Storytelling & the Silver Lining: Neko Case Invites Us Into the "Little Apartment" Of Her Songs

Interviews
05/08/2019
Jake Uitti

It’s hard to imagine that someone with such a powerful voice can be so understated, but that’s exactly how the great Neko Case comports herself in conversation. If you ask her about her range, the startlingly beautiful-voiced songwriter will say her voice isn’t that powerful, differing to others she adores. If you ask her about her intricate songwriting, she’ll compare it to a card table with puzzle pieces strewn all over. And if you ask her about her dog — who recently saved her life (more on that below) — she’ll coo and call him a good boy! This is what it’s like to talk to the stunning musician, who we caught up with to preview her upcoming show on June 1st at The Gorge Amphitheater with Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris. 


Do you remember the first time you heard power in your singing voice?

I remember realizing that I heard too much fear. Like, I was singing too hard. I didn’t really have any dynamic and I had to work on that. But I don’t - I mean, I know when it feels incredibly physical and I know that there are things that take more muscular power to do but I couldn’t remember, per se, when it was.

You have such a strong, full voice, I would imagine if I was singing in the shower and that came out, I’d say, “Holy crap!”

I think I would probably just scare my animals if I did that at home. It’d just be loud and they’d be like, “What the? Is there an emergency? Why is she mad!?”

It’s funny how the stage turns that screaming into art.

Yes.

performing with CASE/LANG/VEIRS AT THE WOODLAND PARK ZOO, 2016 

 

What happens in your mind as you’re crafting a song?

Well, usually it takes a really long time. So, there’s not just one thing. It’s kind of like there’s always a little light on in the back of my mind that’s color-coded to whatever song it’s going to be with. And then there are other parts that are just free agents floating and they eventually get assigned to things. So, it’s kind of like a collage. I think my mind looks like a card table with wood grain on it from the '70s and there’s a partially done, really intricate puzzle of a barn that isn’t finished. Like, “Autumn Leaves,” or something. 

I think my mind looks like a card table with wood grain on it from the '70s and there’s a partially done, really intricate puzzle of a barn that isn’t finished. 

What do you enjoy about telling stories in your music?

Well, I don’t have to talk about myself, which is not really that exciting. I like to read stories and I like to go into them as my own little private apartments in my consciousness or my mind, or whatever you want to call it, in my daily life. It’s nice to be able to go other places and it makes you appreciate your surroundings more when you come back into them. But when I’m actually writing songs for other people to hear, I’m trying to make it so they feel comfortable coming in and making it their little private apartment. The metaphor I always thinking of is making a punk rock vest. Like, I have this punk rock vest and I want anybody to be able to put it on and feel like they have the patches of the bands they like. I want people to feel comfy wearing the punk rock vest but to also make sure they feel like it’s their punk rock vest, too. 

What do you like about collaboration?

Well, I think that’s most of what I do. I never wanted to play music to be a solo artist and I never got in a band to be alone. I was already alone enough. I started playing music to be with other people. So, for me it’s a no brainer. That’s what I’m going for, that collaboration and team work to make a thing hover off the ground.

What happens when the collaboration doesn’t go smoothly?

Some people work differently than others and some days it takes a little bit to learn how people communicate. But if you’re wiling to accept that people aren’t nearly as weird as you are or maybe are way weirder than you are, it’s okay to just — being able to bend and accept the way other people work is fine. Sometimes it takes a little longer than you think it’s going to and you just have to be okay with that. And some things don’t make it to the record, not because they aren’t good, but just because they don’t fit in a certain part. But I generally try to move things to other parts, if they’re really great and they don’t work in the part they’re played in. Just because I hate muting parts that are really interesting. So, sometimes they’ll just be in the intro when they were played somewhere else. That’s where the collage happens. 

You seem very patient, as an artist. Did you learn that at a particular age?

Oh, it would be the only place that I’m patient. That would be the one time in my life that I’m patient. I’m not a very patient person at all. I’ve gotten better at exercising patience, but I wouldn’t say it’s something innate. I definitely have to work for it. 

You’ve moved around a lot in your career. Is there a place that particularly feels like home? 

There’s a weird heartbreaking feeling in a lot of places I go where I have lived. And I don’t think I’ve ever left anywhere because I didn’t like it; it was definitely circumstantial. Leaving Canada was the most heartbreaking because I was a student and I only had a visa for four years and I left at the end of those four years because, obviously, I didn’t want to put my chances of coming back at risk. Because I do a lot of work in Canada, I play a lot and I always do it on the up-and-up. So, if I was living somewhere illegally I would have gotten myself kicked out of here forever and I wouldn’t — a lot of my very, very core people in my life live here. And I could not imagine my life without that access and that relationship. 

What have you learned about your orientation to fame as you’ve experienced it over the years?

I’m always going to be a student and I’m okay with that because it feels good to get better at things. It’s really easy to get sick of your own voice, no matter how much range you might have. I have a pretty decent range, but I’m not like people who are considered really good singers, or taught singers. I’m not even in that league. So, hearing your own voice after a while, especially if you’re the person writing the songs and mixing and producing the songs, you can get really fucking tired of your voice. So, I’m trying to find new things that my voice will do. I find that I really admire singers, especially women because they don’t do this a lot, but there’s women out there who are these incredible singers who are willing to make ugly sounds, or what you’d think of as ugly or disturbing. Like Nina Hagen or PJ Harvey, singers who are willing to make some very textural noises, despite the fact that they are also equipped with these really beautiful and really versatile voices. I’ve been getting into that. 

Getting out of the box of what people might think a Neko Case song should be?

Yeah, if you’re telling stories, you’re already acting a part in a little play, in a way. So, it’s nice to have those different textures available to you because it just gives it more signature depth to it. Even if nobody notices it but you, it’s still worth it. It’s still fun to experiment. 

What was it like voicing a character on one of the greatest cartoons ever made, Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force?

That was better than winning an Oscar or a Grammy. It was one the highlights of my life because I totally, totally worship that show. 

Me too!

So, yeah. I don’t even know what I would say about that other than I can’t even believe that happened. 

Do you have a top priority when it comes to your career as you look ahead?

I don’t have another record ready to make but the New Pornographers are finishing a record right now and I have some other work that’s experimental lined up. So, I don’t know! I have some things - I want to write some stuff. But nothing specific. I’ve always wanted to make a record with my friend, John Grant, so I’m hoping to do that. And sometimes I poke Laura [Veirs] and K.D. [Lang] and I’m like, “We have got to take case/lang/veirs on the road again, that was so fun!” And they’re kind of like, “Ooooh! Maybe!” So, hopefully we can do that. 

case/lang/veirs at the Woodland Park Zoo, 2016 

 

It’s kind of wide open?

Yeah. You know, I’d also like to go home. That would be cool too. 

Where is home for you?

Well, right now it’s the state of Vermont but not really anywhere there because I don’t really have a house because my house burned down about a year-and-a-half ago. That’s just a bit of a nightmare. But everyone got out of there alive so I’m not going to let it bug me more than it just being inconvenient. 

This isn’t my business, but was it an electrical thing or, like, a cigarette?

My barn, I had a really, really old barn. The fire inspector said it was electrical. It was either a mouse or something that moved a wire, which happens all the time, or my hay somehow got wet and composted and burst into flames. They couldn’t figure out which one of those two things happened but it was one of those two. And one would have compounded the other. It was just a big barn full of hay and lawnmowers and really, really old wood. So, it just went up. And it was right next to the house, so it also burned that down too. It just caught so fast. 

I’m so sorry to hear that.

Well, it’s okay. The structure, truth be told, wasn’t the safest. And, you know, I have a lot of friends with kids and I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter now and in a way I’m kind of relieved that nobody can go into the barn and fall through the floor onto some old combine in the basement, or something. That’s kind of nice, but there’s also nowhere to live. So, it’s like six-to-one and half-dozen-to-the-other. 

At least you have the silver lining on your mind.

There’s not a firetrap but there’s also not really a house either. So, I guess that’s a little less dangerous. 

I have friends who have mistakenly burned down their houses. And I know that stays with them. 

I think about it all the time. My poor boyfriend, when we’re in hotels, he’s always checking the fire alarm. He does it, like, OCD, like, “I have to make sure it’s working!” Because ours went off but like way after the dog poked us, like, “Hey, wake up!” So, the dog gets the credit for getting everyone else out a live. 

What a hero!

He’s a good boy! Such a good boy!

You did an interview with Cheryl Waters a year ago and said that you only felt “qualified” as a music producer after attending an all-female music producer conference…

I didn’t realize how bad I needed that validation. I was shocked I didn’t realize how bad I needed it at 46-years-old. It was a really beautiful thing. It was a gorgeous, transcendent event. I would say that’s the high point of my career, so far. 

How have you changed as an artist since that realization?

Well, it’s a combination I think. I went through a lot for about five years with really bad depression at the beginning of this decade. Coming out of that and collaborating with Laura and K.D. and doing the women producer event was a really nice culmination — a booster shot in the ass that I really needed. 

What does it mean for you to be playing The Gorge with Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris in a few weeks?

That’s just hot. That’s just like peak hotness right there. I’m going to be wearing my plastic pants and showing up and feeling really Freddie Mercury. 
 


Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, and Neko Case perform on Saturday, June 1st at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, WA. 

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