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Neko Case needs a cathedral to hold her voice

‘My great strength is my loudness’ says the indie chanteuse
/ Source: The Associated Press

While growing up, Neko Case always took comfort from voices in the dark. She’d retreat to her room and listen to the radio and records, to people she felt knew her private thoughts and imagined she knew as well.

Now that she’s a singer, Case is motivated by the desire to mean the same thing to others.

She’s got a remarkable voice, one that can inspire shivers in the ghostly ballad “A Widow’s Toast,” heartbreak in her energetic cover of the obscure 1960s story-song “The Train From Kansas City” and surprise with its power when blended onstage with her friend Kelly Hogan.

Case “projects like she’s singing in a cathedral with light pouring through stained-glass windows, even when she’s singing about darkness, dementia and death,” wrote critic Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, in the city where Case keeps her home when not on the road.

“I don’t know if I ever realized I was a good singer,” Case told The Associated Press. “I just realized that I wanted to sing.”

Kot’s cathedral reference is apt, since that would probably be Case’s performance venue of choice. She loves big rooms where the sound bounces off the wall and lingers. That’s not easy to find in nightclubs.

To approximate that effect and recall the sound of her favorite old Ike and Tina Turner records, Case’s sound technicians add reverb to her vocals. The same sound from Turner “just makes you break out in tears,” she said.

“She could change the way the room sounded with her little human lungs,” Case said. ‘To me, it’s totally mind-blowing and very moving.”

A product of the rainy NorthwestCase, a young veteran at 35, grew up in Tacoma, Wash., and left an unhappy home as a teen-ager. She attended art school in Vancouver and played in punk bands. She was the emergency replacement for the drummer in the band Cub when she made her public singing debut in 1993 at a club in Toledo, Ohio.

“I am a very loud singer,” she said. “My great strength is my loudness. I basically started making records before I had any idea what dynamic was. You can hear the terror in my first two records because basically I’m singing on ‘10’ all the time. I had people point that out to me, and I was really glad that they did.”

Her love for country music is evident in her work, but she’s not so easily classified. One term she’s heard and liked is country noir, because it hints at a movie-like quality and attention to detail in her writing.

Case’s most recent album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” can be lyrically dense and inconsistent, inspired in part by eastern European folk tales. Moments of beauty in songs like “Margaret vs. Pauline” make it worthwhile.

“The voice is what drives you in originally, but there’s a whole lot there behind the voice,” said Andy Caulkin, president of her record label, Anti-. “Her music is very cinematic. It’s hard to verbalize it, but I feel like I’m hearing a movie.”

Her contract with the relatively small independent label illustrates how the music business has changed.

“I’ve had offers from major [labels], but I didn’t really think it was the place for me,” she said. “You see it happening every day. A person gets signed to a major label, the label gets bought out and the person who cared about them and signed them is gone a week later. That’s not really job security.”

Besides, she said, she’s a control freak and being with a smaller label gives her a feeling of control.

Moonlighting with the New PornographersIt also doesn’t hurt that Anti- is the home of Tom Waits, one of her favorite artists.

She’d like to emulate the career of someone like Waits or another hero, Nick Lowe. Both are mature artists making music they love for a dedicated group of fans, and worry little about making videos and other aspects of the star-making machinery.

Anti- also accepts and encourages Case’s dual-track career. Case records and performs regularly with the indie rock band New Pornographers, many of whom are old friends from the Vancouver area.

The calculation is simple for Caulkin; the New Pornographers work exposes Case to an audience that might not otherwise seek out her solo albums, he said.

Knowing that New Pornographers leader Carl Newman is writing a song for her to sing “is probably one of the most heart-breakingly lovely things that there is,” Case said.

“It’s such a fun band to be in,” she said. “I don’t have to write the songs. I just go there and play. There’s a lot of freedom there. Not that I would ever trade it for my own, but I also wouldn’t want to only do my own and not do the New Pornographers.”