Interview

To Hell And Back With Neko Case

Neko Case is walking on air, and she has Grace Jones to thank. “I’m still high,” she exclaims in between mouthfuls of banana at Brooklyn’s Nu Hotel while recalling a screening of Sophie Fiennes’ Bloodlight And Bami she took in a few days before. The singer, songwriter, and sometimes-New Pornographer never got to see Jones live — her first concert was the Thompson Twins at the age of 14 — but cultural osmosis played a role in bringing Jones’ singular and visionary art on Case’s radar: “I was so far removed from anything cool when I was younger, so the fact that her images and art came to me was a bizarre miracle.”

“Bizarre miracle” could be used to describe Case’s musical output over the last 15 years, too. Like a summer thunderstorm after days of unceasing heat, every album she releases seems to arrive right when you seek the nourishment it provides, and not a day later. Case (pun not intended, I swear) in point: A day before her sixth solo full-length Hell-On was announced, I found myself recalling her radiant performance of Fox Confessor Brings The Flood’s “Maybe Sparrow” at New York City’s Governor’s Ball festival a few years back, wondering when the follow-up to 2013’s excellent The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You would arrive. Twenty-four hours later, my own bizarre miracle had taken place.

Case has always worked in a variety of moods, but even Hell-On’s brightest moments are covered by overcast skies, with bad omens and sorrowful tales lurking just beyond cloud cover. “Moods are never clear to me until after the record’s finished, and this one was finished such a short time ago — the glue is still drying,” she explains, “but there’s a lot of dread, a lot of hope, and a lot of uneasiness. It’s about being uneasy about your own power, and the space you’re claiming. You can become uneasy about what I’m becoming, and it fits me well. It will be a power I actually wield.”

Wielding their own power beside her: a bevy of collaborators, from co-producer Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn, and John to guest vocalists ranging from Beth Ditto to Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann and Mark Lanegan (“I love the men with the deep voices,” she says with a laugh). Read on for our conversation about pets, the connection beween doing the dishes and astrology, the Women’s March, and what happened after her house burned down late last year.

STEREOGUM: Many artists I’ve spoken to reach a point while they’re working on a project for a long time and have to rip themselves away from it for their own good. Is that something you experience in your creative process?

CASE: There are times you want to use the top of your foot, punt that shit off a cliff, and right into a fuckin’ junkyard. [Mock-yells] “Take it away from me!” I just think about my dog nursing her puppies and weaning them. One day I found her on the couch looking so haggard. The puppies hadn’t learned how to get on the couch yet, and she didn’t used to get up on the couch, but she did now. They were on the edge of the couch, and she was like, “Please fuck off.” I took a photo of her — she looked like she had curlers in her hair. She was so used. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: I remember you had two greyhounds mentioned in a 2009 SPIN profile. Are they still with you?

CASE: No, they passed away a couple years ago. They were quite old, but they lived excellent lives. I miss them, and I miss having greyhounds in the house — they’re funny creatures.

STEREOGUM: What kind of dogs do you have now?

CASE: Three mutts. There’s a wicked fox terrier, a boxer ridgeback, and a Shiba Inu-German shepherd or some shit. They’re all mutty.

STEREOGUM: What draws you to caring for animals?

CASE: I was thinking about it this morning, actually. When I was little, my parents weren’t real interested in what I was doing — but the dogs are always excited to see you. My dog would smile at me all the time. When you’re a little kid, you anthropomorphize things and project your human emotions onto them, but you can also actually feel what’s really happening. That dog cared for me, and took care of me. I bonded with dogs early on — and cats. Even if I didn’t have that experience, I’d still feel that.

STEREOGUM: We rescued our cat from the street, and she can be a little aggressive sometimes. It’s hard not to get offended when that happens, but we always have to remember she’s just an animal too. I think of her as a human.

CASE: People do that with cats a lot. Also, cats do not benefit at all from us, whereas dogs are really trying to learn our language. Cats need to be cats, and they’re known for being neurotic in situations where they’re not allowed to be cats. We expect them to be stuffed animals, really. It’s just something you sign up for — you’re like, “Well, if I live in an apartment and I can’t let my cat outside, my cat’s gonna lash out at me a bit.”

But you know what? It’s better than the cat living at the shelter. I used to be a real dick about people keeping cats and not letting them outside. My friend Todd Barry goes, “Well, they could be living at the shelter,” and I go, “Oh my fucking God, you’re right. I’m an asshole.” But you do have to learn about their wild nature and figure out why they’re doing that. Then you’ll find you’re never offended — you’ll be like, “Okay, you’re mad about that.”

STEREOGUM: This is the longest time you’ve taken between solo records since Middle Cyclone came out.

CASE: It was a long time because there was a lot of on-and-off work — the case/lang/veirs record, the New Pornographers record. The process was sporadic, and it started right after the case/lang/veirs tour. The process was normal for me: I do it in bursts, come together and work on some things, rehearse, maybe play live, feel some confidence, take some of the half-baked songs and work on those, and with a little more confidence I start improvising in the studio or working on songs where I have no idea where they’re going to go.

STEREOGUM: Is there anything you do to blow off steam when you feel frustrated in the studio?

CASE: I just step away, live my life, and don’t think about it. I don’t even touch an instrument unless I feel like it. I need to compartmentalize. Literally anything is okay — you just have to reverse the fatigue. Self-care is huge and hard to find because there’s so much work to do. Stacking wood is a good one. Walking the dogs.

STEREOGUM: I do dishes when I get stressed out, and it makes me completely forget that I’m upset.

CASE: I fucking love doing the dishes. I’ve never had a dishwasher because of that. Are you a Virgo?

STEREOGUM: I’m a Leo.

CASE: I always wondered whether doing the dishes was a Virgo thing. We’re right next to each other though — on the cusp. Doing the dishes is a cusp-y thing.

STEREOGUM: Is there anything in your career that you feel like you are still learning?

CASE: Super-obvious things that you don’t even think of. It was one of the reasons I worked with Bjorn. When I met up with him to talk about him co-producing the record, we were talking about transitions in songs and I was explaining that some of my songs don’t have choruses. He said, “Sometimes people are so concerned about making it look like they can do these different things in a song. I just want the whole song to be the hook. There’s no shame in that.” And I was like, “Duh.” I was like a toddler. [Does toddler-y voice] I want! I want! You can’t think of everything yourself, and that’s why collaboration is a great avenue.

STEREOGUM: You travelled to Sweden to work with Bjorn on this album. How was it being in that country for the first time?

CASE: You get there and learn that the Swedes have such a good educational system that they all speak better English than we do — by a wide margin. It’s a little humbling, to be honest. I was trying to leave my comfort zone, so I ended up leaving my comfort zone for Bjorn’s comfy comfort zone. I didn’t go into the woods, dig myself a shelter, and eat bugs while making this record. There were challenges, but there weren’t hardships — just dodging, weaving, and syncing up the treadmills of our work ethics.

[Being in an unfamiliar place] takes a lot of pressure off of you. You give yourself a pass because you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, so you have to trust strangers. There’s nothing you can do about what’s going on at home, so staying in a hotel and working on a project can be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you. The noise is turned down, and it can’t distract you. But there’s also beauty and wonder, and your senses are really open, so ideas come slammin’ in.

STEREOGUM: “Bad Luck” reminds me of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”

CASE: I’m really into folk tales, and how people view folklore as something people used to do. There’s no reason why we can’t write those things now. Time isn’t over, and the human race isn’t over — yet. I was thinking about superstition and what we consider bad luck — the little mechanisms that are invented to undo that accidental bad luck. Things that are so specific and crazy: “Throw salt over your shoulder.” I wanted to invent some new scenarios that could be seen as bad luck.

STEREOGUM: Why do you think we’ve given up on superstition?

CASE: People are told, “That’s ancient stuff we used to do, and human beings don’t have a real connection to what it’s like to be part of other species.” Human beings think they’re the most important thing on planet earth — which we aren’t. They think it’s built for them. We’ve lost that connection. That’s why people don’t invest in folklore.

STEREOGUM: You’ve said that this record is more autobiographical than usual.

CASE: I’m in the songs for sure — it’s my perspective, which is all I have. One of the reasons I love folklore is that it’s one of those little clues in history where, as a woman, I find myself doing constant math. “Why aren’t there any women at this panel? Women this, women that.” Where are we? Ancient history, art history — we’re not in there. We’re always passengers, slaves, and vessels for children.

Folklore and folk tales are a clue. Why don’t we take them seriously anymore? Because they’re stories that are told to us on purpose — “Wives tales.” They’re considered feminine, looked down upon, and suppressed. People don’t want you know about the women in history, and they haven’t for a long time — but we were there, and we’ve always been there, not just as passengers but as creators, rulers, and warriors. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t as drawn to that kind of storytelling until recently. All the pieces fit together now.

STEREOGUM: A headdress you made for the Women’s March was recently on display at the New York Historical Society.

CASE: Oh! I haven’t gone to see it yet. I’m not into pink — and I’m all in favor for the pussy hat, but my feminism looks different to me. I wanted to represent myself. I was very inspired, in very hard times, by reading about ancient Amazons. A woman named Adrienne Mayor discovered that they’re not mythical. Thirty percent of warriors buried in mass graves from Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, all the way into Mongolia, China, India, and Africa, were actually women. These cultures had egalitarian societies, but people don’t include that in history.

It’s been a rigged game for a really long time. In hard times, I wanted to figure out where in history we decided that women were worth hating, suppressing, and oppressing. It’s a question I needed to find an answer to, because it was killing me. Adrienne Mayor includes lots of imagery from ancient art, and one tribe from Pontus would wear wolfskin caps. I wanted to build a wolfskin cap to wear, so I did — and it felt good. I built it pretty quickly, so it was really large and very heavy. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: Was it made out of actual wolf skin?

CASE: No, I could never do that. It wasn’t about killing wolves. A lot of societies saw the wolf as something positive. The way humans and wolves band together as family groups are pretty similar. Wolves are matriarchal, and “matriarchal” didn’t mean women ruling everybody — it meant women and men ruling together, based on ability and skill instead of desire.

Wolves protect each other, even when they splinter off. You can’t fuck your siblings all the time. You need genetic diversity. The way wolves push out the young ones seems cruel, but it makes sense. You have to take your DNA somewhere healthy to reproduce. We’re meant to cross-pollinate with other peoples and family groups. Thinking of ourselves as primates is a very new idea compared to ancient history. Primates live in very specific regions, so in those regions I’m sure people could totally see that comparison — but with Amazons, wolves weren’t feared predators. They were respected.

STEREOGUM: How was your experience at the Women’s March?

CASE: It was so moving and amazing. It wasn’t really a march because there was so many people — there was nowhere to march to. It was huge. I loved checking in on Twitter and seeing these huge groups of people around the world. Seeing that women were marching in Riyadh, Oslo, the fucking South Pole, China — I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that my morale is at a pretty low point after Trump took office, and it was so nice to be reminded that people gave a shit. And I know that they weren’t just marching for us, but it was nice that they were marching in solidarity. It was a mighty feeling.

STEREOGUM: Similar to how society has ignored women’s’ stories until recently, the way women have been written about in music journalism also only changed in recent years. Fifteen years ago, it was a lot different.

CASE: I don’t really read my own press, and I had to stop reading music press a long time ago because it makes me frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a complaint about people writing about music, because it’s a job that’s really hard. All these fuckin’ people writing about music, and you have to make it sound interesting to people in a very short amount of time — how can you possibly please anyone completely? People put a lot of their feelings on the line when they know they’re being written about. But [15 years ago in music writing], there was definitely a lot more of “You guys have what you want, so fuck you.” No, actually! We’re not making nuclear bombs — we’re making music, and we’re inviting people to come to it because we want other people to feel good because we’re feeling good.

I remember living in the Northwest, late ’90s, early 2000s — music writing hit a real low. It was fuckin’ mean tabloid nastiness, for fun. It wasn’t fun. Everything was a VICE fashion on the street column — which is fuckin’ funny, don’t get me wrong. But it was mean-spirited and shitty, sometimes to the point of being a little dangerous. That kind of cynicism had nothing to do with music, so I just had to stop caring. And the bitchiness at those other publications? Women were involved, too. It was ugly. [Mock-whispers] I’m glad it’s over.

STEREOGUM: Your hair’s on fire and full of cigarettes on the album cover, and your house burned down while you were overseas recording the album. Is there a connection there imagery-wise?

CASE: It’s more of a joke. I was talking to people I was working with about Game Of Thrones and how we were so white trash that our families wouldn’t have a good family crest. I was like, “Mine would be a cigarette butt or something — really sad.” Plus, I was obsessed with Hollywood cigarettes. There was a part of the “Man” video that didn’t make the cut where me and these little girls were smoking fake cigarettes, and I was like, “This is the most genius invention! They just use tinfoil and it looks like it’s totally burning!” They come really clean and lovely, so my friend and I had to make them dirty — we used a lot of makeup and different lipsticks.

The fire on the cover just fit the image — it wasn’t about my house burning down, it was more about natural momentum and large forces of nature. I knew I wanted there to be something different that wasn’t clean, or a pretty picture of a lady. I don’t have to do it, but the record company would always prefer to have your picture on the record — it speaks to people more. As a 50/50 partner with the record company, I would be really fucking disrespectful if I was like, “Fuck that!”

I didn’t write any of the songs before my house burned down, so the record isn’t about that. But there were some images from the scene of the fire that I found to be really beautiful and interesting. My house burned right as Puerto Rico was underwater, right after Houston, and just before California — and I was in California right when the fires were going on, it was horrible. Every day, people losing everything, an event that wouldn’t stop happening. So many people lost so much more than I did. I wanted to use some of those images that really struck me as beautiful in solidarity. There’s some crazy beauty in there somewhere.

STEREOGUM: That’s a very pragmatic approach to your house burning down.

CASE: Well, I was in Sweden, so now I know the experience of being completely helpless, panicked, and in shock — waiting, talking to people about what I should do, my friends being my support system. It was really confusing, but I had to shift into fight-or-flight mode. “There are things I have to do — I have to speak to insurance people, I have to do this, I have to arrange that.”

And it’s still not done. There’s still a big hole in the ground. I don’t know if I can even move back there — I’m living in a cabin at the moment until the end of the month, when I won’t be living anywhere because I’ll be on tour. There’s no grounding, so it’s an ongoing feeling. But it’s nature — no one set my house on fire, so there’s nothing to take personally. It’s a traumatic event that you can get through with the help of your friends and family. I never cared about the stuff — and I had a feeling that I never cared about the stuff, but when it happens and you realize you really didn’t care about what the stuff, you feel relieved that you were right about how you felt.

STEREOGUM: You’ve said you wrote these songs in solidarity for people who feel alone.

CASE: As a young person, there was a lot of neglect, and I was an only child, so I had no one to bounce that concept off of or make that realization with. When you’re little, you think your life is normal and that’s what everyone lives like. I took a lot of comfort in music, and that non-biased voice in the dark. That’s a very normal thing, especially for people in their teens that have music they listen to that is for them. They chose it — it speaks to them. If they can’t talk to every person in the world, just to give something for someone to take comfort and try on…and it’s for me, too. I’m not trying to pretend I’m some sort of benevolent world-changer. It’s also my job, and I love it.

But it’s a two-fold desire: I want to make these things, and I want them to be useful. I’ve always had a craving for usefulness, and being useful. It’s difficult how to figure out to be useful, and people find it to be really hard. How can I help when the world is going to shit? What can I do about it? You can do what you do, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to figure out what it is. But don’t get lazy and coast on that, either. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with usefulness, too.

Hell-On is out 6/1 via Anti-.

Tags: Neko Case