Happy 15th Anniversary to Stephanie McKay’s debut album McKay, originally released May 19, 2003.
Usually when we embark upon an anniversary piece here at Albumism, the album is both well-loved and well known to the person writing it. We try to put the album in a variety of contexts —where it figures in the artist’s catalogue, what impact it had upon the genre or even society at large, as well as how it strikes a chord with us personally.
This piece is different. Stephanie McKay’s debut album McKay was released in May of 2003 in Europe and has been part of my collection since then, as has her follow-up LP, 2008’s Tell It Like It Is. Ask me any details of her career outside of those two albums though and I have to raise my hands and offer up nothing but my ignorance.
But should that get in the way of telling the tale of an album that always sounds great when it pops up into your life? My first problem though was a paucity of information online. Surely in this day and age there should be copious amounts of readily available information about someone with such a delightful duo of albums? You’d think so, right? Well not so much, actually.
Which only left one channel to explore—the artist herself. Why not get the information straight from the horse’s mouth? So with some trepidation I messaged Ms. McKay to try and get the ball rolling. A brief nervous wait was ended by an extremely friendly exchange and resulted in a veritable ton of personal reflection and helpful information.
The one snippet of information I already had was that McKay had spent time working in and with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials (whose ‘ode’ to gentrification “I Got Cash” will always be hilariously abrasive, not to mention funky) before she broke off to release her debut. But what I learnt was that there was another step in her career before releasing her debut solo album—she formed her own band (in 2001 after 6 years with BFE) called Bako Babies who released material through Minor Music in Germany.
I’m here to talk about that debut album though and it is a fascinating hybrid of all the influences she grew up with in her Bronx home. Motown, classic soul and jazz all rubbed shoulders against each other with the added bonus of a church organ-playing mother and siblings to harmonize with. Add to that heady brew the fact that Geoff Barrow of Portishead co-wrote and produced the album to give it a slight, yet unmistakable tinge of trip-hop’s loped out beats and woozily dramatic atmospherics, and you can begin to see why the concoction is so beguiling.
Record scratches, a loping beat and McKay’s soulful voice ring out to herald album opener and lead single “Tell Him,” with the opening lines of: “The world of love / is a ruthless world / you don’t always get / what you think you deserve.” But rather than being a warning about the abject awfulness of life, the song is a reminder that communication mends bridges and that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. One of the key features of the song (and indeed the album as a whole) is the steepling background vocals, all of which are provided by McKay. A beseeching, soaring, choral feel permeates throughout much of the album.
Second track “Bluesin’ It” is a lesson in how hard the album goes at various points with a head-bumpin’ bounce at the forefront. But nestled behind it is a lesson in vocal adaptability courtesy of the backing vocals—high, desire-filled notes of lust float in and out of the mix and whispered refrains of the lyrics swirl throughout.
“Sadder Day” is the clearest indicator of Barrow’s presence on the album, as it feels closest to his work with Portishead. Its Sergio Leone-esque guitar, sawing strings and heightened dramatic tension combine with McKay’s impeccably sad vocals to create a stirring, morose tale of heartbreak.
As the album continues, it manages to hit stylistic and musical touchstones that conjure enough love for bygone days, without feeling forced and shoehorned in to gain a sense of reflected glory. It succeeds in marrying the old and the new in every way by dint of the strength of the material, the production from Barrow and (most importantly) the delights of McKay’s fluid and emotionally articulate voice.
There are so many good things to wax lyrical about whether it is the driving, ebullient “Thinking of You” fueled by a ridiculously simple bass line and embellished by the vocal stardust that McKay sprinkles across it or the stately break down of “How Long.” Listening to the album again 15 years after its original release, it seems inexcusable that more people don’t love this collection as much as I do. That they don’t, is no fault of the artist or the material. Rather it is the vagaries of the recording industry and the fickle finger of fate.
Further proof of McKay’s vitality is given by the restrained, slow-grind of “Loving You”, the “Double Barrell” sampling joy of “Take Me Over” and the swaggering “Thadius Star”—the album oozes quality. So much so that it is barely possible to avoid using the hackneyed, clichéd phrase “slept-on.” But why does it accept that dubious honor? Well the aforementioned causes notwithstanding, it also didn’t follow any trend or bend in its artistry to accommodate current notions of what would sell quickly. Which is why it sounds so good now, 15 years later—the love and steadfast refusal to follow seeps from its pores.
That lasting impression also took hold with those involved in the record, as relationships formed during the making of the album have lasted these 15 years according to McKay herself: “I still have vibrant creative relationships with everyone who worked on McKay like Scott Hendy, Boca45 and Ashley Anderson (Katalyst).” The shared vision and strong bonds that sprang from the recording reflect the strength of the material and the bond it makes with the listener.
As for McKay herself, this thrust her from being an independent labeled artist to being at the whim of a major label in all its best and worst ways. McKay confided to me, “I remember being in shock over the power of a big major label and how that opened so many doors and was such a powerful machine.” The double-edged sword of major label life struck McKay with both its edges though. At times McKay felt like she “was an artist caught in a big hype machine and I wished I could go back to a simpler time when I wasn't exposed to the cutthroat competitiveness and inner politics of the music industry.”
Her follow-up Tell It Like It Is was more obviously rooted in a more organic, ‘70s soul style, but the material and, more crucially, her voice remained as good as on her debut. Motherhood, life and learning provided pit stops along the way, but a recent EP entitled Song In My Heart saw her rejoin the musical rat race.
It was the gods of shuffle that brought McKay into my consciousness a couple of weeks ago, but it was the kindness and openness of Stephanie McKay herself that made this piece possible and for that I am incredibly grateful. If just one reader decides to take a chance and join the existing admirers of this album, then I will consider this a successful venture.
Don’t let me down dear Albumism readers. Miss McKay deserves the love.
Editor's Note: Stephanie McKay's 'McKay' is not currently available via streaming services, but we will be sure to update this article if and when it is made available. In the meantime, we encourage you to check out McKay's recently released 'Song In My Heart' EP here: