Neko Case

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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

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