Cool firebrand McKay earns a warm welcome

Times Staff Writer

Nellie McKay, the cabaret-pop princess who dazzled with her 2004 debut, “Get Away From Me,” is in a good mood. Her fine-boned face is illuminated with a bright smile as she settles herself at the Hotel Cafe’s piano Friday evening. “How is everyone?” she asks, looking like Doris Day back from the ashram in her fluffy blond hair and chartreuse tunic.

The crowd is sending her beams of adoration and sighing with relief. It’s as if the estranged daughter has come to the family reunion and no one wants to be the jerk who sets her off.

More than a year ago, McKay broke down in tears at the Troubadour, distraught over Columbia Records’ plans for her second album. She had her heart set on 65 minutes and 23 tracks; the label wanted 48 minutes and 16 tracks. So she walked, releasing “Pretty Little Head” on her own Hungry Mouse label.

All that seems forgotten by the time McKay, 24, switches from “Ol’ Man River” to a song from the new album she’s recording. It’s trademark McKay: sensual and emotionally resonant.


Thumping out a peppery beat for “Happy Flower,” she says, “This is the part where David Letterman goes to commercial.... He only cares about Ryan Adams.” When an audience member praises her candor, she says with a laugh, “Well, you should’ve seen me before.”

McKay’s encore takes off from audience suggestions and weaves together three songs. The mash-up perfectly encapsulates her bold talent and complex identities: feminist firebrand, martini-cool chanteuse and resilient blithe spirit.

margaret.wappler@latimes .com