Q&A: Nellie McKay

The irrepressible singer-songwriter keeps her standards high.

Photograph: Rick Gonzalez

Nellie McKay is poised, and poised to strike. Her carriage and diction may be as precise as a 1940s ingenue's, but there's a twinkle of mania in her eyes, and her wide smile has a threat of impending bite: She's like a pair of pretty fingers that are ready to snap. Unsurprisingly, the songwriter to whom she is most often compared is Randy Newman, with whom she shares both a grounding in traditional Great American Songbook pop and a sly skepticism about human decency. No stranger to the world of cabaret—before her big break, she tickled out show tunes as a substitute pianist at the midtown institution Don't Tell Mama—McKay made a major return to the genre last year with a run at the Upper East Side's swank Feinstein's. Now she's back there for a two-week stint, offering a new set of standards as well as late-night weekend shows of original material, including some from her 2010 Verve CD, Home Sweet Mobile Home.

Have you settled on a set list yet, or are you still working on that?
It's toddling but it's not walking yet. I think it's safe to say that there will be at least one original song and probably a reference to spring. Hopefully we can work Charlie Sheen in there somewhere.

Celebrity can do a number on people. What has your experience of that world been?
I'd say I'm probably the worst-behaved one at those parties! I went to a party once with the Olsen twins and Lindsay Lohan, and it was embarrassing. Well, I don't think she noticed. [Laughs] But those social soirees—I don't know why anyone would go to them to have fun!

So what do you think of as fun?
I love it when you see a real New York character on the street. So much of the city has been yuppified and gentrified, but occasionally you see someone who takes you back to when it wasn't so off-puttingly polite. Because it isn't really polite, you know? A lot of it is kind of snotty.

Yet you're about to do a two-week run at Feinstein's, which is a pretty schmancy joint.
Well, I will try to be genuinely polite. And I gotta say, I like the fact that the ticket price is so high that people really pay attention, because they want to get their money's worth. But I don't mean to dissuade anyone from having a good time! And I'm so happy that Michael Feinstein is a vegan.

You've been active on behalf of animal rights and other causes. What kind of issues do you choose to focus on?
I don't think you have to choose, but a lot of things really are quite black and white, like factory farms: There's no defending them. The more civilized people get, the more cruel they get, and the more they civilize their cruelty. It's 2011—can't we make do without enslaving our fellow creatures?

Your professional history suggests that you have a particular aversion to shackles.
Yeah! But I do think most people would if they were in them.

But maybe not everyone would see them as shackles. You seem like someone who gets frustrated with rules.
My personal problem with authority is trivial compared to the actual physical injustices of the world, but yeah, certainly. George Bernard Shaw said that tradition will accustom people to any atrocity. And in that vein, there do seem to be a lot of mindless rules and baby steps to fascism—such as at the airport, where we are being broken down. People need to recognize that.

One of the nice things about your career is how willing you seem to be to branch out in different directions, such as cabaret.
Oh, thank you. I just appreciate the chance to do these different things and I really want to do them well. So I guess it's a time-management thing. But I've resolved to stay away from self-help books. I really think they're death. I just...Oh, I don't know. People mystify me! And that is when they don't horrify me.

You have a quality about you that is slightly MGM. How did that style come about?
I'm so grateful for the movie channels. I remember when AMC just showed two movies a day, so you could wind up seeing the same movie four times a day. If you can avoid pop culture, that helps.

But how? Are you one of those people who don't own a television?
Yeah! I don't have a television. But I get just as much crap from the Internet. I hope, though, that when my computer finally breaks I don't get another one, because it's poison. I know some people can deal with it, but honestly I'd rather be an alcoholic than be on the computer as much as I am.

Does it have to be one or the other?
Well, everybody has a vice. At least one. If it's not apparent what their vice is, that's when you should be worried.

What vice are you proudest of?
Sloth. [Laughs] Sloth. For sure.

Feinstein's at Loews Regency; Thu 24--Sat 26, Tue 29--Apr 2