Singer-Songwriter Nellie McKay Brings Quirky Charm to AMP

Nellie McKay was one of the first songstresses my husband ever played for me during the very early months of our relationship. It was quite clear that he had a huge crush on her, partly because of her retro aesthetic and quirky personality, but mostly because of her breathy, truly one-of-a-kind vocals and versatility as a singer-songwriter. I formed my own girl crush after seeing her live at Strathmore a few years later, and needless to say, we were both super excited that I had the chance to chat with her this week before her upcoming performance at AMP by Strathmore on Saturday. We chatted about the artist’s one-woman Joan Rivers show, her upcoming album, her pitbull Bessie and audiences dressing like giant pandas, among other things.

On Tap: Tell me everything about your one-woman Joan Rivers show.
Nellie McKay:
I’ve always loved Joan. I read her autobiography when I was little, and it always had a big effect on me. She’s a lot of fun, but she’s also a lot to live up to. She made so many people so happy.

OT: Are you planning to take the show nationally?
NM: I would love to. It’s rated R; it’s not for kids. Actually, I don’t know why I ever worry about this stuff because some of the best audiences are outside of New York and they can be so hip. New York can be the most prudish place.

OT: How long is the run?
NM: I think it’s the next four Fridays in New York. It’s the midnight show, appropriately.

OT: I hear you’re working on a seventh album, out on February 2.
That’s right. I’m kind of in shock that it actually happened, no thanks to me. My manager is very much good with the scheduling, and she made it happen. I don’t know if you’re an organized person but for me, it’s just a miracle when anything ever comes to bear fruit.

OT: Well, putting an album together is no easy feat.
NM: Yeah. I mean, it won’t sound that way. It will sound like something I recorded in my garage, maybe a nice garage, but it’ll sound like it took a day to record. Who knows what takes so long.

OT: Are you focusing on a certain sound or genre with this album?
Saloon songs, and [there’s] a bit of a Southern influence in there. It’s a solo album. We layered some things, but it’s pretty intimate.

OT: What’s it called?
NM: I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine.

OT: Who are your major musical and/or theatrical influences right now as you work on the album and play Joan Rivers onstage? 
NM: [Joan Rivers] is an influence. God, she had so much energy. Even in the last year of her life, she had two assistants because one couldn’t keep up with her. I really want to have that kind of energy. I don’t, but I wish. There are so many [other influences]. I keep hoping to study Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk and Teddy Wilson transcriptions more, but I don’t seem to retain anything so it kind of feels like a waste of time. I’ve never been a good student. Are you a good student? Can some things stick when you get an idea in your head?

OT: Only random pop culture references; nothing important that should stick in my head. So not really, I’m not a good student either.
[Laughs] No, it’s so true. There’s this woman named Gail Dines and she does these lectures and she’s a big anti-pornography activist and she wrote a book a called Pornland and in one of her lectures, she talks about how she asks her students [about a significant historic event] and nobody says anything, and then she asks, “What’s the latest celebrity offspring?” and everybody knows it. It’s terrible, but when you’re in line at the supermarket, you almost have to read those magazines or you’ll go crazy.

OT: It’s true. I know you’re a passionate animal rights activist and have fostered some pits. Do you still have them?
Well, I’ve got one. My dog, she’s great. She’s romping around and she’s probably going to roll in some manure as we speak. She knows how to have a good life. [Laughs] Her name’s Bessie, like Bessie Smith.

OT: I named my first Boston terrier Patsy after Patsy Cline.
Aw, so sweet.

OT: Thank you. Bringing it back to your upcoming performance at AMP, what can audiences expect from Saturday’s show?
Oh, I would just say a lot of music and maybe a few asides. I’d love to take some requests. If anyone wants to dress as a giant panda, that would entertain me at least. [Laughs] We’ll try to make it a variety. We aim to entertain.

OT: Will you be playing new material?
It’ll be a little bit of a preview, yes. We can’t wait. I think I’m going to bring my dog. She loves going down south where it’s warmer.

Catch Nellie McKay at AMP by Strathmore this Saturday, October 28. Tickets are available at

AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100;