Anyone who's followed her career will know that Neko Case isn't your average country singer, even though her sound is deeply rooted in the tradition of vintage Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and other pioneers. On the cover of her 1997 debut The Virginian, the former punk rock drummer flirted with girly-girl country stereotypes. But for the cover image of her widely-anticipated new Furnace Room Lullaby an album brimming with confidence and a bold statement of artistic purpose Case takes what could be deemed a more goth approach, appearing as a lifeless corpse.
It's disturbing as hell, and rather unorthodox to say the least. But Case has a lust for life that shines through in everything she does, whether it's singing the shit out of a heartbreaking ballad or making a "mean butternut squash walnut soup with rum" at her day job. Playing dead is just part of the fun.
"My friend, Erica [Henderson, a photographer] and I took all these portrait-style photos and we were getting bored, and decided to start taking some crime scene photos," Case explains nonchalantly. "Just for fun, you know, not intending to use them. And those turned out to be the best ones, because we were actually enjoying ourselves." And no one thought it was unsettling? "Yeah, they have, but whatever. I thought it was pretty fun! It's not meant to be heavy, it's quite light-hearted, really. It's like the whole Cindy Sherman thing, although I didn't take the photo myself."
Case does take photos, a pursuit that first brought her to art school in Vancouver from her hometown of Tacoma, Washington. It was in Vancouver that she joined the punkabilly trio Maow, signed to Mint Records, and became indoctrinated into the world of Canadian indie rock. In 1997, she approached Mint with the idea of a solo country record, which most parties involved figured would be a curiosity more than anything. Case assembled an all-star line-up: Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men), Matt Murphy (Flashing Lights), Pete Bourne (Slow, Copyright), some Smugglers, and others for a truly Western experience, recalling the feisty country debut of another unconventional Westerner over 12 years prior. But unlike kd lang, it's highly unlikely that Case will take a stab at the muzak crowd any time soon.
Case took to her country clothing rather well, to say the least. The Virginian went on to surpass any of Mint's sales expectations, and Case hit the road for two years, slogging it out on the club circuit while also landing mainstream gigs opening for Blue Rodeo and a slot on the Lilith Fair. Band members came and went, and so did entire bands both Toronto's Sadies and Montreal's Local Rabbits were recruited to be "Boyfriends," Case's endearing term for her sidemen. The revolving door had to do with the calibre of talent Case was able to attract, and their own conflicting schedules.
"Every band I've worked with has been a different experience," she says. "If a band is professional, they can adapt to any situation. The Sadies were really great. They're their own band and have their own thing, and it's not like they're any less helpful or into the group. The only thing that sucks about them is that they live so far away! The Local Rabbits were much the same way, but obviously both are very different from each other." She'll be touring her new album with one consistent band, for the most part, comprised of some Seattle friends and Zumpano's Carl Newman. She hopes to hook up with Brian Connelly again later in the year. "It's different now, because I don't have to worry about anything. I enjoyed the challenge before, but it got tiring after a while. After you play with certain people for a while, you're going to put on a better show just because it's very instinctual."
Everyone, it seems, wants to be one of Case's Boyfriends. The appeal was, and is, obvious. Case is an engaging, earthy, unpretentious, astute, funny and ravishing woman traits that all shine through every time she unleashes her powerhouse vocal cords. The Virginian was mostly populated by full-throated rockers that forced listeners to sit up and take notice, although the reason for her approach was considerably more tentative. "The reason [those songs] were so big and belting is that I was so excited and nervous," Case explains. "I didn't have too much in the way of dynamics going on because I was scared to death; I'd never done that before. The first album was an experiment."
If The Virginian was the joyous sound of Case finding her footing in country, Furnace Room Lullaby finds her firmly planted and moving forward. It's not as instantly likeable as her debut, but it's more subtle, and the pure country payoff is greater. Her yodel on the haunting title track is perhaps her best vocal performance to date, with enough depth and resonance to fill every corner of the Grand Canyon. Over half the tracks are ballads, either shimmering and delicate ("No Need To Cry," "We've Never Met") or intense and riveting ("Set Out Running," "Twist The Knife"). And perhaps the cover image is a bit of a warning to the listener, tipping off the lyrical mood of loss, regret, and memories. She's found a cure for her "Honky Tonk Hiccups" (a light-hearted Virginian number) and delved deep into darker corners. Unlike the first album, which featured five covers, Furnace Room Lullaby also features all-original material, co-written with various Boyfriends, including guests Ron Sexsmith and Don Kerr.
"We were going to put a couple of covers on it," says Case, "but [now permanent guitarist/Boyfriend] John Ramberg said, You don't need to put any covers on there! Your last record had too many covers on it.' I don't feel that people have to write their own songs to be a good musician. People are really strange about that these days," she continues, without mentioning the fact that her producer Daryl Neudorf was the plaintiff in the Sarah McLachlan songwriting lawsuit last year. "They expect people to prove themselves, which I guess is a reaction against Top 40 music, which is so bad and most of those people don't have to do any work other than strutting around. But back in the old days of country music, it was a tradition to do other people's songs that's what they're for! I want to go back to that."
One of the album's more affecting lyrics is "Guided By Wires," which celebrates "someone singing my life back to me." "I wrote it in the van with the Sadies, when we were driving through Utah and the sun was coming up and they were all asleep," Case explains. "It's about how music is really important and can save your life a lot of times. Live music isn't very popular in the eyes of North American people these days. In America, much more so than in Canada, you realise how little national culture means to anyone. There's no funding and it's not well-respected. The arts here are suffering so hard. It's a very grim time.
"Here in Seattle, all the artists are being run out of town," she says, herself included. "We have so much computer wealth here that the real estate is so expensive, and people are starting to sell the buildings downtown. I live in a huge warehouse building downtown; it houses probably 100 artists. There are condominiums going up everywhere and many of them sell out because a vast amount of people keep moving here. There's no place left for a person like myself, who needs a certain amount of space to make art or play music or whatever. So everyone's moving, and Seattle will become a culturally grey place. It's a disturbing thing. As my friend put it the other day, I'm tired of being the shock troops of gentrification!'"
That's why Case is following the advice of the late Hank Snow and moving on, in the tradition of nomadism that informs all the best country music. Her destination this time is Chicago, home to her American label Bloodshot and a musical epicentre of the U.S. It also appeals to her because, unlike the West Coast, she'll have neighbours interested in preserving history, musical and otherwise.
"Chicago is huge and exciting and there's more music going through there than any other place I've ever been. When I was there I was seeing stuff that was blowing my mind, very inspiring. And there's great architecture, a lot of old buildings. They still have a connection with good parts of history there, which we're grinding up at a blinding rate out here. And Seattle's not as bad as Vancouver; Vancouver doesn't have any old buildings left. They're all weird, Hong Kong-style skyscrapers built to be torn down. Ugly! And people think Vancouver's so beautiful because of the mountains, but there's nothing that will last. It makes you feel sad, because Vancouver's a good place."
Having spent formative years on both sides of the 49th, Case is proud of her own bi-culturalism. She moved to Seattle because "I was on the road for a year and I didn't know where else to go." With her academic studies in Vancouver over, it wouldn't have been easy to remain in Canada. That was made very apparent to her after some comments she made to an Edmonton newspaper got her in trouble.
"I was playing a show for no money," she begins, "and I didn't realise it was a problem because I was living in Canada and the money was going to the Sadies they were getting paid, but I wasn't. Somebody from the paper asked me a question about living in Canada, and I said, Well, it's pretty impossible to immigrate because you have to be independently wealthy or you have to marry someone.'
"Some good citizen in Edmonton took it upon themselves to call immigration to make sure I was thrown out for saying such horrible things about Canada! Even though I don't understand how it can be so horrible when it's an obvious fact. [Immigration officials] came down and said, If you play the show, you're busted.' I said OK, fine.' I didn't play the show.
"I had to report to immigration the next day, where a woman insulted me for a couple of hours, telling me that I was cheating the Canadian people.' And at the very end after I paid her my 500 bucks fine or whatever it was to get out of the situation she goes, Can I have your autograph?' I said, Fuck, no! You can't have my fucking autograph!' I didn't know that if I was living in Canada and wasn't getting paid that I wasn't allowed to touch a guitar or be near a microphone. That seems a little bit strange.
"Plus, I thought there was something between the United States and Canada, like a bi-cultural exchange, something that was free-flowing, like milk and honey! But apparently not. And I'm not trying to say that American immigration is any better, because it certainly isn't."
An incident involving Maow crossing the border into America proves her point. "We didn't want to tell [customs] that we were a band obviously, because it's just such a hassle. They treat you like you're smuggling children in for pornography or something. Corinna [Hammond, Maow's guitarist] had a postcard of the band with a cartoon drawing of our three faces on it. They found this thing and said [lowering her voice, she adopts a stern rapid-fire tone], Are you the opening act for the Hanson Brothers?' We're like, No.' And then it was just like a TV show: he pulled the postcard out from behind his back and says, Well, then, who's THIS?!' And we were all silent, because the only other thing we could do was to burst out laughing, which wouldn't be right.
"It's funny, I went through that border crossing exactly a year later, and I had papers this time, and the guy goes, Didn't I have an altercation with you before?' And I go, Yes.' And the guard next to him goes, Who won?' I flipped out and said, Whaddya mean win? Nobody wins! This isn't sports!' But they let me through without any kind of trouble. I think the man was smiling, but I'm not really sure. I'm sure it is sporty to them: [adopts hick accent] Oh, you should see who I busted today. Got some people thinking they were going to play some music. I sure showed them!'"
Case's former bandmates and fellow border felons in Maow, after patiently waiting for Case's country phase to pass, have moved on and resumed gigging and recording with a new drummer. "Nikki Pollard moved to town [from Toronto] and they wanted to play some shows, so obviously they got her in there," Case explains. "And I don't blame them, coz she's awesome. I'm happy they're still playing shows; I didn't want to fuck it up by moving out of the country, which I had to do. Don't think I don't want to live there, I do, but not until I'm independently wealthy or married to some Canadian. I don't think I could get married for any reason, though, even that one," laughs the voice that's stared down heartache in song after sad song.
Before she hangs up the phone, Case has one final comment for the record. "Say hello to Canada for me. I miss it terribly."