Neko Case - Destiny rides again
It's a recurring theme in our conversation, though not by design -- which is perfect, because that pretty much is the theme. Grand plans just seem to fall into Neko Case's hands, like a destiny she had nothing to do with, but she seized the opportunity when it arrived. "Maow announced to me that I was in the band. And I said, OK!" she recalls of how she ended up in an all-girl punk rock trio in the mid-'90s. Later, she's recalling a conversation with Bloodshot Records honcho Nan Warshaw that ultimately resulted in a song co-written with Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams and Mike Daly: "I was talking to Nan on the phone, and she was like, 'Oh, Whiskeytown are in town, they wanna meet you, you should go meet up with them!' And I'm like, OK! Get drunk in the afternoon, right on." On another occasion, a tip from her publicist led to a long and fruitful relationship with Toronto siblings Dallas and Travis Good, of Bloodshot band the Sadies. "I needed a guitar player to go on my first tour for my first record, across Canada. And she said, 'Get Dallas Good to go, he's great.' And I said, OK!" The Sadies backed her on a subsequent tour, and Travis eventually became the linchpin on her second record, playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass. Then there's the matter of how one of her lifelong idols, guitarist Evan Johns, wound up playing on that record: "My friend Chris Houston in Vancouver, who somehow knows every person on Earth, was like, 'Neko -- Evan Johns is in town, you gotta get him to play on your record!' And I'm like, OK!" A little later, it's former Wilco/Freakwater steel guitarist Bob Egan who hops aboard, completely out of the blue: "Bob Egan called us and said, 'Hi, I'm coming over to play on your record.' And I said, OK!" Given such stories, it's no surprise that Case's two records have both been sprawling affairs featuring more than a dozen musicians -- and, save for three constants, a different cast of players on each album. In acknowledgment of her musical compadres, Case issued both albums under the name Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (though a few of those boyfriends are, in fact, girlfriends). Creating any semblance of order from such a clusterfuck would seem daunting, but apparently Case is comfortable amidst the chaos. "Even though it seems very haphazard, I'd rather not have a complete plan; I don't work well that way, I guess," she says. "I'm one of those people who thinks it up, and then I have to make it right away." Her sophomore effort, Furnace Room Lullaby (released February 22 on Bloodshot in the U.S. and on Mint in Canada), was a scattered affair in terms of geography as well as personnel. Part of it was done in the same Vancouver, British Columbia, studio where she made her debut disc, The Virginian; other tracks were recorded across the continent in Toronto, while still others were added in Chicago. "The album was written from a very nomadic perspective, because I was on tour the whole time. And I wanted to be able to record it that way too, because that's the way the music felt," Case explains. "Plus, it was a way to get more people I wanted to play on the album." "Nomadic" is precisely the word to describe Case's existence in recent years. Since finishing her studies at Emily Carr College of Art & Design in Vancouver in 1997, she's spent short stretches between tours living in Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle and Chicago, rarely settling long enough anywhere to catch her breath. On the other hand, this isn't exactly a big change from her lifelong pattern. "When I was a kid, we lived all over the country," she says. Born in Alexandria, Virginia -- thus the title of her first record, The Virginian -- she spent most of her formative years in Washington state. She has fond memories of early days in the northern burg of Bellingham and nearby hamlets such as Sumas and Lynden just south of the Canadian border, where many of her relatives lived. Less attractive was Vancouver, Washington, just across the state line from Portland, Oregon, and, in Case's words, "the most depressing city in America." She was thrilled when her family relocated to Vermont when she was in sixth grade. "We lived this total Norman Rockwell existence," she marvels. "I went to a school where there was, like, 40 kids. It was extremely rural; it was way out in the middle of nowhere. We were super-poor, but we lived on this huge, 66-acre farm. It had like, you know, the swimming pond, and the old maple sugar factory, and the barn built before the Civil War. And we had all these animals and horses and stuff. It was the greatest place kids could ever be. It was very sad when we had to move away." They returned to the Northwest, eventually settling in Tacoma, where Case went to high school before dropping out at age 15. "I got kicked outta the house and all that, and just kind of lived hand-to-mouth for a really long time, trying to figure out how to be an adult," she remembers. "But I finally figured out how to be an adult and support myself over the years." It was during these years that the spark of musical enlightenment was fanned into a full flame. Growing up, she had developed a fondness for the country music her grandmother loved, as well as the arena-rock records her parents favored (by such bands as Heart and Queen). But it was punk rock that spoke to her in those teenage Tacoma years. "I had this friend named Rick McGrew who gave me a drum set when I was like 17 or 18," she says, revealing how she ended up behind the kit in her early musical endeavors. "And there were people like Girl Trouble in Tacoma, who made being in a band seem like the most awesome thing in the world. They were so into rock 'n' roll, and they were so enthusiastic and inspiring, that I'm sure they had a lot to do with it." The feeling was clearly mutual. On their 1990 PopLlama Records release Thrillsphere, Girl Trouble recorded a song titled "Neko Loves Rock 'n' Roll", a tribute to the full-throttle fan who had become a regular at their shows. "It was sweet; it was one of the nicest things anybody's ever done," Case says of the song. "Not to say that I don't get completely flustered every time I hear it -- like, oh my god!" You may think she'll satisfy your soul You may think you're gonna reach your goal You better listen to what you've been told No my brother, Neko loves rock 'n' roll! Neko and a few of her fellow rock 'n' roll lovers eventually formed a band called the Del Logs, making their debut at a storied Tacoma hangout called the Java Jive (the building is shaped like a giant coffeepot). A second band, the Propanes, followed; the music was punk, but hints of her grandmother's influence peeked through the thrashing. "It came more from a country side than an industrial side or a plain punk rock side," she says. "It was definitely very Cramps-flavored. And the Flat Duo Jets have been my favorite band since I was like 17, so I always kind of wanted to be in a band like that. And my friend [and bandmate] Laura Woods was also a pretty big influence on me; she knew a lot about really great records that you couldn't get a lot of places, that were really odd. She was definitely more into the country side of things, and the rockabilly side of things." One of those odd records Woods turned Case on to became a turning point in Neko's musical destiny, prompting her to consider doing more than just play the drums. Woods "gave me my favorite record of all time, which is Bessie Griffin & the Gospel Pearls' Swing Down Sweet Chariot," Case says. "Which I think is the record that made me want to be a singer more than anything in the world." [A thorough search of music reference resources revealed no such record by this title, which may not be surprising given Case's comment that "I've never seen another copy of it." In any event, Griffin, who died in 1989 at age 66, was "one of gospel music's legendary soloists," according to Opal Louis Nations of Roots & Rhythm Newsletter, even if her recordings remain largely out-of-print and unknown to the general public.] That it was a gospel record which set Case's world on its ear perhaps reflected a general broadening of horizons dawning on her at the time. "Getting out of my early teens, I realized, 'OK, this [punk rock] has taken you this far, and it'll still be part of whatever you do, but you need to have all the other things now too,'" she recalls. Partly she was just looking for voices with which to identify. "After awhile in punk rock, there just wasn't an empathy that was akin to my own," she says. "And I kind of missed melody. And then I went back and started listening to more country records again, and lots of jazz vocalists and girl-group records. And just got really super into gospel music and country music around that time. I just started looking all over the place for voices that made me feel like I felt that way." Not that punk and rock 'n' roll had necessarily faded from view entirely. "The Muffs were a huge influence on me," she continues. "I had waited for so long for women to write the songs, play the guitars, sing the kickass songs very unapologetically, while not having to address the fact that they're women." Little wonder, then, that she ended up in Maow with Tobey Black and Corrina Hammond shortly after moving to Vancouver to attend art school in 1994. "They had had some songs, and they needed a drummer, and they decided that I was their drummer," she recalls with a laugh. All three women in Maow sang; they released one album on Mint, The Unforgiving Sounds Of Maow, in 1996. Around the same time, she also did a tour playing drums with another Vancouver girl-group, Cub, and started playing occasional duo gigs with Victoria, B.C., singer-guitarist Carolyn Mark under the name Corn Sisters. "I just had a dream one night that she and I were in a band called the Corn Sisters," Case says. "And I called her, and I'm like, 'Carolyn, we're in this band, and we have tap shoes, and we stomp on these boards...' And she was like, 'Well, then, it has to be!'" Most significantly, however, the seeds were beginning to germinate for Case's first solo record. "I had written all these songs that weren't really appropriate for Maow necessarily; they were kind of country songs," she says. "I was walking down the street one day in Vancouver, and I thought, 'Man, I'd really like to make a record for my Grandma, and sing country songs for my Grandma. And I was like, 'Why do you have to wait?' "So I just turned around and walked to my record company [Mint], and I just bravely said, 'Uh, Phil, I gotta talk to you about something...' And he goes, 'Oh, what, do you want to make a solo record?' And I'm like, 'Uh, actually, yeah...' "They thought about it for a couple days, and they were so cool, they didn't even have to hear any demos; they were like, 'Sure, you can make this record.' Without them, I don't know what I would've done, because nobody would've let me make a record never hearing the music I had written." Case co-produced The Virginian with Brian Connelly, a guitarist formerly with Toronto surf-instrumental band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, and Darryl Neudorf, who ran Miller Block studio and used to be in Vancouver rock band 54/40. The wide-ranging herd of "Boyfriends" helping out included singers Carl Newman (of Sub Pop band Zumpano) and her Corn Sisters partner Mark; and instrumentalists John Reischman (mandolin) and Paul Pigat (steel guitar). The disc was a glorious coming-out party, announcing the arrival of a talented new singer who also had excellent taste in material. Case supplemented half a dozen originals (co-written with various folks) with inspired cover versions of chestnuts from the catalogs of the Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb (plus, tossing a curve into the mix, underground pop savant Scott Walker's "Duchess"). Accolades soon came rolling in, along with a U.S. deal from Bloodshot, thanks to fellow singer Kelly Hogan, who caught a Corn Sisters gig at the CMJ Festival in New York City in 1996 and recommended Case to the Chicago insurgent-country label. All of which took Neko a bit by surprise. "To me, that album sounds -- not from the musical standpoint, but from my particular position on the record -- incredibly nervous and uptight. Because I had never sang like that before. I sang with Maow, and everybody had their equal part, but this was my thing, and it was very scary, and I just couldn't figure out why people would be so into it." Largely it was because whatever trepidation she may have felt going into the process wasn't manifested in the feel of the record. Listening to Case belt out "Duchess" and Tubb's "Thanks A Lot" -- or her duet with Newman on the Everlys' "Bowling Green" that's so infectious it even outshines the original, which is no mean feat -- one gets the impression not of a nervous beginner, but of an assured, alive, confident artist finally finding her true calling. That said, there is a certain uniformity to Case's singing on The Virginian; for all the radiant energy in her delivery, "there's no kind of dynamic," she offers, pinpointing the lack of depth in mood and texture. It's a different story on Furnace Room Lullaby, which finds Case developing a much greater emotional range as a singer. "I wanted to try lots of different things," Case says of the new album. "The thing I really wanted to avoid on the first record was that flowery girly singing that is very popular. I liked it when women sang with BIG voices; I was tired of the small flowery voices. Not that there's no place for that, because I love that sometimes....But then I realized you can't just have all powerful voice -- there can be more than one emotion on your record, and it would be a lot more effective." In many ways, the record works as a companion piece to the new release by her Bloodshot labelmate Hogan, who Case calls "probably the best singer I know." Clearly Hogan's talent for torchy elegance has rubbed off on Case, and it doesn't hurt that Hogan contributes backing vocals on a few cuts as well. Another guest who fits right into such vocal stylings is Ron Sexsmith, who sings along with an exquisitely soft touch on "We've Never Met". The other primary difference between the two records is that the material on Furnace Room Lullaby is all original. The songs are co-written with a variety of collaborators, but no classic country covers were included this time around -- though Case says that wasn't the intention in the beginning. "We recorded some cover songs, and John Ramberg [guitarist for Seattle band the Model Rockets] was in the studio with me, and he was like, 'You don't need to do any cover songs; just have it be all your own songs.' And I was like, 'No -- I wanna do the Nick Lowe song!' And then, later on I realized, wow, he's right." That decision made the album a more personal artistic statement, and Case's songwriting has improved enough since the first record to warrant such a move. "Guided By Wire" (written with Ramberg, drummer Joel Trueblood and bassist Scott Betts) rolls along to an effortlessly bouncy lyric; "Twist The Knife" (with assists from Ramberg and Whiskeytown's Adams and Daly) is a bewitchingly dramatic ballad; "Thrice All American" (credited to Case/Connelly/Betts/Trueblood/Ramberg) is a beautifully bittersweet evocation of her days in Tacoma, "a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound." The song is indicative of a certain sadness Case has been feeling lately about the places of her past, and a realization that you can't go home again. She moved to Seattle last year but ended up spending much of this past fall in Chicago, swept up so much by the Windy City's thriving musical community that she's planning to move there soon. She's also increasingly disenchanted with the constantly changing face of Seattle: "We're getting kicked out of this building because they have to make condos for rich people," she laments of the downtown warehouse apartment that's currently her home. The countryside isn't safe from the steamroller of progress either. "Even the farm where my family's from up north, somebody bought all the land and they're turning it into subdivisions," she says. "It's way up in the hills by the Canadian border, right beneath the limestone quarry where everybody in my family worked while they were dairy farming or whatever. "I could see the piles of rocks that my parents piled up when they were kids, because they had to take all the stones out of the field. And I know they're gonna cart them away. It just breaks my heart; I can't even go there anymore, it feels so dislocated. You always want to think there's some little place you can go back to, but you can't." And yet, with her music, Case has found a way to go forward while keeping a window open to what has come before. She acknowledges, for instance, that while her new album is all original songs, she certainly hasn't abandoned the practice of mining for golden oldies. "I love doing other people's songs so much," she says. "That's always my favorite part of the set, usually, when we're on tour, is, 'OK, we get to do other people's songs now!' "And, there's so much to choose from out there. There's so many good songs that nobody pays any attention to; it's such a fun thing just to hunt them out and work them up yourself. I often feel that I'm not doing justice to it, mind you; like, if you're trying to sing a Roger Miller song, there's no fuckin' way you're gonna make it anywhere near as good as Roger Miller can do it, because there's nobody like him in the world ever. "But it still feels good to sing those lines, you know?" ND co-editor Peter Blackstock has never sung a Roger Miller tune -- but, yeah, he knows.