music

Neko’s an exceptional Case

Both Canada and the U.S. claim the country singer as their own—she's loyal to both

SHANDA DEZIEL February 27 2006
music

Neko’s an exceptional Case

Both Canada and the U.S. claim the country singer as their own—she's loyal to both

SHANDA DEZIEL February 27 2006

Neko’s an exceptional Case

Both Canada and the U.S. claim the country singer as their own—she's loyal to both

music

BY SHANDA DEZIEL • “Thriller sucks,” says Neko Case, sitting in a Toronto breakfast place, listening to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. “I don’t know why the f— everyone loves Thriller. That shit is cheesy. Off the Wall—that’s the album.” This morning, Case, 35, has a beast of a cold—running nose, puffy eyes and gravelly voice—and she’s in a critical mood. Later she declares: “I’m not into the Beatles. I know every one of their songs, every word—because my parents played it over and over. But it doesn’t seem like music to me. I know it’s genius. But I don’t ever want to hear it again.”

As her parents were Penny Lane-ing her to death, Case was taking refuge in her grandmother’s gospel and country albums (specifically Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls and Loretta Lynn); the Seattle grunge scene (her teenage years were spent in nearby Tacoma, Wash., although she was born in Virginia); and older influences like the Band, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. When she landed at a fine arts school in Vancouver, she played drums in the all-girl punk group, Maow. But her powerhouse voice was destined for a greater showcase. Eventually, she went solo, with a sound best described as hard, noir country of the torch and twang, honky-tonk variety. Case’s first three albums, The Virginian (1997), Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) and Blacklisted (2002), were critically beloved and earned her a healthy following of country and indie rock fans. Her latest, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, should bring her an even bigger cross-section. It’s a mellower, more-torch-less-twang outing (although there are still a few rowdy guitar riffs).

Along the way there have been incidents that have helped bring attention to Case. She was banned from the Grand Ole Opry in 2002 (for stripping down to her bra after overheating) and she was named Sexiest Babe of

Indie Rock by a 2003 Playboy poll (and declined an invitation to pose). Non-country fans have found their way to her through her part-time status in Vancouver’s supergroup the New Pornographers—who make power pop music that’s not unlike Case’s nemesis, the Beatles.

Getting an interview in Spin isn't as cool as getting one in Exclaim!, 'cause that's what I read'

Considering her success and allure, it’s no surprise that both Canada and the U.S. have claimed Case as their own—and she remains true to both. She lives in Chicago, cuts her records in Arizona, culls most of her backing musicians from Canada and does all her album mixing in Toronto. And, she says she mostly

identifies with the Canadian music scene: “This is where I got my start. To me, getting an interview in Spin isn’t as cool as getting one in Exclaim!, cause that’s what I read when I lived here. It’s where I learned about being a band. I never make a record where half of it isn’t made in Canada. I’m not superstitious about it, as much as I am sentimental about it.”

But while she misses B.C., and believes that at this point in her life she could probably get a visa to live here, at the moment she refuses to abandon the U.S. “My country has never been in worse shape,” says Case, who’s outspokenly anti-Bush. “Lots of people are

like, T want to move to Canada,’ and I’m like, ‘Now’s not the time.’ I love America, I think the people are wonderful and the geography is amazing and I love it as much as I love Canada, for sure—and not in a yucky patriotic way, but in a sweet, bittersweet way. It’s where you’re from—what are you going to do?”

Her last CD had an unconscious theme of homesickness, and this one certainly touches on her memories of Washington—although not all of them fond. In The Needle Has Landed, she’s reluctantly driving closer to her old town: So that’s why I never come back here / That’s why they spit out my name. In person she has a real hate-on for Seattle—thanks to a youth that coincided with the software boom. “Mean people came to the Northwest, like the greediest, meanest assholes—millions of them. People who would walk around yelling at you for the way you drove and complaining that it rained. Why did you move here? A lot of them have left, but not before they bought up a bunch of property and tore a bunch of great shit down and just abandoned it. There are condos they can’t fill where there used to be a really great record store. I’ve had it with Seattle, it’s a broken town. It bums me out.” She’s now happily ensconced in Chicago’s working-class Humboldt Park neighbourhood. “It’s beautiful and interesting and there’s lots of different kinds of people—historically, it’s the old German neighbourhood. The buildings are amazing, but there’s a lot of gang violence. It’s weird, there’ll be brand

new condos with yuppies on one block and harsh gangs on the other. But there’s great stuff, like the Hispanic music store, specializing in Cuban and Puerto Rican music. They put speakers outside, and they blast music louder than I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Living in the U.S. through the last election took its toll on Case, and she says the theme of her latest CD is “loss of faith.” Although, apart from the political disillusionment, Case has trouble articulating what she’s referring to. “I don’t know—faith in myself? In the Judeo-Christian ethic of marriage or children?” Nevertheless, she’s able to express herself in the songs, using Russian folk tales as inspiration and honing metaphors and imagery while steering clear of anything resembling a confessional country love song. “It’s overdone,” she says of the genre, “and I’m not one of those people who can get away with it. I’m a little too cynical for it.” Yet the album is so lush it feels romantic.

Not that she’s lost any of her edge—thanks in part to her continued collaboration with the Sadies, a Toronto country-surf-psychedelic-rock band, who always bring out the hellion in Case. They acted as her backing band on her 2004 live album, The Tigers Have Spoken—and last month they returned the favour, asking her to participate in their two days of live recording. Despite being one of the biggest names on the bill, Case was humbled by the invitation. “I was so excited when they asked,” she says with a girlish giggle. “I thought, they work with me all the time— maybe they would want somebody new to do something different.” The high point of those shows occurred when the Sadies called her out to sing the Band’s Evangeline, while Garth Hudson played accordion.

Hudson, the 68-year-old former Band member, plays organ on four songs on Fox Co?ifessor, including a spellbinding version of the old spiritual John Saw That Number. “[Guitarist] Paul Rigby and I are such huge nerds for the Band,” says Case, “but we vowed we weren’t going to ask any questions about it, because we didn’t want to bug him.” Then one night they broke down. “I finally asked, ‘Didn’t you guys just pee your pants when Van Morrison started kicking his leg in the air during The Last Waltz} And he’s like, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, we did. But thank goodness he did that because the show had kind of lost ebb at that point and he really brought it back together.’ ”

As breakfast wraps up, Sade’s Smooth Operator comes on the radio and Case is still feeling opinionated: “Did you see that video Sade made like four years ago? She got a little bit older and so much hotter than she ever was. She was like the sexiest lady I’ve ever seen in my life.” If it wasn’t for that nasty cold, the same could be said of Case. M