"I never thought Hollywood could be as cold as it really is," McNally says from a tour stop in New Orleans (which comes out "New Onns" when filtered through her New Yawk accent). "I was very angry at L.A., and I wanted to react against it."
McNally's salvo against her artificial surroundings became the title track of her 2002 release, Jukebox Sparrows. A jazzy free-form experiment with a slow-rolling bass line, squawking horns and beat-crazy lyrics, "Jukebox Sparrows" proudly disqualifies itself from radio play and live recreation. "It was the most unpop thing that I could think of," McNally explains. "Pop music has gotten away from being popular music, the music of the people. I wanted to make a song that could serve as my defense against the plastic universe."
Since she wrote "Jukebox Sparrows" two years ago, the tune has taken on new meaning, especially some of its opening lines: Do you remember where you were when he died?/I cried to hear that he was on the other side. On her Web site, McNally dedicates the song to "George -- a true jukebox sparrow."
"Nine-eleven, George Harrison's leaving this plane: Some major shit went down this year," McNally says. "I think they're equally important, actually. Those two things reaffirmed to me that I was paying attention to the right stuff, and that the future's going to be interesting. The songs feel deeper to me now."
Throughout the album, McNally's lyrics offer a level of creativity belied by her already-taken song titles. ("Bitterblue" is a cheery romantic tune, not a rendition of Cat Stevens' downer; "It Ain't Easy Being Green" isn't a Muppets cover, though McNally says, "I love Jim Henson. In my world, he's Gandhi.") However, her words don't appear in their entirety inside the disc's cover booklet, a rarity for a songwriter of her caliber. "I picked my favorite phrase from every song," she says. "I like to wheedle things down to their most basic element and find the nucleus."
She did find plenty of room for listing all of her esteemed collaborators: drummers James Gadson (Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye) and Jim Keltner (John Lennon), bassist Bob Glaub (B.B. King) and guitarist Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell), among others. "They're true craftsmen," McNally raves. "I was able to stretch into what my voice is capable of because I've been playing with great musicians who really can create a bed, and the interaction between the music and the vocals is really getting to be a nice place, one that is inspiring and inspired."
On McNally's current tour, she's joined onstage by five or six musicians, depending on the night. But with Jukebox Sparrows' stable of long-completed songs, she has road-tested her material in nearly every format imaginable. "I've played them solo, as a duo, as a band, every different kind of ensemble," she says. "I like my songs to be able to boil down to guitar and voice. If you can do that and have them remain interesting, then when you add the whole band, you just expand them. It's not just smoke and mirrors."
Which is fortunate, because the discerning fans of steel-guitar master Robert Randolph, who is headlining McNally's tour, could certainly see through any chicanery. "They don't like any fluff," McNally says of Randolph's crowds. "So I have to step up, which is good. They're there to hear music, not to make a scene -- well, maybe a little bit of a scene."
It's certainly a much different scene from the one McNally encountered her last time through Missouri. In 2000, she stopped in St. Louis with the Girls Room, a mini-Lilith Tour that showcased Capitol's impressive stockpile of female singer-songwriters. ("I had no idea who else was on the roster when I signed," McNally admits.) Along with Amy Correia, Kendall Payne and Tara MacLean, McNally entertained largely female audiences at 22 tour stops. "It was very nice to see girls representing," McNally says. "But I don't want to be specific to one age group or one color or one gender or one religion or one sexual preference."
Taking her up on her invitation for diversity, male fans dominate McNally's Web site's message board (sample entry: "great voice, beautiful face and obviously a smiling soul"). "Really?" inquires McNally with a giggle, revealing a lack of familiarity with these posts that would surely disappoint the scores of suitors who have optimistically left their e-mail addresses. "I guess the boys are stepping forward and being a little more verbal, but I hope the girls come out to the shows. I'm doing it for the girls."