Equally well-regarded in the indie rock and alt-country worlds, Neko Case has built a career defined by both strong will and musical versatility. Her chief attribute is her astonishing, siren-like voice, which she applies to songs that are simultaneously rugged and heartbreaking.
Case was born on a military base in Alexandria, Virginia to teenage Ukranian immigrants, and moved shortly thereafter to Tacoma, Washington. This pattern of uprooting would define much of her early life, as her family moved from city to city frequently. In interviews, Case has described her father as an alcoholic, and characterized her youth as sitting mostly alone, talking and singing songs to her dogs. At age 15, Case left home entirely, initially gravitating toward the Pacific Northwest punk scene, crossing paths with the members of Nirvana and befriending that band's bassist, Krist Novoselic. In 1994, she moved to Vancouver to attend the Emily Carr Institute of Design and Technology.
It was around this time that she began playing drums for a series of local punk rock bands (among them Cub and Maow, both of which garnered small local notoriety). Her first solo album, The Virginian, was released by the Canadian label Mint in 1997. A collection of originals and covers, the album found Case exploring country music.
Around the same time, she met Carl Newman of the Canadian band Zumpano. In 1997, she joined him, Destroyer's Dan Bejar and several other Canadian musicians to form the New Ponographers. The group's collaborative nature speaks to the familial aspect of the music scene in Vancouver, where the boundaries between bands were often extremely porous.
After contributing to the group's debut, originally intended as a one-off, Case relocated to Seattle, WA. It was only after the album, Mass Romantic received glowing reviews upon its release the following year that New Ponographers transformed from a hobby to a going concern.
By this time, Case had relocated to Seattle, where she recorded her first proper solo album, Furnace Room Lullaby with a band cheekily dubbed "her Boyfriends." Case experienced a small breakthrough as a musician during this time, when she found a friend's small-necked four-string guitar and was able to teach herself to play. It was also around this time that a live recording with guitarist Carolyn Mark, under the moniker The Corn Sisters, was also released.
By this point, Case had moved from Seattle to Chicago, home of her then-label Bloodshot. In 2001, she caused a minor stir during a performance at a plaza party at the Grand Ole Opry: Case, who was playing directly in front of a barbecue pit during the middle of a particularly sweltering July, removed her shirt after her repeated requests for water and a brief break were denied. Case has said in interviews the act was not one of rebellion but, rather, self-preservation, but it was enough to get her banned from the venue for life ("I was pretty depressed for a couple of months after it happened," she later told the Guardian).
The title of her next record, 2002's Blacklisted — her first without backing band "Her Boyfriends" — seemed to be a sly acknowledgment of the fracas. The following year saw the release of the second New Pornographers record, Electric Version, and 2004 found Case jumping labels to Anti- to release The Tigers Have Spoken, a live album recorded with Canadian group the Sadies that featured Case covering songs by Loretta Lynn and Buffy Saint-Marie among others.
A third New Pornographers album, Twin Cinema, was released in 2005, and Case again toured with the band on select dates, though her appearances were significantly scaled back. She instead focused her energies on her next record, 2006's much-lauded Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Case described the album as a conscious attempt on her part to break away from traditional "verse-chorus-verse" song structures and to focus more on the narrative aspects of songwriting. The chief example of this new approach to writing is the song "Star Witness," in which Case describes a crime she sees being committed (in the song, it's a car accident, but in a later interview Case revealed that the actual crime she witnessed was a shooting).
In 2007, she purchased a 90-acre farm in Vermont and spent the next two years alternately renovating it and writing songs for the album that became 2009's Middle Cyclone (portions of certain songs were, in fact, recorded in a barn on the property). Cyclone was Case's most immediately successful effort, debuting at an impressive Number Three on the Billboard charts and eventually earned a Grammy nomination for "Best Contemporary Folk Album." The record also continued Case's tradition of exploring life's darker moments. In interviews, she has stated that the record's themes are "nature and uncertainty"; many of its songs also evince Case's deep empathy for animals. Indeed, the album's release was preceded by a unique campaign designed by Case: Each time a blog posted the album's first single, "People Got a Lotta Nerve," Case's label would donate $5 to an animal shelter in Utah where Case volunteers.