By Bennett Owen
“Neko Case turned up 40 years too late to be one of the great country voices of the fifties.”
- Rolling Stone
And she’s a redhead.
“The ache in her voice is wrenchingly human.”
Did I mention she’s a redhead?
“Neko could harmonize with a garbage disposal and make it sound beautiful.”
- Anonymous Fan
Nice head of hair. Now that I’ve exposed my one and only human frailty, have a listen:
A tornado as metaphor for the inner turbulence of a tortured and beautiful soul. Is there any other kind?
On her website Neko exclaims that she can’t believe she’s got her own rock band. I wonder how difficult it would be to convince her she doesn’t. When I give her a listen (on a daily basis) I hear nothing but old school, traditional, honest to God country. Need some more proof?
Look at her latest album cover, out there perched on top a horse. A Mustang. OK, it’s a Ford Mustang. Well, actually it’s a ’67 Mercury Cougar named Angie Dickenson. Granted, Neko takes the stage with alt. rock bands like The New Pornographers. She lives in Vermont, a long way from Nashville and avoids the country music capital because, “playing a show there has been hard on us.” Read on for the story behind that cryptic comment.
But before you do, listen to that voice.
Some hear Patsy Cline, others say she channels a young Dolly Parton. She’s even been compared to Stevie Nicks although I’m not sure that was meant as a compliment.
Case says she was obsessed with country music as a child growing up with her Grandmother. “It was like a soundtrack for the good times I had as a kid,” she remembers. You don’t have to read too far between the lines to know that those good times were few and far between. As a teenage runaway, Neko developed a true passion for music that sustained her through many a rough patch. “It makes you feel like you’re not alone,” she told NPR.
The melancholy seeps into her lyrics … a writer of puzzling lines open to interpretation. The emotions they evoke are often sad yet completely avoid self-pity. Not one to use her craft for self-aggrandizement, or sentimental love, or settling scores, she points to Hold On Hold On as one song with biographical elements:
“The most tender place in my heart is for strangers. I know it’s unkind but my own love is much too dangerous.”
Dark stuff and yet her live performances are invariably boisterous and energetic, as if she’s genuinely having a good time. With you, her one and only fan. It’s a uniquely country trait. Neko describes herself as a blue-collar musician … no dreams of selling out football stadiums, she thrives on the intimacy of sharing the same time and place with her audience, a sentiment captured in this exchange with Puremusic.com:
PM: I’m moved by how much you put into a song. I always feel like you’re actually giving the listener something as if saying, “well here I am. Here it is.”
NC: Ah, thank you. I try. If you were inside of my body you would be hearing, “I got to hit that note … oh my God they’re going to know I’m a fraud! Lift that note! Lift that note … aaaah!”
Her admitted pet peeve is auto tune and pitch shifting, the technological leveling of the musical playing field. She spurns the high tech, preferring endless hours of practice, constantly honing and refining the natural talent within her. Now hear the result as she transform the childlike phrase ‘la-dee-da’ into a venomous, raging accusation:
Neko once asked a studio techie in Toronto how many people don’t use auto tune and he replied “You and Nelly Furtado.” “I’m not a perfect note hitter either,” she admits, “but I don’t cover it up with auto tune.”
A technological crutch a lot of Nashville regulars rely on. Cruel irony perhaps that Neko has been handed the equivalent of a ‘you’ll never sing in this town again,” card and all that due essentially to a clothing malfunction. Suffering from heatstroke on a hot July stage she basically stripped down to the basic essentials and the Grand Ol’ Opry couldn’t ‘bare’ it. They banned her for life despite her profuse apologies. “I wasn’t trying to act cool,” she remembers. “I wasn’t trying to kick out the stage lights like Johnny Cash.”