A dialogue with Neko Case, one of today’s great singer-songwriters.
Neko Case is a formidable artist, nominated for Best Alternative Album at the Grammys this year with The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. During the amazing musical array of five weeks in New York last autumn, her incandescent concert at Radio City Music was a knockout. Mavis Staples, Soul’s First Lady, signed to Anti Records because Case is on the label. From snowy Indianapolis on tour, Case was a considerate, charming interviewee, her superb voice lilting through a sub-optimal line. In the lead up to her New Zealand Festival concerts, we discussed her new album live in Manhattan, unconditional love, and why she skipped the Grammys. Illustration by Anna Tokareva.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I loved your performance in New York in September. What makes the iconic Radio City Music a special venue to play?
NEKO CASE: Well, obviously it’s beautiful and it sounds fantastic, but you know, it’s in Warner Brothers cartoons for crying out loud. Bugs Bunny played Radio City. It’s like the go-to iconic reference for musicals.
AB: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, I adore this title, too. As it says, you’re a fighter.
NC: Well, I was trying to make a title that would encapsulate all of the songs as one unit. I was saying to someone, “I need something that will say ‘the worse things will get better’,” and I was like “No, that’s not true.” [Laughs]. It’s like, you know when you answer your own question.
AB: The idea of people romanticising suffering as causal for great art is naive?
NC: Yeah, that’s kind of some bullshit. I mean, it’s not necessary and nor is it fun. It’s no good. Nobody likes to feel like that. I think at some point somebody decided that they would make their bad situation like a club that only they got to be in, which is always really confusing to me. Like, why would you want that [laughs]? It’s so odd. And when people say you have to suffer for your art it’s almost condescending. It doesn’t make any sense. Pushing an idea is a good thing, but I don’t know that that’s so much about suffering.
AB: Yeah, why should someone have to suffer?
NC: Yeah, well they shouldn’t, hopefully. Hopefully nobody would.
AB: You were going through a very difficult time personally when you were making this album. But you’ve said it wasn’t a cathartic process?
NC: No, not at all. It was very difficult.
AB: Your use of language in your music and your banter between songs live is charmingly vivid. (“If a dude called me a ‘cougar’ I’d be more likely to kill him bare-handed and shit him out in front of his parents than fuck him,” you tweeted recently on your lively Twitter account). You use some vivid metaphors to describe The Worse Things Get’s production process?
NC: Yeah, I tried to find the humour in it, which is I’m sure why some of the metaphors are pretty out there. They’re trying to illustrate the humour in the situation, which isn’t really funny, but you’ve got to look for it otherwise.
AB: Talking to Rolling Stone last autumn you said, “Let’s not hash it out and make it Fire Woman or Fire Person. Is a lioness not a lion mother fucker?” Could you elaborate?
NC: I just mean, why do we always have to justify? We don’t, because it doesn’t really matter… There’s an immediacy to leaving it out. Don’t qualify everything.
AB: “A chill ran through me/ And I grabbed on tight… I wanted so badly not to be me.” ‘Where Did I Leave that Fire?’ about the experience of depression does that. Sonically, you brilliantly capture that feeling of being under the sea, as when you opened your New York set with it.
NC: Thank you.
AB: You’ve got a massive voice, but you’re trying to be more dynamic on this album. Quieter songs like ‘Afraid’ (“You are beautiful, and you are alone) to barnstormers like ‘Man’ (“I am the man on the fucking moon”). What are you hoping Australasian audiences take away from listening to a song like ‘Man’ live?
NC: They just have to come and see, really. We do have a lot of different dynamics going on. We do very quiet things and then very loud things. We have definitely put a lot of effort into figuring out how to make it seem three-dimensional; not just us running through the songs.
AB: ‘Calling Cards’ is another song I am very fond of live:
Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heartbreak
I love you more
Singing we’ll all be together
Even when we’re not together
With our arms around each other
With our faith still in each other
The tenderness brings Otis Redding to mind.
NC: Oh yeah, I love him. You can’t not.
AB: You (and A.C. Newman) closing with ‘Ragtime’ was very effective:
Its gravity is soothing
It winds me in a sleek cocoon
I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready
I’ll reveal myself invincible soon
Were there any ragtime musicians that were a particular inspiration?
NC: Not musically, but personally I was listening to a lot of Wilbur De Paris while making this record.
AB: You gave a fiery, passionate performance at Radio City Music. Could you talk a bit about your performance philosophy?
NC: Well, I don’t have a philosophy about it other than it’s not about me, it’s about trying to do the best job you can and hit the notes as best you can. I don’t know, just physically get from one place to the next. It’s kind of like you have to shut your brain off to do it. It’s very, very physical.
AB: You were very funny, too. That joke about the IRS! Humour is essential to survive, isn’t it?
NC: Oh yes! Yes it is.
AB: During this The Worse Things Get period where you were so depressed, you read “like a fiend.”
NC: I did. You’d do anything to get out of your own life. Reading is definitely a very cathartic… not cathartic, I hate that word. It’s just a really nice pressure reliever.
AB: You’re a fan of the writer Annie Dillard.
NC: Oh, Annie Dillard? Yeah.
AB: Her The Writing Life. A couple of lines from that that I thought might have resonated with you. One is: “The dedicated life is worth living. You must give with your whole heart.” And the second one is: “Buddhism notes that it is always a mistake to think your soul can go it alone.”
NC: They do resonate with me, for sure. The thing I really remember from that book is her saying, “It’s always the sentences that you think are the best that you work the hardest on. They are the ones that you ultimately have to sacrifice.” And it’s the most painful thing I’ve heard that, but she’s totally right.
AB: You have to kill your darlings.
NC: Yeah, kinda. Or less romantically, it would be you’ve got to become a really good editor. Slash it! When in doubt, slash it.
AB: When talking about Annie Dillard, you sharply described her like a “Swarovski crystal bacon chandelier.” Speaking of brilliant descriptions, have you read Mark Twain’s autobiography?
NC: I read the first half, which was really good. I haven’t read the second half yet.
AB: What did you appreciate thus far?
NC: I love his random rambles he goes into; his whole spiral of rambles. Because, as you know, it’s not in chronological order. I like hearing his general thoughts about when General Grant, President Grant, was over at the house. You’re just like yeah, Ulysses Grant used to just come over. No big deal. What a strange time to live. Crazy, crazy things. I really loved his reminiscences about heading out west on the stagecoach and sitting on the roof of the stagecoach and eating bacon while watching the sun come up on his way to Carson City. I really loved that.
AB: Like you, he was someone who spent a lot of time on the road. He even came down to New Zealand.
NC: I know! He was all over the place. I think about that a lot. I think about how people are really, you know… we do a lot of nothing with our time, but we’re thoroughly stingy about, it, whereas he would be like, “Yes, I’m getting on a steamer for six months and I’m going to Europe and Australia, then I’ll be back.” It’s like, wow, I want to get on a steamer. I want to get on a luxury liner and go somewhere and write my great American novel and go dancing and for teatime with Eleanor Roosevelt or something. That’d be awesome [laughs].
AB: Another personal favourite album of yours is Neko Case Live from Austin, tracks like the wonderful ‘Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)’—will you be playing any of that material Down Under?
NC: Probably—we do something from pretty much every record, so I would think so.
AB: Anything else in terms of people coming to your performances in New Zealand—anything else you hope they take away?
NC: Well, we have many more singers in the band than we used to, so I’m really excited about where we’re going with singing these days. Hitting the four-part harmonies has been pretty exciting.
AB: Staplesque. You share a back up singer, Kelly Hogan, with Mavis Staples. Any recent harmonic influences?
NC: I’m listening to lots of Dr. Dog lately, with their massive harmony singers.
AB: You were once keen to do a collaboration with Missy Elliot. Any current desired collaborators?
NC: Nope. I actually am just dying to go home at the moment, to be honest. I’m a little over-worked.
AB: Go chill out and have some peace.
NC: I have like ninety new ideas, but my little brain is like, “Okay, you need to nap.”
AB: I hear that. Home is rural Vermont. Creative people need to find a balance between solitude and human company?
NC: It’s definitely more solitude there, but it has been really nice. In general I find it quite soothing. I like animals and trees and dirt; good for you.
AB: Your previous album Middle Cyclone went to number three on the U.S. Billboard Top 200; I believe the first artist from an independent record label to achieve this. You were the only female artist nominated for Best Alternative Album at the Grammys 2014, won by Vampire Weekend? Did you go? “It isn’t what people think it is. It’s formal with no hang-out time. You have to sneak in the food in your bag. Not kidding,” you said of a previous year.
NC: It’s true. There’s no food there. You’ve got to make sure you bring some otherwise you’ll get low on blood sugar. We played a show in Houston instead.
AB: Not to mention these ceremonies are expensive.
NC: Yep. It’s very expensive to go. I’ve gone there once. I thought I’d have the experience. But this time I realised, well, I don’t think I’ll win and I already have a show in Houston booked so it’s probably more important to do that.
AB: How does your background as a visual artist influence your music and vice versa?
NC: Well, they’re all the same process and they’ve never been separate, so I couldn’t honestly say if they’re all the same thing to me.
AB: You’ve said, “Knowing what unconditional love means has made me a better person and I am so, so grateful.”
NC: I’m definitely a huge fan of unconditional love. Animals are big to that, for sure, and I have many friends who treat me that way, which is priceless.
AB: On stage, there’s a lot of love and passion in what you do.
NC: I think so. I hope it comes across; not just tuning issues or something.
AB: It undoubtedly does. You can see that in the response from your fans. People have that for you as well.
NC: Yes, they’re very good. They’re very sweet.
AB: You joke on Middle Cyclone’s ‘I’m an Animal’ about “heaven will smell like an airport.” Your fans’ enthusiasm keeps you motivated?
NC: Oh, definitely. Yes. And my band as well.
AB: And you’ve got really close friendships with your band, in terms of your work with The New Pornographers?
NC: Yes, and The New Pornographers, we’ve just finished a record as well, so that’ll be teething on the burners for a while.
AB: Thanks. I look forward to seeing you in New Zealand.
NC: I look forward to seeing you too! I can’t wait to get back there.