Neko Case is still mostly asleep when she picks up the phone for her first interview of the day. Her timbre is foggy, not at all the crystalline voice that makes her second record, Furnace Room Lullaby, one of the great unexpected pleasures in country music this year. (Make that "alternative country," despite Case's disdain for the label.) Gradually, as she wakens, her passion for the music of the Loretta Lynn/Patsy Cline/Dolly Parton school becomes more evident and her voice comes back to life. But for now she sounds like she needs some coffee.
That may explain why Case is confused when queried about how she found her marvelous singing voice. It's a logical question considering she got her start as a drummer, an unlikely place for a would-be crooner to begin. "It's always been there. I used to like to sing around the house as a kid," she says. "When I was a teenager, my friend gave me a drum set, so that's [where] I started."
Case played in a handful of punk bands before taking up the kit for the more pop-oriented Canadian band Maow in Vancouver in 1994. That band's first album was released in 1997, the same year as Case's solo debut, The Virginian. Though punk rock and country music cover much of the same thematic terrain, it's still a giant step from one to the other. But for Case the move was intuitive. "I was in a punk rock band and I started writing songs and they turned out to be country songs -- they didn't really fit," she says. "I just decided to record them myself."
This isn't the story of a campy punk rocker trying on a Dolly Parton wig; the Virginia-born Case has a natural vocal gift, a rare element of believability that comes with pipes that radiate heartfelt soul. The way her voice cracks on Lullaby's waltz of pain, "Twist the Knife," or how a slight twang slips in on the album's barnburner, "Whip the Blankets," proves Case knows from what she sings about. It makes sense that she's drawn to the classic style of country, given her punk rock, anybody-can-do-it background.
"Music is a weird thing," she says. "When I grew up, music was being cut out of public schools and it was just kind of frowned upon to choose any type of creative path for any kind of career. People grow up thinking that music is this really elite, strange thing and that it's really super hard. Maybe people who make music want to make other people feel that way because they don't want the competition, but music is the easiest thing in the world to do. You don't even have to play an instrument to know how to write a song -- it's that easy. You have to realize that you don't know how to do it to do it and that's the hardest part, I think. It seems like a precious and crazy thing -- you just have to love it."
Furnace Room Lullaby isn't precious in the way that it merges high and low art. From the moment that Case's voice opens the record as a pickup note, coated in slap-back reverb, Owen Bradley style, it's obvious that something special is about to happen. The songs cover country's basics -- breaking up, lashing out at enemies, and regrets -- but noir black-and-white photos (taken by Case) and a fake crime scene album cover speak of more than simple retro rehashing. It's an obsession with the dark and the macabre that has led some to brand what Case and other like-minded artists -- namely Freakwater, the Handsome Family, and a whole slew of other Chicago insurgents -- do as "goth country." Though the crime-scene pics were a tongue-in-cheek gesture that turned out well, the album's ambitions to be a serious package reinforce the impact of Lullaby's earnest heartache.
A stellar cast of mostly Canadian players, Bob Egan (Freakwater), Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), Evan Johns, Ron Sexsmith, and Carl Newman (Zumpano), joins Case on the record, bringing an even mix of baritone guitars, mandolins, upright bass, and lap and pedal steel. But mostly it's a blend of acoustic guitars and simple, brushed drumming that colors the album. Lyrically, Case has a flair for the melodramatic, as on "Twist the Knife," when she begs for relief from broken heart with "Leave me the check/I'll pay with the rest of my life."
"I don't think I try to make them over the top, they just kind of end up that way," Case says. "I think it just comes from being influenced by old country music where it's no holds barred; punk rock is like that too. Old country has murder ballads . . . I've been heavily influenced by gospel, which is heavily over the top."
It could be the time of day, but more likely it's something deeper that gets Case riled when asked about the current crop of country. Or, rather, what passes for country music and culture these days. "Thrice All American," her paean to her adopted hometown of Tacoma, Washington, may romanticize and glorify the city's past, but it also notes that its history is being lost as they "make way for the Wal-Mart." Case seems genuinely surprised when told that Wal-Mart is the single largest seller of "new" country music.
Case bristles when it's suggested that her music could be lumped under the alternative country banner -- the place where so many alienated from current mainstream twang have found refuge.
"The country tradition is so much longer than new country, I don't think I have to call it something different just because there's some kind of crappy, AM radio country music going on right now, making all the money," she says. "I don't like to call it alternative country because it seems like I'm kind of copping out. But when I grew up, I listened to people like Loretta Lynn and saw them on the Opry and I loved all that stuff, and that at the time was mainstream. So, in a sense, I'm still into that mainstream country."
Case follows in another country tradition, the strong woman. If she's going to stand by her man, it's got to be on her terms. Despite its conservative image, country has been the one genre -- aside from, perhaps, R&B -- where women have been able to speak their piece. Even mainstream moneymakers like the Dixie Chicks can get away with murder, as on their recent Grammy Award-winning "Goodbye Earl." Case's unstated manifesto on Lullaby seems to be, "People may fuck me over, but they aren't going to get the best of me."
"Any old place is a good place for women to have their say. I suppose historically country music probably is the best place, even though it seems to have a reputation for being the opposite," she says.
But in her own work, Case also benefits from an art school aesthetic and its open-mindedness toward originality. She's genuinely the creative type, involved in printmaking, sculpture, electrical work and photography. The semi-gothic overtones of the album's design may have been her idea of a goof, but it springs from a twisted side. Case also builds toys that can only be described by her:
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"I have this rabbit, and the whole idea was, kind of like, traps set for children," she says, laughing. "But they are made from the point of view from what the child would imagine -- like the monster under the bed or something. So it's a toy rabbit, but it's sewn together really badly and it's made of green vinyl alligator skin, and when you pick it up it makes a horrible shrieking noise. It's very accessible to people because you can totally understand kids being afraid of the closet or what's under the bed."
But put aside any notions that Case is just some freaky eccentric. She's a tough gal, too. The video for The Virginian's "Timber" featured Case busting up a bar with a baseball bat and guitar because the crowd wasn't paying attention to her performance. It mirrored a real-life incident that happened when she was touring with "cute" indie popsters Cub and received an unwanted type of attention.
"Cub was a sweet indie rock girl band and they were on tour with hard-rockin' boy bands -- and young men tend to get a little stupid sometimes," she diplomatically recounts. "I can put up with the insults, but some guy called me a whore and I'm like, 'That's it.' So I went up to him and I said, 'You know what, just because you don't like the band doesn't mean you can call me a whore, 'cause that's really insulting.' He said something like, 'I don't care, blah, blah, blah.' [That] made me madder, so I socked him. I didn't knock him unconscious, but I did punch him in the face."
Neko Case and Her Boyfriends are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 11, at the Arizona Roadhouse and Brewery in Tempe, with Sleepwalker. Showtime is 9 p.m.