“You know, I wanted to be a star,” said Nellie McKay.
It was a Sunday afternoon in May, and Ms. McKay, who is 19, strawberry-blond, button-nosed, dewdrop-lipped, and a startlingly precocious singer-songwriter you should hear from soon, was walking along the bridle path in Central Park. She wore a crisp pink overcoat, shiny black shoes and a red bow in the back of her hair, and she was talking exuberantly of Making It Big, in the way talented young people used to talk about Making It Big before, somewhere along the way, it became sadly uncool to do so.
“I used to run for office in high school just so I could see my name on the wall,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be noticed and have people like you, have people like you without even knowing you. I love that. You look at Don’t Look Back and Dylan seems bored by it, but I-well, it’s only been a few months. I love it, I love it, I love it.”
It really has been only a few months. Singer-songwriters often spend years trekking around before anyone bothers to notice, but Ms. McKay (it’s pronounced “Mi-KAI”) appears to have plopped down from the clouds. Six months ago, nobody knew much of anything about her. But after a string of performances at places like the Sidewalk Café, an out-of-nowhere win at a songwriting competition, a hastily produced CD and a flattering write-up in Time Out New York , the chattering began. The other night, she played Joe’s Pub, and though Ms. McKay was merely the opening act-taking the stage at the early-bird buffet hour of 7 p.m.-the room was as electric as a Saturday at midnight. Her mom, Robin Pappas, was there; her manager, Lach, was there; her growing coterie of fans was there; and the record-label suits were there, too-they, like everybody else, had been told about this girl they had, had, had to see, who looked like a 1940′s movie star, banged the piano like a whirlybird, sang like Doris Day and penned couplets as divine as Cole Porter’s.
And, that night, Ms. McKay wore a red dress like you’re supposed to wear a red dress, and she was just-exciting. It’s awfully easy to be cynical about the New York music scene these days, with its multiple pretenders and poseurs and the shaggy-haired rock crits jerkin’ their Gherkins to the latest Stooges imitation, but Ms. McKay was not at all like that or them. She’d stepped out of a different orbit-she’d hardly listened to records made after Some Like It Hot was released-and yet she was no nostalgia act; she was as contemporary and connected as anyone, singing about the war and ‘N Sync, for goodness’ sake, and she was just ridiculously young. She was younger than Britney and Christina, and she wrote preternatural songs with titles like “I Wanna Get Married,” with lyrics like:
I want to get married
I need to cook meals
I want to pack cute little lunches
For my Brady Bunches
Then read Danielle Steele
I want to partake
In bake sales for the classroom
I want to hear the sweet tune
Of Sally’s little vroom-vroom
As she zooms around my broom
As I exhume the gloom
Of my shallow life.
“Oops, I Did it Again” it wasn’t. She’d sung that song late last year at the Sidewalk, and you could have heard a sugar grain plunk into a cappuccino.
“I was just like, ‘Come on!’” said Lach, who books the room. “That rhyme scheme-’ zooms around my broom as I exhume the gloom ‘ and ending with ‘ my shallow life ‘-that’s up there with McCartney and Costello as far as melodic lines. Or the Gershwins. And I’m like, ‘Is she putting me on? Is she a 40-year-old midget?’ No one’s got this much. It’s like she’s out of the 40′s or something. It’s like Myrna Loy walked in.”
Not long after, Lach signed on as Ms. McKay’s manager, and he’d set about trying to make as many people as possible know who she was. The Joe’s Pub show, on April 30, was her biggest yet, and the usually unflappable Ms. McKay confessed that she was nervous, even terrified, beforehand. “I couldn’t talk to anybody,” she said. “I went to the Starbucks and I almost missed my time to go on. And I’m a girl, so half of me was thinking about my hair.”
The show-and the hair-went splendidly, however, and now the labels were calling all the time, offering money, studios, producers and the promise of the only thing Ms. McKay was really after: fame. Born in London to an actress and a director who split soon after-”England was too small for the both of them,” she said-young Nellie moved to America with her mother and undertook an artist’s daughter odyssey that began in Harlem (“I was a very weird kid”), crossed the country in a crowded VW Beetle bus (“We had nine cats and a dog”) to Olympia, Wash. (“Wasn’t very artsy”) before finally returning East-to the Poconos, of all places. She rebelled against her mother’s Dylan and Leadbelly records by listening to Eydie Gorme and Doris Day and the “whitest of white singers.” But Mama, who’d graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and played parts in Chariots of Fire and Superman II , encouraged Nellie, made sure she had a piano to play, kept her surrounded by musicians and artists and influencers-in Harlem, she rented a room to everyone from a “gay opera singer from El Paso” to a “folk singer who was a closet Republican,” she said-and, even early on, the kid wanted to be a star.
“Nellie is 10 times more talented than I ever was-and very smart,” Robin Pappas said. “She knows what’s got to be done to get ahead in this business. She’s not afraid to dye her hair or wear red. Without being bogus, she pulls it off.”
Still, as much as young Nellie wanted to be famous, she wasn’t so sure how she’d get there. She’d gone to the Manhattan School of Music and studied jazz voice for a couple of years, then dropped out. (“I didn’t feel like eating Chinese food and talking the shit all day. I always wanted to go out and be auditioning for something and making it,” she said.) She’d gone out for acting roles and even dabbled in stand-up comedy. But she kept returning to music. It was probably inevitable; it was what she did best.
“When I was in sixth grade, instead of doing ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, I did ‘Whole Lot of Learnin’ Goin’ On’-I was like, ‘ This school’s burnin’! Whole lotta learnin’ goin’ on! ‘-and I’d be kicking the piano, playing, playing, playing, and everyone would be there, smacking their gum-this was in Olympia-and I was like, ‘Don’t you guys get it? I’m a star !’” Ms. McKay said. “But I wasn’t; I was just this geeky little four-eyes.”
But now she’s on the verge. There’s a documentary film crew following Ms. McKay around; they want to make a Star Is Born kind of thing. She and Lach are trying to figure out which label to sign with. She gets compared to the obvious people-Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Diana Krall, Vanessa Carlton (“The chicks with pianos,” she said)-but she is trying to cut her own path. She wants to be a pop star-even if, as she admits, the pop songs she writes “come out like something from 1937.” She’s undoubtedly capable of achieving niche fame, but she wants the whole deal: the cover-of-magazine fame, the buy-Mama-a-house fame. “A house?” Robin Pappas said. “It was a pink castle a couple of weeks ago.”
And she’s such a talent and so sure of herself that you won’t bet against her. Ms. McKay’s certainty isn’t arrogance-at least it’s not the unattractive kind of arrogance. It’s the winning, old-time confidence you’re supposed to have if you want to be a star, and you’re 19 years old and wanted by everyone, and strangers who walk past you in Central Park stop and stare like they know you, even if they don’t. Yet.
“I think it’s such a shame when people are taken by surprise by fame,” Nellie McKay said. “I just think they should quit then, and leave the playing field open for me. Because I really want it.”