Neko Case

Neko Case on How Female Solidarity, Farm Animals and Beyoncé Inspired Her New Album

“Ideas are like rabbits,” says Neko Case. “They breed like crazy.” In her nearly 20-year career as one of music’s most wry, distinctive singer-songwriters, she has learned to trust her instincts -- the most important of which is not to rush the process. This in part explains the long gap between her last solo LP, 2013’s Grammy-nominated The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, and her newest, Hell-On, a polished set of elliptical observations and pristine hooks out June 1. “I spend a lot of time going down rabbit holes,” continues Case, 47. “It’s not an efficient way to do things, but I find it serves the songs better.”

Even so, she’s in the middle of a remarkably prolific period. In the lead-up to Hell-On, Case found time to record and tour two other full-length projects: Case/Lang/Veirs, the excellent 2016 debut from her Americana supergroup with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, and 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, her seventh album with Canadian-American indie-rock stalwarts The New Pornographers. She has also been rebuilding the 225-year-old Vermont farmhouse where she has lived for the past decade after it was badly damaged in a fire last September.

Before she settles in to discuss her creative process on Hell-On at the downtown Brooklyn hotel where she’s staying, Case -- who’s dressed ultra-comfortably in a well-worn Queen T-shirt and what look like pajama pants -- pops a couple of Advil for a morning headache (“I’m still getting over some Berlin jet lag”). “It takes a long time to know what you’re doing sometimes,” she says. “I could not write my thesis on this album yet, that’s for sure. But I feel good about it.”

David Needleman
Neko Case photographed on April 16, 2018 at Le Boudoir in Brooklyn.

‘Such A Lovely Sunrise’

Hell-On, which Case produced herself, is her biggest, brightest-sounding album ever, full of pop melodies sung with a new verve. She traces that confidence back to an October 2016 panel discussion in Brooklyn where she joined several other female musicians and producers (Suzi Analogue, Zola Jesus, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori). “There was so much camaraderie and joy,” she says. “I walked out of there feeling qualified as a producer. ‘I’m an expert!’ It’s one thing for the world to believe it, and it’s a totally different thing for you to believe it yourself. It was such a lovely sunrise in my mind. It improved my gravity in a big way.”

The Art Of Distraction

Case wrote most of the album at home in Vermont, often over “morning coffee with animals all around: three dogs, three cats, two horses, five chickens.” She kept the TV on in the background, often tuned to an HBO drama like Deadwood, in order to lower the stakes and keep her imagination going. “It’s about replicating that busy coffee shop feeling,” she says. “Using two parts of your brain at the same time can be a thrill.”

On The Road

Other ideas came to her while she was traveling. She jotted down the lyrics to the new album’s simmering title track on an airplane, sitting “with horrible posture” on the second leg of a cross-country flight. “Usually, I really have to push the idea for a while, but that one was just pure enjoyment,” she says. “I had been writing a lot of lyrics and a lot of melodies. I was practiced, I was at fighting weight, and I went in and I cleaned up.”

David Needleman
Neko Case photographed on April 16, 2018 at Le Boudoir in Brooklyn.

Revise, Revise, Revise

Once she had a critical mass of songs, Case took them to WaveLab, a studio in Tucson, Ariz., that she likes. She intentionally began the recording process with only a quarter of the album written, finishing the rest as she went along with the members of her longtime solo band. “I can never see the songs fully formed before I go into the studio,” she says. “I like to chase down all the ideas. If we’re a ways along and then suddenly I have a new idea, I don’t want to miss that, because nine times out of 10 the change really benefits the song. There are times when that doesn't work, too. But if I hadn't checked it out, I would feel like I hadn't done my job.”

Stop, Collaborate And Listen

Case co-wrote most of the songs with her longtime guitarist, Paul Rigby. One notable exception: the Elvis Costello-esque standout “Gumball Blue,” her first-ever co-write with fellow New Pornographer A.C. Newman. It began as a lyrical sketch about the family-like bonds she has developed with her bandmates over the years (“I’ve lived singing your songs/Long-legged mazes and English geometry”). “It’s a very intense relationship,” she says. “I didn't really have a family growing up, so I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how getting past things does make your relationship stronger.” Struggling to find the right melody, she asked Newman for help (“‘Here, this song is about you, can you help me finish it?’” she recalls saying, with a laugh), and later enlisted New Pornographers keyboardist John Collins to play on the recording. “I was like, ‘Just go ahead and indulge the shit out of your love of ’80s synthesizers,’ and he was like, ‘Don’t mind if I do!’”

David Needleman
Neko Case photographed on April 16, 2018 at Le Boudoir in Brooklyn.

Pop Appeal

Toward the end of Hell-On’s recording, Case flew to Stockholm to meet with Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, who ended up co-producing six of the album’s 12 tracks. “I wanted to see where I could go with big choruses, so I needed someone who had an incredibly strong sense of melody and hook,” she says. She wasn't aiming for top 40 airplay: “These songs still twist a bit differently than songs engineered for the radio.” But the soaring choruses of “Bad Luck,” “Halls of Sarah” and “Last Lion of Albion” are, in a sense, her homage to the best of 2010s pop. “There are people who nail it, and I can only salute them -- especially women,” she says. “Beyoncé, Lemonade, it’s a big fucking deal! I don’t know any women who didn't check it out with tears running down their face. What a magnificent thing.”

This article originally appeared in the May 5 issue of Billboard.