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Neko Case and her enduring bond to Canada

Back before Neko Case was a name attached to critically acclaimed solo masterpieces like “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” the power-pop act New Pornographers or a siren-like wail that’s buoyed both romance and heartache, she was an elementary school-aged girl in Washington State — who thought she lived in Canada.

“My family was from right on the Canadian border (in Bellingham),” said Case, reached by phone from outside Chicago earlier this week. “All the media we had was from Canada, so I actually thought I was Canadian until the second or third grade.”

For the young Case, this country-related confusion was understandable. But for the incendiary singer/songwriter — set to play Asbury Hall at Babeville (341 Delaware Ave.) on Feb. 27 — the geographic indifference was foreshadowing of her eventual career-long bond with the country just over the Peace Bridge.

Before she boasted a catalog illuminated by the release of last November’s career-spanning vinyl boxed set, “Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule,” Case was just a scratch drummer and aspiring student when she fled an unstable, migratory Pacific Northwest upbringing and moved to Vancouver to attend the Emily Carr Institute of Design and Technology (now University) in 1994. While there, she dipped into the city’s punk scene, playing with local favorites Cub and Maow before eventually recording her first solo album, “The Virginian” in 1997 with Canadian label, Mint.

But despite striking out on her own, Case was rarely alone while entrenched in the collaborative Vancouver scene.

“There’s a thing in Canada where it’s the biggest country on Earth, but also the smallest population,” said Case. “There’s not this gross competitive feeling [between bands]. Everyone was playing in each other’s bands because there were enough musicians to go around.”

One of these musicians was A.C. Newman, a member of the band Zumpano who was interested in starting an indie collective that would eventually claim the salacious moniker of the New Pornographers. Case joined on vocals, and entered into a collaborative that has now sidled her solo career — and varied her artistic output — for two decades.

“At the time the New Pornographers started, everyone I knew in Vancouver was playing in at least three bands each. It was something we all grew up doing, and it didn’t seem weird at all. It seemed totally normal.”

As did the singer’s lasting connection with that band’s country of origin. Lyrics from past albums like “Furnace Room Lullaby” and the recent “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” elicit imagery of Northern territory. Her recent forearm tattoos — one that reads “Scorned as Timber,” the other "Beloved of the Sky” — were inspired by a painting by Vancouver artist and university-inspiring Emily Carr. And in addition to Fender-thrusting Pornographers efforts like “Twin Cinema” and 2014’s “Brill Bruisers,” Case has had some of her finest solo moments with other Canadian musicians, most notably Toronto’s Sadies.

“When I met the Sadies, they were my fantasy band,” said Case of the Dallas and Travis Good-led quartet, who played Buffalo Iron Works on Feb. 19. “They were everything I wanted to sound like. It’s like I was floating in space with them in a way. They’re so [expletive] good. They’ve been playing their whole lives and are just super tight musicians — but still super punk rock at the same time.”

The Sadies went on to back Case on her rollicking live record, “The Tigers Have Spoken,” one chocked full of traditional standards, country-tinged covers and jangling guitars that would preview their work together on “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.” Now approaching its 10-year anniversary, some of the album’s most affecting moments — whether the soul-rattling guitars on “Hold On, Hold On,” tone-shifting strums on “Maybe Sparrow” or the heartbeat percussion of “The Needle Has Landed” — were the result of collaboration between Case and members of her one-time fantasy band.

Now, the results of that work live on, able to be spun warmly on turntables on both sides of the Canadian-United States line. But in the songs and details across album sleeves, longtime and new Case fans can appreciate how a student visa and simple border crossing earned an enduring embrace, one that still colors the career of a continuously evolving artist.

“I felt like Canada was my mom,” she said. “[The country] was my nice finishing school that taught me to be a nice person, and I still love it there.”


Who: Neko Case with Jennifer O'Connor

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 27

Where: Asbury Hall at Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave.

Tickets: $31 (box office,


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