Neko Case's biggest fans bum-rush her at her front door. "Hi, guys!" she singsongs as four large dogs come clattering over floorboards to fill the entrance of her Tucson, Arizona home with sheer body-wiggling desperation. You'd think she'd been on tour for weeks, not at alocal café for two hours.
Dropping a canvas tote, Case bends to bestow kisses and back scratches. "Oh, Travis, you're such a ham," she says to one of her three greyhounds. "I made the mistake of feeding the dogs bacon yesterday," she warned earlier, prepping me for potential toxic blowback. "Greyhounds are really talented in that area."
Happily, though, the only aroma here is a good one: the lingering scent of fudge cookies with white chocolate chips, which Case made last night. Dressed in blue and white Mizuno sneakers, navy blue cords, and a nubby, gray shawl-collar sweater, she ambles into her recently renovated kitchen (vintage porcelain sink and '50s Tappan Deluxe stove), lifts a glass cake-stand cover, and displays the improbably professional fruits of her labor. "You want one?" she asks, handing over a perfectly rounded specimen, which turns out to have a striking balance of decadent gooeyness and intense chocolate flavor.
"I spent about a year figuring out how to make cookies," says Case, 38, a proud subscriber to both Saveur and Gourmet. "About five years ago, I really had a craving for chocolate chip cookies, and I used that Nestlé Toll House recipe, and it was shit. So I made my kitchen into a test kitchen for about a year, until I figured it out."
That would be the Neko Case m.o.: a relentless, near obsessive pursuit of perfection. "I'm a control freak," she admits, And indeed, she spent the better part of the last two years recording her new, fifth studio album, Middle Cyclone. This collection of atmospheric story-songs and moody country ballads steers clear of the hooky, buoyant pop rock she sings as a member of indie supergroup the New Pornographers. Here, she lends her arresting voice -- molasses-thick with a fiery edge -- to loosely structured songs that paint vivid portraits of heartache, death, and failed friendships. Enlisting guitar charmer M. Ward, plus members of the New Pornographers, Los Lobos, and Calexico, the album painstakingly blends twinkling hammer dulcimers, quaking strings, customized music boxes, and other arcane instrumentation in a finely wrought tapestry that sounds unmistakably homespun and rustic.
She recorded much of Middle Cyclone in a drafty 18th-century barn, which sits on a Vermont farm she bought acouple years ago with an eye toward making it her permanent residence. Case had the floors redone and wheeled in six pianos she picked up for free on Craigslist. Some of them were missing pedals and irreparably out of tune, but when she and her collaborators -- including the Band's Garth Hudson -- played them all in unison for her cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me," the sound seemed to fuse decades and eras in one massive, spectral choir. "I figure Harry Nilsson would approve if Garth Hudson was the lead pianist," she laughs.
Hudson, who also played on Case's 2006 album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, hears just as deep a resonance in the singer's voice. "It sounded like the wind from the Rocky Mountains," Hudson recalls of his first exposure. "Her voice sailed."
Case built a makeshift cardboard recording booth in the barn to lay down her vocals, and other sounds often snuck onto the tape: A nest of wildly chirping baby robins make an appearance on the ghostly "Polar Nettles"; elsewhere, gusts of wind add spooky ambience. The 32-minute closing track, "Marais la Nuit," is actually a looped recording of frogs outside the barn. "We were joking that there should be a post-album chill-out section," she says, "and so I thought, 'Why not?'
For Case, letting go is the second-hardest part of finishing an album. "It's even harder to transition back to being a regular person," she says. "You know, sitting on your couch and doing nothing. You always have this feeling that there's something you're not doing."
Today at least, she's making a decent go at regular-personhood: sipping iced tea in her lavender-walled dining room while her dogs nap on their beds a few feet away. A black velvet scrunchie gathers her trademark electric-red hair in a sloppy ponytail atop her head, revealing an undyed natural palette of brown and gray underneath. Her skin is makeup-free, dappled by the sun, and her green-gray eyes are soft and friendly. She had surgery two days ago to remove a vein in her leg that wasn't returning blood to her heart ("They were like, 'It's preventative, but we should really take it out 'cause you don't want to have a stroke on a plane' ") and her "giant Barbie leg bandage" is making her move more slowly than usual. But no bother.
Her unassuming one-story home is dotted with telltale signs of a craftswoman. Pieces of cardboard -- the beginnings of a miniature building she's constructing for a Chicago art exhibition called "Exquisite City" -- are scattered across the dining room table. Lemon and tangerine trees and pots of Ukrainian bell tomatoes, okra, and tomatillos fill the space in her backyard that isn't monopolized by an empty in-ground swimming pool. And while her front yard is lined with the same cacti as every other on her residential street, it's the only one with a fence made from old mattress springs (which she welded together herself). Despite the baroque perfection of her current home, Case hopes to leave it soon for an even more bucolic one on her farm -- which would, in a sense, be a return to happy times. She spent fifth and sixth grade living with her mom and stepdad in Vermont's rural Lamoille County and considers it the high point in a childhood that didn't have many.
Read the entire Neko Case feature in the March '09 issue of SPIN.