Actually, Neko Case just returned from Europe, and she's gearing up to leave her apartment in Chicago for another trek across the states. It's been four months since the red-haired siren was under the influence of dentist-prescribed painkillers, having had her wisdom teeth removed last September just a few weeks after releasing her third album, Blacklisted. That's still the message on Case's mobile, though, which suggests that a lot of other stuff has taken precedence over her voice mail.
"I recorded it in December, last December, so not this one but 2001," she says about Blacklisted's fruition. "I've been touring so much, I don't know what year it is." Critics knew, however, and Blacklisted ended up on many year-end best-of lists, drawing the established critical darling even more compliments for her old-school-country-by-way-of-film-noir songs and her voice, tinged with late-night regret and low-key humor. Blacklisted provides the perfect backdrop for evenings that seem to fade between color and black-and-white.
Perfect enough that it's strange to think she's been writing songs for only a couple of years, her favorite still being the first tune she ever wrote, appropriately titled "Favorite." "I'd had the guitar for a week," she recalls, noting that even after two and a half years, she's no ax wizard.
"If you can strum two chords, and if you like what you're doing, it can sound great," Case says. "In fact, it can sound a lot better than serious guitar wanking, and I'm not saying that to stick up for myself, because my guitar playing isn't the best. If you just learn how to play enough to play it on your couch, it can make you so happy, and it's so worth it. There's this huge myth that playing music is incredibly difficult. It just isn't."
Not to mention, it's good for you. "When you know you have something like music to do, it makes you not feel caged in, and that's why everybody should have enough free time to pursue what it is they love."
A jack of all instruments but master of none, Case also plays the banjo and the saw. "The saw is not that easy to play, but I can get sounds out of it," she explains. "I haven't figured out exactly where the notes are enough to be able to play along with someone very well, but that takes time and practice just like everything else. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You know, that old thing."
Although banjos and saws are well suited to her solo gig, Case can rock, too. Before actively chasing the country jones she'd pursued with current tourmate Carolyn Mark as half of the Corn Sisters, her early efforts included a stint as a drummer with the punk band Maow. She also counts herself among the ranks of the New Pornographers, a band based in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Case lived until the late '90s.
Throughout all her projects, one constant remains. Case does not like to have her picture taken. Any particular reason? "Because I hate getting my picture taken," she says incredulously; the reason is reason enough. "I don't mind it if it's somebody I know, but if it's somebody I don't know, I don't like it at all. I try to avoid it as much as possible. I generally end up in uncomfortable situations."
Case's disdain for the process leaves her a little flustered. Potential photographers should be advised in advance that the singer has a laundry list of off-limits setups. "Doing something really cliché or wearing some stupid outfit or putting on way too much makeup," she says. "I don't want to look like I have zits all over my face or that I didn't sleep last night, but at the same time I don't want to look like a drag queen."
After only the slightest of pauses, she continues, "And that's totally no slag against drag queens, because they can pull it off and I can't, you know. I wish that I had the abilities of a drag queen at a photo session, but sadly I do not. I'm no good at it. I'm not very fancy."
The conclusion to the fair-enough tirade rings as not altogether true, because Case -- witty, pretty and charming -- remains completely crushworthy. As such, she has attracted her share of scary fans. "I don't put up with any shit from those people, but for the most part, people are supernice," she says. "They're gracious and funny."
Case continues to strike chords with listeners on an individual basis, but mainstream success could be described as elusive -- if she were pursuing it.
"Money people have firmly planted themselves in the music industry, and they have a formula that makes them more money in short bursts rather than artist development and allowing any kind of variety on the radio, so they are going with that," she says. "It's crappy, and it gets criticized constantly, but they don't really care what the music-buying public wants; they care about what tricks the music-buying public. And I'm not part of the formula, you know? I'm not a supermodel, I'm not sixteen, I don't play a piano. I'm not what they want right now, because there's a very narrow scope of women's music that interests them."
Which is fine with her. "I never want to play an arena," she says. "I never want to be on the MTV Music Awards, and the fact that I'm not going to make a video anytime soon solidifies that, but frankly, I'm just too fat," she deadpans. "I don't really care because if I was going to be hugely famous, I wouldn't be able to handle it anyway."