Neko (pronounced like Nico) Case certainly has the tresses to make it in Nashville. Her long luxurious auburn locks would need only a little coaxing and a lot of hair spray for a Loretta Lynn do.
She’s got the voice, too — a big, full-bodied yet tender instrument that insinuates itself into a song, teasing out its emotional dynamic and laying it on the listener like a thunderstorm.
But is she bound for Nashville? No way.
“I don’t even think about it,” says the singer during a phone interview from the United States, where she is preparing for a West Coast tour. “What they do isn’t really country music anymore.”
If Case knows definitively what country is, then saying what it is poses more problems. “Country is far too big . . . to define,” says the singer, with the slightly exasperated air of someone who has grappled with this question too many times.
Suffice to say “Blacklisted,” Case’s third solo record, is imbued with the spirit of classic country, but she won’t cite direct influences. “Every time I talk about it, I get this panicky feeling because there are always people I want to mention and I always forget,” she says.
Case can be forgiven for her reticence. Though “Blacklisted” was released in Japan this week, it has been out for nearly a year in the United States and Europe.
“It isn’t totally dead in my mind,” she says, “but the specifics of making it are pretty blurry.”
Musically, Case strays slightly further from the tried-and-true folkiness of her two earlier records.
“I like the production of old records where the vocals and reverb are front and center,” she says of the record’s spacious sound. It’s country, but I’d be a liar if I said that R&B and especially gospel weren’t influences.”
She has said that the record’s atmospherics are gleaned from listening to soundtracks. Imagine Patsy Cline wandering into a Sergio Leon movie. Though Case works with a diverse range of musicans on “Blacklisted,” Calexico, the duo of drummer Joey Burns and guitarist John Covertino, are primarily responsible for the record’s haunting sound.
“I’m sure people can hear Joey and John on the record because they always sound like Joey and John,” says Case. “But I produced the record differently from the way they [do things]. I like to give [the music] a lot of negative space, like in paintings. I don’t think I can dissect it, because when it’s happening, I don’t think about it. I just know what I want to hear.”
Tellingly, this is the first Neko Case record not credited to “Neko Case and her Boyfriends,” signaling a greater independence both in the studio and in the songwriting itself. Unlike the past records, she wrote all but two of the songs herself. Learning to play guitar helped.
“Yeah, it makes it a lot easier,” she says. “I still enjoy the interaction of writing a song with someone else, but I don’t think about it too hard. I can just be in my room and finish a song.
“My guitar playing isn’t particularly genius or standout. All the really fancy musicianship is still done by other people.”
For folks who generally ignore country’s latest offerings but treasure their Johnny Cash records, Case and groups such as Kelly Hogan and her Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Waco Brothers (with former members of seminal punk group The Mekons) and an ever-growing list of musicians are providing a viable alternative.
Given that many of these artists cut their teeth playing punk or indie rock, critics have taken to calling this music alt country to distinguish it from its mainstream counterpart. But for Case, the label doesn’t work.
“Nobody who gets called that likes it. We really want to play country music,” she emphasizes. “I don’t mind being called Americana or country noir, but alt country sounds like some type of weird computer fad. It is definitely universally loathed.”
Americana probably fits the bill better anyway. Case and her brethren have the heartfelt attitude of country, but harken back to that point in musical history when America’s folk roots where just beginning to branch off into distinguishable genres. The Waco Brothers, true to their punk roots, have a naughty twist that recalls early rock ‘n’ roll. Kelly Hogan sounds like a lady cowboy.
Case’s music is of a slightly darker cast. “Blacklisted” is, by turns, fierce and melancholic. The title track, with its twin longing for escape and home, defines the album’s sense of noir, the central figure wanting to get away yet also find a sense of place.
“It wouldn’t really leave me alone,” Case says of the title. “It is meant in a more abstract way instead of the McCarthyist way that most people think of.”
As a musician who spends nearly 10 months of the year on the road, this isn’t an abstract dilemma. Case’s lack of a fixed address gave rise to the mistaken notion that she was Canadian.
Though she studied art in Vancouver and started playing music (drums) with the punk outfit Maouw there, Case was born in Virginia and raised in Tacoma, Wash. Unlike most culturally myopic Americans, however, Case has taken the Canadian label as somewhat of a compliment, even recording a special mini CD of covers of Canadian songs.
“I came up through the Canadian music scene and [though] Canada is the biggest country in the world, it is also the smallest in a way,” says Case. “It is very nurturing and noncompetitive. The Canadian government recognizes music as art and gives people grants to record, to make videos and to tour. I fell in love [with Canada]: the people, the scenery and the culture, which is much different than the United States.”
Though she has since moved back to the United States (Chicago, not that she is there much), Case still maintains her ties to the Canadian music scene, most prominently by singing with Canadian pop group the New Pornographers.
“[They are] my good time rock ‘n’ roll band, or rock ‘n’ roll vacation,” says Case. “I just show up and sing, hang out, laugh and have fun.”
Summer will find her supporting their new album, “Electric Version.” Then she’ll be back with Calexico in Tucson, Ariz., to record her next album sometime in the fall.
“I think the new songs are more fairy tale-oriented,” she says of her new material. “I have been infatuated by Russian fairy tales lately. They involve a lot of animals and often don’t have a moral, which I find fascinating.”
And after that, she’ll be doing more touring. Will she ever settle down?
“I think there will also be lots of longing. . . . I’ve never really lived in one place for a long time,” she says.
Isn’t that country?
“Yeah, it is in a lot of ways.”
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