Great popular singers do more than just hit the right notes — although that certainly helps. Neko Case possesses a big, unsentimental voice that zeroes in on the emotional core of her songs, which lay out a vision of North American life as it's lived in trailer parks and motel rooms. Case is often regarded as a quintessential alt. country artist, but she has her doubts about the genre.
"I don't like the tag 'alt. country,' because it sounds like some weird website or something," says Case. "It's just as much Canadian as it is American, so maybe you could call it North Americana. Beats me."
Born in Virginia in 1970, Case may have reservations about Americana, but her music combines country, rockabilly and American power pop. On her 2006 full-length Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case employed a group featuring keyboardist Garth Hudson of The Band, along with members of the Tucson, Ariz., ensemble Calexico. The record represented a major advance for an artist whose formative influences included such country acts as The Louvin Brothers.
"I was fascinated by the fact that two people who were so religious sang songs about murder," Case says of the Louvins. "The Louvin Brothers' branch of the musical-interest tree in my life is pretty prominent, and The Everly Brothers too. They do some weird harmonies, and you take it for granted when you listen to it. But when you try to sing it, you realize how hard it is."
Fox Confessor amounted to a spooky travelogue, complete with death and the "flooded fields" of the title track. The music featured Hudson's piano and background vocals, which lurked like clouds moving over a bleak landscape. On the amazing "Star Witness," Case created a portrait of loss that loped along in 6/8 time — a mode that seems to be one of her signatures.
"The waltz is a good pattern, and it feels kind of like skipping when you're a little kid," says Case. "It's a really easy pattern to fall into, as far as lyric writing goes and my natural cadence. I think I just gravitate toward that."
Case continued in the same vein on 2009's Middle Cyclone, which included a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me." As does her work with Canadian power-poppers The New Pornographers, the Nilsson song revealed her knack for compelling pop.
"It was just how sad it is, and how far out on a limb it goes," Case says of her decision to record Nilsson's tune. "It's almost kind of funny, but then the fact that it's almost kind of funny makes it so much sadder. I don't really love the album Pussy Cats that it's on — it seems like a lonely song in a sea of boogie-woogie-party-time-with-John Lennon songs."
Case remains busy, recently contributing background vocals to San Francisco popsters The Dodos' new full-length No Color. She also worked with Nick Cave on a cover of The Zombies' "She's Not There" for the television series True Blood. "I did my part in Brooklyn, and he did his in London," Case says of the collaboration. "He did the breathy chorus part, so I was like, 'God, I don't know what that's gonna sound like.' It's crazy sounding."
Case continues to write, and says touring helps to refine her efforts. "Working songs out on the road gives the kind of added pressure that defines how you feel about things," she laughs. "Really lights a fire under your ass in a way, you know?"
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