When it comes to career trajectory, Neko Case never takes the expected path.
A punk drummer by initial vocation, for her first real solo stirrings Case drew not from her Sex Pistols and Clash albums but instead from the country music she’d absorbed, via her grandmother, as a kid. Perhaps this artistic turnabout was fitting, for wanderlust was something she’d experienced most of her life.
Case, 31, was born in Alexandria, Va., but moved frequently with her parents, and even as an adult she couldn’t stay put, landing in Tacoma, Vancouver, Seattle and Chicago.
That restlessness paid off: The Virginian, Case’s 1997 solo debut, was a honky-tonk gem that racked up hyperventilated reviewers’ kudos along the lines of, “Jeannie C. Riley, Rose Maddox and Mae West all rolled up into one glorious gal,” according to the New York Press. The 2000 follow-up, Furnace Room Lullaby, was even more well-received, and not just in alt-country corners but in mainstream venues like Elle and Rolling Stone as well.
Case continued to spread her wings, working both with talented pal Carolyn Mark as country-folk/gospel duo the Corn Sisters and with Canadian indie supergroup The New Pornographers.
This all set the stage for Blacklisted, which appeared last fall and quickly landed on most critics’ year-end best-of lists. (By way of perspective, the just-published Village Voice “Pazz & Jop Poll” locates it a few notches above Steve Earle’s Jerusalem and just a few below Norah Jones’ Grammy shoo-in, Come Away With Me.)
Blacklisted is a spookysexycool concoction that adds smoky blues and noirish jazz elements to Case’s already distinctive blend. Its cinematic vibe — all scorched twangs and moonlit echoes — perfectly matches her wide-open-spaces voice. Small wonder, as it was recorded in Tucson and features, in addition to regular collaborators Dallas Good (Sadies), Tom Ray (Bottlerockets, Devil In A Woodpile) and Jon Rauhouse (Grievous Angels, Waco Brothers, Kelly Hogan), the talents of Old Pueblo mainstays Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino, aka the Giant Sand/Calexico posse.
“Why Tucson?” Case laughs, anticipating the first question. Blacklisted was approached, says Case, “from the standpoint of experience. I’d worked with [producer] Craig Schumacher before [when Case sang on Giant Sand’s Cover Magazine] and I’ve got a lot of friends in Tucson too. Every time I’m here I just feel so relaxed. And I knew that all the musicians who were going to be on it thrive on spontaneity, that they really love to work without hearing the demo too much. I mean, Howe Gelb likes to do it without hearing the demo at all! [Laughs] I just love that kind of bravery. It gave me a lot of confidence to trust what I heard and to trust what I liked.”
Case also was learning to trust her ever-broadening gifts as a writer and a musician. On her first two albums she wrote with other tunesmiths (including Ron Sexsmith and Ryan Adams) and didn’t play any of the instruments herself. Blacklisted, however, is a precise reflection of her own vision — excluding one co-written song and a pair of covers, the smoky Sarah Vaughan gem “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around”) and Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out Of Fools.”
The learning curve wasn’t as steep as one might imagine, however. Observes Case, “The album was a step forward in that I was a lot more confident. I’d never played instruments on my records before. And since I wrote most of my songs myself on the guitar, I had a lot more control over my phrasing, the way things were sung. Whereas if you write a song with someone else you may have to adapt your singing to what they’re playing. There’s this myth where the more complicated you are the better — the heavy-metal approach, ha-ha! But really, the simple things are what get me going.”
In concert Case likes to keep it simple too. Just her and those she refers to as “my sweet guys,” Rauhouse and Ray. “The way the album is recorded it’s very much about the vocals — mixed very loud, even though there’s a lot going on musically. We wanted to create a tension between the music and the vocals. But live it’s way harder to hear a lot of instruments at once, so in order to create that album effect, we’ve pared it down. Jon’s a multi-instrumentalist, so he brings a lot of texture. And I play a couple of different guitars, and Tom plays bass but he also plays tambourine with his foot, and that basically adds all the percussion we need for our show without drowning anything out. I really love the dynamic — live, I wanted to have more of a jazz focus for the vocals because that’s what the album is about, the vocals. Not to sound all vain, like, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ But that’s what you’re supposed to hear.”
As noted above, Case has scored her critical points. Sales-wise, Blacklisted looks to become the fastest- and best-selling album ever (surpassing even Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker) for Chicago alt-country kingpin Bloodshot Records, which licenses Case’s records from Canadian indie Mint. Those factors, combined with the singer’s pinup-quality looks and her outgoing, charismatic personality, were sure to eventually draw the attention of the usual star-makers, hustlers and weasels.
“Yeah, I’ve had conversations with major-label people, and a couple of them have been weasely,” acknowledges Case. “But for the most part the folks I’ve met at the majors are nice. The thing is, the major-label situation isn’t very good right now, but the people who work for the majors are wonderful people who love music and they wish for nothing more than the climate to change — they just don’t have the power to change things themselves.”
Case has made it clear in the past that she views the major-label feudal system as a crock, telling the Seattle Weekly last November, “I’m not willing to spend a year of my life touring to promote an album, recoup the album’s costs with my royalties, only to find out that I don’t even own my own masters. That is totally insane! How were people ever convinced that was a good idea?”
At the same time, she’s not beholden to the indie world. She has one more record to go in her contract with Mint, and after that, she’ll probably stick with her Canadian label, but “I’m probably going to look for someone [new] to put my records out in the States. If it’s somebody I like, maybe it’ll even be a major, maybe they’ll have a good deal. Maybe they’ll turn things around and make fair deals for musicians. But I’m not going to hold my breath.”
With the buzz continuing to grow, then, does the notoriously self-reliant Case ever feel things spinning out of control?
“I think right now I’m OK,” she says, then after a pause quickly adds, “Well, I don’t always feel in control. I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to fuck anyone over, so I feel good. But maybe that’s a fantasy that people have about being in music. [Laughing] Because I don’t know if anybody who does this is ever really in control!”
See Neko Case with Catherine Irwin and Carolyn Mark at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit), on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 9 p.m. Call 313-833-9700 for information.Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org