Neko Case’s voice in the wilderness
Sleep is a luxury for some people, and Neko Case is really craving some right now. Turns out the singer’s hotel on the Sunset Strip is party central, with a bar right outside her window and drunken chatter deep into the night. “My sleeping cards,” she says wearily, “just aren’t lining up right now.”
She’s been on the road talking up her new album, “Middle Cyclone,” hitting one city after another, visiting radio stations, performing her songs of indie torch and twang at the occasional showcase. The day before was San Francisco, and a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago awaits her in the morning. The usual “tour dementia” is already setting in, a condition she describes as the general stupefaction that occurs after too many nights in too many time zones.
“You wake up in a hotel room and it’s dark and you don’t know where you are,” Case says with bleary good cheer. She sips iced tea in a hotel coffee shop, her tangle of red hair tossed over a shoulder. “It’s hard to stay grounded.”
This is also when the strangest dreams come. Some of those turn into songs, like the one that inspired the new album’s dark and surreal opening track, “This Tornado Loves You,” as anxious beats and banjo race beneath the singer’s lush, adoring vocal. The dream went like this: “I was driving across the country and stopped at a gas station. I was approached by a tornado, and the tornado wanted me to read it a book. It was a sweet image. I woke up and it made me really happy. I still think about it.”
There are many scenes of stormy weather on “Middle Cyclone,” set for release today, and the turbulence is often internal. The new album was recorded over 10 months last year, and for the first time, most of the songs were written and rehearsed with her band before going into the studio.
Case’s last release, 2006’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” was widely acclaimed for its emotional echoes of traditional country feeling within subtle waves of rich, postmodern pop. “Middle Cyclone” is her sixth studio album and continues the transition from the straight-ahead alt-country of her 1997 solo debut, “The Virginian.”
On the album cover, Case is shown on the move, crouched on the hood of a 1960s muscle car, sword in her hand. It’s a strange, dynamic image for a collection that conjures up images not just of tornadoes, but of prisoners and bad love.
As a songwriter, Case calls herself a follower of the Hank Williams / Lucinda Williams school, lyricists “who can make a line really simple, and it really punches you in the face.” In her own work, Case labors to strip lyrics to their essentials. “All of my favorite old songs are really simple, and they don’t adhere to a time or place,” says Case, who also plays piano and tenor guitar. “I don’t want to be a man or a woman or any one time or place, or have beepers or cellphones in my songs. That works for some people, and that’s great, but I’m not good at it. And I’m sure that I’m trying to emulate the great pop song and country music constructors of the past.”
As her songs matured from those early recordings, Case was drawn to experiment with other sounds and ideas, not unlike the band Wilco, which long ago shed its C&W; bona fides. She is often still classified as a singer of Americana, which doesn’t bother Case in the least, but it hardly describes the range within her music.
“I hate to say this out loud,” she says with a smile, “but we use a lot of jazz chords. A lot.”
She moved often as a child. Born in Virginia, she spent some formative years in Tacoma, Wash., then lived in Vancouver and Chicago, and only recently relocated from Tucson to a farm in Vermont. Her music travels just as widely. In the early ‘90s, she was the drummer for indie rock trio Maow, but what she really wanted was to sing. Fully committing meant possibly failing, so she hesitated.
“I just wanted to do it so badly,” she remembers. “There are some things you don’t really admit to yourself. If you were bad at it, it would break your heart.”
She sang a few songs with Maow, and began writing for what became “The Virginian.” But Case says the turning point was an invitation to join as featured vocalist a band called the New Pornographers, led by Vancouver songwriter A.C. Newman.
“Being asked to be in the New Pornographers gave me a lot of confidence,” she says now of the band and its euphoric, melancholy pop. “You know, I never made that connection until this very second, but that’s exactly what happened. I so looked up to Carl Newman and his songwriting. I couldn’t believe they were asking me to be in a band with them. I was kind of peeing my pants.”
Case remains a member of the critically acclaimed act, where she enjoys having no responsibility beyond being a singer. “It’s just a strangely killer voice,” Newman says of Case. “She’s got a power that not many other people have. She’s like the pitcher that has the 120-mph fastball. No matter how much you do vocal training, you can’t get what she has.”
The New Pornographers expect to record a new album later this year, Newman says. With her busy schedule as a solo artist, Case can’t always tour with the band, and tends to miss about half their live dates.
She’ll tour this spring, singing songs from “Middle Cyclone” and again risk dementia. “I still have that real seat-of-your-pants feeling when I play live,” Case says. “There’s the adrenaline. I have to compensate on the fly and try to make it seamless. That’s the thrilling part. I’m not doing anything crazy. I’m not spinning plates or anything, but some things are hard to do.”