The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Cover Story - By Bob Mehr

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.”

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