The real Neko Case is as tough to define as her music.
But let's start with the music before approaching Neko. Is it country as many characterize it? Not really, or at least not new country. Americana hits closer to the mark. There's definitely a rootsy quality to much of her solo work. But the music's acoustic warmth is balanced by a gelid and spectral beauty. That's not to mention Case's husky, honeyed voice, both strong and sweet.
During a recent phone interview, Case claimed that she was "influenced by everything." It shows, not only in her itinerant journey but in the artists she's covered over the course of her career: Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Queen.
Born to teenage parents, Case bounced around the states during her childhood -- both because her parents divorced when she was still young and because her father served in the Air Force. After her mother remarried, Case lived with both parents at times in Vermont and Tacoma, Wash. She left home for good at age 15, working odd jobs in Seattle, effectively becoming part of that city's '90s grunge movement.
As someone known for her voice and guitar work, it's odd that Case started out playing drums.
"I never really knew if I could [sing] or not," she says. "I just knew I wanted to really badly. It was more about desire than self-confidence."
Though she quit high school, Case went on to earn a bachelor of arts at the Emily Carr Institute of Arts and Design in Vancouver. It was during her time studying at Carr that she found what we now know as her voice. She pounded out punk rock in Seattle, and initially in Vancouver as well. But Vancouver-based acts like country-rock band The Sadies and melodic indie rockers Cub came to inspire her work. She eventually worked with both groups.
"Canada has a very small population, and all the musicians know each other," she says. "In order to have several bands, people have to play in other people's bands. It's very communal. That was good for me. I made a lot of lifelong friends I still play with."
Those include Dan Bejar and Carl Newman, who started the power-pop collective The New Pornographers. They asked her to contribute vocals to the group's first album, Mass Romantic. She's been participating ever since.
"People always think I've left that band, but I've been in it since the beginning and I'm still there," says Case, who calls Bejar and Newman her favorite songwriters.
Though The New Pornographers are poles apart from her solo work (updated this year with her sixth CD, Middle Cyclone), Case doesn't prefer one over the other.
"They both serve each other," she says.
Nor can she foretell where her musical impulse will take her next.
"If I'm asked to contribute things to other people who do things differently, I would say yeah," Case says. "But I'm not going to be like Dee Dee Ramone and start rapping. I think that might be a bad idea. Luckily Dee Dee made that mistake for me."