Shark Week may have come and gone but, according to Neko Case, "You're either some kind of shark, or you're useless. It's pretty limiting. It's pretty discouraging."
The well-traveled singer/songwriter, known for her red hair, her huge voice and her genre-hopping career, is talking not about predatory fish, but about predatory mass-media, namely the propaganda machine that deems those over age 40 as past their prime. Case crossed that milestone last year. "I'm pissed at the way popular media portrays women who are my age," she says. "You feel like nobody's representing you. I'm 50 percent of the population. Am I invisible? Am I unimportant? Am I just some sort of dowdy matriarch to you? I'm not cool with it at all."
Of course, she's neither dowdy nor unimportant, and far from invisible. And as far as Case's work goes, she's not only as viable as ever ("Most people don't really hit their stride till they're in their 40s," she says), but in the thick of a new project. Calling Xpress during a break from rehearsals, Case reveals, "We're working on songs for the new record, but we're also working on stuff for a tour with My Morning Jacket."
Case cut her teeth as a drummer in various Vancouver-based punk bands while attending university. After relocating to Seattle in the late '90s, she recorded vocals for what would be alt-rock band The New Pornographer's debut album, Mass Romantic. Case would continue to record and perform with that band (she lends her voice to at least a few tracks on all of their studio albums) while also launching her solo career with her own backing band, Her Boyfriends. Though the New Pornographers' sound towed the line between pop and radio-ready rock, Case and Her Boyfriends were distinctly country. Furnace Room Lullaby from 2000 landed at No. 27 on the Canadian country chart.
By the 2000s, though, Case's sound had evolved in an indie-rock direction with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood in ‘06, turning out captivating, resonant tracks like "Teenage Feeling" and "Hold On, Hold On" (the latter covered by '60s icon Marianne Faithfull on her '08 album Easy, Come Easy Go). Case returned in '09 with Middle Cyclone, a tour de force of orchestration and song writing, folding poignant messages of animal rights, environmentalism and fierce independence into lush melodies and clangorous instrumentation.
It's Cyclone that topped the U.S. indie chart and garnered two Grammy nods. It's also Cyclone on which Case posed, in a pre-pounce crouch, brandishing a sword, atop her own classic '67 Mercury Cougar (lest there be any questions as to her bad-assedness). This spring, Case raffled the car off in her "Mercury Cougar-Rama Muscle Car 'Splosion," which raised much-needed funds for 826 National, a nonprofit that runs creative writing and tutoring centers for under-resourced students, ages 6-18.
In retrospect, it seems that Case's trajectory must have been carefully plotted to allow for so many right steps amid so much exploration. Lots of trial, not much error. Case chalks it up to being very lucky and making good choices — along with a few opportunities lost to her advantage. For example: "I never got signed by a major [label]," she says. "I was really bummed, at the time, when I was young, that I didn't get signed. But I kept at it and I learned a lot about the music business and I'm really glad my career has gone the way it's gone." She says that because she had to learn to do things for herself, she's been a lot more productive and feels connected to all aspects of the music business.
"I still have a hand in everything," she says. "I've also learned the there are a lot of people in this world who are much better at certain things than I am, so the letting go of control is the hardest part."
There's also an element of relinquishing control in the creative process, such as the current album-in-progress. "It's just kind of happening as it's happening," says Case. "There's no strategy."
Pressed to describe her new songs, she demures, "They're so young, there's no overall sound at all." Case says it’s just a matter of getting structures together before the songs can "become their own things."
"I never go in with a specific idea," says Case. "I just start working on all these fragments and the theme or the thread of the whole thing kind of reveals itself to me as I go." However she does it, time has proven that Case can craft the kind of record that critics love and to which fans continually return. And, nine albums into her solo career, Case is just getting started.
"Forty's great, but wait till forty-one-derful," she says.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Neko Case
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Aug. 18 (9 p.m., $25 advance/$27 doors. theorangepeel.net)