Judging by her sheer velocity and creative endeavors, 30 years into her career, Neko Case remains too busy to glance at her reflection. Prior to our talk with the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, she had just completed an intense tour with The New Pornographers; the Canadian indie-pop-juggernaut group whom Case began working with some 25 years ago. Yet her current tour, in support of the 2022 anthology Wild Creatures, which compiles two decades of her celebrated solo music, offers Case and her audience the chance to dig deep into her body of music, while communing through the shared concert experience.
Over the course of a dozen studio and live releases, Case has penned songs that run the gamut from the playfully wry to gut-level candor, delivered with her natural contralto voice that routinely raises the roof. In addition to her work with the New Pornographers and as a solo artist, Case is an ardent collaborator: among others, she has worked with Nick Cave, the Sadies, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, and Kelly Hogan. To get a sense of Case’s mercurial tastes and untrackable modus operandi, it would be hard to find another artist of her ilk who has performed songs by Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, and also a jaw-dropping live version of Iron Maiden’s ‘80s metal classic “The Number of the Beast.”
Neko, I gotta tell you, I rarely remember my dreams. But last night, I dreamt that I overslept and missed the interview. But you were incredibly magnanimous about this. So, no pressure in the waking world if this interview goes sideways.
(Laughs) Because I’m the over sleeper, and I would have been like, “Do they do this all the time?”
Good! We’ve established some ground rules. The New Pornographers tour just ended?
Yeah, it ended, like a day ago. Wow! And I just got home last night at like 10 o’clock.
Is this the 25th year of the New Pornographers existence?
I’m not sure how long we’ve been together. But it’s also a little skewed because of the pandemic, too. So, I think it was, I don’t know, it was some milestone anniversary. And we were supposed to do it like two years ago, right? And then it got to last year. And then we didn’t get to do the whole thing because of [the pandemic]. We didn’t have availability at the same time. So, we wanted to make sure we got the west coast in. And so that’s it, we just got our little west coast tour in.
Considering that you’ve known some of these musicians for a quarter of a century, was there any kind of greater poignancy during the tour? Or was it just kind of like: “Let’s stay on point and not kill each other?”
It was normal, chaotic, panic, like: “Okay, we got to know all this music. We all care about getting the songs right. And we know that some songs are not going to sound like the record, but we’re still, you know, trying to make them translate live. And we just want to make sure we do a good job. You know, it’s a big deal for people coming to a show where you perform a record that somebody cares about, right? And we were doing two of them. We were doing Mass Romantic (2000) the first night, and don’t I know what the second record is. And for some reason, I’m blanking it out. (Laughs). Oh, I’m just so tired. I’m a little dumb. Now, you can put up with me being a little dumb. (Editor’s note: the other album the band played in concert was 2005’s Twin Cinema).
I think you’re just exhausted and surely not dumb. Prior to joining up with the New Pornographers, you had already established yourself playing with more punk-style bands in the ‘90s. But it seems like a sizable part of your career is based on collaboration with other songwriters. Why is that? It seems like that process would be based on the opposite of creative control: more in surrender, trust, and letting go.
Well, I love collaborations, but creative control comes down to: I definitely write all the lyrics. And the songs go the way I want them to go. But then there needs to be, like, an element of “What’s going to happen here?” Right? And I really thrive on the creative atmosphere. I love working with other people. And I think collaboration is a really important thing to do to just expand yourself as an artist. And you learn so much.
It seems like when you perform live, you personally can appreciate the looseness of a concert: the potential for chaos. You’re surely more of a musician and performer than an entertainer. I personally love when a band ruins a song by trying to improvise, or totally clams the song and then they have to sweep it all up onstage.
I think that just makes the audience and the band closer. Especially if the band can have a sense of humor about making a mistake. Yeah, because nobody gets it perfect all the time. Like, I don’t care who you are, nobody does it “right.” And if you admit it, and then the audience gets behind you, they really want you to do good. And that little moment of just seeing how much they’re on your side makes you make them feel like you would do anything for them. And it’s a really special transfer of feelings and goodwill. I don’t know. It’s just really sweet. And it’s also a really great moment of levity in the show. (Laughs).
Surely. Empathy is always better than an onstage “shame spiral.”
If somebody is really so uptight that they’re mad that you made a mistake during the show? There’s no way you can please them, anyway. Like, they’re gonna have to go through the wall or something, right? We just don’t have that level of machinery on our side. But we just have to be ourselves.
In a recent post (December 2, 2022) on your Substack profile entitled “Are We Insane?” you describe your kind of allergy to resting and taking it easy. You asked your readers: “What do you expect your body to do that is absolutely unreasonable, but you haven’t challenged the notion of for at least 10 years or more?” Have you resolved this question in the past two weeks or have you been too busy to stop and answer it?
This is gonna be really boring, but for me, if I do 20 minutes of yoga a day, my body would still do anything I want it to do. And I can’t take that for granted. Like, it’s that simple. You got to use the thing. Otherwise, it will mute me, I know (Laughs).
You gotta love your body—it’s part of you. We tend to think of ourselves as like, this head with this body attached to it. Which is not the most physically healthy thing to be. We just lose contact, I think.
Yeah, it’s counter to something like yoga and being in the physical body. We mainly view ourselves as this constant blob of neurons, worrying.
Yeah. Well, I was lucky-slash-unlucky enough to have to had surgery on a vein in the back of my leg when I was in my early 30s; because I had been driving vans for like, six hours a day, on tour. And I damaged one of the nerves in the back of my legs. And so it was a real wake-up call, like, “Oh, sh**! You can’t just do the thing and not do any counter movement to, you know, reset your body or to stretch it or you’re gonna lose parts of it.
Most people aren’t put to the task of surveying their life or work: When you compiled Wild Creatures, how was that experience of culling together 23 of your songs into one release?
Well, I asked Andy Kaulkin, who’s the president of Anti- to do it. I’m too “in it.” So what happened was, he rounded up a bunch of songs that he thought were appropriate, and I mixed a couple and then added a couple in. So it was collaborative, that was a collaborative thing as well. Because I mean, I work very closely with Anti- and have a very good relationship with them. And I asked them, “Do you guys see the big picture here?” And they were like, “Yes” And I thought, okay, thank God (laughs) because I can see the micro-picture, but I’m not good with the big picture!
In making this de facto playlist of your career, did you have any unexpected feelings come up in the sense of nostalgia or just like weird reveries from this process?
I felt a lot of flashing of time, of being on tour. Albums for me equal being on tour. I remember the studio experiences really well. But I didn’t remember a lot about the tour experiences because they were so “boom-boom-boom-boom-boom.” And, you know, I was running away from depression and things like that. So I was very much in a forward motion all the time. So it made me think a lot about trying to remember through other people: “What happened on that tour? Where were we when we started, blah, blah, blah?” You know? It just made me think a lot about my friends and the musicians who toured for that record, or, “Who played on it?” So, yeah lots of lots of examination but in a really nice way.
Good. So it wasn’t some dark inventory of your past?
Right! “A dark inventory of my failures.” (Laughs). That would be kind of a great record to make though: The Dark Inventory of My Failures.
Earlier you mentioned depression and over the years you’ve openly discussed your experience with everything from mental health to having a stalker, and even your house burning down (in 2017, Case’s 200-year-old Vermont home caught fire). Those are all intense experiences. I’m wondering, and putting your creative intentions or volition aside, as an artist have there been any surprising things that kind of unexpectedly resolved in your life through your work?
Honestly, it’s been pretty hard since my house burned down because it’s not finished and I haven’t had a dresser to put my clothes in for a really long time. I need to go home. And so I’ve gone through many stages of just denial, rage, depression, etc. But no lives were lost in the house burning down. It just happens to be that my big trigger pet peeve is that I need a home. I just want to go home. And so of course, I haven’t had one (laughs) in a long time. The house is partially done but with the pandemic then happening, it felt like: “Well, we’re really gonna take you out at the knee with this one.” But it’s nature. It’s not anything personal. Like, I don’t have to worry about somebody being put in jail. I don’t have to fear for my life about it.
“Nobody gets it perfect all the time. Like, I don’t care who you are, nobody does it ‘right.’ And if you admit it, and then the audience gets behind you, they really want you to do good.”
But I’ve never been so worried that I was going to go to debtors’ prison. I’ve always been afraid of that my whole life and to bring back that childhood fear has not been a good time. It was like there were three wrecking balls: the fire, Spotify, and the pandemic. So now it’s this massive game of catch up, and “will it be possible?” Hopefully, no other wrecking ball will be coming along and I’ve just been kind of holding my breath.
You’ve always been fairly engaged in social media. After Elon Musk swooped in, what are your thoughts on what’s now happened with Twitter?
I don’t know what’s gonna happen with it. I basically post via Instagram, on Twitter. I’ve definitely grown a much tougher skin because of Twitter, which I really appreciate. And there are a lot of things about it I really loved. I don’t know that I want to wallow in hate and rage. I feel super grateful for it but at the same time, it’s really obvious that people who are gender non-conforming and LGBTQIA and people of color are not having a good time. And, you know, that’s not alright for people to not feel invited to something that’s supposed to be this great unifier. It’s just another sh***y little club they’re not invited to that can psychologically spill over into the rest of their lives. You know? Why should people have to feel sh***y? So others can have some amplified sense of safety and security in what they feel are unsafe and insecure situations? It’s just not good for people’s brains or their hearts. And if (Twitter) is poisoned it’s going to do what it does. I have no control over it, obviously. I’m not going to pay for it. I’m not paying for hate.
Neko Case performs with Indigo Sparke at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 7 at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, 1050 A1A N., Ponte Vedra Beach; Tickets are $45.50-$75.50 and are available here.