2 Ears & A Tale: The Divine Miss M, Maria McKee
by Kurt B. Reighley
June 18, 2003
CONSIDER YOURSELF warned: Should you approach High Dive, the fourth solo album from Maria McKee, expecting spirited alt-country, à la the eponymous 1985 debut by her old outfit, Lone Justice, or a rehash of the roots-rock and ’60s soul balladry that defined her second solo album, 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Be Saved, you’re in for a rude awakening. If, on the other hand, you’re still smarting from Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, star of the current revival of Gypsy, losing the Tony Award for best actress in a musical to that zaftig chick from Hairspray, then read on.
McKee’s High Dive is a complex, diverse record, from the glitter rock-tinged “In Your Constellation” to the slinky, twilight cabaret vibe of “Love Doesn’t Love.” The title cut features a brass line reminiscent of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” and string sections feature prominently throughout the self-released album. Like an episode out of Alice in Wonderland, numbers swell from intimate proportions to epic ones before shrinking (or sometimes, as on “Non-Religious Building,” vice versa).
“For me, this is the most well-rounded version of what I do,” says McKee between East Coast shows. “And it rubs some people, who are expecting alt-country, the wrong way. They really want me to stay rooted in that, but that doesn’t inspire me.”
What does inspire Maria McKee? Asked to name some favorite albums, she rattles off a list of titles as disparate—yet consistent in quality—as the 14 tracks of High Dive: Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle; Donna Summer’s Bad Girls; David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust; Neil Young’s After the Goldrush; Rachel Sweet’s Fool Around. Oh, and Bette Midler’s early LPs, particularly 1972’s The Divine Miss M and its self-titled follow-up.
That last disclosure shouldn’t come as too great a revelation if you listen closely to High Dive’s crumpled valentine “Be My Joy.” When McKee sputters, “You made me so happy, baby,” she sounds as bruised as Midler did on her 1973 rendition of Brecht and Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny.” “That kind of theatrical vocal style is a big influence on me,” reveals McKee. “Fusing that with rock ‘n’ roll is a real challenge, and I love it.”
The admiration is mutual. In 1995, Midler covered McKee’s “To Deserve You,” which was eventually remixed into a huge gay-club hit. “That was very, very exciting,” gushes McKee. “I’ve always loved her, and I got to meet her. She was incredibly gracious and said she loved my voice.”
Another influence that shines throughout High Dive, particularly on “My Friend Foe” and “From Our T.V. Teens to the Tombs” (although the latter soon veers into territory more familiar to fans of the Who), is Stephen Sondheim, composer of musical theater masterpieces Sunday in the Park With George and Company. In fact, before forming Lone Justice, McKee planned to study music and theater at Juilliard in New York City.
FOR ALL HER ups and downs in the music business (her longtime label, Geffen, effectively let her previous album, 1996’s Life Is Sweet, die on the vine), McKee doesn’t regret getting sidetracked from the Great White Way. “By singing rock ‘n’ roll, I developed a style that’s much more unique than if I’d studied theater,” she says. “Although I was more influenced by the character singers, like Bernadette Peters, Ethel Merman, and Judy Garland. I never wanted to be the ingenue. I never wanted to play Laurey in Oklahoma! or Maria in West Side Story. I always wanted to be Anita.”
Like all those great ladies of the stage, part of McKee’s appeal is the high-wire risks she takes vocally. “My voice is unpredictable,” she admits. “I always push it to that very edge where I don’t know if it’s going to give out. But what I love is it seems to maintain a clarity. It’s not really a rock ‘n’ roll voice, it’s almost like a mezzo-soprano. It’s androgynous. It’s not a girly voice.”
But will musical theater audiences embrace it? Most likely, yes. Much of the material on High Dive, which was written in the late ’90s, was influenced by cabaret shows McKee did while living in Ireland and collaborating with like-minded artists, particularly Dublin iconoclast Gavin Friday. “There’s a place for rock in the theater,” McKee insists. “Although most rock operas are hideous, and I don’t like them, there’s a way to do them that would be interesting.”
In fact, one of the ideas McKee and her husband, High Dive producer Jim Akin, are considering is writing a stage piece. But if that project never comes to fruition, McKee knows there are other options: “I could always play Mama Rose when they revive Gypsy again!”