Hey little girl, would you like to be the king’s pet or the king?
I’d choose the odorless and invisible, but otherwise, I’d choose the king
Even though it sounds the loneliest
There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me.—“Wild Creatures”
Late one night, Neko Case was at the Honolulu airport waiting for a shuttle when she saw a young girl singing and clinging to her mother. The mother suddenly screamed at her daughter, “Get the fuck away from me! Why don’t you ever shut up?”
“It was really awful,” Case recalls of the event which made it verbatim into “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” on her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. “But the kid was like, ‘Eh, whatever,’ and she kept singing. And I remember really admiring the little kid for her pluck, you know—being able to kind of rebuff her mom by just ignoring what a complete cunt she was. But, knowing what that’s like, I’m like ‘Oh, kid, I hope you make it.’”
The song is a tribute to the spirit of that kid and a lament for the baggage that Case knows she’ll always have to carry. “Some days you feel like a cartoon,” she sings. “And people will rush to make excuses for you / You’ll hear yourself complain / But don’t you ever shut up please / Kid, have your say / ’Cause I still love you.”
When Case was born in Alexandria, Va., her parents were teenage immigrants from the Ukraine. Their marriage didn’t last long, and she split time living on her grandparents’ farm, moving with her mom and stepdad to various locals in the Northeast and Northwest with her father at different U.S. Air Force bases or urban locales. Case believes her parents never wanted a kid. She was just 15 when she left home for good, deciding she’d do a better job of raising herself.
“This song isn’t about me,” she says, “but I know a possible thing that’ll happen to this kid when she’s older, which is: You gotta pay for it. You gotta pay for having to take care of yourself and surviving—which is a double, shitty whammy.”
A chill ran through me and I grabbed on tight
That was when I left my body for good
And I shook off all the strength I’d earned
I wanted so badly not to be me—“Where Did I Leave That Fire”
If “Nearly Midnight” isn’t directly about her, it’s clear that several songs off the new album are. Her songwriting has been getting progressively more intimate over the last few albums. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood in 2006 was based on Ukrainian fairy tales, and those stories continued to affect her 2009 follow-up, Middle Cyclone, whose centerpiece “This Tornado Loves You,” came from a dream about just that—a tornado falling in love with a girl. “I’m still very much interested in fairy tales,” she told me just before that album came out. “But I think it’s more about writing new fairy tales. These are now fairy tales with little love stories in them, I suppose. They’re a little less cautionary and a little more personal.”
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is a lot more personal. After losing several family members in the last decade, including her mother, father and grandmother, she says she never really stopped to grieve. When she finally did, that pervading sadness couldn’t help but make its way into the lyrics. “I had been going through a really bad time, so there was a lot of grief,” she says. “It caught up with me and kind of flattened me; I just had to feel it. It was time to do that really basic adult stuff that just feels like the end of the world to do as a person, but everyone goes through it. You can either go ahead and fight it and ignore or go around it and you don’t need a self-determined life, or you can deal with it and face it. That’s what I chose to do, and you feel different when you’re done.?
She never stopped writing between albums; in fact, “Ragtime,” the most joyful track on The Worse Things Get, was half-written the same day she finished recording Middle Cyclone—before she was “flattened by grief.” But once she carried all these sadder new songs to the other side, it was strange to look back at what she’d put to paper. “It was really difficult; there was a disconnect. I tried to write songs from other peoples’ perspectives, like making yourself a character or making up stories. I really tried to do that but my creative impulse just wouldn’t allow it; it was too much on my mind and I was a different person at the time. I think it was the first time I didn’t recognize the songs or who wrote them when I went to rehearse them with the band.”
I can’t look at you straight on
You’re made of something different than I know
And it breaks my heart just like the day
That I looked down and I realized
I’d been sailing so long I’d become the shore.—“City Swans”
“I grew up half urban and half in the middle of nowhere and so I feel like I should keep that going,” Case told me in 2008, just after buying a farm in Vermont. When she’s not touring from city to city or recording back in Tuscon, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., she’s home on the farm. “It just feels kinda natural. Because half of the year I’d live with my dad and half the year I’d live with my mom. With my mom it could be absolutely anywhere and with my dad it would be somewhere poor and urban, Washington.”?
One of Case’s cats purrs audibly during our conversation. With a barn built in the 1780s, her property is home to two felines, four dogs, four chickens and a horse. Of all the places she’d lived as a child, Vermont was her favorite, and living in the Southwest, she missed the trees. “I always wanted to go back,” she says, “and I know that sounds like a fairy tale—‘And the people of the land…’—but it really was true. I was really scared to go back because I thought that it would have changed or been mowed down and they would have built condos or something out there, but it turns out they had gone backwards in time. Everybody I knew as a kid still lived there and looked exactly the same. It was really bizarre. I left in ’79 or ’80 so I was about 10. It was just great when I lived there. I was so sad to leave when my family left and that’s all I ever wanted to do was get back.”
Lamoille County, Vt., has been a big change for Case, who has spent much of her life in the city—Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver and Tuscon. “I seem odd to my peers because I’m 42 and I’m not married,” she says. “I have no kids and you know, it can be a little outsider-y. But I’m proud of it because I chose to be here, and I don’t regret that. Like I don’t feel like I’m not a whole adult human being. It’s a very odd thing to have chosen. I mean it doesn’t feel bad; it feels great. So, in order to make that justified I’ve just decided that I want to work as possible and just become the best musician that I can. I would like to somehow go from journeyman to master. And, you know, I may not make it, but I want to try.”
Case has been spending the day clearing out practice space—the old post office in St. Johnsbury—for her traveling band, which includes new members Eric Bachman (singer/guitarist for Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf) and singer/drummer Daniel Hunt (“We have four-part harmonies now,” she says, a little giddy). When she left Arizona, she was leaving behind a community of musicians, but that will change when the band shows up to rehearse for the current tour. In addition to practicing, there will be bonfires and eating and “teenage high-school grab-ass and just general stupidity.”?
“I don’t really like to work by myself,” she adds, noting that several of the songs on the new album are co-written with A.C. Newman and Paul Rigby. “I get really lonely. Music is very much, you know, something I like to do with other people. When I’m alone I like to write lyrics and stuff, but I don’t like to write with guitar that much by myself. It’s just something that’s pleasurable to me with other people enjoying it at the same time.”
I’m a man?
That’s what you raised me to be?
I’m not your identity crisis?
This was planned”—“Man”
The first single of the new album is called “Man.” It’s only one of the songs on the album dealing with gender expectations. And there’s a swagger to Case that even grief can’t dampen. “I grew up in the ’70s,” she says, “and was kind of raised by television and the big message that was being given to kids is that you can literally be whatever you want. I’m also really interested in nature and animals and history, the way we talk about species of animals is so much healthier than the way we talk about ourselves. We can really divorce ourselves from situations, but it’s weird to keep arguing over who has the right to do what because we’re all animals. I guess the example that I always use when people ask me this is you wouldn’t deny that a lioness is a lion, so if I want to be a man, it’s not about genitals, it’s about being of the species. It only matters to a gynecologist what the other stuff is about to me. Other people are more concerned about femininity and masculinity, and I’m just concerned with balance and I want both. A lot of the things I’ve done in my life just because I decided I was a man, as in, you know, equal or the same. I wouldn’t take any less from a situation.”??
When I ask if she’s encountered any walls in the music industry because of gender, she answers, “Only financially. Basically there are stupid things that I just don’t accept. I have produced I don’t know how many records now, but I’m never thought of as a producer. Or if people hear that Tucker Martine is involved in this album they say ‘Oh, Tucker Martine produced it!’ No, we did it together, there were other people involved. But they just automatically go to the man that produced it. That doesn’t mean people are dicks or anything; that’s just what they know. It’s like being a little girl, I didn’t realize that Poison Ivy was the guitar player for The Cramps. I had the record, I read the credits, but I still didn’t get it. Then when I realized that that lady is playing guitar I was so ashamed, but everybody does it. It’s based off of what we see when we’re little, so I think that people fighting for equality in media are really smart because TV is stupid and popular culture may not last, but little kids and younger people exposed to it will take away examples from it. That will make a difference to them.
”??The new album is actually credited as “produced by everyone involved,” a list that includes Tucker Martine, Paul Rigby, Craig Schumacher, Darryl Neudorf and Chris Shultz. “We all did it together,” Case says. “But I’m the executive producer because I’m responsible for what it sounds like overall.”
Releasing an album this close to her heart isn’t the easiest thing for Case. But now that she’s made it through the grieving process, she knows the songs will hold their own meaning for different listeners. “I’m too close to it to know what it really sounds like to other people,” she says, “and I can’t listen to it any more. I was there for every single minute of the recording, so I don’t even really hear it when it’s on. I just hope that people who have listened to my music for a long time aren’t disappointed that that’s the way it is, and I hope that they will take away from it that I ended up releasing it because I really trusted them with it. I’m really being honest, and I hope they don’t think less of me for it. And I hope it’s not disappointing in that it’s not a little story if that’s what people wanted. I don’t hate this record at all—I love it. But I am definitely over feeling the way I felt when I was making it.”