Neko Case, Laura Veirs and k.d. lang learn about collaboration the hard way

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NEW YORK >> Since she sang with the late Roy Orbison, k.d. lang dreamed of forming her own version of the Traveling Wilburys, his supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. When she proposed the idea to Neko Case and Laura Veirs in an email, they responded enthusiastically within a half hour.

Then came time to make it a reality.

That's when they learned how hard it was for three singer-songwriters used to being in charge of their own careers to work in true collaboration. Their 14-song disc came out Friday.

While the Wilburys' two albums 25 years ago had the tossed-off feeling of rock stars on a lark, the "case/lang/veirs " disc reflects a determination to make something worthy of their talents, no matter whose egos were bruised.

"We all agreed that we were going to be brutally honest and we just wanted to make something really good that had to be a part of all of us, even if that was painful for some people," Case said. "Actually, it was for all of us at some point. Letting go of control when you're a control freak is really difficult."

They set some ground rules at the beginning. They agreed each song would be original — no covers. And while the singers trade lines and harmonize on the opening "Atomic Number" and "I Want to Be Home," most songs feature a clear lead with one or both of the others as backups.

The song "Honey and Smoke" feels like a classic seductive lang song with a skittering guitar figure. The others achieve their goal of sounding like they're from a band instead of a solo artist.

Case and lang, and their booming voices, are fairly well known. Veirs, who jokes about making nine albums in obscurity, emerged as the trio's workhorse. She's listed as a writer on all 14 songs, four of them solo compositions. Her husband, Tucker Martine, was the producer.

Veirs and lang, who both live in the Portland, Oregon area, got together at first to write. Case has roots in the Northwest but lives now in Vermont, so she joined later. "I was kind of the pollinator and they were the big, gorgeous apple trees," she said.

Each had individual strengths that worked for the group. Veirs, a skillful guitarist and more prolific writer than the others, put more energy into the writing. Her colleagues admired lang's perfect pitch and ease working with other musicians. Case brought spontaneity; while the others were used to having things nailed down in demos, she encouraged more flexibility.

Veirs recalled bringing "Atomic Number" to the group as a finished song. The others tossed out most of the lyrics and started writing something new.

For someone used to writing songs alone in her room, "my fur got ruffled, for sure," Veirs said. But she had to acknowledge it was better — certainly different. She learned songs are more malleable than she thought.

"The process was full of debate and negotiation and emotional venting," lang said, "and I think that has actually made the music better. It's one of the reasons why this has moved forward so positively for us, because we did explore the deep, dark territory of emotions with each other. It wasn't easy. But it was real."

Lang said she believed collaboration is more difficult for women, since men are more likely to grow up with experience being on teams.

True to form, perhaps, Case and Veirs rejected that theory.

They considered dozens of names for their new trio, before settling on the admittedly vanilla case/lang/veirs. Case is just relieved that lang's favorite, the Camel Tones, didn't make the cut.

The trio is touring behind the disc this summer, pulling together album cuts and songs from each artist's back catalogues. Lang joked that they'd consider a sequel (or "Vol. 3," as the Traveling Wilburys dubbed their second disc) "if we win the international music award for best music ever."

"That this record got finished at all is a miracle," she said. "I don't know if we feel like pushing that."


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