"You think that your personality is going to go over, but it doesn't," laments singer-songwriter Nellie McKay. "I thought I had a talent for alienating people, but I have no idea what it is that doesn't go over."
In 2004, McKay released an attention-grabbing debut, "Get Away From Me," a double-disc set of Tin Pan Alley pop, jazz, disco and endearingly awkward attempts at rap beloved by critics and the few thousand people who heard it. She was 21 years old, and so uncool she was cool.
McKay could have played out the string and probably enjoyed a few profitable years as a Norah Jones for ironists, but instead she took the long way: She embarked on a career that has included a Doris Day tribute album, a few discs of original material and acting stints on Broadway and in the movies, but vanishingly little that could be considered mainstream-minded.
During a phone interview, the singer seems frustrated with her career trajectory, though she never comes right out and says so. McKay insists she isn't a victim of her hard-to-pin-down and, consequently, hard-to-market career choices.
"It's not the different projects," she says. "It's just me. (I'm) alienating everyone, in different ways."
McKay's live show, which hits SPACE in Evanston on Sunday, will draw from her better-known material as well as the furthest reaches of her back catalog.
"It'll be a mismatch, a hodgepodge, a collision of some kind," she promises. "They say variety's the spice."
She sat down to discuss her best and weirdest projects, in lightning-round format. Here's an edited transcript.
"I Want to Live!," a musical based on the biopic of murderer Barbara "Bloody Babs" Graham, who died in the San Quentin gas chamber in 1955
I guess it was kind of a shotgun wedding. My mother had suggested the title, and we had to come up with a show (based on it). I saw the movie, and it said, "Barbara Graham, a woman of ill repute, often spotted in seedy bars," so we went with that. We've been touring with it; it's a death row musical revue. Not that many people have seen the movie, and music drives the movie, so I think in a way it was inevitable that it could work as a musical.
"Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day"
Certainly there was a lot under the surface in the 1950s. I had admired her animal rights work, and then I started listening to her music in high school. I was asked to do a review of a book about her, and I wound up seeing most of her movies. By the time I did the album, I had experienced most of her work. As a kid I had read her autobiography, which was pretty unflinching. She had gone through a lot, but she came out smelling like a rose. I think this album is the one I'm happiest with.
On the satirical misogyny sendup "Mother of Pearl," her best-known song
It's always a big joke to participate in your own destruction. Yes, we (women) should just lighten up. Dave Chappelle once said, "What would a black man be without his paranoia?" I feel the same way. I know a lot of people are going to take it wrong, but I guess you just accept that, that they're going to.
"Home Sweet Mobile Home," her most recent studio album, on which she collaborated with her mother
I have trouble with any kind of focus or concentrating, or getting anything done at all, really. That's one of the things she's better at. We went to Jamaica together to record, and I laid down some tracks. We were always in the studio together.
Her role in the 2007 film "P.S. I Love You," in which she played the sister of Hilary Swank
It was wonderful. Richard LaGravenese was the most calm, benevolent director that I've ever seen. And it was a really pleasant time. It's forever, where with live shows there's a lot of palaver. (On whether she'd like to do another movie someday.) Oh sure, sure. (Pause.) If you know anybody …
On her contribution to "Here Lies Love," a David Byrne/Fatboy Slim concept album about Imelda Marcos
That was wonderful. (Byrne) really is a wizard. He'd written the song and he sent a bunch over … and I picked that one. He's a wonder, and so generous. There must be a dark side, but I've never seen one.
On her upcoming projects
I'm not sure I know how to make music anymore. Maybe you're given a window into things for a time, and beyond that maybe it goes away. Why should you expect it to stay?