Nellie McKay. Photo by Robin Pappas.

Nellie McKay at The Shedd

The popular but undefinable singer and songwriter talks music, politics and Eugene cuisine

Singer, songwriter, vegan and animal rights activist Nellie McKay comes to The Shedd for a solo concert Friday night, Jan. 19, promoting her latest album, Hey Guys, Watch This, which came out late last year.

McKay is one of the hardest performers to fit into any single genre, forcing critics to use terms like “zany,” “lovably formidable” and “slightly loopy.” The New Yorker magazine has called her “funny and touching, ceaselessly clever and scarily talented.” 

She does Americana and American Songbook, she channels Doris Day, she can sing opera and hip hop, and she plays the piano and ukulele in a career that’s included performances on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

We got her on the phone Friday, Jan. 12, during a stop in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a rambling conversation that covered everything from the charms of The Shedd — she loves performing there, and is a regular — to the situation in Gaza, about which she refers people to the website

Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your first album, Get Away from Me, came out in 2004. Where do you want to be in 20 more years?

Wow. Let’s see. If this was a job application form, I’d say, oh, you know, still sweeping up the cigarette butts in front of the entrance door. I’m a company man! But gee, in 20 more years, I just want everyone and everything. This is gonna be the saddest answer in who knows how long. But I just, I just wanna hold on to what I have.

What did the pandemic do to you?

Oh, it was just absolute hell, and it’s still doing it to everybody. I mean, you know, how many small businesses permanently closed because of the lockdowns? How many music business venues permanently closed? People, you know, they’ve got depression, they have trouble with alcohol and drugs and abuse in the home. And then, you know, you merge that with lost income, you have trouble coming back. If they used to go to a bunch of concerts a year, maybe 20, now maybe they go to six.

I think it permanently got some people used to staying home, which I completely identify with. I mean, it’s hard to get me to leave the house.

Has it affected your music in any noticeable way?

Yeah, I wouldn’t say in a good way. I wouldn’t say it helped.

In your show at The Shedd will you be dipping into some of your past work?

Yes, you know, because people like to hear things from all different times. You just never know what people want to hear or from when. So sometimes they let me know. And sometimes it’s a fun guessing game.

And you’re going to be solo on stage?

Yes. For this time. But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll pretend to have a band.

How do you pretend to have a band?

Oh, it’s not that hard to delude oneself. It’s the imaginary friends of childhood.

When did you know that you were going to be a performer?

Oh, I still don’t. Maybe someday, it’ll happen. I guess, you know, you do what you gotta do. I don’t know how much choice there is, really.

It’s nice to come to a place with character like Eugene — and the [now closed] Cornbread Cafe.

You mentioned once your mom has some connection to Oregon. What is it?

Living in Portland, I think, waitressing at the Portland Denny’s. I think she got accepted into the University of Oregon. She was supposed to be on this tour, and it’s just, you know, I can’t wait for her to come West. I think growing up near the ocean gives you a spirit in life, it gives you a sense of possibility. I always love to see her by the Pacific. I think she thinks of the West Coast as the Promised Land.

What are you working on politically?

I’ve just been trying to go into representative’s offices when I’m on the road.What you have is that a majority of both Democratic and Republican parties are asking for a cease-fire, and are not being listened to, I mean, even by politicians in Oregon. Congress is not aligned with what the people who are crying out for, with what we desperately need.

So have you gotten a good reception from representatives?

Some of them are nicer, but there aren’t many who have called outright for a cease-fire. This is people in a cage who are being starved and bombed. And, you know, this is a land grab, and it’s being funded by our tax dollars. And you know, how many in Gaza now are amputees, including children? I think that makes people go very quiet, because then there’s the question of, well, what are we gonna do about it? Because it’s by design, it’s a trap. We’re, we’re caught in a trap.

It’s just so much of how we treat each other. It does come out of how we treat animals. It’s that initial violence that we accept and, and it’s so ubiquitous, it becomes invisible. Well, that translates to people. It’s the same attitude.

So let’s swing back just a bit, to music here. I’m still trying to figure out how music became such a giant part of your life.

Oh, yeah. I guess people liked it and then it just took over. Like, you know, that movie The Blob.

Music’s the Blob?

That’s right. I live with the Blob. It’s pretty indestructible.

Nellie McKay performs at 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 19, at The Shedd Institute, 968 High Street. Tickets and more info at

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