Interview: Neko Case
The musical mythmaker with the iconic voice gets personal on an unprecedented new album
Tue Sep 24 2013
Photograph: Neko Case
Neko Case has made a career of forging modern-day American myth from tornadoes, wolves, lady pilots and cannery workers. On The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-), that artistry coalesces with a previously unseen sense of the artist herself.
I experience your music very physically—the long notes, the vibrations. What’s that physicality like for you? Is there a difference in the feel of singing alone versus singing with Kelly Hogan?
Physically, it’s like being a firehose, and the sound is the water at various pressure. You have to fight to stay on top of it, in a wrestling kind of way. Harmony singing with someone who is great at it, à la Hogan, is like becoming a space laser.
Wolves come up in your work, and you seem to prize the company of dogs. What's the role of the wolf in your work?
They are a top predator, like humans. Humans are so jealous of them we have nearly killed them all without even remembering why. We have the technology and know-how to not kill them and live with them, but people resist it with their everything. It's so fucking crazy, because it would solve many ecological problems. I think we do it so we can keep denying that we are animals. I am fascinated by our similarities and our being drawn to each other despite all this. We are close; we are kin.
The new record is heavy on first person, which may or may not equate to autobiographical. How does first person function for you?
I think first person asserts some gentle authority, which makes the listener more engaged. There is no Telephone game. It’s the raw materials. On this record, though, it’s mostly me. I’m usually quite literal, though, whether myself or an imaginary tornado.
Does a song start shifting and changing once you begin performing it in front of big groups? And does your experience of a song change, too?
I always think of the recorded versions and the live versions as completely separate. They are so different in their performance. People may not realize this, but it takes way less people to make a large sound live than it does on a recording. I love the differences in the two.
With Kelly Hogan and other collaborators, you have what seem like some powerful long-term bandmates. Do you make work with them in mind, or, rather, as the work happens, do you feel how it will work in the context of them?
No, I just work with people who I know can fit in anywhere. In the studio we all bend to the wind, as it were—we like to watch it happening as it unfolds. Some songs are worked out in rehearsal, but most are studio concoctions.
How has that group of collaborators affected your experience of solitude and togetherness? Is there a sense that they’re always with you, and is that desirable?
Yes, they always feel there, but the studio brings in other music-family that I only get to see in recording times. It's quite nice. I take a long time to make records, because I want it to be a "time in my life," with humans I love, not just a two-week mad dash toward a deadline. That's not healthy for me at all. When I'm home they all feel there, too. They are my family in every sense of the word. It's like having a gang that always has your back.
With your renown, you tend to play large venues. Where do you most like to sing? How does space affect the experience of the music?
Place doesn't often affect the sound as far as my preference, because I hear myself through monitors run by a skilled tech. But as far as what I prefer, I'd say I like indoors. I'm not crazy about singing outside at festivals and such. I've become less hesitant about it, but if I had my druthers it would always be inside.
The women in your songs loom large: the lady pilot who’s not afraid to die; the woman who leaves the party at 3am, “alone, thank God, with a Valium from the bride”; the brave friend who’s holding out for that teenage feeling, who I just assumed was a woman. How do you characterize the women in your work?
They are both men and women at the same time, usually. I try to make all my characters interchangeable. I also love it when writers can write with such balance, you can’t tell if a woman or a man wrote it. I think it’s a good way to invite your listener to be in the story, or to be comforted. That said, I’m a big champion for the women who are obviously women in the songs. I take all the characters really personally.
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