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
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.