All right with being almost famous

Times Staff Writer

Neko Case’s striking new album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” has just one autobiographical song among its set of haunting, enigmatic narratives and character sketches. It’s “Hold On, Hold On,” which opens with a revealing line: “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers.”

It’s a sentiment that’s close to the 35-year-old singer, who left an unhappy home at 15 in search of community and creativity.

“It’s that feeling of not really having a family,” Case said recently, talking about that lyric. “Or being able to find compassion for people you read about in a novel but maybe not somebody who’s irritating to you who’s in your own family.”


Case eventually found her new home with a group of friends, and these days she’s embraced tightly by her musical peers and a devoted following of fans, drawn to her unconventional but accessible music and her exemplary conduct as a model citizen of the independent rock world.

Case has made four full studio albums of her own, she plays a prominent side role in the less serious, very popular power-pop band the New Pornographers, and she does sculpture and photography. She has also resisted the call of the major record labels -- she started on Chicago’s rootsy Bloodshot Records and now records for Anti-, a subsidiary of the Los Angeles independent Epitaph Records.

“It’s been a slow build,” Case said, evaluating her progress as she sat in Epitaph’s Silver Lake offices during a recent visit. “Since I’m not the kind of person who really needs to be famous, there haven’t been major frustrations like, ‘Why isn’t the world noticing me?’

“I haven’t had to [hurt] anyone to get where I am, I have a good deal, I feel educated, I feel like I’ve made smart decisions, and I feel like I’ll be able to keep my audience because I’ve spent a long time building my audience,” she said. “At least I hope that’s true.”

In a way, the down-to-earth, denim-clad, indie-rock heroine is a sort of female counterpart to another Chicago resident, Jeff Tweedy. Like Wilco’s leader, Case started in music as a punk-rocker, was transfigured by country music and now soars in a distinctively personal musical space.

“I signed her because I think she’s a maverick,” Anti- President Andy Kaulkin said in a separate interview. “I like the fact that she doesn’t observe the boundaries that people put up around different genres of music, and thus creates her own style of music.

“Look at rock music from the early ‘70s,” he said. “To me that was a heyday of creativity. You could be popular but you could also go out on a limb artistically.... Look at all the artists from that era who continue to be important artists today, the Neil Youngs and the Randy Newmans. It’s exciting when you see somebody who seems like they can fit into that type of sensibility.”

Case grew up in Tacoma, Wash., exposed to the country music her grandparents listened to as well as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and ‘70s FM rock. Her first experience as a musician was playing drums with her friends in their basement punk-rock band after she left a home she tersely described as “not good,” elaborating only long enough for a quick reference to her “teenage parents.”

She branched out after moving to Vancouver, Canada, to attend art school. There she played in punk outfits, formed her own band and began playing with the New Pornographers. (That group is on the road with Belle & Sebastian, but Case is sitting out this tour as she prepares for her own series of concerts.)

The examples of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton had been crucial inspirations for Case, and her country component was much more pronounced on her earlier albums, including two with her band the Boyfriends and 2002’s “Blacklisted,” her first record that was under her own name.

“Fox” has its roots touches -- notably the gospel framing of the tradition-based “John Saw That Number,” but it’s really a pop panorama, full of folk flavors, experimental atmospherics, Fleetwood Mac flow and “Pet Sounds” sighs.

The album, which came out this week, joins Jenny Lewis’ “Rabbit Fur Coat” and Cat Power’s “The Greatest” to form a triad of potent, American-roots-informed works from the women of indie rock.

All three records are likely to show up prominently in the year-end best-of lists, but so far Lewis’ and Power’s collections haven’t expanded their audiences in a major way. Will “Fox” do the trick for Case?

“I think she definitely has that potential,” says Kaulkin. “She’s a very appealing artist, and she could be huge. We have the ability to take a record there. We’re a part of Epitaph and we had the Offspring and Rancid -- we’ve had huge records.

“But I don’t think of it in those terms,” he added. “I want the artists to be happy and make the music they want to make and get it to as many people as we can and just sort of build it organically....

“Our flagship artist is Tom Waits, and to me he’s a superstar. You don’t get any more important than that. And if she could someday be seen in that light, I mean that’s my goal.”

And the artist?

“I was raised to be a very modest person, so I don’t think in very grandiose terms,” Case said. “I just want more people to know about my music, and I want it to comfort people. I hope that it makes people feel good. I want to be a better musician and I want to make better records every time I make a record....

“If I were to impart anything to people who are starting to play music ... it’s that it’s totally possible. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go on tour or that you have to get a big record deal. It could be as simple as playing guitar in your living room. That can bring you as much gratification as going on tour.

“Music and art are really a great outlet for people,” she said. “It makes them smarter, it makes them more versatile and it enhances every other part of your life when you make time to give yourself that.”