CSPS Hall, Legion Arts — Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m.
Even though her latest album is a solo affair, when delightful East Coast songstress Nellie McKay makes a tour stop in Cedar Rapids this weekend, at CSPS Hall (tickets $22-27), she won’t be alone.
“She will be coming to Iowa, her first time in Iowa,” McKay said in a phone call of her travel partner, her beloved rescue dog Bessie. “She’s looking forward to lots of skips and rolls.”
This won’t be McKay’s first time here. Most recently, she spent some time in Fort Dodge, door knocking for Bernie Sanders. Politics is the only thing that brightens her voice as much as when she talks about Bessie, albeit with fire instead of adoration.
“I was surprised by how forward-thinking … the person I stayed with was,” McKay said of her trip to Fort Dodge. “She’s been protesting vivisection since, I believe it was the 1980s, and she has these posters up. She’s so much more ahead of our time than people in Brooklyn. I think middle America gets a real bad rap.”
McKay has a reputation for her outspoken politics; she’s been a recipient of PETA’s Humanitarian Award and the Humane Society’s Doris Day Award for her animal rights activism, and has both performed in support of causes she cares about and written politically-intentional songs. However, she’s not sure music alone is sufficient advocacy.
“Really, you need local organization more than music. You know, it’s capitalism — there’s been a corporate coup d’eta in this country, and corporations and the military industrial complex have completely taken over the leverage of power. So I don’t see how a song is going to affect that much. I think music can give people energy or act as a panacea, but we need mass movements of civil disobedience,” McKay said. “The political system on both sides of the aisle is corrupt — they’re not going to let us change it by occasionally calling your senator. That’s not going to do it.”
“To solve any problem you have to recognize you have one, and a lot of people still don’t,” she continued. “There’s this petty tribalism of politics, and I don’t know why that is, that people feel they want to label themselves. And they want to be part of a team, and ‘That’s my team, goddammit, and I’m sticking to it!'”
McKay spoke vehemently against the military in particular, including the high portion of each tax dollar that goes to military spending (over 50 percent of discretionary spending and 15 percent of the total budget). She also mentioned the hefty budget that Congress approved for the Pentagon this year. McKay is distressed by the “running in circles” that she sees when people don’t acknowledge those challenges, and expressed frustration with the rise of identity politics.
“You begin to see the lie of [identity politics], how this is being used to mask the worst of humanity, and how it’s antithetical to social justice to assign people virtue purely based on their sex, their skin color,” McKay said. “It was supposed to be about the content of one’s character. Hopefully it will get back to that.”
McKay’s new album, her seventh, which drops May 18, is Sister Orchid. While it’s not political at all, and any themes, she says, are accidental, it has a more serious, somber tone than her previous releases, which dovetails with the place she’s in politically.
“A friend of mine … said, ‘You can never go wrong singing sad songs,'” McKay said.
The album is entirely solo; McKay plays all instruments on the record, which she said contributes to its intimacy. It’s a beautiful snapshot of her broad musical skills, even as the cover art catches you off-guard — a black and white moment of stillness that is in stark contrast to the vibrant sunshine of her smile on earlier covers.
McKay’s voice is always the star of her records, but Sister Orchid really allows her jazz roots to shine. She never so much sings a song as sings through a song, her voice telling a deeper story than the lyrics ever could. Familiar tunes are destabilized by her take, opening them to additional meaning, carrying the weight of the values and frustrations that she speaks about so passionately.
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Bessie.
“You can’t say no to work,” McKay said. “That’s capitalism.” But when asked whether she loves it, she paused, and said, “Honestly, my life is about my dog … I just try to make her as happy as possible.”