Neko Case: Everyone Says I Love You

Adored by indie rockers and country kickers alike, Neko Case is everybody’s favorite flame. But it takes more than a popular gal to pull off the pining heartbreak and dreamy paranoia of “Blacklisted.” By Dylan Siegler. Photos by Dominic Episcopo.

Neko Case has been banned for life from the Grand Ole Opry, but that isn’t why her new album is called Blacklisted. Neither is it named for her status at Seattle’s Paramount Theater (though it could be—she’s banned from there, too), nor her potential new standing at New York’s Beacon Theatre, where she’s just left the stage with a scathing indictment of the venue’s merchandise policy—40 percent of all sales goes to the Beacon—and declared to the audience that she won’t be selling CDs after the show because of it. “We only get 35 percent from the sale of a CD, and well, you can do the math,” she said with trademark matter-of-fact-ness, hands clasped behind her back. “Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds will be on next.”

Case greets a coterie of friends and industry types just outside the stage door; hearing that ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha has been spotted in the house, she pipes up in an invented redneck-meets-chickenhead accent, “Where is he? I’m-a fuck ‘im!” Case is one of those people who’s more animated when she has an audience, and with post-set adrenaline pumping, she’s even funnier and more gregarious than she is onstage. She rants some more about the merchandise charge—a throwback to organized crime, she says—and recounts a few incidents when her band had to surround corrupt club managers in order to get paid.

When we’re two relative strangers alone in a Beacon dressing room, however, Case’s front diffuses significantly, and she’s simply friendly and accommodating. She invites me to put my feet up with hers on a nearby chair and plies me with red wine from the swanky tour rider she’s enjoyed during her nine dates with the Bad Seeds.

Case’s speaking voice is an undecipherable mélange of accents. There’s a Canadian flatness—she pronounces “been” phonetically—that comes from her six years in Vancouver, where she earned a degree in fine arts from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. Anyone familiar with her 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby can tell you Case’s hometown is Tacoma, Wash., the “dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound” she extols on “Thrice All American.” This Northwestern pancake, however, is spiked with a little twang; without seeming put on, its lilt could almost have come from years of her singing country music. Nearly to a fault, though, nothing about Case seems contrived, except maybe her famed crimson hair. “My natural color is this Ukrainian brown,” she says. “Some people would describe it as mousy, but I think it’s more like the color of graphite.”

For someone quick-witted (and razor-tongued, judging by her brutally comic teasing of bandmates onstage), Case is mindful about what she says to journalists. She’s careful to attribute the joke she made about Iha to New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle; it was apparently a favored refrain in the band’s tour van on her last outing as a singer with the Vancouver pop/rock band. Multiple times over the course of our two days together, Case qualifies her more confident statements with humble disclaimers. When mentioning she likes to champion up-and-coming musicians by taking them on tour, she tacks on, “Not like we’re this great, benevolent machine that makes stars out of young bands.” She’s a seasoned interviewee, careful not to divulge any über-personal data without prefacing it with “off the record,” systematically eliminating the gossip potential surrounding, say, her love life. (I can just hear her pooh-poohing that last sentence, saying something like, “I seriously doubt that anyone would care,” with a self-deprecating roll of the eyes.)

People do care, though. Rumors about her and Calexico’s Joey Burns were circulating long before she recorded her new album at Wavelab Studio in Calexico’s hometown of Tucson, Ariz.; she now says she has no steady boyfriend. Such gossip partly functions as idle “celebrity” chatter, but for a country singer with an indie-rock following, Case attracts fans with a deeper-than-usual investment in her personal life. She’s a bit of a sex symbol, but not one of those Courtney Love types who tries to get attention by taking off her clothing at key moments; Case’s rep is traceable to a much more personal quirk, a sort of unusual-situation fetish.

Three years ago, a photographer friend was seeking out models for a pinup calendar promoting the garage-rock label Sympathy For The Record Industry. A fan of vintage porn—and, more significantly, the kind of person who really enjoys absurd scenarios—Case donned a black bustier and fishnet thigh-highs and spent February 2000 draped over a sofa on the walls of 2,500 dorm rooms, kitchens and cubicles across the country. It’s sexy as hell and suitably ironic, but it’s also classy, the way the photographer’s buttery approach emphasizes her stately good looks and waves of red hair. For

Case, who says she generally dresses like she “just cleaned the barn,” who’s shaved her legs twice in her 31 years, it’s plenty absurd.

That Case is a country singer and not a calendar girl was made quite clear with Furnace Room Lullaby, released that same February. Case wrote or co-wrote all the tracks on her second album, made with a loose corps of musician pals dubbed Her Boyfriends. Leagues more artistically surefooted than The Virginian (her covers-heavy 1997 debut), Furnace Room was neither country as kitsch nor some line-dancing Nashville crossover. It wasn’t really even proffering alt-country, “supposedly this movement that I don’t really know exists,” comments Case. The album sounded so honest it was possible to believe Case’s claim that she acquired her from-heaven wail by duetting with her parents’ gospel records.

All this was a good two years before O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s Down From The Mountain tour made old-fashioned country a viable draw for Ticketmaster. The punk eroticism of the calendar and her history as the drummer for female Vancouver punkabilly trio Maow (she also toured as a drummer for Canadian indie-rockers Cub) helped those who owned no other country music feel justified for falling in love with Furnace Room. Emerging later that year with the snarky (and not at all country) New Pornographers, Case became a country singer that indie rockers could root for, a woman who could pose credibly in a teddy, then mystify and capture a room with a high Appalachian ballad. Her voice sounded electric to kids raised on Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. This was country music’s fiery-haired ambassador to indie rock.

Two years ago, Case was forced out of her Seattle home in the Washington Shoe Building, a work/live space for artists that was shut down, she says, “because everybody knows that rich people have a very big shortage of housing and have to buy up everything and kick us all out.” She relocated to Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood; she estimates her new roommates have seen her for two and a half weeks out of the last 52. Between touring with her own band (which includes estimable sidemen Tom Ray on upright bass and Jon Rauhouse on banjo and steel guitar), outings with the New Pornographers and a couple of trips with the Corn Sisters (her project with vivacious Victoria, B.C., singer Carolyn Mark), Case mostly lives in her rust-colored diesel van. She isn’t uncomfortable on the road, aside from the fact she can’t get around to having a baby (“I want me one of those, bad,” she says) or even a dog at a time when most of her peers are settling down.

“I never thought [a music career] was really possible,” Case shrugs. “Growing up in the ‘70s, I never realized there was a blue-collar level of being a musician …

Music, of course, is touted as the biggest pipe dream of all time by people who know nothing about it. Which is really sad, because I would have liked to have started playing a lot younger.”

By the time Case became a teenager, her relationship with her divorced parents had begun to deteriorate—she was a fledgling punk-rocker and her dad was ex-Air Force—and, at age 15, she left home and dropped out of school. Her older friends in the burgeoning music scene of the Pacific Northwest—especially at Tacoma music venues Community World Theater and Java Jive—became her family. At 23, she earned her G.E.D. and went north to study sculpture, photography and printmaking.

Although she fooled around with the drums as a teenager, Case was first cajoled into playing in a touring band by her art-school friends Tobey Black and Corrina Beesley-Hammond, who decided she was the drummer for Maow early in college. “We learned a lot from each other,” says Case. “It was one of the best times of my whole life.”

Bill Baker, co-owner of the Vancouver pop/punk label Mint (which releases Case’s work in Canada, then licenses the records to Bloodshot in the U.S.), remembers her leap from drummer to singer. “Neko sang a couple songs on the Maow record we put out (1995’s The Unforgiving Sounds Of Maow),” says Baker, “but live, Tobey would sing them because Neko couldn’t sing and drum at the same time. We wished she would do something that involved her singing, but we never said that to her. Then one time she came into my office—now, she’s a pretty forceful and forthright person, but she was sheepish— and to look at her, my first thought was that something terrible had happened. But she said, ‘I’m thinking about putting out this country record, and if you don’t want to do it, it’s no big deal.’ It was one of those moments where everything is happening exactly the way you want it to. I was completely ecstatic.”

Case seems to harbor the charming misconception that any punk-rock drummer could at any moment open up her mouth and belt out a ballad with chest-wrenching agility and no small measure of soul. Hey, she seems to plead, if a poor, screwed-up kid from Tacoma can do it, why can’t you? “I can’t change the world, but if I could actually do something with music, I would like for other people to see that it isn’t that hard and that they can do it, too,” she says. “I wish there were more examples out there that being in a band isn’t so hard.” That goes especially, though not exclusively, for women. “I couldn’t be happier to see other women do music.”

Case would be happy seeing women at all; her circumscribed existence on the road places her among soundmen, club-manager guys and her unwaveringly male (if always gentlemanly) band. More than once, she comments on how nourishing it is to talk music with me, another music-obsessed chick. Days after leaving New York, she calls to tell me about a girlfriend’s baby shower, where she was confronted with a roomful of women. “I couldn’t even speak—I just stared!” she laughs. “All these ladies, they were so pretty, and they smelled so good. I’d been gone so long I didn’t remember what ladies were like! I went back to the band and said, ‘Now I understand what it’s like for you guys.’”

Granted, the bookish art geeks who are her cohorts in the New Pornographers—the aforementioned Dahle, Carl Newman (Superconductor, Zumpano), Dan Bejar (Destroyer), John Collins (Evaporators) and Blaine Thurier—aren’t exactly joining your local frat, but time spent in a van with any pack of men tends to underline the gender differences. Case, who’s been on two Pornographers tours in the last year, says, “[Being in the group is] like if you were in your bedroom with your hairbrush and you’re like, ‘I wish I had a fantasy kick-ass rock band that I was in right now!’ Brrrring! [In fairy-godmother voice] ‘You’re in a fantasy kick-ass rock band!’”

Case will appear on the Pornographers’ new album, due sometime this year, recording her contributions when she blows through Vancouver. Although she isn’t involved in the songwriting, sardonic band linchpin Newman sums up the value of Case in the group: “If she were ever to leave, we would have to go on without her—in a way it would seem kind of ridiculous to stop doing it because she’s hardly ever around, anyway. So we could continue, and people would cease to like us, and we would drift away.”

The Pornographers fulfill her rock needs, but Case gets a dose of estrogen on tour with the Corn Sisters, a project conceived in a dream she had after visiting Carolyn Mark’s home and noting her vast collection of corn-themed paraphernalia. In 1998, they formed a corn-oriented, harmony-singing duo that uses tap shoes as percussion. (When queried about her collection, Mark is quick to divulge that Case collects pictures of animals wearing sunglasses.)

Case strays from country with the new Blacklisted, a collection of ballads that takes Furnace Room’s intermittent mournfulness and makes it a habit. “It’s more of one mood rather than a bunch of songs,” explains Case. “It asks, ‘Where’s my home? How do I get there? Am I in trouble for something? How come I can’t seem to figure this out?’” She laughs. “I hope people don’t think it’s a total bummer.”

Blacklisted toys with quiet vocal tropes that require much more control than her usual belted-out beauties. Case is typically self-effacing about her loud-as-hell singing. “I have to try and sing more dynamically the way a person would try to artistically fall down a flight of stairs,” she says. “I don’t have control.” For Case, using her voice has always been more about catharsis than credentials. “Singing feels physically incredible,” she says, “like you conduct some kind of electricity or something. It’s very joyful.” She stops to reconsider. “Or it’s a lot like crying—you feel like you get stuff out of your system. Everybody should get to do it.”

Case idolizes the pure sound and vibrato of her friend Kelly Hogan, who sings backup on Blacklisted. Hogan is the only other female on the album, appearing alongside a backup band that includes Calexico, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet’s Brian Connelly (formerly one of Case’s Boyfriends). Dallas Good of the Sadies, also a longtime collaborator, sits in on one of the album’s two covers, the soul standard “Runnin’ Out Of Fools.” (The only other track not penned by Case is “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around),” best known as a Ketty Lester song.) When the boys weren’t around to play, Case tackled guitar, drum and piano duties herself.

Case is awkwardly, if ardently, vocal about celebrating her gender’s musical contributions. Her sparse Web site ( features an essay titled “Neko’s Ladies,” in which she spends 2,000 hilarious words implicating everyone from Bessie Smith to Sheila E in her musical education. Case avers that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, an understandable assertion in a media environment where if you don’t want to spend the rest of your career touring with Kathleen Hanna, you’d better not utter the F-word to a reporter. But “Neko’s Ladies” is pro-woman the way many feminists wish they could be seen: practical, positive and convincing. “A pivotal moment in my life,” she writes, “was when I realized that Poison Ivy, a hot sexy lady, played that dirty, evil, titillating guitar in the Cramps … I was filled with shame. I loved music. How come I didn’t think women played it?”

It’s an inspiring Neko Case revelation, typically open and self-critical. Over dinner at a semi-posh restaurant before her gig in Hoboken, N.J., Case jokes, “I’m not made for this many utensils.” While working class isn’t a frame she’s trapped by, she’s irked by arbitrary rules she hasn’t been apprised of. This is part of the reason she’s still sick with regret about what happened at the Grand Ole Opry on Aug. 4, 2001, a day that helped cement her reputation with the rock set while shutting her out of the time-honored Nashville country-music hall she’d always aspired to play. When, despite your rock heritage, you revere country music’s oral tradition and old-guard etiquette (i.e., country the way Patsy Cline did it), a show at the Grand Ole Opry—even its second stage—isn’t a matter of irony. It’s an awesome honor, and one that won’t be hers again.

Yes, she took her shirt off in front of the audience, revealing her bra, after playing for an hour at the Opry’s sun-baked outdoor stage on a sweltering day. Case had just been confronted by a contract-waving promoter who barked at her to play another 45 minutes. She didn’t remove her top to be provocative. “Not by any stretch of the imagination,” says Case. “I would not ever entertain the idea that perhaps I was sexy enough to get away with that.” She did it because she had heat exhaustion. So what looked like the ultimate in seductive, anarchistic defiance—Grand Ole Opry general manager Pete Fisher called it “a horrible act” in the Nashville Tennessean’s gossip column the next day—was actually a frantic bid not to pass out. (Fisher declined on behalf of the Opry to comment for this story.)

“I guess at that moment, I felt very much like what I did as a musician meant nothing,” she says. “It was all about formalities. It was all about which fork you use, and I hope that isn’t true. I felt very bad about the misunderstanding, and I apologized profusely, but we were informed that I would never play the Grand Ole Opry again as long as I lived. It really hurt.”

Case pauses and looks down at her silverware. Then she smiles. “But anthropologically, I have to think, ‘Well, lots of people go on the Opry—but how many people get kicked off?’”