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on August 29, 2013, 11:30am
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The New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman was first introduced to Case around the same time. She was dating one of his friends, but he didn’t get to know her until one evening when they struck up a conversation. Their friendship blossomed over the next several months without Newman knowing about her vocal talents. Then he heard Case sing a song by The Ronettes at a mutual friend’s wedding.

“I remember her singing a song from an old girl group called ‘So Young,’” Newman says. “It was pretty clear that she was a pretty amazing singer.”

It wasn’t much later when Case decided to record her own songs. She nervously approached Baker in his corner office one day to see if Mint Records had any interest in releasing her solo debut. Despite the fact that the label had mainly worked with “three-chord DIY bands,” Baker says he had been extremely eager to release Case’s own material, no matter the style.

“She’s not a sheepish person, but she seemed very self-conscious. We closed both doors and she said: ‘I want to make a country record,’” Baker recalls. “There was no debate and we said yes immediately and [that’s how] it started.”

Neko+Case+and+Her+BoyfriendsCase and her backing group, Her Boyfriends, released The Virginian in 1997 and, with the help of Chicago-based alt-country label Bloodshot Records outside of Canada, quickly garnered attention. The record was half originals, half covers, and an unlikely success. According to Baker, early critics compared her often to k.d. lang. It helped raised her profile around the globe.

“She was a relative unknown,” he says. “But she quickly went from quirky local upcoming talent to a more international thing.”

Kelly Hogan, Bloodshot’s publicist at the time, first met Case right after her debut arrived in Canadian record stores. One of her Toronto-based writers mailed Hogan a seven-inch review’s tear sheet. Along with his work, the music journalist also sent along a short sidebar interview with Case. They soon met at CMJ and bonded over a mutual love for the movie Fame and because they weren’t “girly girls.” The two quickly became friends, but Hogan didn’t tell Case that she was also a singer for some time. “She punched me in the arm 10 months later, saying, ‘I didn’t know you sang!’” Hogan says.

When Case played in Chicago, she started asking Hogan to sing backup vocals as well as open her shows. They recorded together for Case’s sophomore record, Furnace Room Lullaby, and would later share the same backing band on a co-headlining tour. They traveled in the Ultra Beaver, Case’s new “Snickers-colored” 1988 Dodge conversion van.

“[That was] back in the days when you had to FedEx [recording materials], sing at the crack of dawn, and send it back at noon,” Hogan says. “I’d ask what she wanted me to do on these songs and she said, ‘I trust you. Do whatever you feel is right.’ That was a big responsibility, and it felt good that she thought I was a good enough musician to not mess up her song.”

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In her early years as a solo artist, Case continually surrounded herself with the same rotating cast of trusted players that has included Hogan, guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom Ray, and pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse. The latter, her labelmate at the time, remembers meeting Case in 1999 when she first moved from Seattle to Chicago. He says the two hung out a lot because they both couch surfed in the same house. She asked him to record banjo on “Favorite”, which would become one of her live staples. Months later, Case asked Rauhouse to go on tour, and he’s supported her onstage ever since.

“She’s the fairest person I’ve toured with as far as she treated people,” he says. “When she had money, we all had money…I’ve seen some really crappy people out there, but I’ve been lucky enough that we became really good friends.”

The singer-songwriter’s bandmates also describe her as fiercely loyal. She’s someone, they say, who brought many of her trusted players along for the ride when she played to larger audiences. That surge in popularity wouldn’t happen for several more years. Although she launched her musical career with a ballsy country record, it wasn’t until she made 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby that she fully blossomed as a solo artist.

“That was the record where we all said, ‘God, she can sing,’” Newman says. “Between The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, [that’s] where she came into her own. That seemed like the biggest creative leap she made.”

New Pornographers

Around the same time, The New Pornographers — Case’s indie-rock supergroup that also features Newman, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder, and other Vancouver musicians — garnered critical acclaim with their 2000 debut, Mass Romantic. During that timeframe, Newman witnessed her artistic strides on songs like “Letters from an Occupant” and “Mass Romantic”. That progression would continue over the course of the power-pop collective’s four subsequent records.

Case also staked her claim during the following decade with three career-defining solo albums in 2002’s Blacklisted, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone. During this three-record run, she transformed into a full-fledged singer-songwriter. Her “country noir” label, cast onto her years earlier, finally came to fruition.

After signing with Anti- Records in 2004, Case continued to retain ownership of her music as both Fox Confessor and Middle Cyclone respectively sold more than 200,000 copies. The latter debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and received two Grammy nominations. Case’s career arc steadily pointed upward to the point where she was able to maintain a relatively comfortable existence. She purchased a house in Tucson, where she lived for five years, before moving to her current farm.

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As Case’s career reached its apex following Middle Cyclone, she found herself in a rut as she dealt with a number of personal issues that included depression and her father’s death. She describes her woes as “super, normal human stuff” such as coming to terms with her family’s past and adulthood. Because she avoided some of those issues earlier in her life, she opened up a well of emotions when she faced her longtime problems.

“It was really overwhelming to deal with all that I was running from,” Case says. “It was odd, just finding a box of stuff in the attic. I know the people that put this stuff here, but what is it? What do I do with it?”

Perhaps as a result of Case’s inner search, her new songs possess a far greater intimacy than her past material. She had primarily written fictional and metaphorical stories throughout her first five records. But The Worse Things Get took her in an unexpected direction that was largely born out of necessity.

“This record was really autobiographical because my mind just didn’t have room for anything else,” she says.

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