Read about Neko Case’s latest work and turn some of the leaves over. Beneath a few of them, is the word “rage.” In some reviews, Case’s latest album, Hell-On, is described as an effort filled with it. Other takes, like a May 2018 New York Times profile, just cut to the chase and put the descriptor in a big, bold headline: “How Neko Case Finally Unleashed Her Feminist Rage.”
At best, the assessment is short-sighted; from almost every angle, it reads like a cop-out. Ours is a world that’s undeniably guilty of lumping lazy, angry language into many narratives about women, and boiling Hell-On down to its fury is unjust. Sure, there are moments of the 52-minute effort that seethe with the exhaustion that accompanies the generational disarmament of powerful women, but the album is so much more than that.
Sometimes it is stark, like so many moments on Case’s 2002 LP Blacklisted. At other turns, Hell-On is coy like the candid passages on 2006’s gorgeously sad Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. The whole of Hell-On, however, feels like the fulfillment of the promises from Case’s 1997 solo debut, The Virginian, and its romantic, delightfully busted-up follow-up Furnace Room Lullaby. In short, Case’s latest is a reminder that her fans have been lucky to spend the last two decades listening to the development of a voice that is truly nonpareil as far as our generation’s storytellers are concerned.
And while critics have yet to find the right combination of words to describe what she has done on her first bit of new music since a 2016 collaborative album with k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, Case is empathetic to those unwittingly compartmentalizing her art into a box with “feminist” scrawled on the outside.
“I try to remember that music media have very few sentences to get across an artist’s entire deal, so that’s not easy,” Case told CL from a winter tour stop in San Diego.
On Friday, she will make what is, by many accounts, her Tampa Bay debut in Ybor City. The venue — which regularly hosts rock shows and the occasional wrestling match — is less cushy than some of the other rooms Case has played on her seemingly endless tour supporting Hell-On (which was released on June 1), but her devotees will still be standing there and hanging on to every word. Case admits to thinking about that audience a lot, but the attention has never lead to self-censoring.
“People want you to be you because they want to be themselves,” she said, adding that it took awhile for her to figure that out onstage. Case has never been shy about dispelling the mythology of rock and roll either. Glamorizing addiction or the exploitation of others furthers false narratives, she explained, and the industry lie that artists are just lucky to have gatekeepers doling out opportunities is one of the biggest shams around.
“You’re the one driving around in your van, going on tour and making music. You are in control,” Case said, admitting that she may have bluffed her way into some of the deals that have given her a different level of control over her music than other artists have.
“You don’t have to work with shitty people, and you don’t have to be shitty.”
That shouldn’t be easy for Case — who left home at 15 years old — to express. The move was her natural reaction to a life spent living with unprepared parents who brought alcoholism, drug addiction and neglect into her childhood. Case doesn’t see much point in revisiting those times, and she deftly turns the talk toward those who did love her instead. She chose other people, like her grandma, to be her parents, and those people chose her in a way. Another soul who was fantastic to Case was her archaeologist stepdad, who took her on many a dig in Case’s younger days.
“It’s good to have at least one person where if they pass on, then there are no questions between you. Like, ‘I love you. I love you, no question,’” Case said. There’s a stepdaughter in Case’s own life now. She’s better adjusted, and didn’t have the same issues Case did in her youth, but the little one’s presence is a channel for Case to pay that love from her own grandma and stepdad forward.
“She calls me her stepdad sometimes,” Case said, half-jokingly. Together, Case and her stepdaughter talk to the many animals they keep at home (two horses, three dogs, three cats and five chickens at last count). The kid has an innate compassion for the creatures; she understands that they cannot communicate with humans the way we’d like them to. Kindness is natural to children, Case points out; it’s something adults should probably re-teach themselves every now and then. One day, Case hopes to take a year off and just spend time in Vermont watching the seasons change. For half of that year, Case hopes to have her stepdaughter by her side.
“I’m just hoping to be a good example for her,” Case said. “I’m hoping to give her the support she needs to be a huge freak if she wants to.”
In many ways, that’s what Case has given to her fans over the years. This is the woman who, as a child, used to find solace from life by singing Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)” into a hairbrush, after all. This is also the woman who uses major chords to make sadder songs. Case is the woman who has sidestepped convention, and come out on top, almost every step in the way. Sometimes she is drop-dead sad and crazy, but everyone fucks off like a wayward cannon to the sea every now and then, right? It’s puzzling to find so many people latching on to the “rage” on this album because at its core, Hell-On is compassionate in a really gorgeous way.
There’s a lot of humanity and hope baked in there — listeners should let that sit and stew inside of them instead.
Get more info and read our full Q&A below.
Neko Case w/Jennifer Castle. Fri. Feb. 1, 7 p.m. $36.50. Orpheum, 1915 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City. theorpheum.com.
Have you been head-butted in the ass today?
Horrible child. Horrible. I sometimes imagine what Brayden is doing now, and I hope he escaped terrible parents, but with a name like Brayden I feel like that's just branded on your face.
It's almost like the name Brock.
Oh, yeah. The Brocks of the world.
I don't want to wade too far into that territory.
Yeah, that's dangerous.
And I know we only have 15 minutes, so excuse me if my line of questions seems disjointed.
You're good, don't worry.
You get pegged as this songwriter for women, but really you write for all genders — the possibility of masculine and feminine, and everything inside and outside of that, is in everyone. Representation definitely matters, but does getting compartmentalized like that get frustrating or feel like the media is missing another element of the record at all?
Sometime, but I try to remember that music media have very few sentences to get across an artist's entire deal, so that's not easy. I got interviewed by Jeff and KPOP the other day, and he said, "Basically, we think of you as making art-rock," and I said, "Art-rock is the greatest, so now my whole gender and everything can be defined by 'art-rock.'" So I'm just going with "art-rock" from now on. That's my whole gender, and my whole scene: "art-rock."
Three-letters, a dash, and then four more letters.
A-R-T, R-O-C-K, yeah.
The hypenization of music.
There's no hyphen issues. "Art" and then "rock," or you could make it one word, I don't care.
I'm gonna make another assumption about you, Neko, so forgive me if I am wrong. It’s safe to say that your relationship with a post-WOMANPRODUCER confidence is relatively new.
Yeah. It was 2016, I think it was November. I could be wrong about that because I'm always wrong about when things happen. Basically, I spend all my time telling people about it, saying that WOMANPRODUCER deserves a lot of grants thrown their way to get it happening in lots of cities because I think that it would be really great.
Did it give you power to move through the world? How did it help you in the press rounds for Hell-On? Did it add another layer to that “mission” you felt you were on after reading Adrienne Mayor’s book about the Amazon?
Yeah, that was getting me out of a lot of things. That book just helped me a lot about being depressed. I was kind of on a mission to see at what point in history did we start hating women, so I started reading all of these history books. Her book was the one I read that was super positive, so I was like, "OK, there are a lot of people out there reclaiming this history." We've developed things, created things and helped with all kinds of technology from its infancy, or creating it from infancy. That was one of those, "the world is not what it seems, and this is temporary, and this is weird — and this weird hatred of women hasn't been around as long as women doing amazing things," so it really turned me around.
Completely agree, and I think right now we have an opportunity to write women back into history.
Yeah, and people are doing it.
Yeah, we're in a cool place. Some days I'm like, "I just wanna die today," but this is one of those moments where I'm like, "I kind of want to live a little bit longer," you know?
Yeah. We me never get to see the end result, but knowing that it's pushing towards the result. Is a really great thing.
And real quick, you mentioned that depression. You’ve been open about writing when you’re depressed, and there’s a difference between escapism and relief, but when’s the last time you did write depressed and how do you take care of yourself on the road?
Well, when I'm... like real depression. You know, there's being sad, and then there's depression, I think. It's a blurred line in between. If I'm sad, then working on things usually makes me feel better, but depression is very different. Working on things keeps me upright, but it doesn't necessarily help. I mean, I'm sure it does somewhere, but that's one way for me to tell if I'm really depressed. Does throwing myself into work help me? If it doesn't, then it's like, "No, you definitely have something going on." Because that worked for a long time — throwing myself into work — but that's also not really that good for you. You need balance. You need to pay attention to why you're sad, or if something is going on in your life. You can't just run from it all the time.
Yeah. I want to keep thinking about that... but I know we have a time limit.
If you go over time, it's fine, seriously. There's a time limit because I have to go to soundcheck at some point, but I have a little of time, so if you need to ask a question.
You obviously had no control about how you were parented — your folks could not help their addictions, but you wandered in the woods when you were left alone for hours. That probably played in your appreciation for nature, seeing the forest as this living organism, but would you trade that in to have your parents be more of a presence in your life? To have parental love, or was the love from your grandma enough to carry you through?
Well, there's no way to go back. You can never go back, even though we can visit there with our minds, you know? There's kind of no point, almost. I chose other people to be my parents, and they chose me in a way. My grandma was wonderful, and it's good to have a connection with at least one person where if they pass on, then there are no questions between you. You're like, "I love you. I love you, no question." So having that example of that kind of love is the important part. You have that example, and you can be that if you choose to be. Modeling is a very important thing for kids, so at least I have that model of her.
I loved when you talked about your stepdaughter, and explained how one day the other show is gonna come off. How does your relationship with your grandmother affect the way you try to be around your stepdaughter?
Well, she's a really well adjust kid. She doesn't have the same problems I had as a kid. She's just a sweetheart. I don't know. It's still new to me. It's been a few years, but it's still really new to me in a way, so I just kind of take it one day at a time. I don't have any doubts about whether or not I want her in my life, or if it's OK for me to be a parent. I have a lot of people who I can ask, who are really wonderful parents. Her dad and her mom are really wonderful people, so luckily we all have good relationships, so that feels good — that she sees all of us being good to each other, being kind to each other. There could have been a lot of crazy things in that situation, but right now there aren't. There could be eventually, but who knows. I think the one thing to not do is be like, "OK, this is the way it is," and get comfortable. You gotta really be present, and I'm glad that she came into my life when I felt very present, and every centered.
I had a really great stepdad, too, so I often think of myself as her stepdad. She calls me her stepdad sometime, but she's a wonderful kid. I'm just hoping to be a good example for her and hoping to give her the support she needs to be a huge freak if she wants to.
I think that a certain level of freedom is possible, especially with all the animals you have, there's that connection...
Yeah, she and I love to hang out with animals, and we talk a lot about why they are the way they are. What they like and what they don't like. She's really good at not taking things animals do personally. If they're communicating in their own animal language and it doesn't jive with what we want them to do or with what we want in that moment. She's so compassionate with them. I think compassion and kindness are natural to little kids anyway. I don't know if that's something we have to teach them. I think it's just something that we maintain through our modeling or through our examples.
Yeah, I think that's something that we have to reteach to humans as they grow older.
So do you think being a parent would be that thing that pushes you to walk away from music? Something that leads you to dive into these binders full of ideas or to just spend some time in Vermont and watch the seasons change?
Well, I probably would never retire, but it would be nice to take a year off. I'd like to spend a year watching the seasons change, at least, you know what I mean? That would be really great. She is my stepdaughter, and she does live with her mom during the school year, so I think it would be more like taking part of a year off to spend at home just 'cause she does what she does — it's not up to me. I would do that to spend time with her, of course; it hasn't come up yet, but I could see us doing that for sure because it really is fun and important.
Totally. I love hearing your voice. Like, I've heard it a bunch on the records and in interviews, and I think you have a great energy. You inspire a lot of people, and you always have. I think that your songs, who you are, has endeared this incredibly loyal fan base to you, and I wanted to ask you...
Thank you, that's such a nice thing to say...
Nah, dude, it's like super rare. I posted something online saying something like, "Hey, I think I'm gonna get to talk to Neko Case," and everybody was just so into it, and I thought, "Man, what a gift to put art out, have people respond to it, believe in you and be on your side." Like these people don't know you. You don't know them, but whatever you did, or however you are, as much pressure as that can be, that has affected them. That's all you really want.
Yeah, it's nice. I do think about my audience a lot. Not like in a way where I would censor myself if I was writing, because I don't think people want that. People want you to be you because they want to be themselves, right? That's what they want. Starting out in music you think that you're supposed to kind of have some sort of personality that's different onstage, or I don't know what, but I realized I was no good at faking or being super tough or super cool. So being in bands, I found people would respond when anyone would make a mistake and be able to laugh about it.
Live music. They wanna know you're imperfect. It's humanizing.
Yeah. They responded when we were being ourselves. I started thinking that way in the bigger picture, like, "What is music?" It's definitely not what I grew up with in the '70s, which was very much about theatrics. Everything was really expensive, and it's not like there's not a place or these things because there is. You know, the Elton John of the '70s is kind of like the Beyoncés of now, the Lady Gagas. Those are very expensive things to do, but there's ways to do that without being really expensive, and sometimes playing music on your couch is just as satisfying as watching a huge spectacle, so both things are just as important.
I talk a lot about the mythologies of rock and roll. I hate the way people glamorize addiction or being shitty. The whole industry lie that, "You're lucky to be here. We can exploit you because we're the ones giving you chances." It's like, "Nah, you're the one driving around in your van, going on tour and making music. You are in control, and you don't have to work with shitty people, and you don't have to be shitty." There are just as many, if not way more, people who love music, who want to work with music, be they musicians, publicists or record companies. People who have those talents for doing the parts that maybe you can't take on, people who are actually good humans. They're humans who actually want to be nice to people and help people out.
Growing up in the music scene in Canada was really helpful because Canada is such a large country, but compared to the United States it has a really small population.
Everybody knows everybody.
Everybody in Vancouver who played music was in, like, three bands because, you know, say you're a bass player — people are short on bass players, you know what I mean? So they know you're the good bass player, so they're like, "Hey, can you play with us, too?" It was a really lovely community thing. It wasn't a competition. That's the biggest thing about music that I hope we can get rid of. Music is not competition. Music is not sports. It's not for ranking. It's not for the "best of." It's not for categorizing. You know, beyond, obviously, like I said, music writers have to say, "Hey this is coming to your town, this is so and so, I have to explain this in a paragraph and a half..." — yeah, cut those people some slack because they're doing you a huge favor — it's really difficult. Thank them. There are places where the short version makes sense, but there are places where we can't short ourselves.
I'm glad that you sympathize because I was working on this ranking local artists by Spotify streams, and I am thinking, like, "This is so fucked up," you know what I mean?
I suppose you can put that kind of stuff in context and explain how it's just data...
Well you could also just say, or take the language out. You could go, "Hey these are some really great artists that you can find on Spotify... here are some great local artists that you can find on Spotify," and not rank them.
I'm into it.
Do it alphabetically because it's not cool to do that. Our language matters.
Haha, you just changed my mind on that, and I love you for that. Thank you.
Aww, you're welcome.
You made me happy.
And I know we're getting close on time. I wanted to ask you if being Neko Case LLC, working 50-50 deals, handling contracts was a scary thing, but it seems like you have abandoned all fear in that aspect.
I think just not knowing things was scary, and I bluffed a lot I'm sure. There's a lot of times that I wasn't cool. I've not always been, you know, the best person that I could possibly be. There were a lot of fear-based moments early on, and I did thing that didn't understand. I learned from not being the nicest person in the world, making mistakes. You can always apologize, and apologies are important, but actually doing the right thing from then on is the important part.
Not just trying to salvage the thing you messed up.
Yeah. Like, I could've decided that my career was over since I didn't get signed by any major labels, but I really had the desire to make music, so that wasn't going to happen.
Yeah, a model and an inspiration, for sure. I don't want you to retire, and I don't think that a lot of people do.
I'm never gonna retire, ever. I might do some other things. I went to art school, so I do really miss making... art. I'd like to do that, too.
You will, and I think you can do that simultaneously. You have Carl to collaborate with, there are still songs inside of you.
There's no retiring that's gonna happen anytime soon, but that's also a very important point to bring up. I don't have the luxury of retiring because I am not at the Lady Gaga level. There's a huge gap between most musicians and the really famous ones.
Yeah, people don't get it. Even with someone like you who probably has more control over master recordings, touring revenue, stuff like that — it's still so difficult.
It is, and just when you think you know what's happening things come along and change the entire game. Like streaming. Nobody asked any musicians what they wanted.
There's always a third party out there to exploit what you're doing. Even if they have a good idea, they don't want to include you, and that's not cool.
Maybe in our lifetime we'll get to rewrite it completely. Maybe we'll be the generation that changes it.
I like your positivity, and I think that's a wonderful goal to head towards. Absolutely.
Well, thank you so much for your time, and I hope you have a good show in San Diego.
You're welcome. Thank you. Will I see you in Florida?
I was gonna say, I heard you talking about just relaxing, and I don't know what your driving is, but if you do end up wanting to do some relaxing, then we have these electric boats that you can ride up and down the river. That's a fun day time pre-soundcheck activity.
My band are very adventurous, so I would not be surprised if they wanted to do that.