Baltimore Sun

'Get Away From Me' seems unlikely after McKay's debut

She talks a lot - her words at times bumping into one another. In mid-sentence, she may pause for a second to collect her thoughts, then she's off again.

Nellie McKay, 19, has a lot on her mind, and that's apparent throughout the singer-songwriter's debut, Get Away From Me. A two-disc set, the album veers from jazzy, cabaret pop to Eminem-like rap. There's a wild, blaxploitation-like dance cut and several tunes that sound as if they were plucked from a feminist Broadway musical - a dizzying array of styles covered in an hour.

"That's why there are two discs," McKay explains, calling from her New York home. "Too many artists have albums that are so long. I didn't want to burden the listener, even if the running time is only an hour. [The album] can be mentally frazzling for a listener, I guess. But I wanted to keep the listener's attention with something different, which can be overbearing as well, I guess."

A short pause, then she says, "I find the album kind of annoying myself."

The artist, who will perform tonight at the Patterson Theater, has garnered critical acclaim for her clever lyrics, which delve into young womanhood, love's roller coaster, depression, American politics - all enlivened with vivid imagery and a cutting, dark sense of humor. Some have assumed that the album title is a not-so-subtle swipe at Norah Jones' Come Away With Me, the Grammy darling's multi-platinum debut that has opened the door, so to speak, for young, jazz-leaning singers like McKay and Jamie McCullum.

"Penis Envy was the original title for the record," McKay says. "But it wouldn't have gotten [sold] in Wal-Mart. We came up with a lot of titles. But the title wasn't just about Norah. It pertains to everyone knowing everything about you on the computer and the whole Big Brother concept that's taking over society now. I mean, just get away from me, you know?"

Over the phone, McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE) is friendly and sharp, her diction perfect with a slight British crispness. In promotional shots, the artist looks like a young Doris Day, to whom McKay has been compared. But don't let the neat, blond tresses, conservative skirt suits, the heels and crystalline voice fool you. The Harlem-raised singer, who freely sprinkles a few expletives in conversation, is very much a young woman of her generation with a strong, independent spirit and a mind to match.

"I'm not doing any Gap ads or putting my name everywhere on makeup or something," McKay says. "I'm not giving up what's mine as an artist. I own the rights to all of my songs."

McKay's independence and artistic gift were nurtured by her mother, Robin Pappas, who had been an actress in England before moving to the United States soon after the singer was born. (McKay's father, a British director, has been absent most of her life.) Pappas didn't find much work in New York, so she applied for welfare and settled in Harlem, raising her daughter full time.

"She caught so much [stuff] for that, because she stayed home and was my mom," McKays says, her voice rising a bit in defense. "She always said I was special. She was always there for me completely. We were very poor, but I look back at that now and realize that I believed in Santa Claus and got cool [stuff] for Christmas. It's incredible what you can be oblivious to as a child," she says, sounding a little relaxed now. "There were crack vials everywhere in the neighborhood. But you go to school, and you come home. As you get older, you realize the dangers. I just don't know how my mom did it."

When McKay was 10, she suddenly became a hostage. She was getting out of a car when a man wielding a box cutter grabbed her, held the weapon to her throat and demanded money from her mother. Pappas gave up the "dummy wallet" - a fake one with no money. The man released McKay, snatched the wallet and took off. Soon after the mugging, mother and daughter moved to Pennsylvania, where McKay went to high school and eventually learned to play piano, sax, xylophone and cello. She returned to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music but dropped out after less than two years.

"I am a proud dropout," McKay says. (She calls her music publishing company Proud Dropout Music.) "College is for those with no ideas of their own."

At 17, she found work at cabaret and gay bars around the city, playing a mix of covers and original material. Columbia Records executives saw an interview in a local music magazine and signed the artist soon afterward. Last summer, she entered the studio with former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.

McKay says, "The main thing I was looking for with a producer was to get one to work with all the different things I wanted to do. And Geoff was really open and understood, in a way, where I was coming from and where I was trying to go."

Get Away From Me is a colorful portrait of McKay's complexities. In "I Wanna Get Married," she pines for a kind of suburban bliss, something she never experienced growing up. ("I wanna pack cute little lunches/For my Brady Bunches/Then read Danielle Steel.") "Ding Dong" is a catchy, sprightly ditty about depression: "So ding dong/There's the doorbell/Hello man in white/He's gonna make you feel better/Getcha through the night ..."

The album's jazzy numbers may draw the Norah Jones crowd. But McKay is far more eccentric - perhaps too much so. There's little cohesion to Get Away From Me; styles vary from song to song. But the energy, the cleverness, never lets up.

"I'm working on other songs now," she says. "There's still a lot to get out."

Nellie McKay and Jen Chapin play the Patterson Theater, 3136 Eastern Ave., tonight at 7 as part of WTMD's Emerging Artists Concert Series. The show is sold out.

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.