In October, Rolling Stone featured emerging alt-country songbird Neko Case. Titled “Neko Case's Country Lust,” the article focused on a performance at the Grand Ole Opry in which Case took off her shirt to escape the heat.
“Not a lot of what I said ended up in the article,” she laments. “I talked about the music, and they talked about a supposed scandal that has nothing to do with the album.”
It's not just Rolling Stone. Case, a Tacoma-raised musician who started drumming in punk bands and found her way to the front of the stage, says most writers miss her point.
“It's just really disappointing because, generally, 90 percent of what you're talking about gets cut out,” she says. “The stuff I really care about-the state of music and the conditions for musicians and the conditions for people who go to see music and buy music and love music-I guess people don't really want to read about that.”
Case's biggest concern right now is Blacklisted, her third solo album for Bloodshot Records, an understated, late-night album of brooding acoustic ballads. But as a full-time musician-dealing with promoters, club owners and record labels-Case sees a lot that needs to be fixed.
“There's a long list of things that are wrong,” she dauntingly begins. “There are a lot of weird rules are still in place that aren't even rules. They're just these things that people get away with.” She points specifically to California, where it's standard practice for venues to charge anywhere from 10 to 35 percent commission on a band's merchandise sales.
“[That's] some of the only money that the bands make,” she says. “And it's not like they give me 10 percent of their beer sales.” Artists then have to charge fans unfairly high prices for CDs to make a living, Case explains.
“It's just a thing that's been in place since organized crime ran the entertainment business,” she says. “And recording contracts aren't particularly that fair. The most infuriating fact is that you sign a contract and the cost of making the album is recouped from your royalties. You're touring your ass off for [the album] and you don't even own your masters-it's just ridiculous.”
Case also blames musicians themselves, since many appear “so desperate to be famous, or whatever. They're willing to accept that kind of stuff, which makes it hard for people like me who won't accept it because it's totally unreasonable.”
Case is determined to build things on her own terms, following the path of kindred spirits like ex-tourmate Nick Cave or Tom Waits.
“I wouldn't want to play some giant industry thing where people are there to socialize,” she says. “I'm not background noise, and we're not a background noise band. I don't wanna make videos. I don't want it to be about the artifice or the glamour of things. I'm not a glamorous person. I'm a really slobby, regular person.”
Just as she casts herself as a disheveled everywoman, Case hopes her lyrics spark similarly personal images with her listeners. “I very, very carefully worked on the lyrics and the lyrics' job is to inspire visual imagery for people,” she says. “And the imagery is theirs. It becomes their own and that's how people form a bond with a song.”
For Case, videos ruin sensory lines like “It looks a lot like engine oil/and tastes like being poor and small” (from her song “Deep Red Bells”).
“I don't wanna see Matt Damon playing some character that I really liked in a book,” she says, comparing music videos to film's demystifying effect on literature.