It’s a recurring theme in our conversation, though not by design — which is perfect, because that pretty much is the theme. Grand plans just seem to fall into Neko Case’s hands, like a destiny she had nothing to do with, but she seized the opportunity when it arrived.
“Maow announced to me that I was in the band. And I said, OK!” she recalls of how she ended up in an all-girl punk rock trio in the mid-’90s. Later, she’s recalling a conversation with Bloodshot Records honcho Nan Warshaw that ultimately resulted in a song co-written with Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams and Mike Daly: “I was talking to Nan on the phone, and she was like, ‘Oh, Whiskeytown are in town, they wanna meet you, you should go meet up with them!’ And I’m like, OK! Get drunk in the afternoon, right on.”
On another occasion, a tip from her publicist led to a long and fruitful relationship with Toronto siblings Dallas and Travis Good, of Bloodshot band the Sadies. “I needed a guitar player to go on my first tour for my first record, across Canada. And she said, ‘Get Dallas Good to go, he’s great.’ And I said, OK!” The Sadies backed her on a subsequent tour, and Travis eventually became the linchpin on her second record, playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass.
Then there’s the matter of how one of her lifelong idols, guitarist Evan Johns, wound up playing on that record: “My friend Chris Houston in Vancouver, who somehow knows every person on Earth, was like, ‘Neko — Evan Johns is in town, you gotta get him to play on your record!’ And I’m like, OK!” A little later, it’s former Wilco/Freakwater steel guitarist Bob Egan who hops aboard, completely out of the blue: “Bob Egan called us and said, ‘Hi, I’m coming over to play on your record.’ And I said, OK!”
Given such stories, it’s no surprise that Case’s two records have both been sprawling affairs featuring more than a dozen musicians — and, save for three constants, a different cast of players on each album. In acknowledgment of her musical compadres, Case issued both albums under the name Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (though a few of those boyfriends are, in fact, girlfriends).
Creating any semblance of order from such a clusterfuck would seem daunting, but apparently Case is comfortable amidst the chaos. “Even though it seems very haphazard, I’d rather not have a complete plan; I don’t work well that way, I guess,” she says. “I’m one of those people who thinks it up, and then I have to make it right away.”
Her sophomore effort, Furnace Room Lullaby (released February 22 on Bloodshot in the U.S. and on Mint in Canada), was a scattered affair in terms of geography as well as personnel. Part of it was done in the same Vancouver, British Columbia, studio where she made her debut disc, The Virginian; other tracks were recorded across the continent in Toronto, while still others were added in Chicago.
“The album was written from a very nomadic perspective, because I was on tour the whole time. And I wanted to be able to record it that way too, because that’s the way the music felt,” Case explains. “Plus, it was a way to get more people I wanted to play on the album.”
“Nomadic” is precisely the word to describe Case’s existence in recent years. Since finishing her studies at Emily Carr College of Art & Design in Vancouver in 1997, she’s spent short stretches between tours living in Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle and Chicago, rarely settling long enough anywhere to catch her breath.
On the other hand, this isn’t exactly a big change from her lifelong pattern. “When I was a kid, we lived all over the country,” she says. Born in Alexandria, Virginia — thus the title of her first record, The Virginian — she spent most of her formative years in Washington state. She has fond memories of early days in the northern burg of Bellingham and nearby hamlets such as Sumas and Lynden just south of the Canadian border, where many of her relatives lived.
Less attractive was Vancouver, Washington, just across the state line from Portland, Oregon, and, in Case’s words, “the most depressing city in America.” She was thrilled when her family relocated to Vermont when she was in sixth grade. “We lived this total Norman Rockwell existence,” she marvels. “I went to a school where there was, like, 40 kids. It was extremely rural; it was way out in the middle of nowhere. We were super-poor, but we lived on this huge, 66-acre farm. It had like, you know, the swimming pond, and the old maple sugar factory, and the barn built before the Civil War. And we had all these animals and horses and stuff. It was the greatest place kids could ever be. It was very sad when we had to move away.”
They returned to the Northwest, eventually settling in Tacoma, where Case went to high school before dropping out at age 15. “I got kicked outta the house and all that, and just kind of lived hand-to-mouth for a really long time, trying to figure out how to be an adult,” she remembers. “But I finally figured out how to be an adult and support myself over the years.”
It was during these years that the spark of musical enlightenment was fanned into a full flame. Growing up, she had developed a fondness for the country music her grandmother loved, as well as the arena-rock records her parents favored (by such bands as Heart and Queen). But it was punk rock that spoke to her in those teenage Tacoma years.
“I had this friend named Rick McGrew who gave me a drum set when I was like 17 or 18,” she says, revealing how she ended up behind the kit in her early musical endeavors. “And there were people like Girl Trouble in Tacoma, who made being in a band seem like the most awesome thing in the world. They were so into rock ‘n’ roll, and they were so enthusiastic and inspiring, that I’m sure they had a lot to do with it.”