Nellie McKay Brings 'Sister Orchid,' and Plenty of Wry Perspective, to Singers Unlimited

May 21, 2018

Nellie McKay has a longstanding history with Michael Bourne and Singers Unlimited — all the way back to her major-label debut, Get Away From Me, nearly 15 years ago. Now she has a new solo album of standards called Sister Orchid. She came in to talk about it with Michael, and to perform a few songs in our studio.

The title of the album instantly brought forth a question: was Sister Orchid a nod to Brother Orchid, the 1940 film starring Edward G. Robinson? McKay smiled as he affirmed that it did, acknowledging a motive and a mood. “Maybe no place feels more like home than the lonely highway,” she said.

McKay also made herself at home at WBGO. Her mother and manager, Robin, sat on the sidelines with Bessie, the perky pit bull who was immortalized (wearing a strand of pearls) on the cover of the 2009 album Normal As Blueberry Pie, a tribute to Doris Day.

Drawing from Sister Orchid, Nellie played “Willow Weep For Me,” a song of complex emotional territory, as she explained. And at Michael’s request, she read from her own album notes, in a sort of poetic recitation. Then she performed the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Lazybones,” strumming a ukulele.  

At Michael’s request, she also reached back to her first album, and a lacerating song called “Inner Peace.” Characteristically, McKay spoke earnestly about politics, and her experience canvassing for Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election. And while she railed against the “corporate lie” of our contemporary scene, she also found room for hope: “There’s a breakthrough happening that hasn’t happened since the ‘60s.”

After the performance of “Inner Peace,” Michael singled out a duality in Nellie: “You’re very angry in some of your songs, and you’re also one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.”

Her response was classic Nellie McKay. “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I have two modes: sidle like a cat, against someone’s leg, or, you know, scratch their eyes out.”

Sister Orchid is available on Palmetto; visit Nellie’s website for details about the album and her current tour.