Neko Case on her new album and moving on from tragedy: 'I've always been a person who fights'
For her seventh studio album, Neko Case finds herself sticking to her collaborative roots but taking more control in the studio than she ever has. The result is Hell-On (out June 1), an album of soaring hooks and detailed storytelling, rich in all of its elements — and one created in a state of turmoil and recovery.
Last fall, Case’s farmhouse residence in Vermont burned down while she was completing work on the album in Sweden with co-producer Björn Yttling. Case assures me that all of her animals are safe, but she still technically has no place to live, and is uncertain about the rebuilding process. Just before this, she found herself dealing with stalkers, so much so that she had to ask the reporting on her house fire not include her name or the location of the home.
Case was able to finish the album quickly after the news of the fire, committing herself to complete the project she had control over, instead of dwelling on the one she didn’t. This is, perhaps, why the album itself shares cynicism and a series of small delights in equal measure. “Bad Luck” is a song that, by title, seems as though it would be ominous, but is actually filled with catchy retro pop harmonies. “Oracle of the Maritimes” is a patient and winding song, sparse but for its layered guitars and Case’s lone voice: “Sometimes I feel so ugly / I’m afraid / worry nesting in my head / shedding like a Christmas tree.”
Hell-On is certain of nothing but its commitment to uncertainty, and its refreshing honesty. On the album’s final track, “Pitch or Honey,” Case sings: “I used minor chords / to make this a sadder song.” It would be funny, perhaps, under circumstances where one would not be willing to admit that the chord choice works. This is the great skill of Neko Case: extracting exactly what she wants to extract out of a listener. We spent some time discussing the making of the album, the balance between her private and public life, and her affinities for both collaboration and ancient history.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was the fire on the album cover an aesthetic choice to represent what was going on in your life at the time?
CASE: That actually didn’t have anything to do with the fire! It was just a coincidence. I was actually joking around with some of my friends about Game of Thrones and we were talking about what our family sigils would be. And I decided that my background was so trashy that my family crest would probably have a cigarette butt on it. But I was also obsessed with fake Hollywood cigarettes, so I thought it would be funny to make a costume out of what looked like burning cigarettes.
I’m drawn to the collaborative nature of the album, and I know that collaboration has really defined your creative process. How did you choose your collaborators this time around, and how did they push you in the process?
I always collaborate because I’m not a solo artist. I do write by myself, but I never play alone, because I don’t enjoy it. The Calexico gang was there, as always. But some people I brought on board for specific songs because I thought they’d have a lot to add. Like Mark Lanegan [who duets on “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”] and Beth Ditto [who sings vocals on “Winnie”] and Eric Bachmann on “Sleep All Summer.” I think collaboratively, what was different — and this comes from my work on the case/lang/viers record [released with k.d. lang and Laura Viers in 2016] — is that I had to work on ceding control a bit. That was a scary and new, interesting way for me to serve the songs I was making. I feel more comfortable taking risks after that.
I’m really struck by the lyrics too — how they are both conversational and whimsical, and sometimes open-ended questions, like the entire first verse of “Bad Luck.” What space did you find yourself in lyrically?
Well, on “Bad Luck” specifically, it’s a continuation of what I’ve been trying to do, which is making up modern folklore and fairy tales. I got really into complex and bizarre superstitions that are almost like spells. Ways to counteract bad luck like throwing salt over your shoulder. I wanted to make up superstitions there, and it was fun. But none of them are real. Still, even if we’re not into astrology or religion, everybody thinks about luck. We just do it.
You’re pretty respectful of your privacy in your music, but you balance that with a lyrical openness. How do you manage to walk those two lines?
I think it’s because I’m not playing a character, I’m just being myself. And I’m not often writing about myself. The way I speak, the way I write, I’m in the songs, but they aren’t entirely autobiographical. I’m not really worried if people think the things are about me or not, which gives me a type of freedom. I just want to tell the stories that come to mind without worry.
The last time you’ve had only your name on an album was 2013. What was re-entering the album creation space like as a solo artist? Do the stakes change when the album has just your name on it?
No, I actually felt really confident and really present — more so than I had been. I was probably more present than I had been since the making of [2009’s] Middle Cyclone. It was so good to be back on the road with the New Pornographers, and it was so great to have worked on the case/lang/viers album. But I also went to a producer’s conference in Brooklyn after the New Pornographers wrapped their tour. It was the first conference of female producers in the history of the world, which is wild if you think about it. There have been heavy hitters at the birth of every technology who are women, so it is insane that this was the first. But going there and being on a panel with a lot of different women from different backgrounds and ages… it was so beautiful. We know representation matters, but I had a further epiphany about it. Even if you know something, you can re-learn it again. When we all came together, we immediately exploded into conversation. I’m generally shy at first, but none of us had any idea how starved we were for that type of interaction and validation. To see the representation and be the representation at the same time was incredible. I can’t describe it, but I imagine it is what winning an Oscar feels like. And I imagine that had a lot to do with where I was when I started making this album.
In terms of confidence and control, did you find yourself channeling that throughout the creative process as kind of an emotional opposition to what was swirling around you?
It’s a way to channel rage into something that is life-giving, as opposed to something that erodes you. I’m not at the end of it, so I’m not yet sure exactly what that means. But I’ve always been a person who fights. I didn’t have any reactions that were planned or strategized. I just do things, and hope for the best.
I read that you’re an ancient history buff, and some aspects of your studies influenced the making of this album. Can you talk about what you were digging into that pushed your creative process here?
My stepfather is an archeologist, so as a kid, I’d travel to digs and see places where there were large cultural significances. After dealing with stalkers and how the government and law enforcement treats you when you’re dealing with stalkers — in the face of being denied my humanity, I wanted to go back in time to see when exactly it was where we started hating women and when society decided to push them into the role of vessel and property. Then I read this book by Adrienne Mayor, who was instrumental in proving that Amazons were not myths. Her research and storytelling and linking of mythology was all so joyous and enlightening to me. And I’m very into art history, but I’d get these thick art books, and there’d be maybe three to five women mentioned. And I’d think, Well that doesn’t make sense. There have been more than just a small handful of women doing things over thousands of years. But women have been erased and demoted. And the lovely thing that I took away from Adrienne’s book was that our histories are buried and the graves are shallow and s—y, but we can find ourselves again. And I’m really excited about young women and men who are excited about these things and bringing them into the light.
You’ve been active musically throughout your career, but this album feels like it came with a very specific weight to it, and so I’m wondering how you’re feeling now that you are about to part ways with the fruits of this particular creative process? Where do you find comfort?
Everything is happening all of the time and I’m still unsure of so much. I don’t know if I can or will rebuild my home. I still haven’t gone through everything that was lost in the fire. There’s a lot of uncertainty because all of that stuff happened too close to other plans, and you can’t give up your work if you want to live anywhere. All of my animals are good, which is a comfort. But I can’t think about rebuilding.
I think right now, being in the midst of camaraderie with my bandmates is a comfort. We’re all here to do the same thing, and we’ve worked so hard on this project. When you’re making a record, it can be an isolating process. I could go months and months without my bandmates. So actually being with people and playing this record I made is bringing me a great deal of satisfaction and joy.