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A Little Bit Country, All Rock ‘n Roll

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Wanna be a rockstar? Not a canned ham version who's all show and no substance, but a homegrown one with drive, grit, soul, and a sense of humor? One without a predetermined marketing scheme, a hint of pretension or phat dance moves? Then Neko Case is your model.

Born in Virginia, where she picked up the twang, Case left home at fifteen, grew up some more in Tacoma, Washington, started going to see punk bands, then started playing drums in them. She fell shamelessly in love with Canada and in 1994 joined the Vancouver trio Maow. In 1997, while attending art school, she recorded her first solo album with a group of musicians she affectionately called "Her Boyfriends." The video for the lead track off that album got rejected from Country Music Television for being too cutting edge (Case goes postal on a bar with her guitar, a baseball bat and then a golf club when the patrons don't pay her appropriate attention). Case also got together with Carolyn Marks to become one half of the occasional Corn Sisters. And she started singing sans twang as a member of the alternative pop rock band, The New Pornographers (another Canadian creation). A few years later, another solo album with the help of her Boyfriends — 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby — and the critical praise abounded.

Case has just released her third album, Blacklisted. The Boyfriends are missing, but she seems to be swimming fine without a bicycle: She's written all but two of the songs, something new for her, and plays a bunch of the instruments on the album, too (all self-taught). Her solo style is more of the same good old stuff: Think country, but with an edge that could spank the smile off Shania and Leanne. Yeah, she's got a drawl and she probably won't smash her guitar on stage, but she's still a rockstar in the best sense of the word.

The Bloodshot Records site credits the following quote to you: "I hate the Internet. I'm going to get famous the old-fashioned way, one person at a time." Do you feel hypocritical doing this interview? Have you checked out Nerve? Do you hate us? Do you want to hurt our feelings?
No, I was just kidding around. I have to take some kind of hard-line stance to mask the embarrassing truth that I can barely type. I don't hate you; I don't really even go on the Internet unless I'm looking at old guitars on eBay.

What do you think of Nerve? Could I convince you to take your coat off and stay awhile?
Yes, I'm having a nice time here at Nerve, letting my hair down, as it were.

We've always have a hard time describing, in ten words or less, exactly what Nerve is about, because it's pretty eclectic, and while there's an emphasis on sex, it is, shall we say, more than that. How would you describe your musical style in ten words or less?
Disenchanted North American music.

Who do you love and hate being compared to?
The most flattering comparison I've ever gotten was to Levon Helm, though I am hardly worthy. Sometimes I get David Lynch, which is flattering. The worst have been Diana Krall and Janis Joplin. Comparisons are always confusing. I think writers are sometimes lazy and pick the most obvious choices to compare you to, even if you sound nothing alike. They annoy me when they only choose other women. But it's not that big a deal.

I can imagine why Diana Krall is one of the worst comparisons, but why Janis Joplin? Is it because it's obviously not about the music, but about the hairdo, about a look?
I think it bugs me most, not because of her looks, but because of her image. My instincts tell me she was probably a smart, fascinating person. But the only thing anyone ever says about her is how loaded she used to get. You know, there will be some big article about her and it will be about some fucked-up episode where she drinks too much and blah blah blah. When they end up quoting her, she sounds like a complete idiot. As an important woman in music history, she deserves a lot better than that. So when people say I sound like Janis Joplin, I don't trust that they've heard either of us.

Is Neko Case the name you were born with?
It's my real name, but when I was a kid I begged my mom to let me change it to "Donna." It was the late '70s, early '80s, and I wanted one of those rainbow pins with my name on it so bad! I was pissed.

I wanted to change mine to Samantha. People always mispronounced it, too. Do people mispronounce yours, like Necco Wafers? [It's pronounced "nee-koh."]
Oh yes! But I don't mind.

Do you like Necco Wafers?
I am suspect of what they are doing in that huge factory. Nobody actually eats those things, do they?

I hope not. Anything else you won't put in your mouth?
Seafood, fennel, and pine nuts. Nasty!

How do you go from working alone to being part of a band [the New Pornographers] with five other members, all dudes?
I keep quiet and do what they say. I live in fear of them most of the time. Their agents are everywhere.

Where did that name, The New Pornographers, come from?
A book written by the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart called Music: the New Pornography. He's soooo wise, and he does know his porn!

Are you a consumer of pornography?
Only occasionally: it's no match for my own imagination. On tour we sometimes get Leg Show. Kelly Hogan turned me on to it. It's got a great sense of humor, and the magazine is run by a woman. Our favorite one has a hot lady who was using a Ken doll as a dildo. Why didn't I think of that! Actually, now that I think about it, every Ken doll I've ever seen has been filthy; I'm too hygienic to suspend fear of vaginitis for a date with germy old Ken.

If you could create a truly new form of pornography, what would it be?
There would be no more big hair or high-heeled shoes, and in the "girl-on-girl" scenes the ladies wouldn't have those knifelike press-on nails. Every time they go for the clitoris I wince! Why don't you go at her with a letter opener while you're down there? Ow!

I think if you've inspired someone to write a song about you or meant enough to someone that they put you in their wedding, then that's evidence that your life on earth has not been wasted. Tacoma garage punk band Girl Trouble wrote a song about you, right? What's it called and what are some of the lyrics from it? Did you feel flattered, honored, like you had arrived?
I'm too shy about it to recite the lyrics. Besides, if people are curious, they should go out and buy a fabulous Girl Trouble record. I felt very moved that they did that, they were a huge influence on me. I love them very, very much.

Come on, not even one line? Pretty please . . . ?
I'm turning red, no!

What's with the pictures of you lying down on the ground, in sort of prone positions, in the photos on your last two albums?
It wasn't planned that way, it's just a funny coincidence. There's no hidden neo-feminist, art-school agenda going on, despite my neo-feminist, art-school background. Besides, it looks tough when you're inspecting the undercarriage of your van! Even in pajamas.

Where are your Boyfriends this time around?
My radio collar tracking system I have on them right now tells my they are at the dump with their cubs foraging through garbage. Sorry, I love making that joke.

Any real boyfriends right now? . . . Or girlfriends? . . . Or toys?
Nope, only deep, deep, exhausted sleep. Sigh . . .

The Bloodshot Records site also says you're "fond of leaving the house without frilly undergarments" and "not particularly bashful about mentioning it." Does that mean you prefer plain, practical, cotton underpants, or you prefer going commando?
I go either way, but I fucking hate lace (why don't you just shove steel wool down your panties!) and I hate "the thong" (makes you look like a sectioned off ham hanging in a butcher shop window). The "Britney-style" thong-out-the-top-of-the-pants thing says to me, "Here is my halter, please lead me back to the barn and feed me!" But I have to admit, it does make me laugh. When I do wear underpants, my favorite pair are these white cotton ones I got from British Airways when they lost my luggage. When I got back to my hotel and pulled out my "gratis" panties and realized that the guy behind the counter who gave me the "travel kit" had to check out my crotch and estimate my size, I felt so dirty. He was spot on! How spooky.

And while we're on the subject of "going commando," do you happen to know the etymology of that phrase? We get a lot of mail asking us about that.
Maybe "commandos" such as Sylvester Stallone like their balls to hang free in the wind as they are running with their machine gun across an open field while screaming "Nooooooooo" in slow motion.

Is underwear a topic you like to bring up at the dinner table?
Sure.

Are there any topics of conversation that you think aren't appropriate for the dinner table?
Infected injuries or veterinary-style parasite worming treatments.

Are there any topics that you think aren't appropriate for your music?
That's a personal choice. I have my own pet peeves, like when people sing about drinking (as in, "I'm so fucked up and wild, man!"). I have little patience for the rock 'n' roll, getting-loaded romance mythology. The mention of new technology like the Internet (except in "Survivor" by Destiny's Child) or cellphones is pretty bad, too. I also think cashing in on September 11th is fucking vile.

What are your favorite things to sing about and why?
At the moment, it's birds. I don't know why.

Why no love songs of your own on this album?
You can only write that song so many times before you gotta cool it. You'll just end up sounding cliché. I'm sure I already do. I supplemented with weird, angry, politically incorrect love songs by other people on this album.

What makes them "politically incorrect"?
Well, "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)" [by Dee Sylvia and Guy Wood] has a bit of an implied stalker theme that is portrayed in a sexy kind of way. I sure as hell don't want to be stalked, but I love the song, it's so odd.

You taught yourself to play the drums and guitar, and you've never had any formal vocal training. Do you think music is a gift you're just born with, like it would be cheating to pay for and struggle in voice and guitar lessons if it doesn't come naturally?
I think the love of music is a gift and you go from there. Unless you want to be an opera singer, I can't see the logic in vocal training. That's just my bitchy opinion though, as I've seen some really good singers have the character leached right out of their voices by the process. A couple guitar lessons here and there never hurt anyone though. God knows I could use some!

Do you think the same might be said about good sex — it's something that can't be taught, it's just instinctual?
It's a case-by-case situation. For me personally, I need a connection, and trust. It doesn't hurt if they're gently filthy also.

Natural redhead?
Nope. My hair is naturally Ukrainian brown, which is a sort of graphite color. Light can neither enter nor leave.

What's the significance of "Beaver," the circular jacket patch you wear in one of your publicity photos that's replicated on one side of the Blacklisted disc?
The patch is from a Canadian gas station, I think, but it is, most importantly, the name of my sweet, sweet van, the "Ultra Beaver." It's brown, you know.

Photograph by Erica Henderson.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lorelei Sharkey Lorelei has written for Glamour, Men's Journal, The Guardian (U.K.), Details and the Boston Phoenix. She and her evil twin Emma Taylor write Nerve's weekly horoscopes and sex advice columns. They've also written Nerve's two original books, "The Big Bang" (out now) and "Nerve's Guide to Sex Etiquette" (forthcoming Winter '04). Some of Lorelei's specific qualifications for her residency at Nerve (since 1998) include early-'80s short stories inspired by the "good parts" of secretly-bought romance novels and an eleventh-grade English term paper on Lady Chatterly's Lover.