Q MAVERICK: NEKO CASE

The singer-song­writer Neko Case over­came a chal­leng­ing up­bring­ing to forge a force­ful, dis­tinc­tive ca­reer. But it was while she recorded her lat­est LP in Stock­holm that her world im­ploded. Could she sur­vive this lat­est shock? Laura Snapes hears a tale of

Q (UK) - - Contents -

Even for some­one used to deal­ing with trau­mas, the US singer-song­writer needed all her strength to deal with her most re­cent catas­tro­phe. Buckle up.

Neko Case’s fam­ily loathed van­ity. Her mother once caught her try­ing to ad­just her ban­danna in the mir­ror and warned her, “Don’t be­come vain.” Case had made three al­bums be­fore her beloved grand­mother ad­mit­ted that she had been a singer. The men­tal­ity stuck. But if Case took pride in one thing, it was her beautiful 1787 Ver­mont farm­house. In 2012, she wel­comed Amer­ica’s Coun­try Liv­ing magazine in for a pho­to­shoot that de­tailed the paint, the tiling, the wooden beams jux­ta­posed with glow­ing mar­ble, a ca­pa­cious blue bath, 100 ver­dant acres, with views of both Ver­mont’s Green Moun­tains and New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains, for her farm an­i­mals to graze. The next time Neko Case’s house was in the news, it was burning down. In Septem­ber 2017, Case was in Stock­holm record­ing her seventh al­bum when she got a call from a lo­cal news­pa­per say­ing that her house was on fire, and would she com­ment? She de­nied that it was her house, and then mul­ti­ple times on Twit­ter, be­fore call­ing the pa­per back in “an ex­ple­tive­laden phone call”, per its re­port, “in­sist­ing that the pa­per’s on­line story be taken down be­cause she didn’t want her ad­dress re­vealed”. It had been Case’s house, but she had left it af­ter a hellish ex­pe­ri­ence with a stalker. “I had to spend my life sav­ings to go to court and stop these things and be­come pri­vate,” says Case in a tone that sug­gests she’s re­lit­i­gat­ing the is­sue in court rather than from the sofa of a ho­tel in Beth­nal Green, East Lon­don. The prop­erty wasn’t tech­ni­cally hers any more, but her stuff was there. At the time of the call, “there were three an­i­mals miss­ing,” she says. (Ev­ery­one es­caped.) Po­lice kept her boyfriend at the bot­tom of the drive­way for six hours, in sod­den clothes, while the news­pa­per “some­how got a pho­tog­ra­pher up next to my house while it’s burning,” Case says in dis­be­lief. “It was ugly and it’s not over.” The house was de­mol­ished. But her per­spec­tive on the to­tal loss of her pos­ses­sions is jar­ringly san­guine: “I didn’t think it was im­por­tant com­pared to the fact that Puerto Rico had just flooded and was beg­ging for help. It just isn’t news com­pared to that. It wasn’t news com­pared to what every­body had lost in Hous­ton.” That may sound sanc­ti­mo­nious on pa­per: it’s not that she’s an­gry at the “fire tor­nado” – tech­ni­cal term – that charred her pos­ses­sions, but the news­pa­per deny­ing her hard-won dig­nity.

Case stayed in Stock­holm for three more weeks. The day af­ter dis­cov­er­ing the fire, she recorded Bad Luck, a clar­ion girl-group ode to mis­for­tune, and got by thanks to the dark hu­mour of co-pro­ducer Björn Yt­tling of Peter Bjorn And John. She thought her voice sounded bad when she lis­tened to the song with mixer Lasse Mårtén. “He’s like, ‘Maybe that’s just what some­body sounds like when their house burns down.’ I thought, ‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is OK to sound a lit­tle less soul­ful than you mean it to be.”

It gave an un­ex­pected per­sonal res­o­nance to a song that was, like most of Case’s work, in­tended as a “folk­lore song about folk­lore that hasn’t been writ­ten yet,” she ex­plains. “I like to make up new ones and I was think­ing a lot about su­per­sti­tion.” Her hope is that, should lis­ten­ers in­fer any­thing about her from the songs, they “would see me as a per­son, but not a fe­male per­son or a male per­son – equal parts of a soul, rather.” Hence Case’s hero­ines are not blousy damsels. The open­ing three songs on Hell-On re­in­state power to the women who have been mused and abused by ir­re­spon­si­ble male poets: “My voice is straight gar­rot­ing wire,” Case warns on the ti­tle track – though no­body’s ever tried to make her their muse: “I’m not a pas­sive, lovely crea­ture,” she says. The epic Halls Of Sarah draws as much from Fleet­wood Mac as the Old Tes­ta­ment, and Last Lion Of Al­bion mocks mankind’s urge to tame na­ture. Case was in­spired by Adri­enne Mayor’s book The Ama­zons, which “dug up all this his­tory about the horse war­riors of Asia and the Da­homey war­riors of Africa.” Mayor’s por­tray­als of these pre­vi­ously un­doc­u­mented women chimed with Case’s sus­pi­cions. She stud­ied art his­tory in Van­cou­ver in the 1990s, on a cur­ricu­lum that in­cluded few his­toric fe­male artists. Her lec­tur­ers said that women didn’t make art be­cause they weren’t al­lowed to. “I re­alised that it was all just a big fuck­ing cover-up,” she says. “It sounds tin­foil hat, the way I’m say­ing it. But you know they’ve been ac­tively erased from his­tory be­cause we were al­ways do­ing these things. My in­stincts tell me to de­fend peo­ple or to rail against things that make me want to go and live in the woods. There was more of a fe­roc­ity and more of a force to women than that. We weren’t pas­sen­gers or breed­ing ma­chines or slaves.”

The cover of Hell-On was meant to be a pho­to­graph taken in­side the car­cass of Case’s home – an oddly beautiful vi­gnette where a wall had burned through a paint­ing. In­stead, she de­cided to turn her­self into a mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure, a Marl­boro Me­dusa with a cig­a­rette head­dress. It’s au­da­ciously crass, and glo­ri­fies Case’s fiercely poor, work­ing class back­ground as the daugh­ter of Ukrainian im­mi­grants. Re­cently, she and a friend who had grown up sim­i­larly were talk­ing about Game Of Thrones, won­der­ing what their noble houses would have been had they in­hab­ited The Known World. “We would have had no noble sigil – it would have been cig­a­rette butts or some­thing.” One of the few ob­vi­ously per­sonal songs on Hell-On is My Un­cle’s Navy, a story of a bas­tard who took plea­sure in hurt­ing peo­ple and an­i­mals, set to sim­mer­ing dream-pop in­fin­itely more gor­geous than he de­serves. “There’s me­mories I’d pay to re­move,” Case sings, “I’d cut them out myself if that were pos­si­ble.” It’s not about a spe­cific un­cle, she says, but an amal­gam of peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­ences of “be­ing a lit­tle girl and peo­ple telling you you’re not worth a shit. It’s weird to be a child and know adults who are com­pet­i­tive with chil­dren and who bully them and no one stops it, even though they see it. No one stops it for years and you ac­tu­ally stop lov­ing peo­ple in your fam­ily be­cause some­one was so cruel and they do noth­ing about it. You’re like, ‘Re­ally?!’” Case’s last al­bum, 2013’ s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, was her first ob­vi­ously per­sonal re­lease. In the years prior to its re­lease, she

lost her par­ents, from whom she was es­tranged. They were too young when they had her, ne­glect­ful ad­dicts and al­co­holics. Case al­ways says she was raised by their dogs. She also lost her grand­mother, the only fam­ily she loved. She had al­ways had a sur­vival in­stinct – mov­ing, work­ing, cre­at­ing – un­til one day the be­reave­ment stew be­came a swamp. “You’re not re­flect­ing, tak­ing time to feel grief,” she says. “It just doesn’t work. Your body will just go even­tu­ally.” Mak­ing Hell-On marginally al­tered Case’s per­spec­tive on her fam­ily. “I didn’t have any pity or em­pa­thy for my par­ents un­til I learned some things about them af­ter they died. They still fuck­ing suck, but it’s al­most worse. On one hand, yeah, I’m glad they’re dead. On the other hand, it’s like, what a waste of a life. It’s very sad.” Her par­ents never ex­pressed re­morse over their be­hav­iour, and “couldn’t have cared less” when she ran away from home in Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, when she was 15. In 1986 and 1987, she found “as close to a fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment as I could get” around Ta­coma’s short-lived but cru­cial DIY venue Com­mu­nity World The­atre. The punk shows were vi­o­lent, but club owner Jim May – “ma­jor fem­i­nist, mu­sic lover, weirdo, pro-LGBTQ, proev­ery­thing” – let her take tick­ets, sweep floors, make posters. Kurt Cobain (“a re­ally nice per­son”) once com­pli­mented one of them. “The re­ward of see­ing mu­sic and feel­ing part of it was re­ally more than I de­served, be­cause I wasn’t work­ing hard enough to re­ally be as help­ful as I wanted to be.” She was wel­comed in by Seat­tle’s gay bars, and watched the riot gr­rrl scene flour­ish in Olympia. “I knew some of those women,” she says. “They’re great. They had a lot of strength and a lot of au­dac­ity in a re­ally good way. I didn’t know what I was do­ing. I didn’t know I could be a mu­si­cian, or I think I would have been right there with them a lot ear­lier than I was. I wasn’t ready yet. See­ing it hap­pen, I def­i­nitely felt a mix of jeal­ousy and awe.” The teenage Case sought power a dif­fer­ent way. “I fucked ev­ery man I wanted to be,” she sings on Hell-On’s Curse Of The I- 5 Cor­ri­dor: “I was so stupid then”. It il­lu­mi­nates

“I didn’t have any em­pa­thy for my par­ents un­til I learned some things about them af­ter they died. On one hand, I’m glad they’re dead. On the other hand, what a waste of a life.”

Blaze of glory: Case’s “au­da­ciously crass” sleeve for new al­bum Hell-On.

Case his­tory: (left) Neko, in the late ’ 90s, around the time of her de­but al­bum; (right) live at Coachella in 2014.

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