Not even a year ago, singer-guitarist Neko Case was just another ex-punk living in the Pacific Northwest. She occasionally played at local bars, but worked in relative anonymity. But since Furnace Room Lullaby, an album of beautiful old-style country music that finds the Virginia-born singer accompanied by baritone guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, came out and established her as an alternative country star of some stature, her schedule has been far more demanding.
"You've reached Neko Case's cell phone. Leave me a message, and I'll get back to you -- and preferably nooo lip" is the voicemail greeting you get when she turns her cell phone off, which has been the case more often than not in the past month.
"I think I was near death from lack of sleep somewhere and left that stupid message," Case explains via phone from Tucson, where she's recording with Calexico. She and the indie rock band are collaborating on an album that will come out later this year on the Americana imprint Bloodshot Records.
While she says being her "own boss" has its advantages, Case, who moved from Vancouver to Chicago last year, has had a restless couple of months trying to maintain a solo career and work on various side projects. Musicians dream of such opportunities, but often recoil when the reality of success sets in. Case, however, has embraced it with enthusiasm. She recently completed filming a video for "Furnace Room Lullaby," a track she contributed to the soundtrack to The Gift, and she has a year of jet-setting still to come.
"I was on tour earlier this month, then I flew to Chicago, then I flew to Los Angeles, then I flew to Tucson, and now I'm flying back to Chicago," Case says without taking a breath. "From Chicago, I go on tour with the New Pornographers, and then when I come home, I go to Austin, then to Tucson, then on tour with Nick Cave, and then the minute I get back from being on tour with Nick Cave, I'm going to go to Europe with Calexico."
Since its release last March, Furnace Room Lullaby has sold only about 20,000 copies, but the numbers are significant for an independent release. What's been more important has been the critical acclaim that accompanied the album, which made numerous year-end lists. It's given Case enough notoriety to call her own shots -- to that extent, she's booked a tour fronting the New Pornographers, a Vancouver power-pop group that released a record featuring Case on vocals, and has released an album as the Corn Sisters with singer Carolyn Marks. Does Case feel that her name now carries some weight?
"Probably not," she replies. "Nice of you to ask. I don't know if the New Pornographers are getting noticed because of me. Maybe. I doubt it. People are paying attention to the New Pornographers because there's two people having sex in front of a ram on the cover."
New Pornographer keyboardist Carl Newman has a different perspective.
"I didn't expect anyone in the States to hear this record," Newman says, speaking via phone from the guitar shop in Vancouver where he works. "There's a lot of stuff happening for us that, even though it's not Neko's doing, it's related to Neko. Some people have listened to it just because Neko is in the band."
So does that mean that the New Pornographers, who decided upon the name because it was a "a good collection of words," are riding Case's coattails?
"I thought about that for a while," Newman concedes. "I haven't noticed that. I've noticed a few people who are obviously her country fans reviewing it. There hasn't been anyone who says, 'This isn't country, so I hate it. Neko should stop doing this rock music.' For the most part, I don't think that's the case. Just because it's so different. If there was anything vaguely countrified about it, I think people would say that. But there's nothing countrified about our record."
The New Pornographers project actually began in 1998, a good year before Case began working on Furnace Room. At the time, Case was playing in Vancouver pop-punk bands such as Maow and Cub. The New Pornographers, who play in different regional acts and head a collective called the Blue Curtain, started recording songs at various studios in the Vancouver area and recruited Case to sing on a couple of tracks.
"I think it's kind of a schizophrenic-sounding record," says Newman, who previously played in Zumpano as well as a band called Superconductor, which he describes as "a tuneless grunge band." "Other people think it sounds really cohesive, but if you take any two songs and put them side by side, it doesn't even sound like the same band. It doesn't help that we have three different lead singers. Maybe the fact that it was done over such a long period of time means that there were several influences. We're always listening to different stuff. Initially, I was into the first Roxy Music record. I don't think we sound like that, but I loved how it's a psychotic-sounding record and really musical and really crazy."
Mass Romantic gets noisy enough that Case practically has to scream her way through songs such as "Letter From an Occupant" and the title track. It's a far cry from "Furnace Room," where the focus is more on her voice and less on jangly melodies.
"It's quite a relief actually," Case says. "It's a nice vacation. You don't want to do the same thing all the time, or you get really bored."
Case says that making the transition from punk to country and pop isn't difficult, because she's a fan of so many different types of music. On her website, she even has a shrine of sorts to the various women who have influenced her, and the list ranges from an all-female big band called the Sweethearts of Rhythm to Tina Turner, a French duo called Les Rita Mitsouko, and Sheila E.
"They're all made the same way, with the same love," she says of her own different styles of music. "Singing things with your mouth, you don't need any special equipment, so it doesn't feel different. I'm not a country singer -- that's not what I am all the time, but it's my true love. I like all music."
For Case, getting out of Vancouver -- whose biggest musical exports have been Bryan Adams, Loverboy, and Sarah McLaughlin -- has been crucial. And though she remains committed to Mint Records, the Vancouver label that released the New Pornographers and Corn Sisters records, she's happy to have moved on. Newman, who's in the midst of writing songs for the next New Pornographers record, admits that the climate in other places is probably more conducive to musical success.
"I need to bum some songs off Dan [Bejar], but he's at a family reunion in Spain," he says, referring to one of his New Pornographer bandmates. "He's living the good life. I wish I was in Spain. Everybody wants to be someplace else. And everyone knows Spain is better than Canada. I'm not putting down Canada. It's just a plain, cold hard fact."
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