Never ask a musician about their influences. It's bad form. A rookie mistake. To paraphrase that Boromir meme, one does not simply ask a musician about their influences.
I've lived long enough in love with Neko Case to know her influences by now. Six albums since 1997, multiple collaborative projects and countless live shows will give you a good sense of who Case has been listening to. She's covered songs by everyone from Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams to Sarah Vaughn and Tom Waits. When it comes to her vocal style, Dolly Parton and Roseanne Cash are easy references, although Case's own Virginia-born twang has become less pronounced over the years.
I would never think to ask Case about her influences, current or otherwise. And yet here I am, on the phone with her from her home in Vermont, listening to her tell me about one of her greatest artistic influences.
"One time Pee-Wee Herman put googly eyes on a picture of me and I think that was the greatest moment of my life," Case says, recalling a recent Twitter interaction she had with the '80s comedy character played by Paul Reubens. "Having been so influenced by him my entire life, I felt basically like the queen had just made me a knight. I don't think I've ever been that giddy in my entire life."
Given her extensive catalogue of heartbreaking ballads ("South Tacoma Way," "That Teenage Feeling") and feminist anthems ("People Got a Lotta Nerve," "Man"), it's surprising to hear Case describe Herman as a "total living legend innovator," but it's just further evidence that her proverbial well runs deep. Another common theme in her music is her love, or more accurately, her kinship with animals. Wild or domesticated, she often equates what are otherwise maudlin musical themes to animal instinctiveness.
"I'm a man-man-man man-man-man eater/But still you're surprised-prised-prised when I eat ya," she sings on 2009's "People Got A Lotta Nerve," managing to make references to having both the memory of an elephant and the ferocity of a wild orca.
"I think I probably approach it that way, like in an animal way, far more than I think about it in a human way," says Case, when asked why she takes such an animalistic approach to themes like love and fealty. "The human way has been done to death, and that's awesome, but I guess I feel like I don't want to reinvent the wheel."
In the middle of her answer, one of the newest members of her household starts to feel equally instinctive.
"As we're talking about this my little kitten is looking for a nipple on my male dog right now," Case laughs. "He's just not over nursing yet."
She lovingly rebuffs the kitten.
"Dude, that's not going to happen for you," she says.
Case was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1970 and while nuances of her southern roots are speckled throughout her music, most of her songs reflect the life of an avid, and sometimes insatiable, traveler. She still considers Tacoma, Washington, to be her hometown even though she's lived in Massachusetts, Oregon, Vancouver (Canada) and, most recently, Vermont. From her formative years to the present day, her story is often told from the road. This is evident on songs such as "I Wish I Was the Moon" and "Calling Cards," the latter of which is from her most recent album, 2013's The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. Life on the road has made for some great songs, but she's had to step up her traveling arrangements for the sake of her health.
"I still like the amount of travel, but physically you can't get away with that," Case says. "It's seriously unhealthy, but you know I also learned some things like if you don't actually start exercising and/or eating really well to do this job, you'll die."
Even after her world tour for The Worse Things Get, she immediately jumped back into recording, this time as one-third of a new group with fellow singer-songwriters k.d. lang and Laura Veirs called, naturally, case/lang/veirs. The group's self-titled album, released earlier this year via Anti-, was well-received by both critics and fans, and while it wasn't Case's first foray into a more collaborative project (she's also a member of the long-running indie-pop group The New Pornographers), she says it was a novel experience.
"It was a really good learning experience, and I really enjoyed it," Case says. "I had written with people before, but we decided that we wanted to write brand new songs from the ground up together. It wasn't easy and there was a lot of compromise which isn't a problem, but sometimes we get butthurt like, 'Aw, you don't like my idea,' but then you get over it and a week later you're like, 'Huh, this turned out really good.'"
Now back out on the road performing her own material, Case says it's possible she'll play some new material from an eventual seventh album. Until then, she's happy to keep on the road. While the lodgings and methods of transportation have changed, her wistful outlook on the past shines through. After all, it's hard to escape our influences.
"I miss my van more than I miss any ex-boyfriend I've ever had in my life," Case laughs. "Even the boyfriends that I'm still friends with and still love with all my heart to this day. I loved my van like a member of my family. I sold it eventually, and I would love that van to be living at my house as a museum but, you know, I can't be a van hoarder. That's not real practical."
Neko Case plays November 19 at Poway Center of the Performing Arts