Neko Case has never taken the obvious path. The 38-year-old singer grew up poor, ran away from home and dropped out of high school at 15 — though she ended up earning a B.F.A. from a Canadian art school. Along the way, Case also became a staunch supporter of animal rights (her four dogs are rescued from shelters) and an avid kickboxer; she's also turned down major-label record deals, rebuffed Playboy's offer of a nude photo spread and once broke her hand punching a drunk asshole outside a club. Recently, Case voiced the role of a young pop diva who rides a cocaine-snorting unicorn for a Cartoon Network pilot. "It's dark and fucking vile and awesome," says Case, sipping iced tea at a laid-back Italian joint in midtown Manhattan.
Case's decade-long career in music has been nearly as colorful and offbeat as her life. When she started releasing albums in the late Nineties, she was the most exciting female singer in alt-country — even though she hates the term — recalling a spunkier Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. Around the same time, she became a hero to rock nerds when she joined cult Canadian power-pop act the New Pornographers. Her last three solo albums have found Case drifting toward a harder-to-define sound: rootsy, inventive rock & roll filled with noirish flourishes and abstract lyrics. "I just wanted to follow new ideas," she says. "Otherwise I'd bore you."
Middle Cyclone, Case's newest album and fifth overall, is the most expansive release of her career: Byrds guitars and bright, catchy choruses greet ornate acoustic grooves, eerily beautiful ballads and lyrics about friendly tornadoes and talking elephants. Featuring guest appearances by M. Ward, the Band's Garth Hudson and members of Los Lobos and Calexico, Cyclone should outsell Case's 2006 breakthrough, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which moved 200,000 copies. "It's more upbeat and poppy than my earlier albums," Case says. "That was a conscious decision."
Like all Neko Case records, Cyclone is a showcase for her prime asset: a big, golden-hued voice that's capable of both brassy boldness and sumptuous low tones. "She's one of my favorite singers," says X founder John Doe, who recruited Case to sing on his 2005 album Forever Hasn't Happened Yet. "She has a style and a sound you don't hear much these days — it hearkens back to Brenda Lee." "Neko has that natural instrument," says A.C. Newman, Case's co-vocalist in the New Pornographers. "She's like a pitcher with a 120-mile-an-hour fastball."
Case spent nine months working on Cyclone, mostly at a studio near her home in Tucson, Arizona. She also did some recording at a barn on the 100-acre Vermont farm that she recently bought and will move to after the farmhouse is renovated. In the barn, she set up an "orchestra" composed of six old stand-up pianos. Case and some friends played them on three Cyclone tracks, including a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me." "I wanted a piano, so I got one on Craigslist," says Case. "Then I noticed how many there were on Craigslist, and it seemed hilarious to get as many as I could." The album's closing cut, "Marais la Nuit," is more than 30 minutes of croaking frogs, recorded outside the barn.
Case bought the Vermont property partly because she enjoyed living in the state as a child. It's a little weird to hear Case talk about positive childhood memories, because there weren't all that many. Case's parents, both children of Ukrainian immigrants, divorced when she was five or six (she's not sure which). Her dad was an electrician and Vietnam vet who had serious problems with drinking and drugs. After they split up, her mom remarried an archeologist. Case lived off and on with both parents, bouncing between Vermont and Tacoma, Washington. "My childhood was pretty unpleasant," she says. "But I don't want to harp on it, because that's how 80 percent of America grows up."
After leaving home at 15, Case crashed where she could, often at friends' houses. "Nobody gave me a job, because I was too young," she says. "I was going to school on an empty stomach." Case was by turns shy and hyperaggressive — she would get harassed by boys or men, and her fists would fly: "I was fearless then, because I didn't have anything to lose."
Case dropped out of high school, worked odd jobs (at a supermarket meat counter, loading trucks for UPS) and then fell into the Seattle-area punk scene. She played drums in a few bands and befriended Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Once, Kurt Cobain spotted a concert poster Case had designed. "He went out of his way to tell me how awesome it was — that was one of the highlights of my teens," says Case, who also dated Nirvana's tour manager in the early Nineties.
When she started writing her own material, Case gravitated toward the sound of classic country. "It seemed more punk rock than punk rock was," says Case, who first heard the likes of Dolly Parton, Cline and Hank Williams from her grandmother. "Country singers were talking about real things they actually did, whereas punk was just dudes copying political critiques from Flipper and Black Flag."
With encouragement from friends, she recorded her debut, 1997's The Virginian, which featured covers of Ernest Tubb and Everly Brothers tunes. As rents skyrocketed in Vancouver — where she settled to attend art school — she moved to Chicago, home of her one-time label Bloodshot Records. Critics started tagging her as "alt-country," a label applied to bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks. "I never really considered myself part of that scene," she says.
Though her solo career was on the rise, Case first got widespread attention while singing with the New Pornographers. In the seven-piece, Case is a mere hired hand — she doesn't write the music or lyrics. But with the band's 2000 debut, Mass Romantic — a dizzying pastiche of hypersunny power pop and bubblegum glam rock — Case became a crush to countless music geeks. When she tours with the group, her showcase tunes get the biggest response in concert. "On the first couple of records, I had Neko sing the big pop songs," Newman says. "After that, I started giving her the quiet songs, which was a way to get people to pay attention to those ones."
When she's not touring or recording, Case spends her time quilting, fixing up her 1967 Mercury Cougar, hanging out with her dogs (three greyhounds and a shepherd-chow mix) or reading — she's currently working her way through Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for the second time. Asked if she's seeing anyone, Case says she's happily single and calls the idea of getting married "fucking horrifying." She pauses: "Actually, I'm saving myself for T-Pain." (The two worked together on the Cartoon Network pilot.)
Though friendly in person, Case has strong, stubborn opinions about a wide range of topics: She refuses to play any venue associated with the corporate behemoth Live Nation, and she won't work with anyone who's rude to waitresses; between sips of iced tea, she lays into PETA for supporting the euthanizing of the pit bulls used in the Michael Vick dogfighting ring. "There's no reason to kill them," she says. "There are shelters that are rehabilitating those dogs. PETA can fucking blow me."
She also insists on booking her own flights between shows and driving herself to gigs whenever feasible. And while recording Cyclone, she had to listen to every part of the album, in her words, "20,000 times" before OK'ing it. "I'm a gentle control freak," she says. "As a kid, I had control over absolutely nothing. So now I'm very much about being in control."