We meet the singer in Vermont, preparing to release her new album, Hell-On. To be discussed: poultry, barn fires and folk tales
Welcome to Vermont, where in her studio HQ NEKO CASE is preparing to release her splendid new album, Hell-On. Before the French toast is served, Stephen Deusner hears about barn fires, poultry husbandry and the enduring power of folk tales. “People have been fucked up for a really long time,” she says...
If you have chickens, you’ll never get another tick,” Neko Case explains, just as one of her three dogs climbs up in her lap. “Even if they don’t lay eggs for you, it’s so worth it to have them out there eating ticks. They’ll go to bed every night like they’re supposed to. I have a rooster, but he’s not an early riser. He goes off whenever he wants, but it doesn’t bug me too much.”
Case is sitting in her studio in St Johnsbury, Vermont, a small town just 50 miles south of the Canadian border. A converted theatre in the back of the town’s old post office, the studio looks like Case’s own museum, full of personal memorabilia and assorted bric-à-brac collected over a 20-year career. Critically, though, it has also become her main base of operations since her house and barn burned down while she was in Sweden, recording
Hell-On, her first solo work in almost five years. She lost nearly everything, but was more concerned with the wellbeing of her animals than her possessions. Now, she explains, her menagerie – chickens, cats and horses – are all on extended vacation with friends until she can rebuild. And that might be postponed as she embarks on tours for the new album.
The studio is certainly reflective of Case’s personality. One wall is plastered with handwritten setlists that include nearly every song
she’s ever recorded, as though tracing an informal history of her performing life. On the opposite wall hangs a huge poster for the 1969 French flick Les Petites Chattes Sont
Toutes Gourmands (Small Pussies Are All gourmets). In the centre of the room, surrounded by microphones, assorted instruments and lengths of thick cabling, are two leather chairs with a trunk in between that serves as a coffee table. Overhead hang a cluster of gigantic Chinese lanterns that bathe the room in a soft red glow. “I’ve been here in Vermont for 11 years,” she explains. “I came through here on a visit with a close friend, on our way to Portland, Maine, and we decided to see if we could find the house where I lived when I was a kid. The house was still there, and all the neighbours were still there. No-one had aged or died. It was weird. They must have been doing something right.”
evidently, she has found a sympathetic space in which to live and work: “I have more time to be with nature. I’m more at ease here. I’m a really active person, and I get to go outside a lot.” In the winters, Case cross-country skis around her property, usually with her dogs in tow. She knows enough to avoid the bears and especially the moose she encounters. She generally prefers the company of animals to that of humans, describing herself on Hell-On as “an agent of the natural world”.
It’s not hard to see how Vermont might inspire her music. Hell-On is an imaginative album, one that adds thrilling new sounds to her country-rock arsenal. A vivid and distinctive songwriter who rearranges the elements of American music into new shapes, who twists language into strange images, she writes about time travel, extinct animals, barflies and bullying uncles, about lost muses and seafaring strangers. It would be wrong to assume every song is autobiographical – but that doesn’t mean the epic “Curse Of The I-5 Corridor”, with its Mark Lanegan cameo, or “Bad Luck”, with its barbed pop hook and karmic punchline, don’t paint her as an artist with musical vision and a highly curious mind.
“each artist has their own songwriting voice, and Neko’s songwriting voice is so disctinct,” says Laura Veirs, who collaborated with Case and kd lang on 2016’s
case/lang/veirs and sings on Hell-On. “She writes like a novelist or a poet, where she can craft a tale in so few words and she comes up with ways of saying things that I would never think of. I’m envious.”
“She is a paleontologist when it comes to songs and experiences,” says Joey Burns of Calexico, who has played on every Case album since 2001’s
Blacklisted. “I’ve seen her grow roots that go super deep into the earth’s crust.”
“That’s what art is for,” says Case. “It’s for things we don’t have a language for. It’s this place between physics and us.”
CASe lived in a lot of places before settling in Vermont. Born in Virginia, she relocated frequently with her family around the east Coast until she landed in the Pacific Northwest as a teenager. Before attending art school in Vancouver, she entrenched herself in the local punk scene, first as a fan and later as a drummer. “I remember seeing shows when I was young and thinking it had nothing to do with my home life,” she says. “I remember those moments when you could just let go and maybe for an hour or two you’re not struggling. You’re just a person who was dreaming and happy and dancing and singing along.” She gigged in the hardcore group Maow, her hair dyed black and shaved in a zebra pattern, then gravitated toward country music in Cub and The Weasels. early on, very few of her friends and fellow musicians knew Case could sing. Says Carl Newman, who played in her early backing band and recruited her for his then-fledgling New Pornographers project: “It was very strange when people started asking me, ‘Hey, have you heard Neko sing? She’s weirdly good!’ That was around the time when the idea for a local supergroup was just germinating, so I asked her if she wanted to do this project, which I didn’t really think would amount to much.” Two decades and seven wildly inventive indie-pop albums later, Case remains a constant in the New Pornographers. After releasing her debut, 1997’s The Virginian, a fairly straightforward alt.country barnburner that includes covers of songs by ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and Scott Walker, Case moved repeatedly and recorded frequently, each LP growing a little bleaker, a little more idiosyncratic, more confident not so much in her own abilities but in the capacity of music to express something she couldn’t convey in any other medium. She found inspiration in unlikely places. “I like fairy tales and folk tales,” she says. “There’s a weird misperception that they’re things that people used to write and stories they used to tell. But that doesn’t mean we can’t write new ones. They have a lot of influence, so why wouldn’t you want to write new stories like that? They’re good currency.” “She evolved very quickly,” says Newman. “It was such a wild jump from the first record to Furnace Room Lullaby [in 2000] and then to Blacklisted [in 2002]. I just couldn’t believe that leap. Suddenly she was playing something that sounded like psychedelic country.” Jon Rauhouse, who has played on every one of Case’s albums and almost every tour since Blacklisted, remembers meeting her in the late 1990s at South By Southwest. “She was on stage with the Sadies, and they were all wearing suits. But she was wearing JC Penney pyjamas. I thought it was hilarious and awesome. There’s no bullshit about her. There’s no crap. She’s the one out there mucking the barn and then going on tour and singing these amazing songs.”
“IgeT bored if I know exactly what’s going to happen in the studio on a given day, she says. “Some days are a grind, like when I’m comping vocals and never want to hear my voice ever again. But then there are days when you have a bunch of great musicians coming in and you don’t know what it’s going to sound like. Those are the days I get excited about.” Perhaps for that reason Case has remained incredibly loyal to the people and places she has encountered along the way. Hell-On features some of the same musicians who played on her very first records, including guitarist Paul Rigby and vocalist Kelly Hogan.
Often that means letting those musicians cut loose and do things they might not get to do otherwise. Joey Burns, for example, plays guitar and sings in Calexico, but he plays keyboards throughout HellOn, most effectively on “Curse Of The I-5 Corridor”, a seven-minute epic that hinges on his switch from piano to Wurlitzer. “I felt like the piano parts on here give a sense of earth,” he says. “To be sure, she’s a fullon environmentalist and naturalist, so I tried to let the piano parts offer some of that aspect of her character. We all just throw a lot of ideas at her, but you never know what she’ll end up using. She’s not just thinking about traditional music or traditional means of recording. She’s looking to create unusual sounds.”
While recording at WaveLab Recording Studio in Tucson – where she had made at least part of every album since Blacklisted – Case took a break to fly to Washington, DC, where she played a benefit show raising money for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where demonstrators protesting the seizure of land for an oil pipeline had been met with violence. A few months later, while on tour, she and her backing band attended the Women’s March in DC. Those events and the issues they address certainly inform the general mood of Hell-On, and songs like the title track and “Last Lion Of Albion” (about the extinction of animals that become national symbols) aren’t especially hopeful about humanity or its current trajectory.
“I have this general feeling that humans are really far from where they should be and don’t have much focus on anything that’s actually important,” she says. “It’s painful to watch and I take it really personally. Nobody deserves extinction more than human beings. We are not kind. We are not grateful. Our species can be a real dick.” This is not a new idea for her or a new facet of her music; Case has written about this subject on almost all of her records, without coming across as an explicitly political artist or being pigeonholed as a protest singer. “People have been fucked up for a really long time. At some point in history mankind decided we were going to start hating women. And things have been a mess ever since.”
Case may not feel particularly warm towards humankind, but her music is never wholly cynical or doomsaying. The urgency of Hell-On comes not only from the direness of their subject matter but from the joy of their creation, as though the labour of finding the right words and the right sounds might signal something like hope: that the music might serve as a balm or a fire for the listener and show us where the hell we’ve gone astray. “I try to live in a way that I can feel OK about, and I try to do good things. I don’t feel hopeful for society, but I feel hopeful as myself in my life.”
HeR search for new sounds took Case out of Vermont and halfway around the world. In Sweden, she worked with Björn Yttling, whose production credits include Franz Ferdinand, Chrissie Hynde and Primal Scream. Relinquishing so much control was both nerve-racking and freeing for an artist who describes herself as a control freak. “I like the sounds I like, and I always want to make sure they’re included. But he said something when we first met that struck my curiosity: ‘everybody is worried about the transitions from the chorus into the bridge
“Nobody deserves extinction more than human beings”
“Music was a benevolent voice in the dark. It supports you”
or whatever, but sometimes I just want the whole song to be the hook.’ Yeah, what a great idea. Let’s do that.” That approach is most obvious on “Bad Luck” – a seriocomic consideration of karma that is perhaps the most tenaciously catchy tune she’s ever recorded.
Rather than have Yttling travel to America, Case spent two months in Stockholm, enjoying what she describes as a “micro living-in-a-place experience. I didn’t want to do touristy things. I’d rather hang around in neighbourhoods where people actually live, drink their coffee and eat their food. You go to work everyday like everyone else.” Work was at INGRID Studios in the Södermalm neighbourhood, where she and Yttling assembled so many contributions by so many musicians into finished songs. “We had some guests come in, like Peter Morén from my band and Robert Forster from The Go-Betweens,” he says. “And sometimes there would come some recordings from Chicago where she had some friends who contributed.”
Together, Case and Yttling created a batch of songs – roughly half the record – whose sound is as nuanced and imaginative as her lyrics, full of unexpected flourishes. The reverbed piano on “Last Lion Of Albion” could be sampled from a horror movie soundtrack, an impression bolstered by the percussion double-taps that sound like an uneasy countdown. A windblown drone whips through “Halls Of Sarah”. A wash of synths adds subtle drama to “Gumball Blue”, which culminates in a flurry of celebratory strings. Gently psychedelic yet strongly rooted in country and rock, Hell-On reflects the wonder she finds in the natural world, Vermont and beyond.
The day before she was scheduled to record vocal tracks for – no kidding – “Bad Luck”, Case got a call in the middle of the night with alarming news. Her barn was on fire, and it was spreading to her house. “It might have been electrical or it might have been hay getting wet and composting and catching fire,” she shrugs. “We don’t know. It’s a barn from the 1800s, so it’s been there longer than electricity. So it had an old system.” Months later, Case understands she was lucky under the circumstances. None of her animals were hurt. “So many people across the world were losing everything. It was happening right around the time Houston and Puerto Rico were being hit by hurricanes. And all those fires in California. A lot of people lost a hell of a lot more than I did.”
Despite the bad news, she stayed on in Sweden until the sessions were finished. “I figured, OK, she’s going home now,” recalls Yttling. “She’s leaving for the airport. But she seemed more than anything cool – not cool with what had happened, but cool with the situation she was in. She had to make a lot of phone calls, but mostly she just said, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get home… if I have a home when I get home!’ She was always joking. A dark humour.”
BACK in Vermont, Neko Case wants French toast. And she knows exactly where to get it. She herds her dogs out of the studio and into her enormous pickup truck, which is not a countrymusic fetish but a necessity during the hard New England winters; she can haul animals and farm equipment as well as instruments and gear, even during the iciest, more treacherous conditions. “I’m not remotely mysterious,” she says as she steers through the streets of St Johnsbury, which are dusty with grit left behind by the melting snow. “I read a lot of interviews in a lot of magazines, and especially with women it’s about building the mystery of who they are and reinforcing the celebrity of it. But I don’t really have that kind of cachet. I’m not a persona. I’m just me all the time.”
Case describes herself as a “blue-collar musician”, one who makes art the way others might farm their fields or tap the trees to make maple syrup. Music is her trade, her vocation, and she understands she’s not alone. “We are actually the majority, even if people only see the two per cent on TV or videos.” In fact, Case comes across more like a typical Vermonter who happens to make great music than a famous musician who happens to live in this small town.
And like every Vermonter, she knows exactly where to get the best French toast in the state. “The P&H in Wells River is the only truck stop that makes their own bread, and it’s the fucking best I’ve ever had. And they have real maple syrup made just down the road.” Along the way she points out the enormous chunks of glacial-blue ice still clinging to the exposed rock along the highway and suggests that Hell-On might be just as natural and necessary a product of these hills as the syrup she’s looking forward to pouring on her bread.
While she may not be feeling optimistic about the world, she has made an album that crackles with urgency and experimentation and invention, suggesting that making music is on some level an expression of hope: that her music might find an audience and that her audience might be moved or changed. “I think about what music did for me as a person, even before I made music,” she says. “It was a benevolent voice in the dark. It supports you. It’s something you need so deeply.” Hell-On is released by Anti- on June 1
alt.country collaborators laura veirs (left), kd lang and Neko Case in Portland, June 2016
Case (centre) with the New Pornographers, 2009
A pharaoh hearing: Case on stage at the Fun Fun Fun Fest at Auditorium Shores, Austin, Texas, November 8, 2014