Lean, Mean, and Smoking!
By Andy Langer, Fri., July 12, 1996
McKay's voice and her ability to make someone else's song sound so much like her own isn't all that surprising. After all, McKay honed her skills in two seminal Austin bands, Hundredth Monkey and the Wild Seeds, and followed up her own major-label album by recording with Charlie Sexton. It's just the speed of the Prince session that's so remarkable. By contrast, Things That Show, her latest record, took two years to record, and that was after four years of waiting. And the difference between six years and two hours isn't lost on McKay, especially since this session ends a three-day weekend of promotional flesh-pressing in support ofThings That Show -- including three gigs, as many radio interviews, and a KUT Live Set.
Maybe, says McKay, the record itself and the speed of the Prince session are simply reflections of her finding what she'd lost over a six-year wait: her confidence. "These six years have been like school for me," McKay says. "I believe it took this long to get this record out because I had to burn through a lot of karma and bullshit to get to the place I'm at now, professionally and personally.
"It's only with this record that I realized I really did have some interesting choices of my own which I could bring to the table -- that I was more than just this voice that a producer could manipulate, and that I really had a knack for doing this. These are things that to this day are blowing my mind. I never really understood I could do it because nobody ever gave me an opportunity. I pretty much stood where I was told to stand and sung what I was told to sing. That was pretty much it, and it was ruining my career."
As such, the real testament of McKay's new album is how little it sounds like a record that took six years to make, let alone the piecemeal comeback it truly is. Although the album's bookend covers, the opening twang of the English Beat's "Save it for Later" and a stunningly personal embrace of Jo Carol Pierce's "Loose Diamond," might be indicative of this piecemeal approach, the album's centerpiece, a four-song set that includes a quirky original ("Testing 1, 2"), a hip duet with Matthew Sweet ("How Cool"), and pair of offbeat covers (Son Volt's "Tear-Stained Eye" and Joan Armatrading's "Weakness In Me") erases any seams that might have been showing.
Recorded last year with Congress House producer Mark Hallman in an effort to flesh out an EP into an album, this mini-set is definitive proof that McKay's finally on top of her game -- mostly because it stands so firmly alone and fits so cohesively with the rest of a record made in part two years before. Effectively, McKay managed to find 20/20 hindsight in the middle of a project. "I suppose I can say now that it was ultimately better to sit with things for a while," McKay says of the delays. "It was good for Mark and I to have a lot of time to sit with these things and figure out what we liked, what we didn't like, and how we could do it better. And what I learned over two years is that I sing better than I did a month ago or two years ago, because I'm constantly learning to do things better. Add the chance to fine-tune the record, and I've got an album that I finally feel really happy about... or as happy as any artists can be about their own recording."
The first time McKay remembers being that happy with her art, she was eight years old and fell down a flight of steps in her community theatre debut. "I walked out on stage and knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life," she says. "The curtain went up, I rolled down, and the crowd laughed. I sat up and went `Wow, I like this.'" Growing up, McKay would get her chance in five different community troupes thanks to her father, an R&B radio station programmer, who moved the family from Houston, Memphis, Nashville, Beaumont, and finally to Austin by the time she finished high school. In between, she also got her first taste of the music business, from both the radio angle and as a roadie for the shows her father booked and promoted on the side.
"I was completely and totally fascinated by going to shows, carrying mike stands and whatnot," says McKay. "I always cried to go, go, go with daddy. In fact, my first concert was a WLOK, Memphis show called `WLOK, We Love You' with Al Green. I sat two rows in front of Al Green's mom. When Al introduces her to the crowd, big spotlights pan over, Al's mom stands up to wave and the light catches the two white kids in the room. I'm the one waving and my brother's got his arms crossed."
Despite her early brushes with soul music, McKay firmly believed her future lay in the theatre until the University of Texas' tough Drama School casting system left her disenfranchised. "I was disgusted with theatre, done with the arts, and trying to find a job in sales," she says. In 1982, McKay's father hooked her up with a radio sales job in Charlotte, North Carolina, which she declined at the last minute because she mysteriously felt she couldn't leave Austin just yet. Six months later, McKay met local guitarist Patrice Sullivan and bass player James Dodd, and on a whim the trio formed Hundredth Monkey with McKay assuming she could apply her musical theatre voice to rock & roll.
"I remember watching Zeitgeist at the Continental Club and thinking `It can't be that fucking hard to get up and sing,'" explains McKay. Nevertheless, Hundredth Monkey spent the next year rehearsing, while McKay dove headlong into the music business by booking Texas Instruments and managing Guardez Lou. She also began working the door at the Beach and organizing showcases at the old Continental Club. A year later, Hundredth Monkey's Jefferson Airplane-like sound was catching on, although McKay admits she had no idea what she was doing as a performer. "Patrice and I didn't know how to harmonize, so we'd sing until it sounded okay," she says. "Nobody knew any music theory, so consequently we had kind of a unique sound. But I didn't know how to sing, and I'd lose my voice after every show. I just didn't understand what I was doing with my body."
In 1985, the Wild Seeds' soundman Brent Grulke and drummer Joey Shuffield found McKay at a Continental Club gig and invited her to lend her voice to the band's demo. McKay jumped at the opportunity, and in the process met local producer Mike Stewart, who offered to record Hundredth Monkey as well. Although both tapes were helping to create a regional buzz, McKay says it was a trip to Los Angeles with the Wild Seeds that she really coveted. And as luck would have it, the Wild Seeds frontman Michael Hall was warming up to the idea of having another singer take some of the pressure off him. "I talked him into letting me go to California," McKay says. "The rest of the band hated the idea. They said `No chicks in the van.' I said `Look, I'll pay my own way, sit in the back of the van, and not say anything. But please, please, please, let me do this.'"
By the time McKay completed the trip, she'd become a member of the Wild Seeds -- although still without full band consensus. In 1987, McKay flew into Austin from a Wild Seeds road gig to showcase Hundredth Monkey at the first South By Southwest. The next day, she rejoined the Wild Seeds in New York for a Lone Star Cafe gig, which found Arista A&R man Mitchell Cohen in attendance. Cohen began his courting with a post-show business card, though it would take a nearly four years before Arista released McKay's first solo record, 1990's What Love Endures.
Produced in Nashville by Barry Beckett, advance word on McKay's major-label debut indicated an unfocused mess, despite songs culled from David Halley, John Hiatt, Jon Dee Graham, and even the Wild Seeds. Beckett's production ranged from the ultra-slick to the ultra-lazy, and with all the well-intentioned genre-jumping, McKay's voice was the record's only constant.
"I haven't told many people this, but at the time I was happy with the record because I didn't really know my own mind as well as I wanted to," McKay says. "I had a whole lot of input about what went down on that record, but I had no self-direction. I had no idea of how it should sound or what I could do. I just knew that I could do a bunch of different things from really rocking out to being kind of country. I thought that was my uniqueness. Little did I know that it wasn't going to fly because people need more of a focused thing to label it, or to go to radio with, etc. At the time though, I was really happy and thought it showed diversity."
McKay's representatives at Arista seemed pleased enough with the record, but again, pre-release buzz wasn't good; this time Arista President Clive Davis was said to be less than enthralled with the album. Meanwhile, McKay waited at home. "You need to understand that between the time I got signed and actually got into the studio for What Love Endures, I was working as a checker at Whole Foods. Here I was supposed to be this major-label recording artist and I'm fucking checking groceries because these guys couldn't care less. What I didn't understand was that it was about Clive Davis and he had ultimate control and nobody makes any decision without him.
"So I did some crazy things waiting -- like gaining 50 pounds because I'm like this nervous compulsive eater at times. I got really depressed and really flipped out. I weighed 60 pounds more than I do now. That was a big, big problem to say the least. I think a lot of what went down had to do with how I looked. I'm not sure Arista would come clean and tell you that, but in essence that's what really started holding up the machine. In an ideal world that wouldn't matter, but I went on this big diet and lost 50 pounds. By the time we finished touring, I went from 185 to 135 and was mean, lean, blonde and smokin'. But by then it may have been too little too late."
In any event, just before the What Love Endures tour began, Arista completed a deal with VH-1 that landed McKay's expensive "Bigger the Love" clip on the channel for a nine-week run. The video channel wound up changing formats to a more pop-oriented playlist weeks after the deal, but honored its agreement anyway. In the meantime, McKay seemed to be helping herself by touring with Poco and the Indigo Girls, making lifelong friends with the latter and converting their sizable fanbase into respectable debut record sales. By tour's end, McKay expected a quick turnaround on album number two. "I thought I was ready," says McKay, "and I said `Hello, I'm not waiting two years again.'" Arista responded by casually sending songs for her to listen to, and reminding her that if she wanted to make another record she'd indeed wait.
"As the songs Arista sent me got worse, the more I began to write my own," says McKay. In fact, she believes that, however inadvertently, the post-debut delay actually helped birth Kris McKay the singer-songwriter -- with a new emphasis on the songwriter side of the equation. So while What Love Endures sported only one McKay original, "Could Talking Be Like Dancing," Things That Show features four originals, including the record's first single, "Testing 1,2."
"I didn't have any songs of my own for a long time. Then I had one song ["Could Talking..."] for years and years," explains McKay. "It's just that I'd written one, kind of liked it, and didn't know if I could top it. Plus, I was extremely intimidated by being around Mike [Hall], David Halley, and the other great writers I know in town. Those are some pretty amazing songwriters and I figured I lucked out."
McKay reluctantly admits that her Wild Seeds days didn't help her writing process much, either. "So much of what I'm about to tell you is more about me not understanding how to assert myself as a human being and take care of myself than it is a negative reflection on Mike or Joey or any of those guys. But they didn't help matters much.
"I remember being on the road with the Wild Seeds and picking up a guitar, fiddling around. That's how I wrote "Could Talking..." I remember playing it for Michael and him kind of going `You're not going to be a songwriter, you're not going to be a guitar player. You might as well give it up and keep banging on a tambourine and jumping up and down looking cute, because that's what you're good at.' I believed him, because I was 23 and had this sick, father/brother/hero thing going."
McKay says her and Hall have since reconciled -- to the point where she joined his Lollygagger project a few years back and eventually recorded his "Baby You Scare Me" for Things That Show. "For years, it was a love/hate thing," says McKay. "He loved what I did for his band, because there were moments where we'd be in the `zone' and we'd kick anybody's ass in the country at that point. We were a great bar band. But then there'd be all the times people would come up to him and say `Why don't you let the chick sing more' and that would just burn his ass because he was the songwriter and leader with his male ego was all wrapped up in it. I didn't know about these things, how to combat them or understand them in the first place. But the only way to let the `chick sing' was to do my own thing."
When McKay did do her own thing, it took the form of "Could Talking..." and she made it the focal point of What Love Endures. "Oddly enough, it's the one that to this day people still request," she says. "It was also the song that Beckett's musicians freaked over. In pre-production they treated it like a Paul Simon Graceland kind of thing, adding cool baselines and trigger drums. These guys just went apeshit over it because they're so used to the Nashville 1-4-5 thing and they got a chance to really experiment."
Today, McKay says she's writing more than ever, but also concentrating just as closely on the search for quality songs to cover. "Maybe the Prince thing went so smooth, because I've played that song live for over a year now," she says. And while songs from locals like Halley, Pierce, Hall, and Bruce Robison pop up on her records, McKay also honors folks like Freedy Johnston and Tom Petty in her live sets. "I still feel like I'm in the infancy of my songwriting. I feel pretty sure that when I grow up and become an adult I'll have a full record of songs. But truthfully, I started off an interpreter and I'm very happy and comfortable doing that. I really do love singing other people's material and looking for really great songs. And that's where I feel like my acting skills really come in, because for two minutes I can become this person inside this song -- a character in this little vignette."
Ultimately, though, it was other people's material that forced the collapse of McKay's deal with Arista; she simply didn't like the songs her label was pushing her to record. After a year of wading though tapes of Whitney Houston, Carly Simon, and Taylor Dane rejects, McKay finally said enough and asked to be released from her contract. "These fucking songs were coming from Nashville songwriters who sat in a cubicle and wrote three songs before lunch and came back to write a couple more and called it a day," posits McKay. "They had no life, soul or energy in them and I hated them. I kept calling my manager saying `These songs suck and I'm done.' He kept saying I'll just have to suck it up. That's my biggest bone of contention with loud-mouthed artists who tell you that they don't compromise and bow to the man. That's a load of shit. It's all about compromises, and I made 'em.
"But it comes down to how far you're willing to let go of what you consider to be the most genuine part of you, and how far you're willing to make it commercially viable so the label feels confident. What I realized was that I was going to have to make some pretty stark compromises. But if I did this material and I went through the process, I wasn't going to be me and it's me who had to go to bed with myself every night. That's when I got to the point where I said I'd rather be without this than with it."
By 1992, not only had McKay been released from her deal, she was virtually homeless as well and considering giving up music altogether. "I was back to minus square one," she says of her downtime. "But although I was ready to bag it, halfway through the six years, I looked back and realized I'd been taking small baby steps. As I started going to open mikes, I learned how to play guitar, by necessity. So over a period of time, I'd taught myself how to play, write a little, and push myself further and further."
McKay credits Sandra Martinez, owner of the now-defunct Chances nightclub, with the final push -- a no-bullshit plea that the singer stop pitying herself and begin concentrating on her solo career. "The first gigs were just horrible," says McKay. "It was all I could do to just stand upright. It was like the very beginning of my career where I wouldn't go on stage without wearing sunglasses because if I saw people my lips would quiver, my knees would knock, my hands would shake. I was a wreck and it took a long time before I could actually sing in front of people again."
By the start of 1993, McKay had put together her own band, which impressed Charlie Sexton enough to invite her into the studio to record demos. By year's end, she was making Sexton's Under the Wishing Tree as part of his band. And in effect, the resulting story was the same as her Wild Seeds saga in that Sexton asked her to join the band without consulting the rest of the group. And just like the last time, McKay's solo career starting taking off again just as her relationship with the band was ending. "Charlie and I have some special kindred relationship and I have crazy respect for him as a songwriter and performer," McKay says, "but I'd been in this situation before. Ultimately, it helped kickstart what I was doing."
After opening for Timbuk3 at the Backyard, the venue's owner, Tim O'Connor, promised to fund a new round of McKay demos -- the first since her Wild Seeds days. By SXSW '95, McKay had bought the tapes from O'Conner and fixed the seven songs with the help of producer Hallman. Representatives from Shanachie Records, a small New Jersey-based folk label, caught her SXSW gig that year and requested a copy of the tape. And although Shanachie's bread and butter since 1972 had been its folk output, the label says they were eyeing McKay as the perfect complement to a newly diversified roster of female talent that stretches from Rita Marley to New York rocker Brenda Kahn. Two months after McKay's first meeting with the label, Shanachie offered its deal and gave the green light for McKay to add the four-song mini-set that would transform her EP in a full album.
"When we sent Shanachie the beginning of the record, all they were interested in were great songs, which is also what I cared about," says McKay. "They gave me a lot of freedom on a lot of levels. The indie route also started to appeal to me on a lot of levels. And these people got it about me and they knew I had the ability to make a record I wanted to make and one that other people would like. And unlike a major label, each step of this process is streamlined, efficient, quick, and easy."
Although it shows on the record, the true indicator of McKay's new confidence has been post-record; during her weekend of promotional performances. McKay's fanbase is atypically loyal to start with, but during her gigs at Waterloo Records, Hole In The Wall, and Waterloo Ice House Sixth, McKay had them absolutely entranced -- to the point where they not only stood and applauded songs, but also laughed on cue at her stage raps.
"There's still nights where I'll go out and say goofy things and people just sit and look at me," she says, admitting she uses her long-winded pre-song stories to break down the performer/audience wall and keep crowds coming back. And while her live shows have worked at keeping local crowds happy for the six years between records, McKay's schtick doesn't seem like a schtick -- she seems genuinely grateful each time the fans return.
"I am very confident at this point," says McKay, "but the real challenge will be going back into the world where there's not a roomful of people that like you. One of the scary things about Austin is having a crappy experience and people still walking away going `That's Kris, we love her.' So if I'm nervous about anything, it's about going out by myself for the first time ever."
Later this summer, McKay will hook up with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Indigo Girls for separate touring stints -- perhaps with her band or more likely, solo. First, though, McKay will be traveling alone by car throughout the East Coast for a series of club dates while Shanachie works on getting the record to AAA radio programmers. And with the album out of her hands and the solo roadtrips ahead, McKay is sure she'll have ample time alone to reevaluate her six-year wait.
"Getting through these six years gave me the confidence I never had," says McKay. "I kept expecting somebody to come in with some little notepad and say `I'm sorry Ms. McKay, we've made a terrible mistake; it's not you that's supposed to be signed, it's Kristen McKoo. You're out, she's in.' I expected someone to pull the plug at any point and I really did think it would blow up in my face. So this is my first real step. I don't regret anything I did because it was part of this huge growing process. But this is my debut record, and it will probably take me two more records before I get to the place I ultimately should be. But for the first time in my life I feel like that I'm well on my way." n