For all the moments art and music might afford us in the realm of mental clarity, there’s rarely any as cathartic as the ones we least expect. When it’s good, the music makes us feel just that. When it’s great, the music compels us. When it’s necessary, music is the lone fire escape in a building that’s engulfed in flames and caving in on us. I like to think that fandom is born out of the latter. It’s not a cursory appreciation or some passing nod of approval. It’s an investment of hurt, of joy, of loneliness, of loss, of every emotion we might experience that creates a void in the exact shape of whatever music or art that doesn’t need to fill it. It has to.
In preparing for my interview with Neko Case, I thought about the implications of her most recent album, last year’s outstanding The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. Never one for timidity, Case has always embraced a kind of unadorned honesty and even punk ethos with her music, yet this album in particular found that honesty turned inward in a visceral and uncompromising introspection. A dark but wholly beautiful and above all genuine album, it showed the same commanding and distinctive voice now pulled through a filter of self-doubt, grief, loneliness, and perhaps most moving of all, triumph. There’s nothing romanticized about the obvious depression here, and there’s no masturbatory sense of arrogance. It’s a genuinely vulnerable human being creating something that’s precisely and naturally that.
It’s a testament to the power of discussion that for Case this album was made in spite of her depression and not as some strangely necessary component for her creativity. Case is fairly dismissive of her own struggle with depression in the sense that she recognizes its commonality with the countless others not named Neko Case who deal with it across cultures, genders, and every social divide imaginable. That sense of reality and emotional pragmatism is what not only made her last album what’s arguably her most profound work to date, but it also translates to where the singer sees herself in the world and why the fire escape is thankfully shaped differently for each of us.
Noisey: My first question concerns your life and where you were when music found you, Neko. Was there a specific moment in your childhood where you felt that initial pull to create music?
Neko Case: No, I just kind of realized in my early teens that I was becoming really obsessed with it. There were some things I wouldn’t really do that well in at school, but I could remember everything they said on MTV, so I realized "I think it really has something to do with what you’re interested in that helps you retain information!" [Laughs] I just kinda put those things together. But back in the 80s, it wasn’t really something that was being touted as something that would be a career decision. That would’ve been ridiculous when everybody was being pushed to go to business school, and it was the Reagan-era. Becoming a musician or artist, people would laugh in your face, and music and art was just being cut from public school like mad at that time.
You mentioned MTV. Do you remember any specific song or musician or band that kind of propelled that creative urge into existence for you?
I don’t think there was one specifically. I guess it made me appreciate or notice how much I relied on music up to that point. It had always been there, but then it was like now you’re seeing the people who make it. You’re looking at them. It kind of became a little more defined. Whereas now, I kind of wish for going back the other way a little bit. I would love for there to be a little bit more rarity in the world, but at that time it was kind of an eye opener.
Going from that time all the way to last year’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, how have you seen your relationship to your music and how or why you create it evolve in that time now that you’ve been exposed to everything that’s kind of “behind the curtain”?
It’s been a really super slow climb, so whenever I think about it that way, I can’t seem to pinpoint any specific time anything happened. I feel very entitled and confident now. Which, “entitled” is a very negative word these days, but I mean it in its positive sense. I definitely feel entitled to have a say in what’s going on, and I own my business. It is a business, and I feel really good about that because I remember when things weren’t this way for women in particular and also in particular for people who didn’t have a lot of money and who weren’t really super famous. In that regard, I feel good about it. I’m not really worried about people think in a negative way. I really want to please people, and I really want to do a good job, but if people don’t think it’s cool or if people are just negative about things, it doesn’t really bother me so much. I’m not worried about failing in front of people. Because sometimes that can actually be super funny and so it still entertains them. [Laughs] And therefore entertains me as well.
I did mention a second ago, though, I definitely want more rarity. I want less immediately filmed, less photographed, less knowing every single thing about everything in a way, because I do miss some of the mystery of like the music I listened to when I was a kid. You kind of got to make up more stuff yourself so there was that mystery. I think that there could be a better balance between that mystery and seeing every single thing that happens and hearing every single thing that happens. That’s also positive in that I also like breaking down that weird glass curtain between you and the entertainment you’re being entertained by. Because then it makes younger people feel like they could do it, too. And if they’re just doing it in their living room, and it makes them happy, that’s good enough. But being a millionaire is not why people should play music or make art. I want people to understand the difference between wanting fame and wanting to be an artist. There are people who want both, and there are people who get both and people who get one but aren’t good at the other and vice versa. It happens all different ways, but I definitely want to speak to people who want to do it because they think it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and it makes them happy, or it’s cathartic for them, or whatever the reason is that is positive. I want them to understand it’s right there at your fingertips, and it is totally possible, and don’t be afraid to try it because you could try it in your living room, and no one ever has to know if you don’t want them to, which is nice. You don’t have to get a record deal to make a record anymore. You can make a record in your bedroom.
Do you feel the American listener today values songwriting, or is it a novelty at this point? I think about how oftentimes the fact that a popular singer writes her or his own songs is viewed as this kind of rarity not only with fans but even with critics sometimes.
I think it’s pretty evenly divided, and there’s no right way or wrong way. There are people who love to sing who don’t have any interest in writing a song, and then people who write songs who maybe they aren’t very good singers or they’re too shy, and those two forces come together, and it’s magic. So that way is fantastic. Being able to write your own song and sing it for somebody is also fantastic, so I think it’s just more that we’re seeing singer-songwriters from more places than we used to. There’s more of a diverse cross-section of humans being recognized for it. For me, what I remember is the songwriters of Music Row in Nashville or something or people like Cole Porter. It was kind of businesses. It was kind of like the difference between being in a symphony or being an orchestra musician, classically trained, and being somebody who just picks up a guitar and teaches themselves how to play it. There’s a very large gulf, and then there’s a lot of middle ground, and then there’s a lot of crossover, but both are totally valid. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard for people to get their head around it. The musicians unions are usually still set up for people who are in orchestras, and the rules are still about things like, "What are you going to do when you travel to the next city." They don’t fit what being an artist is like at all unless you do three different jobs. We’re not really gonna sort it out, and technology is just surpassing all those rules so fast. We don’t even have regulated laws about internet music or podcasts, really. I can’t keep up with it, but I think writing your own music and singing it is totally normal, but it’s kind of just spoken about as a genre now, which I don’t really ever think about so I’m kind of just talking outta my ass and kind of making it up here as I go. [Laughs]
[Laughs] No worries. I am, too. You’re in good company.
As long as you make sure you tell whoever is reading this that we are both pulling it out of our asses right now. [Laughs] Because I didn’t really think about it that way, and I’ve thought about how women have been writing songs for a long time and not really getting credit for it, or African-American songwriters often had their stuff stolen, or just all those different things that would happen that were pretty prevalent, and it’s just like "Hm, never really thought of singer-songwriters. I’ve kind of taken that for granted."
In talking about those women songwriters and African-American songwriters as well as the other historically oppressed groups who’ve been misrepresented or just flat out dismissed, has that gotten better from your perspective, at least since you first started your career?
The world has gotten better. The whole shebang business has gotten better as far as women just deciding, "You know what, I’m deciding I’m equal. I’m not gonna take no for an answer," and people accepting that. It’s not a weird thing anymore. I remember when it was very different and not as different as when my mom was a kid at all, but even in the 70s. it was still super divided and still super weird. I remember the ERA marches being on TV and what a big deal it was, and nobody really explaining it to me and having to just figure it out myself and just kind of picking up on things in every day life that seem small, and then you realize, "Nah, actually. That’s pretty huge. I didn’t think that woman right there would be a firefighter, because, Oh! I’ve never seen a woman firefighter!" You have to see those things as a kid. It’s like if I’d never seen a tree before, I wouldn’t really know what to picture when somebody described a tree to me. That’s boiling it down way too far. The topic is much more majestic than I’m making it, but that’s always what I try to impart to young women. Yes, do get mad and practice that anger, but don’t waste it, though. It is getting better, so please take my word for it that it is getting better and keep the momentum. Keep the momentum. Make it love and make it positivity, but keep the momentum. Don’t take any shit. Accept nothing but the fact that you’re equal. I don’t think it should be a taboo subject, either, where people are like, "Feminism, if you say that word, there’s gonna be a fight."
I think I really resisted calling myself a feminist for a long time, because man, people would get super angry immediately. And you know what, they’re totally right to get angry, because it’s really frustrating, and when you’re that frustrated it’s hard to focus. I’ve spent so much anger, just vitriol, on people before, and I regret having done certain things in that way, but also I learned a lot from it. I try to treat people with a lot of respect and give people the benefit of the doubt first. I want people to ask questions like you’re asking me right now. We should get to talk about it. Women’s lives are only gonna get better when men wanna ask questions about it because they care. I don’t think anybody’s just sitting around on a couch going, "Oh, those women! They just fuck up everything! Takin’ our jobs ‘n' shit!" I don’t think anybody’s sitting around doing that. I do think they are super manipulative media things that happen constantly, and that’s what’s really eating away at us and not so much if a 65-year-old guy calls you "dear" or holds the door open for you.
It’s more subtle now, which presents a kind of different and hidden danger. It’s hidden and the lines are not clearly drawn.
Yes! And it’s hidden in plain sight because we are saturated with it. Saturated.
You’ve talked about how this last record was born out of some very personal struggles specifically with regards to depression and loss. The album itself is incredibly introspective and directly deals with those struggles. So often depression or battling depression is seen as a songwriting cliché, but you’ve created something that honestly deals with it without wallowing or glorifying it. Looking back, how do you see yourself, both personally and musically, having evolved from the first song you wrote for the album to the finished product?
The process was really monotonous. Not the process of writing the music—I don’t really remember too much about writing the music because I would kind of write most days because I do that, and I don’t censor myself. I just write down whatever I’m writing down, and then I take things out later. I wasn’t focused on it, though. I was super distracted. I was super depressed. I was trying to figure out how to deal with that. It was really confusing because it was really painful and really physically draining, and that said, please understand that my experience was not in any way special from anyone else’s going through that sort of thing. This experience was different maybe but probably not that much. It was just really monotonous. There was no super drama. It was just I am a human diaper every day. [Laughs] You have to put on your jumpsuit, punch the card, and go to work every day, and accept the fact that you’re gonna be doing it for a while. You have to go "Well, if I wanna be a self-examined human being and be healthy, I have to just face this and walk in and go up the escalator to the shit chute and do it every day." It’s not quite as gross as that, but it’s really slow and monotonous.
After a while you kind of start—you don’t feel like you’re really making progress, but you kind of start to see the humor in things again and especially in your situation. That’s when I found things got a little different. You just asked me about differences with men and women, and one of the things in the business, which I don’t there’s too many these days—exploitive marketing treats us differently but exploits us nonetheless. It treats us like we’re fucking idiots. In the world of what was going on at that time, I didn’t realize what a chasm there was in the fact that when you’re depressed, it’s such a massive taboo to begin with. You can have your own reality show if you’re a wife beater or you’re some asshole, and people wanna see it all the time, but if you’re depressed it’s like, "Ooh, quiet about that." It’s really such a disgusting thing to begin with that it’s not considered, by insurance, that you need to be healthy that way, too, or you could die. Also, when I was going through it, I spoke to a lot of different people who’d experienced a lot of depression, and all the men that I spoke to had gone through things that were so much more horrific than anything that I went through like driving cars through the front of buildings and going into rehab having broken half the bones and so on, and I asked them, "Did you think that you were mentally ill?" Every single one of them said, "No, I could see it from where I was, but I definitely wasn’t mentally ill," and all the women I spoke to were like, "Oh my god, if I have a negative thought at work I think I’m mentally ill." Why are women so quick to decide that there’s something broken about us? Not that mental illness should be considered that way, either. It’s just this really weird thing.
It would be really nice if we could start asking ourselves as a large group of humans why our girls are kinda getting the impression that there’s something really wrong with them because of the way they’re built as biological creatures. We don’t talk about seahorses that way or bison if you’re watching it on the nature channel, so we should really pull back and look at ourselves as a species of biological organisms. Maybe things would be a little easier if we could just take away all the social taboos and all of our Victorian hangover training about our dirty parts, patriarchy, and all that other stuff. We’d be a much healthier race of mammals, I think. [Laughs] Did that make sense, or did I just go on a tangent? [Laughs]
I think it makes perfect sense. There’s a lot that gets overlooked or just completely misunderstood with depression, and the issue is so incredibly pertinent when you talk about that gender disparity, I think.
Exactly. I also think it would be really health if we could understand that like anything else, depression isn’t any one thing. It’s this super 3D, fully animated thing, and it has every facet like every other thing does, and there’s a lot of humor to it. I hate to say it, but deciding that you’re a human diaper, like I said, that would make me laugh, and I’d be like, "OK, you don’t have it that bad." [Laughs] Those are the kinds of things that make you pull back a little bit and check yourself, and those kinds of things are good for you, I think.
How have you seen what’s considered the indie music scene change since those early days playing with the Del Logs? Is that vitality still there for independent music, or do you see that “indie” label being used more so as a marketing technique now?
Well, it has been for a really long time. I mean, there are still people, but I think a lot of that is in the vitality of people who just started playing music. The total hunger. The hunger of it. And I think that’s totally out there still. I’m not as in touch with it as I was when I was first starting to play music and trying to get shows, book my own band—I don’t have to do those things now, but I used to do all those things. It’ll grind your edge off after a while, but then you find that you just have an edge in new ways. So it’s out there, absolutely. There’s exciting things happening all the time, even if the way music looks or how it’s presented or what kind of media it’s in is changing or art in general, it’s still happening, and it’s great. There’s always gonna be people out there who aren’t taking the chance and aren’t taking the plunge and trying it who are gonna be talking shit about the rest of us who are. "Oh, you’re doing that totally wrong," and it’s just like whatever. Shut it.
You’ve got the tour running all the way through the beginning of July, including Coachella. What’s on your calendar for the rest of 2014, and what do you typically find yourself doing when you’re not writing music or touring?
Well, I very purposely moved to a farm, because that’s what I really like. I live in nature, so I’m really active outside, and I do things like dig dirt and clean up after animals and engage with creatures that aren’t human and creatures that are human. I find that really rewarding. I don’t know where it comes from. I come from farming families, so maybe it’s a biological need for dirt. I don’t really know, but I just feel like better person when I’m doing that. I just do really physical things, and it kind of gives my mind a nice vacation. It just kind of gets all your vitamins and minerals to all the places they’re supposed to go, I think.
Jonathan Dick is on Twitter - @steelforbrains