MAKING A CASE FOR MUSICAL MATURITY
> ECLECTIC EXPERIENCES GROW SINGER-SONGWRITER
IT’S EARLY IN the morning in Vermont and music is the furthest thing from Neko Case’s mind.
“Mostly I’ve been concentrating on hybrid seeds and farming,” says the 39-year-old roots songstress. Calling from the multiacre spread she lives on in the northern part of the state, Case has been using her downtime between tours to get her farm — which dates back to 1640 — into working shape. “It’s nice to be near nature ’cause that’s where I get most of my inspiration.”
Back in 1997 when Case released her modest solo debut, few could have predicted the path her life and career would take.
The Washington native was a product of a hard-scrabble childhood, a punk rock
adolescence, and a gadding existence that led her from Tacoma to Vancouver to Chicago to Tucson.
Along the way, Case transformed herself into a major artist — a postmodern feminist figure and indie rock heroine who combined noir narratives, natural imagery and a goose bump-inducing voice to great effect on albums like 2002’s Blacklisted and 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
These days Case has positioned herself as one of the most revered contemporary American singer-songwriters, and her latest album, Middle Cyclone, is widely tipped to be at the top of most year-end best-of lists.
On Wednesday Case and her band will be kicking off the next leg of their tour in Memphis with a show at Minglewood Hall.
Released in March, Case’s Middle Cyclone surprised everyone when it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, selling some 44,000 copies in its first week, placing her just behind country star Taylor Swift and Irish supergroup U2.
“Numbers like that haven’t meant anything to me since I was a little kid: I mean, I liked listening to Casey Kasem’s countdown when I was younger,” Case says, laughing.
“But it does mean a lot to people in the industry and to the people who are working really hard for me, like my manager and my publicist. Especially because everyone I work with is independent, it is a big deal for us. It was real golden moment, even though it only lasts a week. It’s still nice.”
Case’s growing success has led to plenty of high-profile opportunities: in the last few months she’s taped a guest host segment on Turner Classic Movies, recorded backing vocals on Jakob Dylan’s forthcoming album, and voiced the lead role in Cartoon Network’s ludicrously titled series “Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugar Town Candy Fudge.”
Most recently, she was one of the featured guests — along with Sheryl Crow — for a taping of Elvis Costello’s Sundance Channel talk show “Spectacle.” “It was kinda terrifying because I wasn’t allowed to bring my band, and I’m not a solo performer,” says Case. “So that was really scary. But Elvis Costello was such a kind person and so enthusiastic. Everyone was just very welcoming. I felt like they really cared that I didn’t fail on television.”
Beyond her own solo pursuits, Case has maintained a busy collaborative schedule over the years, including membership in Canadian power-pop outfit the New Pornographers. Case recently finished her parts on the next Pornographers record, due in early 2010.
Although her role in the group is primarily as a vocalist and not as a writer, Case takes considerable pride in her work with the band, which has become a major success in its own right .
“Working with the Pornographers, there’s a lot of satisfaction and some disappointment. Only because there are so many tracks and so many parts and so many people, that you can do your parts, fall in love with them and then they get cut,” says Case. “But it’s a good lesson in not getting too precious about what you do. It keeps you from some sort of weird vanity.”
In addition to her musical endeavors, Case reports that she’s been chipping away at a novel. “I’ve been writing a book for a while, but I don’t know if anyone will like it. It’s like Danielle Steele mixed with Philip K. Dick; that’s what I’m going for,” says Case, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Boy, am I gonna sell some books!”
Case has also been writing songs for a solo followup. “It’s all lyrics, no music yet,” says Case. “I’m thinking about paring things down a lot more, making things a lot simpler. That kinda seems to be the direction I’m going in now.”
For Case, the creative process remains as elusive and ephemeral as ever. Eight months after Middle Cyclone was released, she says she’s yet to revisit it to see how it holds up. “I haven’t listened to it since I actually finished it. Now and again, I’ll hear a snippet of something and it still sounds OK to me. I don’t feel that twinge of embarrassment that I feel with some things I’ve done in the past.”
“Throughout my (career) I haven’t been afraid to learn in front of people,” says Case. “Some people never get out of the front door because they’re afraid to have people hear their mistakes. So I feel proud I’ve been able to do that.”