RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Neko Case is a singer and songwriter who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in today's music scene.
Ms. NEKO CASE (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) The most tender place in my heart is for a stranger...
MONTAGNE: Neko Case last released an album as a leader four years ago and the critics were pleased. The latest is titled Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and some writers are already predicting it will end up one of the year's best.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) In the end I was the mean girl or somebody's in between girl. [unintelligible] and it's something that's real love.
MONTAGNE: Recently, Neko Case sang, played her guitar and spoke about her song with music journalist Ashley Kahn.
Ms. NEKO CASE (Singing): Will I ever see you again.
ASHLEY KAHN, reporting:
There's no mistaking Neko Case's voice.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) Will there be no one above me to pour my faith in?
KAHN: Case herself admits her voice is both her signature and one that she is still learning to use.
Ms. CASE: I know that I can sing really loud. It's like having that really big Evinrude engine on the back of your fishing boat. But I've been trying to be more dynamic with my voice and not just singing on ten all of time out of terror.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): ...frozen where he stood in the glow of the furniture, piled high with firewood [unintelligible].
KAHN: Case grew up in Washington State, and has been on her own since the age of 15. And after playing in punk bands and attending art school, she started making records that drew on a growing love of gospel and country music.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): She fell away. She fell away. She fell away from the side of the Lord. When she was free, do what she wanted [unintelligible].
KAHN: Songs like this one from her first album in 1998 still prompt many to label her music country. But like many creative musicians, she has clearly progressed beyond category.
Ms. CASE: The most apt description, the one that doesn't make me go, oh, God, a writer once called it country noir, which kind of relates it to country, but it's also kind of cinematic at the same time, which is the way I feel about it.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) ...two girls riding the line...
Ms. CASE: I think my songwriting might be a little more on the darker side maybe.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) One left a sweater sitting on the train and the other lost three fingers at the cannery.
KAHN: Neko Case calls her new album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. It's a fairytale title that's as enigmatic and visually evocative as her songs.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): Here I am and traffic's slow.
MS. CASE: I try not to be overly literal. And when I'm writing songs, I write down a lot of words, and then I try to simplify it. I like to give people hints or words that make visual pictures for them.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): And the needle touched down, the needle has landed... (Unintelligible).
KAHN: The approach to lyrics, first creating more, then stripping back, extends to her music, as well.
Ms. CASE: I wanted more space on this record. It's just like in painting or in drawing, negative space is just as important as positive space to make your image stand out.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) [unintelligible]
Ms. CASE: Widow's Post started out full band, and in the end it just didn't seem right. I ended up taking everything out, and we just put in the drone underneath.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) [unintelligible] better times are coming still.
KAHN: For Case, inspiration is found in a variety of sources. The song John Saw that Number, for instance, mixes the words of an old American spiritual with a musical idea from India.
Ms. CASE: The song was actually super-inspired by that movie about the gypsies, Lock the Drum. And there's a part where this little kids sings a song accapella.
Unidentified Boy: (Singing) [unintelligible]
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): Oh, John the Baptist. Oh, John divine. Leather harness round his line. His meat was locusts and honey, wild honey, Lord... and I don't usually hit the note that bad.
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Ms. CASE: That's basically how that goes, with really incredible singing by me. [laughter]
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing): John saw that number way in the middle of the air, [unintelligible] holy, holy, to the Lord.
KAHN: This new album benefits from a few special guests, like the band Calexico from Tucson Arizona, and keyboardist Garth Hudson from the legendary group, the Band. Case has the voice to turn a wisp of a lyric into a full flowing melody, More than before, her new album uses that to create strange and vivid images that stir the imagination. These days when more attention than ever is being paid to singer/songwriters, few stand up to the focus like Neko Case.
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) [unintelligible] crying holy, holy to the Lord.
MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn, his new book out soon is called The House that Train Built: The Story of Impulse Records. Neko Case begins touring for her new CD Fox Confessor Brings the Flood tomorrow night in Minneapolis. You can hear a Widow's Toast and more at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(Soundbite of music)