'The Worse Things Get': Life Lessons From Neko Case
On her latest album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, singer Neko Case lays her heart — and her healthy sense of humor — bare. It's a deeply personal record that, among other things, offers intimate, sometimes wry meditations on the recent loss of both of her parents and a grandmother. NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and I spoke with Neko Case about the music, and shared questions from listeners, in this interview that we originally webcast live on Aug. 29.
Robin Hilton: We've got about 25 minutes with you here before you have to run and do your World Cafe session and we've got some questions from listeners I want to get to. One of your fans wrote that he remembers during the process of you working on this record you tweeted about it being like "birthing an albatross," and he asks what made cutting this album particularly difficult?
Neko Case: My indecision and option anxiety I think, mostly.
Hilton: Do you find that that's worse with all the digital tweaking you can do now?
Case: No I don't really tweak anything digitally. It's more like, "should we also do piano on this? Well so and so's here lets also..." Just more options. And "should we do a second chorus on it or should we..." You know there's a lot of editing that happens.
Stephen Thompson: So you're not stepping into the studio with a completely predetermined notion of what the song's going to sound like?
Case: No, no not even close. I can't tell you what anything's going to sound like ahead of time. I can say 'Oh my god I want it to sound just like Sparks and Morrissey at the same time. It's going to be great!" And then it won't sound like that but you know.
Hilton: A number of people did ask in the chatroom and on twitter, just curious about your creative process. You say that you didn't go in with any particular agenda with this record, so maybe just talk about how you came at these songs?
Case: well I spent a lot of time writing them. And then when it was time to go into the rehearsal space and work with the band to make them, you know, go from demo to actual song with parts, I didn't recognize a lot of them. And they were all really personal, which they're usually not. So I kind of had to tweak them to make them more fun, for me personally anyways, just cause I've never been interested in making confessional songs, I guess you could say? I'm not that interesting. I like to make up stories about things. That's what imagination is for and I don't think I've had any sort of struggle that has been any better or more poignant than anyone else. So that wasn't the aim. It was just, I want to make them more interesting than just me.
Thompson: So what drove you to make a personal record then? If your life isn't more interesting than other people's why make that shift to more personal or confessional?
Case: Well it's just kind of what I had at the time. I lost a lot of family members in a five-year period or so and I never stopped working, or working really hard or travelling or playing or whatever to just kind of mourn the dead. And so it just caught up with me and punched me in the face. You will be sad now, and you will enjoy it!
Thompson: This is a really upbeat conversation we're having.
Case: Well that's why I never want to talk about it because you know it's just not that. Everybody goes through it. Every single person goes through it and there is a lot of really hilarious things about being that depressed. But it's also really scary, too. Maybe it'll just comfort people if they felt that way but there's a lot of pretty hilarious moments. I'm hoping...
Thompson: Where do those personal experiences most come through in this record, like what, to you, are the most personal or maybe even hard-to-listen-to or hard-to-re-experience songs on this record?
Case: Well they're not hard to re-experience, now because I feel like myself. But there was a point, and I did a lot of research about this, and I talked to a lot of people. I became really interested in, how come, as a woman who grew up in the United States of America (and partially in Canada), why am I so quick to ask if I'm crazy, if I'm feeling really terrible? And I talked to women and men about it. And a lot the men I talked to were in places that were way worse than I was, you know? They said they were considering suicide and things like that. And I said, "Well at what point did you feel crazy?" And all of them said, "I never actually felt crazy, but I can see it from there." And all the women I've talked have been like, "I was really concerned' and I think we really tell women that we're crazy way too much as a joke or whatever but I was really concerned that it wasn't crazy it was feelings and depression and grief and you know it will over load you, you gotta look it in the face and you gotta deal with it. But I was really shocked at the amount of people that I've talked to who were women and said, "yeah, pretty much off the bat I was wondering if I was crazy." And all the men were like, "No, I covered myself in feces and ran down the street but I knew it was temporary, I knew I was going to be okay once I acted out, you know what I mean?"
Hilton: You know, you've clearly got such a fantastic sense of humor and that's got to carry you through a lot of this?
Case: Well that was actually the thing I missed most, and that's how I knew I really wasn't doing well. I wasn't finding anything funny anymore and I wasn't being funny and my best friend Nate, he goes, "You used to be fun, you used to be hilarious." And he said that in the best way. That sounds terrible but he was like, he had me by the shoulders and was like, "You need help because you aren't you' and I was like you are absolutely right, and you need someone to do that. That was like the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
Thompson: You were talking about the difference between the way men and women are perceived and the way they harness their emotions. We actually have a question here in the chat on the page "what kind of advice would you offer young women that want to pursue songwriting?"
Case: well just start now, just make it up in your house, don't look for, I mean you can look for advice in places but just pretend you're building songwriting out of Lincoln logs and like how would you do it in your house if you had to do it for the ground up and that's generally how you find the way you want to do it, because there's no wrong way to do it and plus digital technology and you can sing songs right into your phone, you don't even have to be able to play an instrument you can just sing a melody, you can do whatever you want. Practicing it's a lot of practicing.
Hilton: It is. It's a lot work.
Case: It is it's a ton of work but it's rewarding and awesome.
Hilton: Do you consider yourself sot of a crass person (meant to say crafts) crafts person
Thompson: I thought you said crass person Laughs
Case: I am kind of a crass person sometimes yes
Hilton: You know a technician or whatever, do you feel like you really put in the hours and this is a lot of work or does it sort of come naturally?
Case: I put in an unhealthy amount of hours at times. There are times when I way over think it, and I'm sure that's part of the reason that when I hear the record now I know logically that I like it but I'm like I' can't really hear it but I know what you mean, you know what I mean, like there's singing there, I don't really hear it. It's just because I really was there for every second of everything on the record for two years.
Thompson: Do you keep editing it in your head? Once it's finished are you able to stop and separate out the "man I shouldn't have put horns there or I should have put more horns there?
Case: Well that's probably what the blacking out means; it's probably like a self preservation instinct that comes from somewhere right at the front of your fight or flight. That's like I won't let you hear this anymore because if you hear a mistake you want to redo the whole thing, then I'm in trouble. The gateway to option anxiety is a really temping portal but at a really certain point you got to go no, it's done leave it alone.
Hilton: We've got a listener named Inman you live out in the country now, you live on a farm , Inman writes: "now that you're surrounded environment has always been apparent in your songwriting and sound and how has that evolved through the years especially now that you're based in your farm on Vermont" so maybe first tell us a little bit about the land and how its become a part of you?
Case: Well I think up until this record I've always been really longing for it and looking for it extra hard in urban settings or on the road or wherever and now I'm there so I get a lot of comfort from that and a lot of what would I call it? You know self confidence it's like a really nice water filter where you know you can have a really crappy week or day and then you can go walk through the forest for a while and you know walk the dogs and really get rid of that bad stuff and come in the house again with a whole new attitude you know and just feeling really good about yourself as a critter.
Hilton: What kind of critters do you have on the farm? Is it a working farm?
Case: It's working if you're a vegetable! But the animals don't actually do any work they do a lot of sleeping on the ground upside down and eating things and getting petted, but there's four dogs and two cats and four chickens and a horse.
Hilton: That's a good start
Case: Yeah I have no desire to raise live stock it's just too much work but my neighbor's cows also graze on my farm and I love those girls so much. They're the snuggliest critters ever.
Hilton: We've got another question from a listener named (is that the spelling?) Elena, and she points out a line that I found very curious and intrigued me as well, she says ' she seriously loves the new record and there's one lyric "you never held it at the right angle" has me intrigued, any meaning and thoughts to it you could share?
Case: It was just meant to intrigue but if I say what it was it won't intrigue anyone. So it means what you want it to mean and yeah I can't be too specific because I don't always know either. But it repeats in your mind and you go well I guess that's what I'm going to say because I can't stop thinking about it, I don't really think about it too hard sometimes.
Hilton: Do you sort of write lyrics, almost stream of consciousness and you realize that you don't know where you're going when you start but you come to realize 'oh I guess I'm writing about this?'
Case: Oh absolutely yeah and I collage a lot of things too, I write all the time and you know some days I write an entire song and it'll happen really fast and some days it's just little snippets and I'll look at them all together and kind of collage them a bit and then that sometimes yields nice end results and sometimes I just sound like a boob, but it works out in the end.
Thompson: You know one thing that's been interesting to me about this particular record I got advance word 'oh this record is coming and there's all these amazing collaborators on it. It's got M. Ward and Tucker Martine and Kelly Hogan of course and Rachel Flotard. A lot of people you've worked with before, but the collaborators, there's this big long list, but to me I listen to this record and it just all sounds entirely like you. Like what...
Case: I'm a powerful demon, just a demon. I just subjugate them to my will! I'm kidding haha that's a terrible thing to say.
Thompson: I don't mean to suggest they don't have a presence but what is it that you look to get out of those collaborations?
Case: Well I always ask people that I feel really comfortable with and I already really really like their work so I generally, somebody asked me the other day on a scale of one to ten how much direction do you say you give your collaborators? and I said probably about a two, because they're already doing things I genuinely like and now and again I'll say things like 'no no no do more of that, do that again, do that again that was awesome' or 'could you also do that on the piano as well as the keyboard or something' but I'm not usually standing over them with the baton one and two and three and hit it, great!
Thompson: That's probably how you get to work with them again and again.
Case: John Confrantino (name check?) I will show you how to play those drums! You know he's already the man and Kurt Dahl (name check!?) I've been playing with forever, I don't have to worry that they're just going to be amazing because they are.
Hilton: Yeah you have to be firm sometimes.
Case: Yeah, being really mean is what really gets results.
Thompson: It's what keep em coming back.
Hilton: Shot me to the middle
Case: 'I'll make you eat that whole éclair, you get this take right.' I never open my teeth when talking to them either, constantly like this!
Hilton: So Conheart (Name check) writes you mention Kelly Hogan and we love her too, 'Kelly Hogan' he says or she says not sure who wrote this, 'is awesome I'm happy to see her on the album and I love the album is there a rhyme or reason to who makes this in your business and is it frustrating to see folks like Kelly not getting more widespread attention?
Case: Well I think we exist in a different realm that's one thing about the music industry people don't really know is that there's the big money business and than there's our business which is the blue collar side you know? We work really hard and we work constantly and you know I'm in two full time bands so there's not a lot of time off you know, but the good thing about it is it means you rehearse so much and you play so much that you hopefully get better, as far as Kelly goes she could be making all the records that she wants but she wants to do it at her pace so I don't think Kelly is unhappy with that but I don't doubt Kelly will be remembered for being the great great vocalist that she is, and frankly no one I know wants to be famous on a Britney Spears level, we all know really famous people and that kind of fame makes people genuinely unhappy for the most part has been my experience. We like where we are, we like working hard and we like collaboration and slow growth, they used to call it artist development in the music business back in the day and there aren't that many people who allow for that anymore. Did I answer your question or was that just really weird? Basically I also just don't want to speak for Kelly Hogan because she has her own schedule that she's keeping, do I badger her to make records than constantly. Because I love her
Thompson: More than once every eleven years
Case: Yeah, I do but also I know Kelly has a method and she will do it and it will be awesome
Thompson: There's a question here in the chat from a Linn Olsen (name check) that says 'you're my favorite twitter user', I was like all questions that start with you are great, 'can you tell us more about how twitter has changed how you communicate and share with your fans?'
Case: Well I'm going to have to basically steal what K.d Lang said about twitter, we were talking about it and she said 'you know I knew I was crazy about my audience but I didn't know how much I could love them until I started talking to them one on one via twitter she's like I love them, and now I LOVE them, like it's really nice to just interact with people how you choose and not always have to talk about yourself, you can choose to talk to people in a more friendly way like 'let's talk about broccoli recipes' or just stuff like that is so much fun or talking about movies that we like just getting to know people on kind of a friend level not a you know 'I'm the musician and you're the fan and yes I will take your praise' you know what I mean? That's a strange place to be in but you can talk about things like 'where's a really good vegan restaurant?' or 'where is the best steak house?' and you get to know people in a very sweet way.
Thompson: It's not a very guarded medium
Thompson: It allows for a lot more candor I guess, for some people that's probably not a good thing.
Hilton: I just never realized how empty my life was until I got on twitter and I had nothing to say that I thought anybody would find remotely interesting, but that's just me.
Thompson: That's the story of poor robin
Case: Oh robin... I'm rocking him back and forth holding him; it's going to be okay robin
Hilton: I love questions like this one that comes from Andrew and Andrew writes 'what question do you ask yourself the most and wish you had an answer to?'
Case: What is wrong with me? That's what I ask myself most of the time? And sometimes I laugh and sometimes I cry, but I ask myself that a lot, what is wrong with you, what are you doing? You just spent an hour poppin seed pods standing in a field what are you doing right now? Where did that hour go? What is wrong with you? You are weird?
Hilton: I thought we determined in the beginning that you figured out that you're not really crazy.
Case: Oh no I'm not crazy, I'm odd but I'm okay with that. Odd, but I'm not mentally ill I'm just odd, an odd bird I guess.
Hilton: I don't know how much you want to talk about some of the specific stories behind these songs because you like to leave them up to at least some interpretation...
Case: I'll take a crack at it
Hilton: Someone who goes by the handle middle feast (name check), middle feast writes 'what's the story behind "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu"'
Case: That's a verbatim conversation I witnessed literally exactly the way it happens in the song. I was in Honolulu, it was nearly midnight and some creepy mom was yelling at her cute little kid who was just singing a little song and it was horrible. That's about it
Hilton: Yeah I think that song has stuck with a lot of people.
Thompson: Yeah that one jumps out, I mean it's interesting in that song you are then, not only are you transcribing that conversation but you were then imparting a message to the little girl.
Case: Yeah it was heartbreaking you know because there's the point where you see the person yelling at their kid and being really mean for no good reason and then you know part of me wanted to tackle that woman and punch the crap out of her which is a not popular stance but given how much America loves violence I'm always like 'what are you talking about?' you know but that was my impulse that I did not act on, hence not crazy. But I watched the little girl handle it and she just went 'hmm whatever' and turned around and went the other way and kept singing her little song but the thing that really hurts about it is that I know how hard the little girl is going to pay for that little. She's going to pay double for that later, it kind of sucks.
Hilton: You hope not.
Case: I've been that kid, she's going to pay for it no question
Hilton: Well I think some people who heard that song hoped it wasn't somehow autobiographical and you play around a lot with point of view and even gender and one listener writes in 'you play around a lot with point of view and even gender' and one listener writes in, this comes from Andrea "I always love the way you play with gender in your songs. What the story behind the song "Man""?
Case: I just, I don't really think of myself specifically as a woman, you know? I'm kind of a critter. I'm an animal. Everyone's an animal. And I find I'm much happier and well-balanced if I think of myself that way because you know, I'm a straight white female or whatever at the gynecologist, but the rest of the time, you know, I feel pretty all over the place. And that's what I was guaranteed as an American citizen, and I really took it to heart, so I'll be whatever I want whenever I want all the time. And I like to watch nature shows a lot, and I know that you know I'm specifically talking about America here. I lived in Canada, too and I think they're very similar in this way and we really enjoy nature shows and science and programs alike. And you would watch a show about lions, say, and if you called the lioness a lion, nobody would correct you. But even the most free thinking liberal people, if you call yourself the guy "like I'm the guy that likes to..' and people would go 'you're a girl!' And I'd say why are you even bothering to correct me? And they would say I have no idea why I'm doing that, it's just a reflex that comes out! And its just kind of interesting you know? And I just think it'd be a lot easier if we just, you know, 'I'm a man sure. If there was a nature show about me I'd be called a man.' And then maybe they'd get to lioness later. I don't know. But as a creature, that's what we are, we get to own it.
Thompson: But you also pick out a lot of characteristics that are often attributed specifically to men that whole line "you'll deal with me directly" this very "I'm a man's man," that seems specifically addressing gender roles.
Case: Right. Well me personally, I'm probably a little imbalanced in that if you were to look at a human creature as kind of a vase or something my glass is a little bit more full of the man stuff, than the woman stuff. So I'm probably a little bit macho, so you know I was just talking about myself but then I'm also talking about everyone, too. I could use a little bit more balance I could probably use a bit more feminine and be a bit happier but the world feminine doesn't really resonate with me in anyway that I would want anything to do with it, not because it's not cool to be feminine, it is, but just based on my initial responses as a kid to media and advertising based on you know gender, which when I was a kid i didn't really have parents but I was raised kind of by TV. So if you were going to pick the frilly pink thing with nobody in it, like the commercials were really segregated girls toys only had girls in the commercial boys toys only had boys in the commercials like the muddy G.I Joe toy just seemed way more fun to me than you know just sitting inside, it really was unappealing to me, it seemed sinister somehow, that's just my personal take on it you know, but you know as a young-in it just didn't resonate with.
Case: As a young critter
Case: As a young critter, as a feral critter, my immediate choice was not the dolls but stuffed animals? Sure. And the G.I Joe was you know a pretty narrow path on both sides, but you know the feminine choice was never the one that was cool. It was never the one I would choose, if they did it in sort of a prince and princess way, do you want to grow up to be the king or would you rather be the dress wearing courtier, I would rather be the king thank you. I can do more than wear dresses, there's a little more choice there, and you know this is my personal take on it. I'm sure I'll get in a lot of trouble for it.
Thompson: With whom?
Case: Oh you know...With people.
Hilton: No good deed goes unpunished. The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Case: Yeah there's going to be a lot of beatings but I can take them because I'm very macho and that's very fine with me.
Thompson: You dish out the beatings!
Hilton: We've only got a couple minutes. There's been some questions about the tour any cities you'll be getting to that you haven't been to before on this tour or any places..
Case: No I've been around, I gotta say I've been around so probably nothing new until next year when we'll do things like hopefully go to places like Alaska and Iceland that we've never been but, in North America, I don't know there's anywhere I haven't been except St. Joseph's Newfoundland but that's probably later too
Thompson: We got a reader here that says 'I actually have a "Maybe Sparrow" tattoo, so I'm glad you joined the ink club. Any more tats coming your way?' You recently just got tattoos on your arms.
Case: Well it's actually been a few years, but there was no reason to do it for when I did except that I'm not going to get a bank job now so it's okay! I've wanted them for twenty years and I went 'you have a job you can do that sure.' Maybe I'll get another one I don't really have anything planned.
Hilton: Get that dagger with a rose wrapped around it that you've had your eye on?
Case: Probably more of a jester springing out of a bong I'm thinking, right up the front of my chest.
Thompson: A wizard holding a glowing orb
Case: right up the front of my chest.
Hilton: you've got my gears turning now.
Case: Yeah, Jack In the Bong, I'm going to get a jack in the bong tattoo. You'll be able to smell it just from looking at it, wow that's bold. That is a bold move. Laughs
Hilton: Neko I'd love to keep you on here but I promised id let you go so you can go do your world cafe session there in Philly at WXPN and thanks to them for helping out for getting us connected here today and thank you so much for this music and thank you for joining us and taking questions from your fans.
Case: It was my pleasure, thank you for having me and thanks to the folks who asked the question I appreciate it!
Hilton: alright, take care!
Case: You too!
Grief can make you feel crazy, she says, but maybe it shouldn't.
"I became really interested in [the question], 'How come as a woman who grew up in the United States of America — and partially in Canada — why am I so quick to ask if I'm crazy if I'm feeling really terrible?' And I talked to women and men about it, and a lot of the men I talked to were in places that were way worse than I was, you know? They said they were considering suicide and things like that. And I said 'well at what point did you feel crazy?' And all of them said 'I never actually felt crazy.' ...
"I think we really tell women that we're crazy way too much, as a joke or whatever, but I was really concerned that it wasn't crazy — it was feelings and depression and grief and you know it will overload you. You gotta look it in the face and you gotta deal with it. But I was really shocked at the amount of people that I've talked to who were women and said, 'Yeah, pretty much off the bat I was wondering if I was crazy.' And all the men were like, 'No, I covered myself in feces and ran down the street, but I knew it was temporary, I knew I was going to be okay once I acted out.' You know what I mean?"
Just because she's a woman doesn't mean she's not a man.
"I just — I don't really think of myself specifically as a woman, you know? I'm kind of a critter. I'm an animal. Everyone's an animal. And I find I'm much happier and well-balanced if I think of myself that way. Because, you know, I'm a straight white female or whatever at the gynecologist, but the rest of the time I feel pretty all over the place. And that's what I was guaranteed as an American citizen, and I really took it to heart, so I'll be whatever I want whenever I want all the time.
"I like to watch nature shows a lot. ... You would watch a show about lions, say, and if you called the lioness a lion, nobody would correct you. But even the most free thinking liberal people, if you call yourself 'The Guy,' like, 'I'm the guy that likes to ...,' and people would go, 'You're a girl!' And I'd say, 'Why are you even bothering to correct me?' And they would say, 'I have no idea why I'm doing that. It's just a reflex that comes out!' And its just kind of interesting you know? And I just think it'd be a lot easier if we just [thought of ourselves as]: 'I'm a man, sure. If there was a nature show about me I'd be called a man.' And then maybe they'd get to lioness later. I don't know. But as a creature, that's what we are, we get to own it."
TV raised her to prefer macho toys.
"Me personally ... if you were to look at a human creature as kind of a vase or something, my glass is a little bit more full of the man stuff than the woman stuff. So I'm probably a little bit macho. ... I was just talking about myself, but then I'm also talking about everyone, too. I could use a little bit more balance. I could probably use a bit more feminine and be a bit happier but the word 'feminine' does't really resonate with me in anyway that I would want anything to do with it, not because it's not cool to be feminine — it is — but just based on my initial responses as a kid to media and advertising based on gender, which — when I was a kid I didn't really have parents but I was raised by TV. ... The commercials were really segregated. Girls' toys only had girls in the commercial; boys' toys only had boys in the commercials. The muddy G.I Joe toy just seemed way more fun to me than just sitting inside. It really was unappealing to me, it seemed sinister somehow, that's just my personal take on it you know, but you know as a young'n it just didn't resonate with [me]."
In her job, it's totally okay to have a tattoo.
"There was no reason to do it for when I did except that I'm not going to get a bank job now so it's okay! I've wanted them for twenty years and I went, 'You have a job [where] you can do that. Sure.' Maybe I'll get another one. I don't really have anything planned.
Robin Hilton: "Get that dagger with a rose wrapped around it that you've had your eye on?"
"Probably more of a jester springing out of a bong, I'm thinking. Right up the front of my chest. ... Jack in the Bong. I'm going to get a Jack in the Bong tattoo. You'll be able to smell it just from looking at it. Wow, that's bold. That is a bold move."