music (2007-15)

The In-between Girl

Neko Case talks nostalgia, banter and beards

by Andrew Clayman

She is the indie scene's omnipresent anti-diva--the punk rock tomboy turned alt-country temptress. One week, she's in New York recording a new album with her Canadian power-pop buddies The New Pornographers, and the next, she's back home in Chicago playing the sold-out opening dates of her own spring tour. At this moment, however, Neko Case is in Tucson, Ariz., stirring a cup of tea and describing what might happen if her bandmate Jon Rauhouse ever battled Calexico's similarly named Paul Niehaus in a pay-per-view, steel guitarist showdown.

"I think it would just end up being a massive fist fight," she laughs, then quickly reconsiders. "Actually, they're both so nice, they'd just be saying, You go ahead. No, after you ! Nooo, you! They would eventually wear each other out and retire exhausted, embracing on the stage. It would be adorable."

The same could be said of Case herself. Even on the phone, her sweet, congenial speaking voice sounds more like it belongs to your hip kid sister than a 36-year-old, Patsy Cline-caliber torch singer. It's a charming characteristic that Case has famously utilized on stage, often juxtaposing a wicked murder ballad with some witty, self-deprecating banter before crooning into the stratosphere once more.

"It's not something I do on purpose, really," she says. "I know the reason I talked to the audience, originally, was because I was nervous. And I am not good at pretending or hiding things, so I figured it'd be a lot easier if I just told them as much. From then, it became kind of funny, you know, and I realized that the audience really responds if you talk to them that way. It's not the same every night, but I do like to talk to everybody, because I hope--and this is my aim--that it makes the audience feel like it's their Friday night, too. They don't have to just stand there silent while we play music. That's a real drag. I want everyone to feel that good-time feeling, because I spent my whole childhood, from about 12 on, going to shows. It was what made me feel good. It was my favorite thing. So I want other people to have that feeling, too."

In Neko's case, that good-time feeling provided both a stabilizing force and an escape route during her rebellious teen years in Tacoma, Wash. Every bit the punk-rock girl of Dead Milkmen lore, she left home at 15, played drums for a string of local bands, and eventually traveled across the border to Vancouver to attend art school in the early '90s. It was in Canada where Case's unparalleled pipes were finally heard--singing and drumming with the girl-punk outfit Maow, becoming the secret weapon in The New Pornographers, and perhaps most importantly, embracing her budding passion for classic country music on her 1997 solo debut, The Virginian. It may have seemed like a bit of a leap to some, but for Case, the worlds of punk and country never felt too far apart.

"Looking at it from the inside of the two, I don't know that there's much of a difference, actually," she explains, "except for some stylistic things here or there. They're both kind of dissatisfied and passionate forms of music. It's not as much a difference of being punk-rock or country as it is the difference of being an independent musician to being a musician on a major label from the time you're young. Those are the two different worlds more than anything."

Case's own musical worlds collided in 2000, when The New Pornographers' Mass Romantic and her own Furnace Room Lullaby garnered a heap of praise from separate ends of the indie spectrum. Riding that wave, she bolted Vancouver for the deserts of Tucson, enlisting the aid of Southwestern stalwarts Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and Joey Burns and John Convertino (Calexico) for her 2002 country-noir triumph, Blacklisted .

It was on the Blacklisted tour in 2003 that Case and her then-touring band of Jon Rauhouse (guitar, banjo, pedal steel), Tom V. Ray (upright bass), and guest vocalist Kelly Hogan recorded a live set for the Austin City Limits TV program--an appearance that was finally released on DVD last fall.

"It was such a fun time," Case recalls. "I'm really glad that there's an artifact out there of when we were a three-piece. Of course, we had Kelly Hogan in the set, too. But we used to just travel all the time as a three-piece--Jon and Tom and I--so I'm really glad there's an artifact of that." Case pauses for a moment. "And also, I'm glad there's an artifact of Tom's beard," she laughs, referring to her bassist's formerly shoulder-length chin-locks. "It's more for Tommy's beard than anyone!"

Both Rauhouse and Ray are back in the fold for the current tour, in support of 2006's complex and gorgeous Fox Confessor Brings the Flood --a wildly acclaimed album that has earned Case as much respect for her inventive songwriting as her canyon-wide vocal range. Guitarist Paul Rigby and drummer Barry Mirochnick have been brought on to add a new dynamic to the band's live sound, and Neko Case's "favorite singer in the world," Kelly Hogan, is now a permanent member of the family, as well. Adds Case, "Kelly's pretty much the most badass rock'n'roll assassin of all-time!"

She may have a point, too. When Case and Hogan activate their wonder twin powers for the ghostly, heart-wrenching harmonies on Fox Confessor tracks like "Hold On, Hold On" and "Maybe Sparrow," the songs' deeper meanings seem to unfold in spite of their somewhat cryptic lyrics. Casting herself as the mean girl, or somebody's in-between girl , Case is being more wistful than cynical--more reflective than declarative.  

"Oh, yeah, I'm horribly nostalgic and romantic and all those things," she admits. "But for my general outlook on life, I think it's an incredibly positive thing. I still feel like I'm 19 years old and all the possibilities of the world are open to me. But sometimes in making pragmatic adult decisions," she laughs, "that may not be the greatest thing in the world. But as you get older, it becomes an art form--balancing your romantic side with your logical side."

Or your punk side with your country side. Your American with your Canadian. Your present with your past. Whatever it takes to find that good-time feeling.

Who: Neko Case w/ The Jon Rauhouse Quintet