Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay is the sort of artist who makes a good first impression. Just ask CAA’s Joe Brauner, who was originally drawn to the singer/pianist in spring 2003, when she was gathering notice in New York City nightclubs and gay bars.

“I read a feature on her in Time Out New York about a year ago and was very intrigued. I connected with her then-manager and committed to wanting to work with her after hearing a four-song demo, before ever seeing her,” he told Pollstar.

“I just fell in love with the music. I thought she was an extremely gifted, unique, fresh artist that defied easy categorization. I really wanted to work with her and, fortunately, she let me.”

Pollstar caught up with McKay in the midst of her European jaunt opening for Sting, who originally heard the 19-year-old through the same demo as Brauner.

“Being an opener, there is that element … of being thrown to the wolves,” she said. “You know that they’re there to see Sting, or whoever you’re opening for, and don’t really want to see you.

“But, particularly in Paris and Spain, it went really well,” she explained. “There’ll always be a few hecklers. … I think the worst thing is to get all mad or to get all upset.”

Although she appreciates the value of an agent like Brauner (whom she calls “a wonderful guy”), McKay is an artist who likes to stay in control. She enlisted legendary producer Geoff Emerick, whose resume includes work with The Beatles and Elvis Costello, but she co-produced her album. In addition, she co-manages herself – with her mother.

“People tend to think that that’s some kind of weak spot,” she said. “They don’t understand those are the strongest points of my belief. I believe in what we’re doing more than anything else – more than even these professionals I work with.

“People don’t see it that way. They figure if you don’t have a degree in something or you’re not affiliated with a Sony or a CAA that you must be dying for them to take over.

“Same with tour management. We have no need for a tour manager! If there was another person on the road with us, man, I’d be either shooting them or myself in the head. I can’t stand traveling with other people.

“People always want to get you if they think they can make a profit off of you. But no, it’s fine. I think everybody takes the hint eventually.”

McKay’s childhood was perhaps as eclectic as her music. She was born in London and shuffled between Harlem, Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and Olympia, Wash., eventually attending the Manhattan School of Music. She left the school after two years in favor of the hands-on experience of the NYC piano bars.

Nellie McKay

She caught the ear of East Village singer/songwriter/promoter Lach, who signed on as her first manager and began working furiously to make her as visible as possible.

When Brauner first saw her perform at the Sidewalk Caf‚ on the Lower East Side, the experience was “very magical.”

“At the time, she was 18 and I asked her what her goals were,” he said, “and was she prepared to take this as far as she could and … become a public figure and lose her anonymity. And she had no reservations about claiming to want to be as big as Elvis and The Beatles and the Pope. There was no hesitation.”

Like many first-time Nellie listeners, Brauner had his doubts as to whether she was really only 18.

“I thought for sure she was a very sophisticated person, older than she was at the time, based on her art, her music, her songs, her topics, her writing – her style altogether,” he said.

Despite the industry’s troubled status, McKay incited a label bidding war that Brauner says involved five to eight record companies. She eventually signed with Columbia – the label that seemed most inclined to let her choose her own path.

“She’s no one’s fool, I’ll tell you that much,” Brauner said. “And there are so many stories that will never see the light of day but, you know, the one thing is, you don’t want to get in her way.

“Just get out of her way and let her do her thing. It’s best for everybody.”

In February, McKay released Get Away From Me – the first-ever double-album debut by a female artist. The album is a roller-coaster ride through genres and styles, each song marked by a level of lyrical sophistication and vocal precision that sends awestruck reviewers scrambling for reference points.

“She’s been compared to Peggy Lee and Doris Day and Eminem, and the truth is, after working with her for over a year now, I wouldn’t even attempt to come close to describing what Nellie McKay is,” Brauner said.

Outside of the Sting tour in May and June, McKay found time for appearances at the Bonnaroo Music Festival and Carnegie Hall (with Lou Reed). She’s currently in the support slot on the Alanis Morissette / Barenaked Ladies tour, but her opening days will soon be over. She’s aiming to tour 200 days per year, including a solo headline trek this fall.

“I really just feel we’ve gotta keep hittin’ this … I just want to make sure that it happens,” she said. “I really don’t want to put out three albums and then the fourth album hit it big. I really want to do it now.”