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‘Sealed by fire, filled with love’

Neko Case talks fairy tales, women producers, and bad luck ahead of her performance at Cain’s Ballroom

Neko Case

Emily Shur

A fascination with the mystical sets the tone for Hell-On, the latest release from critically-acclaimed singer, songwriter, and producer Neko Case. “Let’s say you walk under a ladder, and it’s bad luck for whatever reason,” she muses over the phone. “It’s basically like doing a spell!”  

Her first since 2013’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, Case’s latest finds her in a moment of renewed empowerment and vulnerability, with the same penchant for a strange story.

Case has stayed plenty busy during the time between solo albums. The past couple of years have seen her through the release of The New Pornographer’s Whiteout Conditions, a collaboration with k.d. lang and Laura Viers (aptly titled “case/lang/viers”), her appearance at the first-of-its-kind “WomanProducer” Summit in Brooklyn, and the fire that burned down her 225-year-old Vermont home just before the album wrapped. 

For a work that is all but literally “sealed by fire, filled with love,” as the accompanying press release describes it, Hell-On is a collection of tales from an artist who’s been through the fire and emerged from the flames. Case plays Cain’s Ballroom in support of Hell-On September 9.

Alexandra Robinson: Is September 9 your first time playing solo in Tulsa?

Neko Case: No, we’ve played Tulsa before but just not in a really, really, really long time. So, I’m excited to come back. 

Robinson: Tulsa’s really excited to have you back! Especially at Cain’s Ballroom.

Case: Yeah, I played there with The New Pornographers there one time—loved it!

Robinson: Your solo catalog hasn’t adhered to any one genre but do you see your solo catalog fitting in with this Western lineage? 

Case: I don’t know. I’m sure it takes things from that. My grandparents were heavily into that genre of music so, I was into it because it was around all the time. 

Robinson: What kind of music did you grow up listening to with your grandparents? 

Case: Everything and anything that happened before, like, 1982. 

Robinson: Anything that has specifically stuck with you?

Case: Well, I think Roger Miller and, you know, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn and things like that. Things that were very country but also very open.

Robinson: I’d love to talk Hell-On. I’m actually really obsessed with the way this record opens. I love a good kalimba.

Case: [laughs] I’m glad there’s a fan-base for kalimba out there.

Robinson: It gives me the chills in the same way I got as a kid reading “Arabian Nights.” I know you have a similar fascination with fairy tales—where does that come from? 

Case: I just was a super rabid reader as a kid, and I heard a lot of fairy tales as a kid but they were kind of a little dull. The Grimm’s Fairytales angle was a lot more exciting. And then I got into eastern European fairy tales that didn’t have a moral—they were more cautionary, and they strayed away from things that were religious […] they were a little cultural but more often than not they were just common sense. And they were super dark and super funny. And animals did a lot of stuff with people, because, you know, people turn animals into the human trait they were trying to exhibit, so that the third party could examine that and go, “Oh, I totally do that!” or, “Oh, I was just gonna go out in the woods covered in peanut butter after dark—maybe I shouldn’t do that now.” But they’re often really funny and sometimes they’re just super sad and super dark.

Robinson: Did you have any specific stories in mind as you were writing this album?

Case: Not so much this album. I mean, I’m sure they’re in there—I’m not gonna say that they didn’t influence me. I wasn’t thinking about them overtly. And you know, back on Fox Confessor [Brings the Flood], Fox Confessor is a character taken from a Russian fairytale but I didn’t rewrite that as a guy who shows up in a song. I would try and make up new ones. I like superstition a lot—or, like, what is considered good luck and bad luck, and why we think those things.

Let’s say you walk under a ladder, and it’s bad luck for whatever reason, and you have to go backward underneath it three times. It’s basically doing a spell! And it’s always super ridiculous, the things you have to do to get out of it! And it’s pretty fun and pretty weird—like, why? Why on earth?  I’m fascinated by the fact that we don’t tend to talk about fairy tales as things that we write anymore. Those are things that are done. But there’s no reason why we can’t make fairy tales about our current time, or what we think about. And it doesn’t have to adhere to our current time. Does that make sense?

Robinson: Yeah, absolutely!

Case: I want it to make sense so bad. [laughs] 

Robinson: I kind of love that it doesn’t always make sense. You’ve said you don’t want to over-explain your music to your audience, because you want your fans to “wear your songs like a vest.” 

Case: Yeah, it’s like your punk rock vest and you can put whatever patches you want on it, you know?  It’s your vest, I made it for me and for you, and you can interpret it as you like It feels good, and that’s how you make a connection with a song I think. At least that’s how I do it, but you know, we all do it differently. 

Robinson: Are you tired of strangers asking about your house burning down yet?

Case: [pause] No. It’s still burned down. It’s just sitting there—big hole in the ground—so, that’s exciting. I haven’t really been home, so I haven’t really dealt with it, so you know. There’s so many people here in the United States right now that don’t have any way to deal with losing their homes this year, so I can at least be grateful that I didn’t lose lives, because a lot of people lost way more than I did.

Robinson: Hell-On seems like it could’ve been kind of a reaction to that event, even though the timing was just coincidence. There’s a reverence for the volatility of that natural world that runs through this album. Is that something that’s been on your mind for a long time, or is that pretty recent for you?

Case: Well, the record was almost finished when the house burned down, so none of the songs were about that particular thing—or, I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it just … it was like the frosting on the record. That’s what frosted it off, for sure. So it did find its way in. But the bulk of it, the meat of the thing, is not about that. I’m pretty obsessed with the natural world 24/7, and have been as long as I can remember. So, that’s always gonna be there, and is there.

Robinson: You recorded the vocals for “Bad Luck” that same day you found out your house was on fire. What was that day like for you? 

Case: Yes. I was pretty numb. I didn’t really know what else to do—so, I went to work that day. And it was good, because I was thousands of miles away [recording in Stockholm] and there was no way that I could go home and help or anything […] It’s still not resolved. So, it’s still an event that’s happening, just because I haven’t been there really. I mean, I go there sometimes but it’s a smoking hole in the ground. There’s not a lot going on.

Robinson: Your appearance at the “WomanProducer” summit in Brooklyn was an important moment for you. Is there a difference in the way you see yourself as a producer now vs. when you first started producing?

Case: When I first started, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was doing it. (That was a great explanation, I know!) But, going into it this time, I’d been through a lot […] I had no idea how bad I needed that, and none of the other women at the conference knew either. And a lot of us had been doing it for a really long time! And some of us had just started in the last ten years or whatever. But we had no idea how starved we were for dialogue with other female creators and producers. And it was a huge deal. It felt like what you imagine winning an Oscar must feel like, or something. And it wasn’t about winning, because music isn’t a contest: It’s about everybody contributing and sharing their information, and needing people who do it, and they do it for the right reason.

Hearing women talk about tech and different eras of technology—analog, digital, everything—it was just so important. Because it’s a very male-dominated field. But women have always been there, and nobody really knows that there are female producers. So it’s a strange thing that people don’t know. We’ve been innovating, inventing this whole time, and you know, it’s like, ‘Let’s talk about George Martin again.’ No! George Martin is awesome, but there’s room for other influences! And I get why people love George Martin and he deserves every ounce of credit he gets—but at the same time, it’s like, we need to branch out a little in our discussions. And I was really excited that we were there talking in front of a mixed group, gender-wise and age-wise. I thought that was really wonderful. It was the greatest professional day of my life. And I felt like a million bucks leaving there. And I was sad it was over, and really wanted more. I really hope Melissa [Dyne] and Khaela [Maricich] do another one.

Robinson: I was going to ask if you’ve heard about another one. I’ve been kind of keeping an eye on it.

Case: You should get those ladies on the phone! Just be like, ‘What is happening? Come on, we need some more!’

Robinson: Maybe I will!

Case: You should! They would be thrilled. They’re in a band called The Blow, and they are truly amazing, and so smart and incredible. They need— well, they probably don’t need the nudge—but it feels good to get the nudge! And you know, they did it on a nonexistent budget, so there was just one of them in Brooklyn, but the idea is to do it all over the place and have people all over the world. Because it was the first one of its kind in the history of human beings. Like, how have we gotten this far without . . . I don’t know.

Robinson: No, it completely makes sense! Like you said: Women have been here this whole time, and we’ve been making things this whole time, and how have we just now had this moment where it’s women’s voices predominantly featured?

Case: Yeah. 

Robinson: Now that the records been out a couple months, are you able to appreciate it with some distance or are you still hearing it through the ears of a producer? 

Case: I don’t listen to it for that reason. I’ll listen to it probably in a couple months. Because I feel like I just finished it. I’m working right now to get it into what it sounds like live, which is super different from being in the studio, but it’s also kind of a lot more hilarious. There’s a lot more spontaneity going on right now. And plus: I’m with people again. And not just, with one other person at a time, or spending many, many hours by myself. It’s really nice to be back in a band. So, that’s pretty great. Very excited to be finally going on the big leg of the tour!

Robinson: Do you prefer being on tour to being in the studio?

Case: I like them for different reasons, and honestly it’s about balance. I’m sure when I get deep enough into touring I’ll feel like, [sighs], ‘I really wish I was lying on the couch listening to different drum sounds right now!’ But, you know, it’s just about balance, which is one of the hardest things to have as a musician. Tour is really, really hard on you physically and, you know, emotionally if you’re not aware of what it is and how to handle your self care and just general human health. It’s a lot of work.

Robinson: Well, it doesn’t sound like you have plans to slow down in the near future. 

Case: No. Definitely not! We’re basically just starting. We did an opening tour for Ray LaMontagne, but our headlining tour is just starting. So we’re all nervous and we’re all excited. Opening for someone else, you keep things kinda chill in a way, because it’s their show. You’re there to serve, and it feels good! […] It was a really great way to work on songs, so it worked out great. It was fun!

Robinson: Well, we’re really excited to see you in Tulsa. 

Case: I’m really excited to come to Tulsa! Thank you!