSEN: Yeah. Was it true you were in, what, in Baltimore?

Ms. MCKAY: Oh, that was where I found her.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Ms. MCKAY: Yeah. I was...

HANSEN: Tell us about finding her.

Ms. MCKAY: I was at an aquarium protest - they have a big aquarium there - and like many activists, when you support the same cause, you don't really like each other. So, after the protest we all kind of dispersed and I went to the record shop. And I found a picture of her on, you know, fake boat with a fake sky with a lacquered hairdo and, you know, I had to, I just had to get it. You know, it's high time more people discovered her music.

HANSEN: Right. Because so many people just remember her from, you know, the Rock Hudson movies or those where she was, like, America's sweetheart.

Ms. MCKAY: I know, I mean, what a thing to be saddled with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Love Somebody")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Love somebody, yes I do...

HANSEN: Now, I think a lot of people don't know that Doris Day was a singer before she became a movie star, and she sang with big bands - Les Brown, for example. And she recorded over 600 songs. How do you decide what 12 or 13 to put on a CD?

Ms. MCKAY: I wish there was a method, you know. It involved a little bit of alcohol, you know. But, you know, one of the things that made it easy is she's a much better singer than me. So, there's certain songs I just couldn't do. Like, "Say It's Magic" is very difficult to do. And there were a lot that she sounded great on, they're beautiful songs, but they're not particularly identified with her. And we still picked a few really of each of those categories but, you know, we tried to have diversity on the album, like she had in her recording career.

HANSEN: What's the creative process like? How is it different for you when you're recording someone else's song? How do you make them your own?

Ms. MCKAY: Well, at first I was trying to sound like Ms. Day and that didn't really come off at all. So, as long as it's not pitchy and it seems, you know, like it's true...

HANSEN: Sincere.

Ms. MCKAY: ...yeah, sincere. And also I learned a lot from her autobiography and what she was taught by her first singing teacher to always pretend that you're just singing to one person out there.

(Soundbite of song, "Sentimental Journey")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Gonna take a sentimental journey, gonna set my heart at ease...

HANSEN: Well, it is nice to rediscover these songs. "Sentimental Journey," which you do, was her first big hit. And a lot of people have said that your own music seems to belong to another era. Do you gravitate toward, like, the sentiment that's expressed in this?

Ms. MCKAY: Well, I don't know. It's lovely. It is a trip back in time, and you try to put yourself in that frame of mind.

HANSEN: You do?

Ms. MCKAY: Yes.

HANSEN: But you do some wonderful arrangements in some of these songs. I mean, I don't think I ever expected to hear a Doris Day song done with, is it steel drums that you use?

Ms. MCKAY: Yes.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Ms. MCKAY: That was a gentleman I found in the subway. And I love people who play in the subway or on the street. They just make life so much nicer. And he was always playing these kind of Frank Sinatra songs and doo-wop songs on the steel drums. So, I thought it'd be a good sound.

(Soundbite of song, "Sentimental Journey")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Never thought my heart could be so yearning, why did I decide to roam? Gonna take that sentimental journey, sentimental journey home.

HANSEN: You do the song "Mean to Me," which was famously recorded by Ruth Etting. And Doris Day actually played Ruth Etting in the movie "Love Me or Leave Me." Did you watch that movie?

Ms. MCKAY: Oh yes. And I listened to Ruth Etting herself. I've loved it ever since I saw that movie, which was back in high school. But the pain of caring.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Ms. MCKAY: You know.

(Soundbite of song, "Mean to Me")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) You treat me coldly each day of the year. You always scold me whenever somebody is near, dear. It must be great fun to be mean to me. You shouldn't, for can't you see what you mean to me? Baby, can't you see what you mean to me?

HANSEN: What's up next for you? I mean, I know you've been touring in support of this. That takes a lot of time. Your activism takes a lot of time. Are you...what's in the future for you?

Ms. MCKAY: Oh, well, it's lovely. I'm working on the musical and movie "Election." So, I think my collaborators have just about given up on me, so I need to get something to them in the next couple of days. But I don't know. It's nice, it's just nice being here with you.

It's like we know people at Columbia, they said they talked to Bob Dylan. They said, what are you doing, Bob? And he said, I'm right here. And then they said, well, where are you living now? He said, I'm living right here.

HANSEN: So, we'll just live in this moment.

Ms. MCKAY: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. This is a real treat.

HANSEN: It's a pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Rhythm")

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway. I'll go my way, you'll go your way. Crazy rhythm from now on we're through.

HANSEN: You can hear from songs from Nellie McKay's new CD at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, 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 NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.