Stephanie McKay: Stamped with soul

Strolling into the spotlight at 35, Stephanie McKay is following in the footsteps of Macy Gray and her ilk. Chris Mugan hears how the singer knows where she's from and what she is
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In a time when manufactured pop has become so pervasive and tweenies have usurped teens as the target market of choice, 35 is no age to release a debut album. Yet soul singer and native New Yorker Stephanie McKay has done just that. In doing so, she has made astand against the Lycra-clad babes that dominate the increasingly worthless charts.

McKay's high voice gives her a naivety belied by an extensive CV. Over a decade, she has performed in a series of struggling funk bands and paid the bills as a jobbing musician. She has toured with Talib Kweli and even duetted with Alanis Morissette on Tricky's 2001 album Blowback. For McKay, her eponymous album is only the next step in a long career.

"I get this from everyone, 'Why did it take so long?'," she says, "but I don't think in terms like that. I've just followed my creative path and this is the time it's happened. I don't question that, I'm just glad to have had the opportunity."

Despite finally getting the opportunity to put out a record, McKay still finds herself at odds with the music industry. "It really is obsessed with youth, so you get people that aren't interested in their own personality, just, 'How can I compete for the same market as everyone else and become as generic as I can be?'"

On Monday, McKay releases the single "Take Me Over", the sort of paean to falling recklessly, head-over-heels in love that can only be written and sung by someone full of confidence and experience. To create this year's feel-good hit of the summer, her smooth vocal combines winningly with the jerky rhythm and wheezy organ of ska classic "Double Barrel" (a No 1 hit for Dave & Ansell Collins in 1970 - when the charts did matter).

Voice and sample were brought together by Geoff Barrow, the man who created Portishead's ominous sound and he has lent the same depth to McKay. Barrow was introduced to the singer through mutual contacts on New York's underground soul scene, a motley collection of singer/songwriters, conscious rappers and dance companies. A fellow artist passed on a McKay demo to Barrow, and the pair met in 2000 while she was in the UK playing guitar on tour for Kelis. When she found they had much in common, McKay jumped ship and they began writing songs.

"We were into the same music, like classic soul," she says. "I was putting together my songs back in New York, and Geoff wanted to do a soul project." Without any form of contract, they took a year and a half to make the album, then almost another year to tout the finished product around record labels and sign a deal.

McKay sees herself as part of a long line of classic soul stars, from Marvin Gaye through Chaka Khan to early Michael Jackson, though the artists that immediately come to mind when you hear her are those strong women that could sing about heartache and social equality in the space of one record. There is James Brown's protégée Lyn "(You'd Better) Think" Collins and Ann "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" Peebles.

Indeed, McKay's album features onesong that pays homage to such women. Inspired by the civil rights movement, "Echo" is a searing yet tender call to arms. It was written in the Sixties by Bernice Johnson Reagon, later a founder of the all-female a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. McKay says, "Its message is still pertinent today - everyone is accountable for what happens to the next generation because they should learn from what happened to the generation before."

Although Barrow recommended the song to her, McKay used to sing with Reagon's daughter Toshi in New York soul outfits. They were part of an alternative urban music scene that has shaped her songwriting and beliefs.

"All the creative projects I've been involved with have had a social undertone. I've always worked with people that are aware of what's happening in the world and what their contribution might bring. It's about working as a collective, not an individual, so what you bring to the table has to help the situation."

In McKay's own songwriting, this is most apparent in "Rising Tide", which asks people to raise their self-awareness. Its lyrics include a dig at the shallowness of today's creative industries: "You're better than the players and the things they do." She explains, "You have to fight to get to know who you really are, rather than the images you are told to copy by the media, with all that bling bling they show."

In the current music scene, McKay strongly identifies with Jill Scott and Angie Stone, fellow vocalists that maintain a down-to-earth nature at odds with the attention-grabbing exploits of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. "Jill and Angie make records that are proud of their culture and have an integrity about them. They understand they are responsible for the music they put out - it's about love and not tearing down your man."

Don't make the mistake, though, of confusing McKay with the insipid output of the neo-soul crowd, those limp, earnest types best known in the UK through Alicia Keys. "That would really gross me out," she explains. "Neo-soul has a reputation for being so mellow and sappy. It's been kinda taken out of context when it really means various types of soul music, whether it's jazzy, alternative or on a hip-hop tip." McKay says of her own album, "It's just a soul record, but one that's influenced by blues and hip hop."

The hoped-for dancing career was ended by a knee injury, but by that time music was alreadyan important part of McKay's life. "I found myself getting a lot of roles that required dancing and singing. Music had always been around: there was group harmonising at home and my aunts all played piano, so eventually I took the natural step."

Raised in the Bronx, McKay still lives in her hometown and is keen to remove any lingering preconceptions of where she grew up. "It was great, a real mix of Latino and Afro-Caribbean, you know, black American cultures. There were a lot of different nationalities, but a real neighbourhood vibe. It's not like on TV where you get mugged everywhere you go."

More of a struggle has been getting out her first record, after which McKay is keen to work again with Barrow. "Geoff is like a brother now. At first I didn't really trust him, but now it's great to have someone that knows my background. We've really grown together."

For McKay, then, the fight continues.

'McKay' is out now on Go Beat; the single 'Take Me Over' is released on Monday