Case left a mark on young, dumb me
by Emmet Matheson
I first heard of Neko Case in the spring of 1998. I was in Toronto and my friends Michelle and Danika would not stop talking about this country torch singer they’d seen at the now-closed Matador. She’d done a week-long residency at the after-hours club with the Sadies, who themselves were still mostly unknown. This was how you learned about new music in the ’90s. You talked to people.
I’d only recently gotten over my punk rock adolescent prejudices about country music, and had been binge-listening to entry-level stuff like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Kitty Wells. Some contemporary alt-country — I was still calling it cow-punk then — had pushed into my consciousness, stuff like Bad Livers, Robbie Fulks, and Will Oldham. I was perfectly primed for the rumours of Neko Case that I’d hear for another two years before finally seeing her live for myself.
I went to Montreal and wrote short stories about a country singer based on the vague, but glowing reports I kept hearing about Case. They were brutal, horrible things, literary crimes perpetuated by a 21-year-old saturated with Kerouac, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Pat Hobby Stories, and the idea of Neko Case grew in my imagination.
Her debut album, The Virginian, was good, but her second album, 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby, was transcendent, surpassing even my own warped imagination. Back in Regina, I got an advance copy in late 1999 and I knew that everyone who heard this would be hooked. It was like a country version of the kinda-Goth, kinda-Noir territory explored by Tom Waits and Nick Cave, only better, because this singer had a voice as great as it was interesting.
Neko Case and her Boyfriends (that’s what she called her band back then) played a show at the old State very early in 2000. It was one of the first shows there after they finally built a stage higher than two feet off the ground. I had arranged a preshow interview with Case. But someone else got there first and broke into her band’s van. The bandit made off with little more than dirty laundry, but the ensuing chaos left no time before soundcheck for the local music press. So I hung out and watched the band, which included members of the Sadies and steel guitar barnstormer Jon Rauhouse, get ready for the show. At some point, Case made time for me and we sat down for an interview. She was warm, attentive, funny, and often profane.
I remember my questions more than her answers, which says something about the kind of questions I used to ask interview subjects. I wanted to know if country music was the only emotional way out of the archly aloof and ironic corner indie rock had painted itself into over the course of the ’90s. I asked her if she’d ever purposefully sought out heartbreak because she thought it might be good for her art. She laughed hard at that one and shook her heard.
Then Rauhouse came over and offered me a slice of pizza, signalling the end of the interview.
Neko Case’s new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, her first solo album since 2009, will be released in September. She plays the mainstage Sunday at 10:15 and will perform a free show on stage two from 2-3 p.m.