This singer-songwriter backs her soulful alto with a staunch work ethic
Dressed in a simple black dress and red platform heels, 18-year-old Brittany McKay marches across the stage toward Frankie Moreno during his show at the Stratosphere. He points out where to stand and she darts there, drumming the sides of her thighs as Moreno exits left and her guitar accompanist, John Lloyd, enters right.
The pressure is on. Moreno has just introduced his guest by saying that she blew his mind when she sang for him in a songwriting class he taught at her school, the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts. But as soon as Lloyd starts strumming his gentle background riff, nervous high-schooler Brittany McKay evaporates, replaced by fully realized soul singer Brittany Rose, her stage name. She stands tall, holds her hands out pleadingly, raises her eyebrows and lets go a smoky, velvet alto that suggests knowledge far beyond its years.
“… As the lights turn down, so do I, no more crying, I’m yours …”
McKay recalls this June 2013 performance, captured in a YouTube video, as the moment when she knew she wanted to be a professional performer, and it’s easy to see why. Moreno’s mind isn’t the only one blown. The crowd responds to McKay with cheers and whoops, and sends her off with furious applause.
“That’s my goal: for you to feel something,” she says today, still in black, but much more relaxed as she sips herbal tea at Madhouse Coffee. “It doesn’t matter what it is. I feel like, a lot of times nowadays, it’s commercial. I try to focus on the soul behind the song.”
Where did someone so young get so much soul? Her parents, originally. Her father, Murry McKay, moved from his native North Carolina to New York in the 1960s to pursue a music career. There he met Tracey Taylor, an opera and cabaret singer and actor. When Taylor became pregnant with Brittany, Murry McKay began driving a limo to support the family, but he never stopped performing; now in his 70s, he recently released an album with the group Knightbeats.
“My dad is a good producer and songwriter,” Brittany McKay says. “Both my parents are very creative. That’s helped me find myself.”
Getting the best arts education available has also helped. After moving with her dad from New York to Las Vegas in 2005, McKay enrolled at K.O. Knudsen, home of Clark County School District’s magnet program for performing arts. She started there with a focus on the cello, but minored in choir. When it came time to audition for LVA, she chose voice as her instrument.
Good choice, according to Megan Franke, choral director for the academy. “She’s a stunning classical vocalist, reads music well, composes, and she wasn’t just interested in her own area,” Franke says of her former pupil. “She took all the information and applied it to be the best singer-songwriter she could be.”
Perhaps more impressive, Franke says, McKay is no diva. Her sweet demeanor and rigorous work ethic draw others to her. She’s constantly collaborating, and has had the same band for years.
McKay missed those connections during her year at Berklee College of Music from 2013 to ’14. Following her graduation from LVA, she attended the prestigious East Coast school on a scholarship, taking 16 hours of classes per semester with a focus on the business of music, in order to get the most out of her time there. When the scholarship ran out, she had to come
home, but she did so with few regrets.
“I loved my time in Boston, but it’s hard now for me to think about leaving Las Vegas. There are so many musicians here. … You can build a great network, especially if you grew up here. It’s not as commercial as other places. It matters less what you look like; if you’re talented, you get opportunities.”
One such opportunity is at the View Wine Bar & Kitchen in Tivoli Village, where Brittany Rose performs every Thursday, 7-10 p.m. McKay and her band are lining up gigs at other spots that don’t mind non-drinking age performers, such as Nacho Daddy, where they played in August. She’s also been in the studio, recording her first album and working with Lloyd on one by his electronic band, Details.
“If Brittany keeps plugging along, she’ll definitely be successful,” Franke says. “She’s got the right blend of a great stage personality and interesting music.”