Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs find harmony in collaboration
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LOS ANGELES — When k.d. lang unleashed the final notes of Neil Young's "Helpless," crouched as her thunderous voice rippled over the crowd, her two bandmates looked at each other. They were stunned. Neko Case stretched out her arms toward lang, as if to announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, now that's how you do it."
Laura Veirs surmised that only two people could pull off such a spellbinding performance. Smiling sheepishly, lang walked over and embraced her, whispering into her ear.
"She asked me who the other person was," Veirs said to robust laughs. "I don't know. There must be someone else who can do that."
On a warm summer evening at the Greek Theatre here, case/lang/veirs recently launched a tour for their eponymous new debut on Anti- Records. It is the year's most unexpected — and welcome — album of smart pop music for adults, uniting a trio of dynamic artists who aren't the most obvious collaborators.
Originally an alt-country spitfire, Case has blossomed into an experimental rock chanteuse. Veirs is a respected singer-songwriter with a gift for melody and quirk. And lang, of course, is the Grammy-winning chameleon whose early forays on the fringes of country music led to thoughtful explorations of torchy pop and jazz.
We have lang to thank for this supergroup, which will perform at Friday's portion of this weekend's sold-out Newport Folk Festival, along with a headlining gig at the Lowell Summer Music Series on Saturday.
Out of the blue, lang sent an e-mail to Case and Veirs, boldly suggesting they should record together, even though she didn't know either of them well.
"I acted on instinct and thought, I'll just send this out there, and within half an hour, both of them said, 'hell, yeah!' " lang says from her home in Portland, Ore., where Veirs also lives. (Case is based on a farm in rural Vermont.)
"Probably before we even finished reading it, we both were like, 'Yes, yes, yes. How many times can I say yes?'" Case says in a separate phone interview.
"I think I knew there were enough differences and similarities that it could create an interesting weave," lang says. "I believed that these are people with the same moral compass that I have. I understood their lyrics and their music spoke to me, and yet it was completely foreign to me. That's pretty intriguing."
Lang initially had envisioned a "girl-group-folk-punk" kind of record, a far cry from the sumptuous Americana and pop they ultimately made. They considered a covers project, but instead went for the greater challenge of writing songs together — "which isn't easy when there are three alpha bosses in the room," Case says.
"It got a little hairy in the writing process," lang admits. "It's difficult to be vulnerable with . . . other people who you don't know at all, and who are individually used to having veto power on their own terms."
By design, "case/lang/veirs" bears the imprint of each artist. Good luck getting the cotton-candy chorus of Veirs's "Best Kept Secret" dislodged from your brain.
Case's unflinching spirit gives the songs a brittle intensity. And the sensuous longing that has always characterized lang's best work threads through "Honey and Smoke" and "Blue Fires." ("Get ready to make out!" Case quipped as lang eased into the smoldering "Blue Fires" at the LA concert; Case fanned herself afterward.)
"It's a true collaboration, with equal time for everyone, and not just people getting up to do their own songs," Case says, describing her chemistry with lang and Veirs as "familial."
Their audiences don't necessarily overlap, but it's amusing to see what happens live. When a woman threw her bra onstage at the Greek Theatre, lang was hardly fazed. ("I can die now, because I guess that's supposed to happen," Case later jokes.)
They fleshed out the set list that night with songs from their respective catalogs and an obvious appreciation for each other's work. Lang said she fell in love with Case after hearing "Margaret vs. Pauline," from Case's "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." Thrashing about, lang clearly relished the feminist hell-raising of Case's "Man," digging deep into a particular refrain: "A woman's heart/ It's the watermark/ Of which I measure everything."
"Dude, I can't even look at her when she sings with me, because I will start crying," Case says. "You can feel the ground when she's using her voice. She's a natural wonder and the biggest voice I've ever stood next to."
Even though the album often has a heavy heart — Veirs's "Song for Judee" is a touching tribute to the late Judee Sill, a cult 1970s singer-songwriter whose demons cut her life short — a gloss shellacs these songs, making them a soundtrack suited for road trips with the windows down.
Case and lang give credit to co-producer Tucker Martine, who's known for his work with My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists, in addition to solo albums by Case and Veirs (to whom he's also married).
"I'm a genuine fan of each one of these people," Martine writes in an e-mail. "To me it was important that . . . you could hear the collaborative process and the admiration they all shared for each other. I wanted it to sound like they really got together and got their hands dirty, which they did.
"I was impressed by the way each one of them ultimately put the collaborative spirit ahead of themselves," Martine adds. "There was a good bit of letting go once they had chosen their battles, and at a certain point I think we all took a step back and said, 'Hey, look at this strange and beautiful thing we've made and none of us could have done it on our own.' There's a lot of satisfaction in that."
At Boarding House Park, Lowell, July 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $65, advance $58. www.mktix.com.