Neko Case: “You can blow the whole wad on trying to be famous – which I definitely don’t want”
Defiant in the face of despondency, Neko Case has produced a brilliant album from a dark place. The Vermont-based musician tells Lauren Murphy about her music, her menagerie and Miley
Loading the hayloft, collecting fresh eggs from her chickens, tending her horse, four dogs and a cat – it’s not really how you imagine most successful musicians spend their downtime. But it’s a beautiful day in Lamoille Co, Vermont, where Neko Case lives with her beastly brood in a 200-year-old farmhouse.
After a displaced childhood and a lifetime touring, Case settled in Vermont five years ago. Her retreat into country life coincided with a serious bout of depression that informs her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
“I sound like a jerk when I say this, but it wasn’t even remotely cathartic to write,” Case chuckles, “It’s more like the record happened despite the fact that I was really depressed. It definitely wasn’t like a beautiful, life-changing situation; it was incredibly heavy and mundane. I was writing about the experience only because I was writing every day.”
Up until 2006, Case was a considered an underground oddity. After relocating from the US to Vancouver to attend art school, she became integrated into the local music scene, playing drums in several punk bands. A long period with power-pop deities The New Pornographers followed before she took the tentative steps into the solo realm in 1997 with her country-tinged debut.
Case was tagged with the “country-noir” label for years, until Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) showcased a more alternative side. Middle Cyclone (2009), a striking collection that straddled the indie, folk and country genres, was her most successful album to date.
The new one is her most personal. “I wanted so badly not to be me,” she sings on Where Did I Leave That Fire. Man and I’m from Nowhere are defiant in the face of despondency. The poignant Nearly Midnight, Honolulu is based on a real-life episode where Case overheard a mother publicly berate her child.
The latter is a stark song that, given her own family history, bears an extra heaviness. Case’s parents divorced when she was young and she wasn’t close to either when both died several years ago. When her grandmother, whom she had been very close to, also died, it caused an emotional watershed that led to her depression.
“I never slowed down to mourn, and it caught up with me. And the deaths weren’t tragic, it was a normal human experience – but I was really good at avoiding processing it for a long time because I was so busy on tour. I kind of finally decided to slow down and go okay, I need to stay home for a month and sit around in my union suit crapping my pants.
“That’s just a metaphor, by the way,” she deadpans. “I think it’s good to point out the humour in the mundaneness because some people, in an effort to make their depression seem less trivial maybe, will describe it as this “gorgeous glacier” sent into their life. Well, it’s not, but you think, well, I have to accept that this is going to be happening for a long time.”
Now 42, Case built an impressive contacts book. A survivor, as she might grudgingly call herself, a positive role model – particularly for female musicians – she makes reference to gender at several points on the album. The upbeat Man sees her snarl “I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be/I’m not your identity crisis”. On I’m from Nowhere, she smirks “I was surprised when you called me a lady/Because I’m still not quite sure that’s what I wanna be”.
With that in mind, what does she make of the recent debate on Miley Cyrus’s choices?
“Well, the music business, I find, is generally more about money versus non-money. Basically, it’s do you want to be famous, or do you want to have a job? You can blow the whole wad on trying to be famous – which I definitely don’t want. Do I want to broaden my audience and play for more people? Yeah, but I don’t want to play arenas. I’ve known a lot of famous people and I’ve seen what it’s like, and it does not appeal to me in the slightest.
“And y’know, Miley Cyrus probably isn’t sad. She’s an entertainer, and I’m sure after that happened, her sales went up, like, 65 per cent for a week.
“Nothing happened that her publicist didn’t think would happen. It’s just about business. It doesn’t have anything to do with anyone, really – except to show you that the music business can be very calculating.
“I got lucky when I was young, not being signed by a major label, because I had to learn the business myself. And y’know, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have an awesome attorney, and I have publicists as well: we all do. You tell them what you want, you say I don’t want to to do anything shady and I don’t really want to wear that flesh-coloured thong or whatever.
“I mean, I would wear a flesh-coloured thong to make people laugh, but I don’t think it’d help my record sales.” She laughs. “It’s like, what do you want to say about yourself?”
Speaking of which, Case has spoken before of her desire to make records that say something about a certain period of your life, rather than a random collection of throwaway songs with no common thread. Given the events that led to the writing of The Worse Things Get, will it be more difficult to listen back to in future years?
“I think that I’m going to feel good about it,” she says, before heading out into the sunshine, her dogs at her heels. “I mean, pretty much from Fox Confessor I’ve been consistently happy with how they’ve turned out, because I think I found my voice at that point and I became a better producer. I trust myself more, and I know when something is working.
“For the most part, I haven’t regretted any decisions I’ve made. I’m like, okay, that holds up.”
Neko Case plays Dublin’s The Button Factory on December 9th