Published Feb 21, 2009From go-go dancing punk rock drummer to a singer-songwriter of compelling artistry, the still-unfolding success story of Neko Case is indeed fascinating, and a heartening reminder that sheer talent and drive can still win the day. The fiercely independent Case has always done things her way, yet the phrase "works well with others" is surely etched into her report card. She gets to tour the world with her Canadian buddies in pure pop heroes the New Pornographers, while simultaneously seducing some of the best musicians and singers around into collaborations on her own albums. Once tagged a country noir diva, Case now simply exists outside any genre straitjackets. The potent combination of that ravishingly rich voice and daring lyrical imagination now finds full expression on her sixth album Middle Cyclone. Case is a force of nature, not unlike the cyclones and tornados she writes and sings about on that record. Call her Hurricane Neko.
1970 to 1992
Neko Case is born September 8, 1970 in Alexandria, Virginia, to parents of Ukrainian descent. Her father is stationed with the Air Force there, but her parents divorce by the time Case begins school. She spends a lot of time at her grandparents farm, and her grandmother imparts a love of country music. A nomadic childhood with her mother and stepfather, an archaeologist, sees her living in Western Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon and Washington. She leaves home at 15 and while still in her teens and living in Tacoma, Washington, she begins drumming for such Northwest area punk bands as the Del Logs and the Propanes. Working in Tacoma punk club, the Community Western Theatre, exposes Case to the likes of early Nirvana, the Fastbacks, and emerging grunge bands.
Case's Propanes band-mate Laura Woods is a major influence. "She was really into collecting records and going to shows," Case will tell Chicago journalist Anders Smith Lindall in 2002. "She loaned me this record called Swing Down Sweet Chariot by Bessie Griffin and Her Gospel Pearls. I was 19, I was heavily into punk rock, and punk rock was really dogmatic and macho. But this record made me feel like these people are singing about something they really care about. It's like their voices were these crazy cannons or something, and they could just blow shit out of their way with them. I wanted to be able to sing like that, because I thought that must've felt really good."
One band prominent on the Tacoma scene are the still-active Girl Trouble, and Case becomes part of their orbit. Her free-spiritedness is immortalized on the song "Neko Loves Rock'N'Roll," which appears on Girl Trouble's 1990 album, Thrillsphere, released on Popllama. An important Canadian connection is forged at a 1991 Girl Trouble gig in Vancouver, as rocker/CBC Radio producer Grant Lawrence now recalls. "The first time I saw Neko Case, she was a go-go dancer for Girl Trouble, an incredible band in the rock'n'roll vein of the Sonics. I already knew their great song 'Neko Loves Rock'N'Roll,' about a girl who loves to go to shows and dance. I always thought it was a fictional character, but when Girl Trouble came to Vancouver, there was a girl go-go dancing onstage with them. They introduced her as Neko, and I realized 'this is the one.'"
Lawrence and Case becomes friends, and she organizes a gig by his band the Smugglers in Tacoma. "We drive down to Seattle and pick Neko up on a street corner. I'm with all of my band, and she's there waving at us. The first thing I thought when I saw her was 'What a buxom babe.' She hops into the front seat of the van, grabs a can from the cooler of beer for the gig that night, she pops it open, and goes 'let's hit the highway.'"
1993 to 1994
The Smugglers return to Tacoma for more shows, and Case's talents as a visual artist are put to good use when she designs the cover for the band's 1993 album, In The Hall Of Fame. A relationship develops between Case and Smugglers guitarist Dave Carswell, one termed by Lawrence as "a fateful moment that changed Neko's life in a big way. She moved in with Dave in Vancouver, and became immersed in an entirely different music scene than she was used to in the States. There, everyone was like ten years older and she was the young girl on the scene. In Vancouver, we were all around the same age and all just starting out."
Case meets another man who would have a huge impact on her life, Bill Baker. Along with Randy Iwata, he co-founded Vancouver-based independent record label Mint Records in 1991. The third band they signed was all-girl trio Cub, whose cute and melodic sound was later dubbed "cudddlecore." Case was not part of the original line-up that put out two seven-inch singles, "Pep" and "Hot Dog Day," on Mint in late '92 and early '93, but joins in to record the song "It's True" in Olympia, Washington, then tours with the group. "I'm pretty sure it was April 1993," recalls Baker in a recent interview with Exclaim! "The person playing drums for them then couldn't go on the tour and they found Neko. She was dating a guy we all mutually knew at the time [Carswell]. I just remember the night of meeting Neko. She's an extremely hilarious person, and with our repartee, sarcasm and rudeness, there was an immediate good kinship."
This is cemented when Baker drives Cub (then comprising singer/bassist Lisa Marr, guitarist/singer Robynn Iwata, and Case) around for that tour, one on which they are supporting the Smugglers. "There were the four of us in a car. We went from Vancouver to P.E.I. and down into the U.S., for about a four-week tour. It's an unusual way to make a friend, being stuck in a phone booth with three other people, but that is how it started. That's where we cut our teeth on our relationship. There were some pretty outrageous adventures on that trip."
The first Cub album, Betti-Cola, is released after that tour, in October '93."It was a collection of earlier recordings and we put together some new songs specifically for that record," explains Baker. (The presence of Neko on "It's True" on Betti-Cola will help spark media interest in 2007 when that album and 1995's Come Out Come Out (on which she was not featured) are re-released in remastered form, earning an 8 and 8.1 rating respectively from Pitchfork.) From 1994, Case studies at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver and graduates with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1998. Post-Cub, Case forms punkabilly-fuelled rock'n'roll trio Meow, with two fellow expatriates, singer/bassist Corinna (C.C.) Hammond (from Houston) and singer/ guitarist Tobey Black (from Custer, Washington). "We are Gulf War draft dodgers," Hammond would later joke to Exclaim! In late 1994, they become the first band to record tracks at the JC/DC Studios in Hollyburn, BC, with co-producers John Collins and Dave Carswell (a team to later figure prominently in Case's career).
1995 to 1996
Case again fills in as substitute drummer for a Cub North American tour. At a now-infamous gig in Houston, she confronts a drunk who had been yelling insults at the band, decking him with a roundhouse right - Cub's cute and cuddly image receives a body blow. Case also plays locally in a band called the Weasles, one she describes as "a country music supergroup."
In July 1995, Meow put out "I Ruv Me Too," a six-track seven-inch EP on Houston label Twist Like This. The group is then forced to change its name by a New York band called Meow. "We didn't want them to ride on our coattails," Black tells Exclaim!, with Case adding "we changed ours so it'd come first in CD bins." Local gigs make an impression on those in attendance, including crucial future Case collaborators Carl Newman and Carolyn Mark. "I met her because she was dating a friend of mine in Vancouver," says Newman. "My first impression ever was when she was playing in Meow, before the name change. I remember they played at a daylong concert in somebody's backyard, and they wore fur bikinis and cat ears. Meow played and at end of their set Neko randomly started go-go dancing. I remember thinking 'Who the hell is that girl? Oh, that's Neko, I've heard talk of her.' I don't think I really knew her till like a year later. One night I started randomly talking to her and we hit it off. Now, here we are. You never know who fate is going to attach you to," he says of his New Pornographers comrade.
Carolyn Mark's first encounter is also memorable. "I was in Victoria with my band the Vinaigrettes," she says. "They often put girl bands together on nights, and we ended up in the Multi Purpose Room at a college in Nanaimo. They were playing and I heckled them. They stopped the whole thing and they heckled me back. That was when I knew Neko and I would be friends."
As Maow, the band play their first full Canadian tour in the summer of 1996. Case tells one interviewer the audience "can expect to see three happy friendly women who are going to rock your ass off." What are they guaranteed not to see? "My underpants... or will they?" Her playful sensuality will become a Case characteristic.
Mint Records signs Maow, and two cuts from "I Ruv You Too," "One Nite Stand" and "Catastrophe, " join 14 new songs on the group's only album, The Unforgiving Sounds Of Maow, released by Mint in May 1996. The pugilist theme of the cover matches the scrappily raucous rockabilly meets punk sound. Case wails away lustily on covers of songs by Wanda Jackson ("Mean Mean Man") and Nancy Sinatra ("How Does That Grab You, Darlin'?") and on four originals she co-wrote. The 16 tracks clock in at just 20:32.
Bill Baker gets a surprise when the tape is delivered to him. "I remember very clearly putting it on and thinking 'ohmigod - listen to that voice.' We were just blown away. Those songs on that record where Neko sings was the first inkling we had. I'd seen them play many times and I'd never seen her sing. I said to her, 'Why don't you sing more?,' and she said 'I can't play drums and sing at the same time.' That voice was literally a surprise out of nowhere. I remember saying to Randy [Iwata] at the time, 'How can we get her to sing on the whole record?' It was the kind of thing that seemed so uncool to suggest so we never said anything to anybody."
Baker's unspoken wish is fulfilled shortly after, when Case drops by Mint HQ. "She asked if she could close the door so no one could hear. That was very unusual," he says. "I thought something bad was coming, and she asked us if we'd be interested in putting out a record of her. The way she asked it, I think she almost expected my response might be laughter or something. I said at the time, 'We've been waiting for this. Yes please!' That was how the whole thing started." Grant Lawrence is initially sceptical. "When I heard that, I went 'Country record? What are you talking about? This is a rock'n'roll girl. She can't do country.' Boy, was I ever wrong."
1997 to 1998
Armed with Mint's vote of confidence, Case begins assembling a talented cast of musical accomplices for her solo debut, The Virginian. Dubbed her "Boyfriends," that grouping includes Pete Bourne (Copyright), Matt Murphy (Flashing Lights), Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men From A Shadowy Planet), Carl Newman (then with Zumpano), Darryl Neudorf, and Carolyn Mark. Sharing production duties are Case, Connelly, and Neudorf, with the sessions taking place at Vancouver's Miller Block studio.
Case co-writes six of the 12 songs that surface on The Virginian, with her co-writers including Newman, Brad Lambert, Eric Napier, Ford Pier, and David Carswell. Notable covers include the Everly Brothers classic, "Bowling Green," and Scott Walker's "Duchess." With pedal steel, upright bass, mandolin, and fiddle prominent in the mix, this is indeed a honky-tonk record, a dramatic detour from Case's punk rock roots.
Her virile vocals run wild and free, while the original ballad "Lonely Old Lies" (an album highlight) hints at what is to come. In 2000, Case tells music journalist Michael Barclay that "the first album was an experiment. The reason those songs were so big and belting is that I was so excited and nervous. I didn't have too much in the way of dynamics going on because I was scared to death."
To Baker and Mint, the making of The Virginian is both novel and exciting. "It was a complete deviation from the sort of bang bang pop-punk things we were doing," reflects Baker. "I just thought the levels of instrumentation and the lyrics were so different from anything we had contemplated at the label. It involved 15 to 20 guest musicians, and the recording process was fascinating for me. We'd had an unwritten policy of not attending the recordings of our artists, but Neko was very adamant that we come down and listen to it. I was a little afraid. There's nothing worse than someone playing their music for you and it not being good. Of course that wasn't the case. It was an amazing moment! The spirit of what she was doing was so infectious. If you look at the body of work of so many of the people you see listed on that record, stylistically it wasn't anything like that at all. It was almost as if she tapped into some deep longing that all of these people had, to explore that kind of musical style, but they'd never had a way or a reason to do that."
The Vancouver release party/performance for The Virginian is an unqualified success, though it gives Grant Lawrence a moment of frustration. "I was working at Mint Records at the time," he recalls now. "I was into artists projecting the right image onstage. I had a long talk with Neko, going 'this is is a big point in your career. You're no longer the punk rocker. You've sold me on this country thing, and the album is amazing. I want you to pick out a really nice dress and shock everyone tonight by stepping out on that stage and looking glamorous.' We got the dress, and had it tailored to her specs. The Starfish Room was sold out, and everyone was excited to see the coming of age of Neko Case. She's backstage and she goes 'you know what? Fuck it, I'm not wearing the dress.' She went onstage in a beer-stained white V-neck t-shirt and jeans. I was devastated, but she blew everyone away with her vocals. It was at that point I realized you cannot make Neko Case do anything she doesn't want to do. She is 100 percent an independent spirit!"
Reaction to The Virginian is immediately positive, not just from the indie rock community, but from the country audience. It exceeds Mint's sales expectations, and even earns Case two nominations from the British Columbia Country Music Association.
In Toronto, Dallas Good from the Sadies gets a call "out of the dark" from Case to join her touring band. "We'd never met, but she was a very charming woman," Good recalls. "It may have been Brian Connelly who recommended me. I knew he'd done the guitar parts on her record so I knew it'd be up my alley guitar-wise." Good persuades Case to use the full Sadies line-up on future dates. "It just felt very weird that I was a sideman while my band was sitting at home," he says. This marks the beginning of one highly fruitful musical partnership.
That summer, Case performs alongside Blue Rodeo to a large crowd at the prestigious Havelock County Jamboree, and she is later invited by those kindred spirits to perform at their 1998 and 1999 Stardust Picnics. In December, the Sadies and Case drive from Toronto (where Case is living at Dallas Good's house) to Chicago for a house party hosted by Rob Miller, co-founder of Bloodshot Records. "We left a strong impression and both got signed to the label out of it," recalls Good now.
In the spring of 1998, Case, backed by the Sadies, (who double as the opening band) set out on, in Good's words, "a really breakneck DIY tour that wasn't very well attended. We started in Chicago, went through Canada, down the West Coast, across to South By Southwest in Austin, then back." That tour ends in Chicago, where Case and the Sadies record two split singles, with Whiskeytown (entitled Car Songs) and Kelly Hogan. With the Sadies then concentrating on their own music, Case recruits Montreal rockers the Local Rabbits for further touring.
Case's burgeoning love of country music is boosted by her friendship with Carolyn Mark. She visits Mark in Victoria, and a new project is hatched. "I collected corn crap in my house at the time," says Mark. "Neko woke up there and said, 'I just had a dream that we were a travelling act called the Corn Sisters and we sang songs about cheating. Let's do it!' And we did." Mark sees the duo as "mostly an excuse to hang out together, and it sounded good. Harmonies can come instantly or never or you can practice a lot. We actually practiced a lot, so it gets to feel like some kind of reward."
Case and Mark pool some original solo compositions and covers from the likes of Nick Lowe, Loretta Lynn, Leiber and Stoller, and Lucinda Williams for the debut Corn Sisters album, The Other Women. In May 1998, they record live in the spartan surroundings of Hattie's Hat, a restaurant in Seattle at which Case will later work. After graduating with a BFA from art school and having her Canadian student visa expire, she has moved back to Washington.
One notable Seattle Corn Sisters gig sees the dynamic damsels open for Loudon Wainwright III. "Neko had to go back to Hattie's Hat to cook for people as soon as we finished our set," says Mark. "I've done all kinds of stuff, but working in restaurants was always the most fulfilling," says Case now. "You could give love to people you didn't know, by cooking for them. My favourite thing was to make soup."
Prior to leaving Vancouver for Seattle, Case records a few songs for the New Pornographers, a new band led by her pal Carl Newman and featuring other local luminaries. Little does she know the impact this will have.
1999 to 2000
The Corn Sisters album is mixed by Scott McCaughey (The Young Fresh Fellows), but is not slotted into the Mint Record release schedule until later in 2000. Mark and Case get busy working on their own next solo albums. Bed tracks for Case's Furnace Room Lullaby are recorded by Dale Morningstar at the Gas Station in Toronto, followed by more extensive recording with Darryl Neudorf (credited as co-producer with Case) at Miller Block in Vancouver, January to March 1999. A new and even more illustrious ensemble of Boyfriends are recruited this time. They include Dallas and Travis Good of the Sadies, Ron Sexsmith, Don Kerr, Brian Connelly, Kevin Kane (Grapes Of Wrath), Linda MacRae (Spirit Of The West), Bob Egan (Wilco, Blue Rodeo), Evan Johns, Carl Newman, and Kelly Hogan. All 12 songs are co-written by Case, with her collaborators including Sexsmith, Kerr, the Local Rabbits, Travis Good, Ryan Adams, and Boyfriends Scott Betts, John Ramberg, and Joel Trueblood. The album is mixed and mastered in August, and a release date of Feb. 22, 2000 is scheduled.
In 2000, Case moves to Chicago from Seattle, after tiring of the latter's gentrification. "All the artists are being run out of town," she tells Michael Barclay of Exclaim! "Chicago is huge and exciting and there's more music going through there than any other place I've ever been. And there's great architecture, a lot of old buildings."
The most prolific year of Case's career begins with the release of Furnace Room Lullaby, followed in October by both the debut New Pornographers album, Mass Romantic, and the Corn Sisters' The Other Women. Furnace Room Lullaby, again credited to Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, is a serious artistic leap forward from The Virginian. Her vocals are richer and more textured, and framed within a more sophisticated musical setting. The album's tone and the striking cover image of the singer sprawled on a cement floor (Case does her own art direction) helps spawn the term "country noir" as a description of her emerging style. The title track makes the soundtrack of Sam Raimi film The Gift , while "Porchlight" is featured on The Slaughter Rule's soundtrack.
Touring in support of the record includes a stint opening for the Jayhawks. Dallas Good, recruited as a sideman once more, recalls that as "lots of fun, and in really good venues. Kelly Hogan was on the tour, and Jon Rauhouse [the pedal steel player to become a fixture on Case tours and records]." On a stop in Tucson, Case and her band record some songs with Howe Gelb at Wavelab, including, Good recalls, the Aretha Franklin cover, "Runnin' Out Of Fools," that will appear on her next solo album, Blacklisted. One bizarre detour for Case and Dallas Good is a trip to Chicago to do a photo shoot for GQ.
Case's career then takes a fascinating detour via the New Pornographers. That project has finally come to fruition with their signing to Mint Records. Bill Baker recalls "the whole New Pornographers story was more accidental than anyone would really admit to now. I remember driving with Carl and him saying he wanted to put out a solo record that would involve all these other people. Then 18 months later along comes this recording from them. I had no awareness it was happening, it just popped up. We released a benefit CD and one of their tracks, 'Letter From An Occupant,' was donated to the record. Of course it features Neko front and centre, and I was like 'Holy shit. Is there more of this?' By then, Furnace Room was already out and she was starting to trend more towards that singer-songwriter sound. To then be able to have this brash crazy rock'n'roll record with her singing was an amazing godsend."
The debut New Pornographers album, Mass Romantic, is released in mid-October, and fuels an instant buzz in the music press and at college radio. It makes the Top 40 in the famed Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, and, in 2007, Blender rates it the 24th best indie album ever. While the project is clearly the brainchild of pop savant Carl Newman and, to a lesser extent, fellow songwriter Dan Bejar, the lusty but twang-free power pop vocals of Case on some of the tracks is a potent weapon in the NP arsenal. Newman now recalls that, "when we finally finished the record, I was shocked that Neko expressed some interest in going on tour. I said sure, and that's how she came to be in the band."
2001 to 2002
Case releases an eight-song EP, Canadian Amp, on her own Lady Pilot label. It had been recorded in ten days in her kitchen in Chicago, with musicians including bassist Tom Ray (ex-Bottle Rockets) and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, both now core members of Case's band, and violinist Andrew Bird. "I rented an ADAT machine, an eight-channel mixer, and three mics," Case tells Harp. "Then we just figured out how to use it, and it felt so good. I was really proud of that recording. Music always seems so huge and expensive, but I'd hang out in the kitchen in my underpants and do vocals at three in the morning." Canadian Amp features two originals and six cover songs, including tunes by her pals Lisa Marr and Sook-Yin Lee plus Neil Young's "Dreaming Man" and Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken." One Case original, "Favorite," is the first song she writes, alone and beginning to end, on guitar: After selling 9,000 copies at gigs alone, the EP later gains wider distribution.
In March, the New Pornographers take home a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album for Mass Romantic, beating out the likes of Kid Koala and the Weakerthans. In August 2001, Mint Records release the label compilation Team Mint Volume 2, and Case features prominently. The album includes her solo cuts "Lonely Old Lies" and "Furnace Room Lullaby," the Corn Sisters' "She's Leaving Town," and the New Pornographers' tracks "Fake Headlines" and "Letter From An Occupant."
In February 2002, Mint release another disc with Case content. A Tribute To Robert Altman's Nashville, the brainchild of her pal Carolyn Mark, features songs from Case, Mark, the Corn Sisters, and others.
Case works on her third solo album, Blacklisted, at Wavelab in Tucson throughout 2001 (she moves there from Chicago the following year). Darryl Neudorf and Craig Schumacher co-produce with Case, with such illustrious musicians as Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, and Jon Rauhouse on hand. Regular accomplices Dallas Good, Brian Connelly and Kelly Hogan return, and Canadian legend Mary Margaret O'Hara also guests. Good has fond memories of his part in the sessions. "Neko flew me down for eight days, mostly overdubbing on other people's parts. I finished the eight or nine songs in three days. At the third session, Neko shows up, listens and goes 'I can't decide. Let's go get drunk!' I never went back in the studio, but she used every note I played on the song 'Blacklisted.'"
Case concentrates on writing solo compositions for the album. "I did lots of writing on my own, to prove to myself I could," she says later. "I'm glad I could, but it was definitely lonely." The two cover songs featured are of "Runnin' Out Of Fools" (the Aretha Franklin hit later covered by Elvis Costello) and "Look For Me (I'll Be Around)," originally done by Sarah Vaughan. The singer also plays a wide variety of instruments on the album, including tenor guitar, piano, saw and drums.
Haunting, brooding atmospheres prevail, evoking the tag "country noir," and Case cites David Lynch and film composer Angelo Badalamenti as influences. One standout song, "Deep Red Bells," was inspired by Case's memories of living in the Seattle area while the Green River serial killer was at large. The album also reveals Case's extra control over that rich and powerful voice. Upon its August 2002 release, Blacklisted receives near-unanimously positive press, making many year-end critics' polls, including placing #35 and #37 respectively in Uncut and Mojo's Best of Year lists. Not that she is in turn enamoured of the music press, as she becomes contemptuous of the "alt-country diva" tag bestowed by lazy scribes. She tells Words & Music that "my music is country music to me. The media doesn't get to choose what to call it. I don't call it 'alt-country,' as that seems like some temporary fashion phase."
The New Pornographers regroup to begin work on their second album, Electric Version, at the Factory and JC/DC Studios in Vancouver. Sessions take place between November 2001 and October 2002, with Case's vocal contributions taking just a short period to record. An earlier non-album cut, their Case-powered version of '80s Toronto hit "Your Daddy Don't Know," makes the soundtrack of 2002 Canadian movie FUBAR.
2003 to 2004
Case's heightened profile is confirmed in April, when she is voted the "Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock" in a Playboy.com poll, receiving 32 percent of the vote. She spurns Playboy's offer of a nude spread, telling Entertainment Weekly magazine that "I didn't want to be the girl who posed in Playboy and then - by the way - made some music. I would be really fucking irritated if after a show somebody came up to me and handed me some naked picture of myself and wanted me to sign it instead of my CD." She soon tires of repeated questioning on the topic.
From old porn to the New Pornographers - their second album, Electric Version, is released in May. It sports a more complex, dynamic sound than the debut, and is also well received. The record also features more prominent use of Case's vocals than Mass Romantic. She tours with the band once more, and in an interview with Exclaim!'s James Keast, Carl Newman acknowledges her crucial role. "It used to be that Neko wasn't in the live band - and she doesn't do much on the record or write any songs - yet people would expect us to break up the band if she [stopped touring]."
In a dream noir double bill, Nick Cave (her initial sake) invites Case to tour with him, including shows in Australia in December 2003. In 2004, Case signs with leading U.S. independent label Anti Records.
In March and April 2004, Case records three shows with the Sadies for her first live album, The Tigers Have Spoken. The venues are Schuba's in Chicago, and Toronto clubs Lee's Palace and legendary (now-defunct) after-hours honky-tonk the Matador, a joint Case and the Sadies had played some seven years earlier. Joining Case and the Sadies (Dallas and Travis Good, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky) are Jon Rauhouse, Carolyn Mark, Kelly Hogan, Brian Connelly, Jennie Benford, Brad Hutchison, Jim Krewson, Matt Downing, and Paul Morstad.
She tells the Chicago Sun-Times that "I really wanted to make a record with the Sadies. My favourite Sadies experience is the live Sadies, and I thought this would be the best way to capture that." Case had told Exclaim! two years earlier that "The Sadies are the best live band in North America." To Dallas Good, "it was a really big tip of the hat from Neko to ask us to do the live record. It was a way of recognizing the early days we put in, from that really bleak first DIY tour."
Case and Darryl Neudorf co-produce. "I'd never mixed or produced a live record before, so that was hard work and a real learning experience. It pretty much took as long to make as a full album," she says. Good observes that "the way she made that record was safe to the nth degree. She spared no cost in terms of time and effort, having the mobile truck there, doing digital and analogue feeds at all times."
Rather than recycling songs from earlier albums, Case mixes in two originals ("If You Knew" and the title cut, co-written with the Sadies), compelling covers of Loretta Lynn, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Catherine Irwin, and spirited versions of traditional favourites "This Little Light" and "Wayfaring Stranger." The result neatly captures Case's vibrant energy and stylistic eclecticism. "The record was a great project to show how good Neko is live," says Good. "We were just happy to be along for the ride. And, in my opinion, that record was the point where Neko and I realized we could write together and enjoy it."
Prior to the release of Tigers in November, Case teams up with Corn Sister Carolyn Mark and Kelly Hogan for North American dates together, the first being the opening of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The higher profile of Case is such that some dates are billed as "Neko Case and Friends." This causes problems at an L.A. club where the doorman tries to make Hogan and Mark pay to get in, but Mark's ego isn't bruised. "I don't care whose limo it is. I just want to ride in it," she says. In 2009, Mark recalls that tour as "the thing I'm proudest of musically in my whole life. If we ever do another Corn Sisters record, we want to have Kelly do the third part harmony. That'd be magic."
The trio also play a Toronto date as part of the Hot Docs film festival, to celebrate the premiere of Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. The documentary is a fascinating portrait of the tough broads who trail-blazed "girl wrestling" during the '40s and '50s, and Case, Mark and Hogan contributed a song to the soundtrack.
2005 to 2006
Case enters recording mode now, balancing sessions for the third New Pornographers record with work on her next solo album. Bed tracks for the NP album, Twin Cinema, are recorded in Burnaby, BC, in late December 2004, with further recording and mixing at JC/DC Studios in Vancouver in the following months. Released in August 2005, the album features vocals from Kathryn Calder and Nora O'Connor as well as Case. Again the recipient of positive press, it marks the band's first entry into the Billboard charts, where it peaks at #44. Twin Cinema sees main man Carl Newman use Case's vocals in a different way. "Getting Neko to sing the prettier, quieter ones - people don't expect that in the band," he tells Exclaim! "That was kind of a deliberate move. What we did on the last record is find the most hit-like [songs] and give them to Neko, but [this] was kind of contrived in its way. I used to have a theory that all you need is a big drumbeat and a good female singer and people will eat it up. I initially thought that jokingly, but it's kind of true. That's why I decided to screw with the formula."
Case's primary focus turns to the making of her next solo album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. She and co-producer Darryl Neudorf again set up shop in Tucson Arizona's Wavelab Studio. The usual list of multi-talented suspects/friends featured includes Giant Sand leader Howe Gelb, John Convertino and Joey Burns of Calexico, the Sadies, Kelly Hogan, band-mates Jon Rauhouse and Tom V. Ray, Canadians Brian Connelly and Paul Rigby, Dexter Romweber of Flat Duo Jets fame, and even Band keyboards genius Garth Hudson. In an interview with Exclaim! just prior to its release, Case describes the lengthy process of writing and recording Fox Confessor Brings The Flood as "joyous, but not easy, by a long shot. We did a week here, a week there, in between making The Tigers Have Spoken and Twin Cinema and touring as well."
Case uses more songwriting collaborators this time out. "On Blacklisted [her 2002 tour de force], I wrote most of the songs myself, but I wanted a little more of that band camaraderie feeling here. I wrote some more songs with the Sadies and with Paul Rigby." Dallas Good now recalls it as "the time when our creative relationship peaked. By then, Paul Rigby is also very cemented in the band, and her own band became a top-notch priority again. It's one that is rock solid now." One Case/Sadies co-write from this time, "The Pharaohs," will surface on her latest album, Middle Cyclone.
Of the Fox sessions, Case says "ideas were bandied about freely. Generally the people I ask to be on the records I already like what they do. I don't need to tell Dallas Good what to play, though I may say something like 'Hey, can you do it on the 12 string?' On this one, we did a lot of recording and then I took a lot of things out. There are 24 tracks, so you can do whatever you want, and if you don't like it later you just don't use it. Editing things out is hard. You get married to something, but then decide the song is better with eight less tracks on it. We really tried to pare it down, a lot more so than Blacklisted. It still sounds full to me, but there is a lot less going on."
Case tells Exclaim!'s Chris Whibbs that "definitely the most heightened moment of that time, or even of my life, was when we recorded live with Garth Hudson on 'Margaret vs. Pauline.' I think that was the most supernatural rock moment of all time for me. We all felt it, you know, John [Convertino] and Joey [Burns] and Paul [Rigby] and Jon Rauhouse and I. We were all like, 'Man, that was something else.'"
The singer gives serious kudos to long-time studio co-conspirator Neudorf. "He is like the technological genius. If I want something done, he'll know how to get it done, and he is really calming. He is a really patient and kind person. He has ideas about how songs feel, and if he doesn't think something works, he'll be very honest about it. That is important with your friends. I don't believe in creative friction. There are times things don't work and we get frustrated, but we are never mad at each other. Darryl has been teaching me the technical side of recording for a few years too, so now I can be on a more equal footing. I like the hands-on stuff, like doing manual fades when we lay the tracks down to two-inch tape. Ultimately I have the executive decision, but I wouldn't want to be making a record without Darryl."
This hands-on production approach is vitally important to Case now. "I almost think of myself more as a producer than a singer or songwriter in a way. That is the most intensive part of the process and the one I've been learning and working on the most. I think I'm definitely a better producer now. As for being a better songwriter or singer, I'm too close to that to say."
Case's evolution as a lyricist of vivid imagination is showcased on Fox Confessor. "Storytelling is easiest for me. I'm pretty boring, so writing about myself would be no great service to the listener. Yes, I'm in there, and I think the only autobiographical song I've ever written is on this record, but I shy away from love songs. I guess I'm just not interested in them, aside from the great classic ones I love. Every now and again someone will write one that just blows my mind. I'm pretty impulsive in what I write. I get something down and then I'm desperate to build a song around it or to hit the notes. I generally write songs that are too hard to sing," she laughs.
At the start of 2006, Case reunites with her comrades the Sadies for the recording of the band's double-live CD, Sadies In Concert- Volume One. Recorded over two nights at Lee's Palace in Toronto (one of the locales for Case's live album with the Sadies, The Tigers Have Spoken, some two years earlier). Other notables on the star-studded album include Garth Hudson, Gary Louris, Steve Albini, the Good Brothers, Blue Rodeo, Rick White, Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, and Jon Spencer. Dallas Good now recalls that Case "was the absolute essential glue to making sure everybody was having a good time. She knew everybody on the record as much as we did. She always had a little buddy of Jagermeister under her arm for those sessions, and the stage banter is pretty hilarious." Case appears on seven numbers on the second CD, including riveting versions of "Hold On, Hold On" (the Case-Sadies co-write appearing on Fox Confessor that is later covered by Marianne Faithfull), Robbie Robertson's "Evangeline" and Roger Miller's "Jason Fleming."
On March 6, Case releases Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the album destined to bring her to a new commercial and creative level. It peaks at #54 on the Billboard charts, but positive media attention and her extensive touring schedule bring it impressive sales figures of almost 200,000 copies in the U.S. and close to 20,000 in Canada. Case later reflects that this level of success "was gratifying, but it was very hard work, touring for that record. It took a long time, and I was very sick at the beginning of it too."
Upon Fox Confessor 's much-anticipated appearance, Case wastes no time in hitting the road. She plays The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, then heads to South by Southwest, playing both solo and New Pornographers shows. A headlining show at Vancouver's Centre for the Performing Arts in July is one recalled vividly now by Mint Records founders Bill Baker and Randy Iwata. "We met Neko for lunch and had lots of laughs, just like the old days," says Baker. "At the show, it was incredible to see and hear her in total control of that venue and maybe 2,000 people. I had almost a parental feeling of pride. 'There's our little Neko. Look at her!' I was bawling my eyes out for the whole thing!"
Summer dates also include the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and a 12-date headline tour of the UK and Ireland in November is warmly received. A concert recorded for Austin City Limits in 2003 is released on DVD as part of New West Records ACL collection. Fox Confessor figures prominently in many year end critic's polls, including a Top 10 placement in the prestigious annual Pazz and Jop poll in the Village Voice and a No. 1 Roots Album placing in Exclaim! The album also earns Case Female Artist of the Year honours from the PLUG Independent Music Awards.
2007 to 2008
Case racks up her frequent flyer miles via a successful five-city Australian tour at the start of the year, shortly after Australian dates with the New Pornographers. The respect she now enjoys from some of her country music heroes is shown when she opens four dates for Merle Haggard and one for Emmylou Harris. She plays some large summer festivals in the U.S., followed by nine U.S. dates with Rufus Wainwright and a 21-date North American tour with the New Pornographers in October. Her solo debut at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. is another highlight of a busy year of performance.
Case is name-checked by internationally popular crime fiction writer Peter Robinson is his new novel, Friend Of The Devil. Its chief character, Detective Inspector Banks, is known for his excellent taste in music. On P. 148, Banks' iPod shuffle "started with Neko Case's 'That Teenage Feeling.'" Later, "Neil Young followed Neko Case - a blistering 'Like A Hurricane' from Live Rust, which matched his mood." Given the "hurricane" references that surface on Case's next album, Middle Cyclone, this coincidence is described by Case as "weird" when it's brought to her attention. "Plus I saw ads for that book in the Toronto subway all the time when I was making the new record," she says.
In August, the fourth New Pornographers album, Challengers, is released (on Matador in the U.S., on their new label Last Gang Records in Canada). It notches a peak Billboard chart position of #34. Increased emphasis on "real" instrumentation (string section, harp, flute, mandolin, banjo) results in an organic-sounding record that draws critical praise. Much of it was recorded at the Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn, Carl Newman's new home locale. Both Case and Kathryn Calder contribute vocals, and Case continues to tour with the band whenever her schedule allows. "It is more fun now because we've got Kathryn," says Case in a 2009 interview. "There isn't tension about who is working when, and that's been very freeing. I try not to miss things, and I make sure I do all of the initial big market touring. With Kathryn, they can go play shows they want to play, even if I'm not there. I want to be there all the time, but there's only so much you can do physically, before you just lose your marbles."
Bill Baker of Mint Records recalls that, "there had been some difficult times, back when things were picking up for Neko and the New Pornographers at the same time. There were scheduling problems where she wasn't able to be there, and some people didn't like that. I think they've found a sweet spot for it now, where it has gelled into a manageable unit that seems to work really well."
In November, Anti re-release Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted in the U.S.
The year is launched in animated fashion when the Cartoon Network cult favourite Aqua Teen Hunger Force airs Sirens, an aptly-titled episode starring Case (as Chrysanthemum), Kelly Hogan ("The BJ Queen"), and former baseball wild man John Kruk. Other musical types with Aqua Teen cameos have included Josh Homme, Glenn Danzig, and Zakk Wylde. Case tells Exclaim! she got the gig "through a friend of mine who does some writing for the Cartoon Network. I was saying how I love that angry milkshake in the show. I think he told the story to Dave Willis, who runs the Cartoon Network, so Dave asked if I wanted to come on the show with Kelly. So we went on the show, and it was really weird and really fun. The ironic thing is it was the one episode the Aqua Teens are not in, and I didn't get to get anywhere near the milkshake. They kept us apart!"
A former animator herself, Case is up for more 'toon time. "There's another show I've been working on with them called Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugartown Candy Fudge. It's about a teen pop star superhero. It's really dark and really funny. The pilot is almost finished, but I don't know if it's got the green light to be a show that happens all the time." She is delighted that other voices on the show will include T-Pain and MF Doom. "Me and T-Pain, together at last. It's always been my dream to star with T-Pain on a cartoon show!"
A Case cohort with a Cartoon Network connection is Dallas Good. "The people doing Aqua Teen are real good friends of mine," he says. "They once flew us down to Atlanta for this amazing party they had the celebrate the DVD release of the third season. We've done some music for a couple of their shows. We did a ridiculously raunchy song called '69' that Neko and Kelly sing and I play guitar on, and it was used on The Adult Swim show. I'm proud of a $200 cheque I got for co-writing it, signed by Ted Turner!"
Word surfaces that Case is leaving her long-time label Mint Records and signing exclusively with prestigious U.S.-based independent label Anti. Mint co-owner Bill Baker reveals to the Georgia Straight that "she wasn't contractually obligated to do anything with us after The Tigers Have Spoken, but she actually offered us Fox Confessor for Canada, kind of as a thank you gesture for all the hard work." He reports that the success of Fox has helped spark increased interest in Case's earlier Mint releases. "Aside from all the touchy-feely stuff, we owe Neko a debt of gratitude that way, as the records continue to sell consistently."
Case continues to balance solo touring with New Pornographers dates during the year, but had to withdraw from some NP gigs in April after breaking her ankle in Washington, DC. "It was a walking down the sidewalk accident," she ruefully recalls. "I sort of flipped over myself, fell off the sidewalk and literally onto my back, in front of everyone standing outside waiting to get into the show. Breaking your ankle in front of your audience, that's pretty embarrassing. I made it through a few more shows, but it was too hard to have a broken ankle on the bus. I finally went 'I want to go home. My foot hurts!'" Later in the summer, she gets to alternate solo and band gigs on consecutive nights in both Chicago and Vancouver, the latter being at the Stanley Park Singing Exhibition festival curated by the New Pornographers. Her solo set is considered by many the festival highlight.
Sessions for her next solo album, Middle Cyclone , continue in Tucson (Wavelab once more), Brooklyn, Toronto and Vermont. A by now customary collection of notable guest instrumentalists and singers is again assembled for work on Middle Cyclone, while the indispensable Darryl Neudorf co-produces once more. Her now-permanent core band now comprises guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V. Ray, backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, drummer Barry Mirochnik, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, and all are used extensively. Guests this time include newcomers M. Ward, Sarah Harmer, Kurt Heasley, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), and Lucy Wainwright Roche, while returning comrades include Dallas and Travis Good, Garth Hudson, Carl Newman, Howe Gelb, Nora O'Connor, Joey Burns and John Convertino, and Rachel Flotard.
Case explains that "most of it was recorded in Tucson, as far as the bed tracks go, but I have to change it up or else I get really batty. I have to go to different places, break it up with a tour, go home for a while, go to Vermont. There was some remote recording too. Kelly [Hogan] did some stuff by herself with Nora [O'Connor] in Chicago, then we did some vocals in Brooklyn, then some recording here in Toronto as well. With guests like Carolyn, Sarah Harmer and Matt Ward, it's about catching them here and there. It's nice to have people come in and break up the monotony. Just renew your sense of joie de vivre when you're working on something."
Aiding the process, Case says, is the fact that "for the first time I have a full-time band now, now that we've added Barry on drums. It is an actual permanent unit, so this is the first record where we've rehearsed a lot of the songs before we ever went into the studio. We were able to give them full rehearsal, played them at some shows, stretched them out to see what we could do with them. That was really helpful, and I felt much more grounded when I was going in to do the bed tracks. I prefer working with other people to working by myself, I have found. It's lonely, it's not fun! That's what I always liked about being in a band, that sense of camaraderie, the laughing."
The singer admits that making records "gets harder every single time. Your ability to perceive problems is greater, and your capacity to have ideas explode into a million ideas on you gets greater. You don't want to leave any leads unexplored. You don't want to let things go. It becomes a rather precious exercise. Sometimes it can be really tedious, and sometimes you're just trying on every outfit. I don't think there was anything I didn't get to look into or finish here, so I feel good about that."
Middle Cyclone could almost be alternately entitled More Songs About Animals And Forces Of Nature. Case's fascination with nature and the animal kingdom is a lifelong one. Is it just coincidence that early bands were called Cub and Meow, or that her album titles have featured a fox confessor and speaking tigers? Middle Cyclone song titles include "Magpie To The Morning" and "I'm An Animal," while killer whales and elephants are prominent in its first single, "People Got A Lotta Nerve." Then, of course, there is the title track, the cover of Sparks classic "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth," and the record's opening cut, "This Tornado Loves You," literally a love song starring a tornado.
"I met a tornado in my dream," explains Case. "It wanted me to read it a book cos it couldn't hold and read the book itself. It was a very sweet interaction we had, and it really stuck with me. I had a real obsession with tornadoes and nature here. Human tinyness next to nature I'm pretty fascinated with, in a celebrating it kind of way. Don't lose your instincts. I feel like one of the real tragedies is that, as a species, human beings are constantly trying to deny or sublimate our natural instincts. I've made a conscious effort not to do that, but to trust myself, both in my life and in my work."
One memorable and well-publicized episode in the recording of Middle Cyclone borders on performance art. Case decides that massed pianos on her cover of the Harry Nilsson song "Don't Forget Me" would be a nice touch. "Harry Nilsson is such a great singer and piano player and songwriter and then he has an orchestra in the background. It couldn't be any more heartbreaking than it is, so I thought we'd go at it from a more rustic perspective and do it with a 21 piano salute, which worked," she says. "Our version is more collage-y with duct tape than his super gilded version with the beautiful orchestra." By checking out Craigslist, Case locates pianos that are "free to a good home." "I saw there were so many and it seemed funny. Let's see how many pianos I can get. Free pianos are never free, though. You have to move them and tune them. We had eight pianos and six were tuneful. They're beautiful old pianos. Cheaply made for their time, but they have so much character." Case sets them all up in the barn of the Vermont farm she has bought (she is planning to relocate permanently from Tucson), and invites some musical pals to play them.
Case credits her New Pornographers comrades with having an impact on the sound of Middle Cyclone. "I was influenced by the fact that the vocal arranging is so over the top with them. It becomes rather addictive to layer harmonies. It is just so instantly gratifying and I wanted more of that. I wanted men to sing on this record too. I realized I hadn't had that before. Why am I such a sexist? I've got to get some men on here. It is totally rude. You can't leave them out!"
"That is definitely flattering," Newman says when Case's comments are relayed. "I think there's been a lot of that generally, with people in the band influencing each other. For me, when you see people around you making things that are of such high quality, you think 'I should try to keep up.' It's a friendly competition, not like 'well I have to outsell her or get bigger.' It's about striving to be as good."
She is recording in Toronto at the Woodshed, Blue Rodeo's studio, when the historic U.S. election is held. Case writes on her website diary that "there is an election party in the studio. They are making me cry when they cheer. I feel so loved and so grateful for our Canadian friends." By contrast, Case had told Exclaim! three years earlier that "politically this is the worst time I can remember in American history, but I'm a U.S. citizen and I think it is a bad time to leave. Stick around and help out. There is always something you can do. You still have to keep up on issues and voting locally is very important. People are afraid to talk about Bush and what a piece of shit he is, but now they are starting to do that, and I feel inspired by that."
Case appears as a guest on the just-released Dex Romweber Duo's album Ruins of Berlin, alongside the likes of Cat Power and Exene Cervenka. She has been a long-time fan of the work of Romweber's band Flat Duo Jets. Marianne Faithfull's new album, Easy Come, Easy Go , due out in March, will include a version of Case's "Hold On, Hold On" (a co-write with the Sadies that appears on Fox Confessor), with Sean Lennon and Cat Power.
After an intensive round of album pre-release promotion, Case heads to Europe for select dates in February. Middle Cyclone is released on March 3. The saga continues....