FOREWORD: I heard one of the skin mags offered singer-songwriter Neko Case good money for nude pix but she declined. While that may be too bad for curious males (or females), her naked reflections will have to suffice. And she shows these bare emotions on nearly every song she puts forth.
On the side, the fresh-faced red-headed lass has worked with the Sadies, Corn Sisters (a duo with fellow folk composer, Carolyn Mark), and New Pornographers. I took my wife to see her at Maxwells intimate backspace for a solo acoustic set that truly showed off her golden pipes. I’ve met her a few times in New York and she’s never less than cordial. To promote ‘02s Blacklisted, I got to put the mike to Case. She has since released ‘04s live The Tigers Have Spoken and ‘04s astounding Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Middle Cyclone, her ’09 album, is getting major respect. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Singer-guitarist Neko Case began her musical journey as a runaway from Alexandria, Virginia, taking minor roles as drummer for amateurish Vancouver indie pop combos Maow and Cub during the early ‘90s. In ’97, she debuted with The Virginian, a formative solo album conveying a sharp-minded Country-folk sensibility. The more assured follow-up, ‘00s Furnace Room Lullaby, broadened her scope and brought a better lyrical perspective to love-stricken odes and rural home-fried recounts. By the end of ’01, she moved to Chicago and recorded the pristine Blacklisted, affirming her position as one of America’s premier (if under-appreciated) vocalists.
Made with Calexico’s John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (bass) at their Arizona-based desert studio, Blacklisted spans through neo-traditionalist Appalachian-styled back porch folk, Western ballads, and bluegrass with a casual splendor and elegant grace only Case could unveil so seemingly effortlessly. Stellar versions of Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out Of Fools” and the poignant “Look For Me” (learned from a Ketty Lester cassette) saddle up next to dirgey acoustic originals such as the title track, the sentimental, imagery-soaked “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and the clinging ballad, “Tightly.”
During free time away from a busy touring schedule, Case delivered ‘99s cuddly old timey Corn Sisters recording, The Other Women, as a campfire-inspired duet with friend Carolyn Mark. She also lent her crystal clear bell-toned alto to the indie star-studded New Pornographers’ pop masterpiece Mass Romantic around the same time.
The spunky, good-humored, red-headed Case took some time out between house-sitting Mekons singer Sally Timms’ cat and a green tomato-laden dinner with fellow Chi-town pal, singer Kelly Hogan, for this informative, introspective interview.
Banjo-strummed Blacklisted opener, “Things That Scare Me” would fit in well next to the heralded bluegrass-folk soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou?
NEKO CASE: I got the idea for that song from bassist Tom Ray ‘cause he plays banjo. We were on tour with Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops. They’re a great band that influenced it as well.
Was music your only real outlet after prematurely leaving home as a teen?
NEKO: It’s just so much fun. Most of my time was spent focusing on music because I wasn’t living a very easy existence then. My friends were starting a band and I wanted to play drums so we did it.
There’s an overwhelming sadness and broken-heartedness that shows up more succinctly on each successive record.
NEKO: I’ve been learning how to write better songs and express things. I’m a happier person since I have an outlet to talk about sad things. But there’s a lot of hope in the music I hope people will hear.
Is it difficult maintaining a relationship since you’re on the road so often?
NEKO: You don’t. It’s crazy. (laughter) I don’t need a boyfriend every minute. I’m not in a relationship now. I’ve been in some where the person was jealous of my career. So it didn’t work. That’s a drag.
Does the title, Blacklisted, refer to the Grand Ole Opry episode where you took off a blouse and continued in a bra due to the venue’s heat or lack of air conditioning?
NEKO: No. Blacklisted is just a name of a song. It encapsulated the theme of the album. It’s an evocative word. The Grand Ole Opry thing has been overblown. I didn’t tell the Opry to fuck off. (laughter) There was a misunderstanding. It has happened to Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, I think. Some of the people who work there were great, treated us nice, and showed us stuff we’d never see. Like being backstage and seeing Jimmy Dickens (whose hilarious “May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” was a goofy ‘60s novelty) walk by and say “how’s it going.”
My favorite album track may be the steel guitar-laced “Stinging Velvet.”
NEKO: It’s a little love song to Washington State where I lived and where it rains all the time.
How has living in Chicago affected your current music?
NEKO: Different scenery makes a difference. I have a great apartment and roommate. That makes me feel relaxed and at home. I live in the Humboldt section. It’s considered a bad neighborhood, but I think it’s fucking best. The secret to Blacklisted’s sound is Joe (Burns), John (Convertino), Tom (Ray: bass), and (frequent collaborator) Jon Rauhouse work so well spontaneously. They’re into the magic of the moment. Most songs we did in two to three takes.
What artists did you listen to with those guys while recording sessions in their sleepy hometown of Tucson, Arizona?
NEKO: Lots of stuff… the Latin Playboys. Joey Burns is into Manu Chao and John Convertino loves all kinds of Jazz. We all like the simple piano stuff by Erik Satie. If I were to look at an example of what singing should be, I’d look towards Gospel first. My favorite is Bessie Griffin & the Gospel Pearls. She sang in a large group and let other female singers take lead. I’m a huge Staple Singers fan. Their best album, on Savoy Records, features them wearing white Gospel gowns on a hillside and Mavis is singing. It’s a great find. Sister Rosetta Thorpe is awesome. Her guitar playing is so good.
After hearing about your influences, I now understand why you have such a bell-clear voice.
NEKO: It’s not like I could sound like those ladies except in a fantasy world. My friend Kelly Hogan’s my favorite.
What did you learn from being on the road with gloom-obsessed legends Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds while promoting Furnace Room Lullaby?
NEKO: Nick, his band, and crew were so nice. Even though they’re famous, there’s no attitude or egotism. He’d come off the stage sweating after a two-hour performance, go to his dressing room, come over to us, and let us know he enjoyed our show. He said they were thrilled to be on the tour with us. Everyone was stellar.
Along with the next New Pornographers album, what else do you have planned?
NEKO: I’m thinking of doing a live record with the Sadies up in Toronto at the Matador. We’ve been playing together for years and their live shows are the best I know. We thought it’d be fun to do originals and old songs and get members of their family involved to play a bunch of nights. Most people make live albums to get out of a contract and don’t care about quality. But we’re making sure it sounds good. As for the New Pornographers, I think they are slaving away in a dark basement finishing the new album in rural Pennsylvania. I’ve already done my part singing. It will be like a new wave pop record. I don’t write songs for them so it’s easier to keep things separate.
Anything planned with fellow Corn Sister, Carolyn Mark?
NEKO: We recently went to the Yukon together and played a Dawson City Musicfest. She has a new album she’s busy touring for.
Do you do any home recording?
NEKO: My EP, Canadian Amp, was recorded in the kitchen with rented ADAT equipment. I want to buy some gear, but I’m waiting for the prices to get cheaper. I know a lot of gearheads who send me e-mails of stuff.