After seven studio records under her own name and a further seven with the New Pornographers, Neko Case could be forgiven for being jaded.
But she’s not.
“I feel like I’m 19 years old and I’m about to go to college and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and I’m excited about it,” she says, checking in with the Straight from a Madison, Wisconsin, tour stop. “Even though that’s not even close to what my life is like, I still have that, and that’s one of those things that I hope to preserve about myself because, you know, I get excited about things.
“I get excited about things like fossils,” she adds, laughing. “And things that you were excited about when you were a kid and you’re untainted by struggling with the world—the human part of the world.”
Case’s enthusiasm is refreshing—and surprising, too, for a lot of her just-released Hell-On is about exactly that: struggling with destructive human forces both internal and external, wrestling with fate, and contending with memory. And when childhood experiences come to the fore, her lyrics don’t exactly brim with unsullied optimism.
One of the new record’s most powerful songs—one of the most powerful she’s written, in fact—is “My Uncle’s Navy”. It opens with the lines “There’s memories I’d pay to remove/I’d cut them out myself/If that were possible/The kind you cry yourself blind about,” before Case goes on to introduce a sadist who “loved to scare all the little girls away”.
“And if you’re tender-hearted,” she sings, “you should stop the tape. Stop the tape.”
The obvious inference is that it’s a song empowered by #MeToo, but Case cautions otherwise.
“I mean, it is, if that’s what you feel when you hear it, but it wasn’t written from that perspective,” she explains. “It was written kind of about people who manipulate children, and who are competitive with children, which is a really creepy thing. People do it to be in power, and the power dynamic definitely crosses every gender line. It happens to lots of people, not just girls—but it’s open-ended enough that people could put their own experience in there, too.”
There are autobiographical moments on Hell-On, she confesses, “but nothing ever super-focused. I mean, my own perception of the world is my firsthand account, and the only one I have, so with a lot of it I’m trying to tell stories and I end up in them. I come and go. But it’s generally not like a straight-up memoir all the time. Sometimes, but I do enjoy telling stories the most.”
Increasingly, Case also enjoys the technical aspects of musical storytelling. Working with Swedish musician Björn Yttling—of Peter Bjorn and John fame—she produced Hell-On, and succeeded in her ambition to make a record that’s both punchy and warm. “I have a lot of high-end hearing,” she says, noting that the audio artifacts associated with Auto-Tune strike her as about as musical as a dog whistle. “But I also am really drawn to people who can sing really well, but who also make what are considered ugly sounds with their voices, too. I’m always really drawn to that. So it’s not so much about being beautiful, per se, as it is about ‘Is it saying everything I want to say, but not being too obvious?’ There’s so much delicate balancing that’s going on.”
And that, she adds, is due in part to working with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs on their 2016 release, case/lang/veirs. Although that album and the subsequent tour were billed as a one-off collaboration, both lang and Veirs sing on Hell-On, with the latter sharing songwriting credit for the gorgeous and mysterious “Oracle of the Maritimes”.
“I love trusting myself in the free fall,” Case says. “I really do. But those two, they like having a plan for where the free fall goes should the free fall not work, and that was a really great thing to pick up from them. They have everything mapped out ahead of time, whereas I have a third of it mapped out, and another third of it halfway mapped out, and the final third not mapped out at all as we go into the studio.…But, you know, I was a lot more prepared for this record, and I did a lot more research than I normally do. Ultimately, I got that from those two, and I really enjoyed working that way.
“I really tuned myself up for this record,” she adds, “and I think it paid off.”