Neko Case on Losing Her House to Fire & Giving Up (Some) Control on New Album 'Hell-On'

Neko Case
Emily Shur

Neko Case

You can feel free to call Neko Case a poet. The lyrics on her forthcoming album, Hell-On, due on ANTI- June 1, require a little more brain power than the majority of popular music does.

The album — her first full-length studio release since her collab with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs in 2016, and the follow-up to her last solo album in 2013, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You — was self-produced with additional co-production in Sweden by Björn Yttling (Lykke Li, Chrissie Hynde, Franz Ferdinand) in the fall of 2017.

She co-wrote the majority of the songs with long-time songwriting partner Paul Rigby. “Gumball Blue” and “My Uncle's Navy” were penned with New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, and she duets with Eric Bachmann on his original “Sleep All Summer.” Other guests on Hell-On: lang, Veirs, Beth Ditto, and Robert Forster on backing vocals; Calexico’s Joey Burns and Guided By Voices’ Doug Gillard on guitars; and Barbara Gruska and Matt Chamberlain on drums. Mark Lanegan duets with her on the sparse “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”

While Case laid down vocal and guitar tracks for the album at WaveLab Studio in Tucson, Ariz., it was in Stockholm, Sweden -- while working with Yttling -- that she received a life-altering phone call that her home and barn had been engulfed by fire.

Case sat down with Billboard on a promo trip to Toronto, where she talked about songwriting, superstition, equality and opportunity, and how the fire brought out some perspective.

Sometimes when a lyric is not simple, people call it poetry.

It is. I think people in music are really afraid of the word poetry. Poetry has appeared as being particularly uncool for some reason, I don’t really know why it’s so scary. What is it about poetry that makes people go “I don’t do poetry”?

There’s a certain elevation to the word. Clearly you spend a lot of time on your lyrics.

I did. Some things come out fast and some things bother me for like two years, so I did.

Do you like talking about your lyrics?

I don’t mind talking about them at all, but if there’s a point where I would give too much away if I said a certain thing, I don’t because I don’t want to ruin it. I’ve had a lot of songs ruined for me by reading a little too deeply about them.

“Last Lion of Albion,” is that about loss of certain species?

It’s about how gross it is that so many nations or organizations find some sort of glory in having made something extinct that made the nation so great. I was in England; I was looking at lions that were on some crests and I was imagining myself or what I would to say to the last lion of Albion. I had a fantasy that all these billionaires would buy Mars or move there, and when they got there, because they were going to colonize it, there would be an army of lions waiting to devour them.

Do you set out to tell a story?

I have a lot of stories I want to tell. I love writing fairytales and folklore. On this record, I got into superstition. You know how people think of fairytales and folklore as something people used to do a long time ago? People don’t think of fairytales and folklore as something people do now, or making up a new superstition for example. We have slang and we have really cool things like that that I love, but superstition not so much. So I thought it would be fun to try to think of a situation; you know how some superstitions have counter-curses or ways to undo them that are really, really, really specific, which is hilarious? I wanted to make up some very specific incidents in which you’d have to somehow undo them.

In what songs is that?

“Bad Luck.” I wanted it to be very sing-songy like “Ring Around The Rosie.” [The nursery rhyme is believed to be about the black plague, but Snopes says that is false.] “Bad Luck” isn’t so dark as “Ring Around The Rosie,” but that’s not a superstition specifically; it’s in English folklore and it’s not that old, but I just wanted to play with that idea.

Had you written that lyric before your house burned down?

Yeah. I think that, maybe, I’m now superstitious that I wrote a song that made my house burn down. I think that for about two seconds, but then I’m like, “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever thought in your life” because, while my house was burning down, Puerto Rico was under water, Houston had just flooded, and three weeks later California was on fire for a month and a half, which I was there for as well, so it was just never-ending.

Yours is not an unusual position to hold. When someone loses their home and everything in it but everyone survived, including pets, we often hear them say “The stuff doesn’t matter. We are all safe.” There are worse things.

Yeah, it was the most obvious thing in the world that so many more people lost so much more than I did, crushingly so. To the point where your compassion is exhausted, and not in a way that you don’t still have it, but that you just feel this grief with humanity. It’s a universal feeling and everybody’s having it at the same time, and it’s extra heavy.

It is still devastating to lose everything. That’s why we run back in the house to check if we’ve turned off the stove, but in the grand scheme of things is there anything you really care about that much?

You can know that logically, but until it happens there’s this weird feeling of massive relief when you find you really, genuinely, do feel that way and what you hoped about yourself, and what you thought might happen, was really true.

There were some things I lost that sucked. My family photos might be the most, and some of my records — honestly I haven’t gone through every yet, I still don’t know what’s gone and what isn’t as far as anything that did survive — but I’ll never get those family photos back. But is a photo really that big of a deal when you have your memories, especially if you’re a person that tells stories? Memories do fade, but as long as those core feelings are still there, maybe it’s okay?

Your album was finished at that point? The fire didn’t prompt you to write any more songs?

The writing was finished. The recording wasn’t quite finished, but all the bed tracks were done at that point. The next day I had to do vocals on “Bad Luck,” which I didn’t think I did the greatest job but the mix engineer was like, “Maybe that’s how somebody sounds when their house burns down?” and I was like, “You have an excellent point.”

Everyone in the studio was so supportive. They did the best thing they could have done. They made jokes at me, like “Hey Neko, can I borrow your barn? Ohhh right.” And it made me feel better because now if I can rebuild my house — which I still don’t know — it will have new wiring in it, and that will feel good.

In the bio you said you stepped out of your comfort zone for this album. How so?

I went to a place where I didn’t know anyone but secondhand. I wanted to relinquish some control to Björn, specifically, and see what it was like for someone to listen to the song, react to it, and decide what sounds they thought should be there. I had done my research and I had met with Björn. I didn’t know how it was going to go, but it was a very thrilling process, and everything I wanted to happen happened, and I’m so grateful that everyone was so accommodating. It was really a great learning experience and a really nice time.

I say “step out of my comfort zone,” but I really stepped out of my comfort zone into Björn’s comfy comfort zone, so it wasn’t a massive hardship. It was just kind of a challenge because I’m a big control freak and I work with the same people all the time. Sometimes I’ll have guests I haven’t worked with before, but for the most part it’s Tucker Martine, Chris Schultz, Craig Schumacher, and my bandmates and a lot of musicians. So I had to go in there with a lot of confidence to say we’re co-producing, so I have a say in this too. I don’t think Björn ever co-produced before and he was like, “Okay, I can do that.”

In 2016, you were part of the Woman Producer summit in Brooklyn, New York. Not everyone has been as fortunate as you. It’s a crucial topic now, how to attract more females to tech fields and get people to hire them.

You have to remember that the Woman Producer conference was the first of it’s kind in the history of the human civilization. That is a massive oversight and disservice. It wasn’t something that was done on purpose. There’s a lot of patriarchy and sexism in there that we as women also absorb growing up. We don’t think to look for them sometimes. You can know representation matters logically, but then when it happens to you it’s like a punch in the face in a really great way.

Going to that conference I had that epiphany a second time and it was like having brand new engines. It was something that galvanized my confidence. Also having worked with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs as well. Going forward I’ve had so many people in my life that have been so supportive, like my favorite feminist I’ve ever worked with is Darryl Neudorf from right here in Scarborough [suburb of Toronto], who is the first person who actually said to me, “You know you’re a producer right?”

You’ve been at this 20 years and have had the support of males and females along the way.

I’ve worked with a mixed bag the whole time. I don’t think there are less women in my life or career than there are men. I’ve been very fortunate. Granted, I’m sure I’ve curated it that way to a certain extent, but then there’s also the gravity of what you’re doing. People are attracted to what you’re doing or how you’re doing it or you want to be a part of, people you seek out. It’s been a nice balance

I came across a quote of yours from 2002, for The Stranger, where you said you would like to “see the state of music change in favor of musicians and for music fans in your lifetime.” Do you recall what state you were thinking of back then?

I think I was talking mostly about contracts and breaking the myth of “You’re lucky to be here,” which is something people use a lot to devalue musicians and to manipulate them into taking less, or thinking they’re not as important or being at the bottom of the list for whatever. It’s one of those things that has made the issue of owning your own content, and what does that mean, so shaky all these years. It’s one of the reasons we have not been prepared for things like Spotify or new technologies that pop up. We don’t have the proper laws. Nobody asks musicians what their thoughts are on things like Spotify when they make them. All those decisions are made by other people about our content and our work and it’s not okay.

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