'Pulp Fiction' at 25: Maria McKee reveals how Quentin Tarantino, Johnny Depp and luck landed her on movie's hit soundtrack

Maria McKee had the only original song on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. (Photo: Anna Sampson)

The mere mention of Pulp Fiction is enough to trigger a buzzing Dick Dale earworm, and for good reason. The 1994 film’s soundtrack not only shot to No. 21 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified platinum three times, it’s also credited with reigniting the surf-rock genre.

But the Quentin Tarantino hit — which marks its 25th anniversary on Oct. 14 — wasn’t limited to tunes to hang 10 to. The film breathed new life into classics from the likes of Al Green, Dusty Springfield, Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson, and put Urge Overkill’s obscure cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on the map. It also featured just one original song: Maria McKee’s “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags),” the twangy torch song that plays on the radio belonging to pawn shop proprietor — and, it soon emerges, sex offender — Maynard (Duane Whitaker) when Bruce Willis’s Butch and Ving Rhames’s Marsellus burst through the door.

Being on the iconic soundtrack — with the distinction of having the only original song, to boot — remains a career highlight for McKee, who divides her time between London and California. As it turns out, it’s all down to Johnny Depp.

McKee says Quentin Tarantino approached her for a song after seeing her perform at The Viper Room. (Photo: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“I don’t think [Tarantino] knew who I was until he attended the opening night of The Viper Room [in 1993],” she tells Yahoo Entertainment, referencing the famed nightclub once co-owned by Depp. “Johnny and I were friends. I was friends with him when he was opening The Viper Room and visualizing it and everything. He really wanted opening night to be all of his friends performing. So he had, like, Tom Petty and [Pogues frontman] Shane MacGowan and me and Evan Dando — people like that. He wanted me to sing ‘Fairytale of New York’ with Shane, the Kirsty MacColl part.

“And so I did it that night and I just remember Quentin — whom I didn’t know, but I just saw this guy when we started into this song, he fell off his chair. Literally — like it was backwards. So I think that was the first time he’d ever seen me or heard me. And then he became a fan after that.”

That fandom turned into a prime opportunity when Tarantino had Karyn Rachtman, the music supervisor on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, reach out to McKee about the new film he was working on.

“Quentin got in touch with me and he basically just said, ‘Just send me stuff. I don’t really care what it is or what state it’s in. You can send me demos, whatever,’” she recalls. “So I sent him a few songs, and the song that he chose was a demo ... it wasn’t even properly recorded in the studio. It was really rough, done at home, and that’s the one he liked. And he just put it on the soundtrack as is.”

Though she had no idea the soundtrack and film would be such successes, she’s still reaping the rewards 25 years later.

“Royalties are great,” she says. “I owe Quentin much. It’s a tremendous gift.”

The self-described “cult artist” also sees her Pulp Fiction connection as an exciting “entree” for younger audiences and others unfamiliar with her work.

“I’m out as queer, and I live half the year in London and there’s a big queer scene here that I’m involved with and most of the kids are really young, like 20 to 30,” she says. “It’s a real family vibe. And I play like a mama to a lot of really young baby queers here in London. The only reason they kind of know anything about my music is because of Pulp Fiction and this film called Days of Thunder that came out starring Tom Cruise. It was a flop, but I had the power ballad in that that was a hit here [1990’s “Show Me Heaven,” which topped the U.K. singles chart for four weeks, and was the the country’s sixth highest-selling single that year]. When I meet younger people and they’re like, ‘What do you do?’ [I say] ‘I’m a singer,’ and I go, ‘Do you have the Pulp Fiction soundtrack?’ And then most of them do, or their parents do. So it’s kind of like, ‘Oh!’ exciting for them.”

These days, McKee, 55, is prepping her latest album — her first studio release in more than a decade. Due out next March, the Fire Records release will feature an eight-piece orchestra, “Anglophilic” influences from the likes of Scott Walker, Kate Bush, David Bowie and Sandy Denny and what the singer calls an “English chamber pop” sound.

It’s perhaps a far cry from her Pulp Fiction past — though she still runs into Tarantino on occasion, and she still laughs at the pawn shop scene to which her cinematic song will always be linked.

“I didn’t know,” she says of eventually learning that her song pops up in one of the film’s most eyebrow-raising scenes. “I remember asking a young girl who worked at Geffen at the time who’d seen the film before I did. I was like, ‘So where does my song come in?’ She was like, ‘Well, it’s this really creepy scene.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. Oh, OK [laughs].’”

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