Neko Case Bonus Interview | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Neko Case Bonus Interview

Finding the Right Words

Oct 25, 2013 Issue #47 - September/October 2013 - MGMT Bookmark and Share

She cuts an intimidating profile in her music, all powerhouse vocals and sharp-tongued lyrics, but Neko Case is surprisingly soft-spoken in person. Polite, thoughtful, and eager to pleaseeven asking if she is providing enough depth in her answers at one pointshe is a natural storyteller both in conversation and on record. And though she has always laced her stories with vivid imagery and arresting character sketches, the songs on her sixth studio album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You feature an unusually high number of memorable scenes. There’s “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella account of a mother waiting at an airport, who shouts “Get the fuck away from me” at her young child, telling her to shut up. There’s “Night Still Comes,” a soulful examination of depression and self-destructive thinking. Foremost, there’s “Man,” a stampeding rocker that provides a platform for Case to return to two of her favorite themes: gender and identity. In fact, both run throughout the album, from the palace intrigue of opener “Wild Creatures” to the subtle man-woman power dynamics of “I’m From Nowhere.” Here, Case explains the depression that provided (and sometimes took away) the emotional energy for her songwriting, her love of The Hunger Games, and how lacking confidence can be a good thing for an artist. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Neko Case, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): It has been nearly four years since your last album. What took you so long?

Neko Case: Mostly just life has its own timing. Being in New

Pornographers makes it [that way]. This one, I kind of had to take a little time for myself and feel human feelings and not keep moving. My body was like, “Okay, you need to think about your human life and take a little rest and mourn the dead. Just be human for a little bit.” It took me longer than I wanted it to, but I had to give in to it and be respectful of the fact that we aren’t factories as humans. We are weak flesh that needs rest.

Having a solo career and being in a band must be like having two full-time jobs.

That’s totally the reason I’m always so long between records. My record [2009’s Middle Cyclone] and The New Pornographers’ record [2010’s Together], we toured extensively for both, and both have been in existence for the same amount of time. Being in both bands is like two jobs. That’s not a complaint, because I love it, but, man, it can really whoop your ass. But it’s what you signed up for.

So when you were working on this new record, did you know from the start that it was going to be a bit more personal from a writing perspective?

It’s not completely like an autobiographical thing, but, for example, “[Nearly] Midnight, Honolulu” is a verbatim conversation that I overheard. So, in that way, it is about me, because I was there. But I wasn’t involved beyond being horrified, appalled, and changed for the rest of my life by people I didn’t have words with.

That must be shocking, to see a parent berate a child like that.

People often say, “That’s really horrifying,” but that happens all the time. My mom used to do that all the time. She’d totally gaslight me. She was the perfect mom to everyone else, but when it was just me and her, weird things would go down. There are a lot of people who weren’t really wanted as kids, and they have very similar experiences. The thing that I took away from it that made me go, “All right, she is going to be good,” is that the little kid didn’t let her change her mood. She just kept singing her little song. She turned around and walked away and kept singing her song. I felt like saying, “You’re my hero, little kid.”

Did you know from the start that song would be a cappella?

I had no idea what that was going to be like, but I wrote the song a cappella in the car, and I was singing it in little cartoon voices and amusing myself. And then I recorded the song, and I was like, “Well, that’s an okay melody. I should do that.” And it didn’t really work with accompaniment. I thought people would know that I’m not trying to be cutesy if I did it a cappella, that it’s not something I take lightly.

This album really moves through a lot of different moods and textures. It’s hard to say what the dominant feeling is.

Yeah, it’s pretty odd. I definitely try to make things different on purpose. I really try to make sure that if there are three songs in the key of C, the next song is in a different key. And if it doesn’t serve the song, it’s back in C. That works. I had a lot of different guests that I had admired for different reasons and from different age groups and backgrounds, and I think that makes things varied and exciting.

How long were you working on this album?

[Since] April 2012, on and off. And we finally finished recording it at the end of March of this year. It wasn’t like all of us were in this studio compound with the doors locked, ordering pizzas through the slots. But it took a long time. There were tours here and movie soundtrack stuff there, and different recordings and all kinds of stuff. And I have input on every single part of the process, since I’m such a major control freak. I’m there for the writing, the practicing, the recording, the mixing, the mastering, the photos for the artwork, and all of the artwork. So it only just got done in my mind, so I’m still a little shell-shocked, like, “Wow. What just happened?” I’m a total control freak. I feel like everything managed to pass my scrutiny and it’s ready to go.

Do you see a dominant theme that runs throughout the record?

Absolutely. It has a theme that I can’t really put my finger on, but I can tell it sticks together. And now I’m in the process of talking to people like you, and I tell people what I was going for and actually figure it out. It’s actually quite helpful! I appreciate it.

Do people usually hear the same things in your music that you do?

It’s really rare that things don’t make any sense at all. There will be times when you write a song that you think is the most literal, in-your-face, easy to understand thing, like “Man,” for example. I just made the mistake of reading a review of it, which I never do. And the person who reviewed it liked it, so I feel like a huge dick saying this, but he was like, “Hey, she is talking to a lover and puts her foot down.” And I’m like, “Talking to a lover? Do all women who sing a song like this have to be talking to a lover? What if I’m talking for lots of people, for everyone?” That’s what makes you a little crazy, but if you’re going to be an artist and put things out there, you have to be ready to go with what people’s perceptions are and not be a dick about it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get surprised and go, “What?” “Man” is a really striking song. What inspired it?

I think what inspired it was ever since I was a little kid, my grandma, who I’m closest to, has this way of talking to youand she passed away, but I always talk about her in the present tense. I’m totally not psycho, I swear to God. I still feel like she’s around because I loved her so much. But, for example, she’d go, “Well, if you’re going to get to Montana and not use the 90, how is a guy supposed to get to Kalispell?” A guy, a guy, a guy. And so I say that, because I got it from grandma, and people always correct you, no matter who they are, like, “First off, you’re not a guy. You’re a girl.” But I grew up in America in the ‘70s and was raised by a television, and the cartoons I watched said I could be whatever I wanted to be. This is America, so I said, “Nah, I’m not going to accept that.”

So you’re saying that the lists of traits you explore on “Man” aren’t limited only to men. They’re available to everyone.

It’s the quality of being a human animal. I wanted to not just be like, “I’m a woman, and I want you to call me a man!” I wanted to not be put in one place. I wanted to be in Noah’s ark, like, “Okay, we’re all in one place! Yay! Let’s do this! Awesome! It feels great to be a man! Don’t you love it? Yes, I love it!”

Was it cathartic to write those songs and use your art to help you through your grief?

I think it is now. At the time, it was really difficult and nothing was lubricated by that promise. It was all pretty hard. But I don’t mean it was hard in a way like, “No other human could have done it but me!”

I imagine you’re in a fairly unique position. An accountant can’t use his work to address his pain.

Or maybe they can. Some people are just super jazzed by numbers. But it definitely was not something that I was enjoying at the time. It was like, well, I don’t normally write about myself, so it kind of seemed like I wasn’t getting anything done. I kept working, but I wasn’t seeing any results, really.

What kind of results?

Finished songs to work on or lyrics that make you feel a feeling of accomplishment. It was all trying to untangle telephone wires.

So when did you start to untangle those wires?

I think probably around February. There was a time when I was trying to make it the first time when I said, “You know, Tucker [Martine, mixing], I’m just exhausted. My ears are fried and I’m saturated. I just have to let it sit for a while, because I’ve been too close to it.” And I let it go and was scheduled to come back, and we were like, “Yeah, it’s not happening the way we want it to.” We had to leave it alone for a while. Me and the record had to take some time apart. [Laughs] We needed some alone time.

What changed when you came back to it?

A bit more of my confidence had returned. A bit more of my faith that recordings aren’t quite mapped out for you. You’re supposed to go in and fight your way out of the jungle and then you feel great. And every single time you go back into a recording studioyou could have made 50 records, it doesn’t matterthe way technology works and the way the brain works, the more you learn your pathways for perceiving different problems also grow, but the possibility of wanting to tweak things or try something different or notice a certain new kind of distortion that you didn’t notice before is vastly increased, so you have to choose your battles and spend a little more time deciding what’s the best thing to do.

You’ve made so many great records. I imagine it’s not common for you to feel a lack of confidence.

No. I think it’s pretty usual in the beginning, because I rarely go in without things finished. It puts you on high alert when you have to make decisions, where if I was to do it with a bunch of confidence, I don’t know if it would have the desperate immediacy that some recordings have. It’s fun to thrill yourself, like a roller coaster feeling. “Holy shit! We’re going to get eaten by this giant tyrannosaurus unless we weld this giant cage together before it gets here!” That’s the kind of situation you get in, if a lot less dire and with no blood, but still. It’s exciting to challenge yourself, and I’ve never been in the studio with an engineer who wasn’t having that experience. You can be anybody. It doesn’t matter who you are; you are always learning. There are infinite possibilities or combinations of possibilities, and that can really frighten the shit out of you. It’s like, “I’ve got to make a hard choice!” It’s like a very Harry Potter feeling.

I was wondering about “Wild Creatures.” What inspired the imagery on that song?

That one was one of the songs that I wrote for The Hunger Games, and I ended up using the other one instead, because this one wasn’t quite done. But I really wanted to finish it, and it ended up a bit different than it was going to be. I love the main character in The Hunger Games so much, and I thought she was a great role model for young people. I love to tell a story where a lady is the heroine and she’s this person having complicated problems, and that’s what it’s about. In the song, also, I like the chord progressions of it, and for a long time I didn’t know what was going to happen with the beginning. Of all the songs, it was the one that was going to draw you in right off the top.

So the lyrics were inspired by The Hunger Games?

My own ideas, too, but I just wanted to make sure it got used, and the Hunger Games project came along, and I was such a huge fan of the book, and I just wanted to do right by it. So I put those lyrics in there, and I ended up writing another song that got used. It meant a lot to me, and I thought it was a good transition, because it was finished before a lot of the other songs on the record. That’s the beginning of the record, and then “Ragtime” was the other song on the record that was already done. I wrote it on the last day of making Middle Cyclone, and it was a nice continuation, a nice way of thinking about it.

How about “Night Still Comes”? The line “My brain makes drugs to keep me slow” really grabs your attention. What inspired that?

Just grief and feeling depressed. Like, “Why would I completely lose myself? Why can’t I stop myself from completely losing myself?” And I would often try to bring some levity by making fun of myself, like, “Why would your brain do this to you now?” It kind of cracked me up, which made it a little more bearable. It’s not some incredibly unique experience that no one has ever had before, but I had to keep going “Yeah, everyone goes through this. I don’t know why you think it’s so dire.” And I’d be like, “It’s not me that thinks it’s dire. It’s my brain!”

How about the title of the album? There must be a story behind that.

It’s like “I know I have to keep fighting, I know I have to keep fighting, I don’t want to keep fighting, but I know I have to keep fighting.” It’s a perpetual cycle you have to go through for a while, and after a while you do feel the benefits of slogging through it, and it’s pretty rewarding. I do want to say that the title, I was saying it to myself, but I’m a very compassionate person, I think, and I’m always worrying about people around the world that I’ve never met and about what people are going through. I wanted everyone to feel that way, like, “We’re fighting! I still love you, people! I’m having a shitty day and being a dick, but I still love you! I’ll love you harder, even though I’m being a dick!”

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October Digital 2013 issue.]


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