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Neko Case

Neko Case

Monday 9th August, 2010 1:12PM

Neko Case began her musical career by moving out of home at the age of fifteen and becoming a drummer for local punk bands. Now, she’s a Grammy nominated artist and her latest album Middle Cyclone reached number 3 on the US charts. She also manages to ‘slum’ it with other hotshot indie bands like the New Pornographers and the Sadies. She also possesses one of the best sets of lungs in indiedom. Her debut album The Virginian (1997) was good old-fashioned honky-tonk, but it wasn’t until Furnace Room Lullaby (2000), and particularly Blacklisted (2001) and 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood that Case started achieving considerable critical and commercial success.

I thought I’d start by asking a basic question, what got you into music in the first place?

I don’t remember a time in my life without it. My family were all pretty into music so I would have to give them credit for that. It was always pretty constant, and made me feel validated and understood and loved. But by music. Which is weird, but it’s kinda the nature of art. It’s difficult to understand why it does what it does. I guess that’s why they call it art.

Your music comes from all over North America and incorporates plenty of different styles, does that reflect your nomadic life to an extent [Case has lived in Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago and Washington state for example]?

Yeah I’m sure it probably does. I travel a lot, and spend a lot of time outside, and I get a lot of inspiration from reading. I’ll read pretty much anything. I like to read stories from all over the world too, and biographies and what-not.

Your albums have just been reissued, how was it re-listening to them and re-judging?

I didn’t re-listen to them (laughs). I just said ‘go ahead and put them down’. I don’t even really listen to my new album. After you’ve been in the studio with it for a long period of time, you don’t really have any reason to listen to it again. It’s not that you hate it, or don’t like it anymore, it’s just that part of the process is over and then it becomes about translating the songs into a live performance. I hardly ever listen to my own records after the recording is over.

Is there an issue when it comes to playing live of having not ‘revisited’ the older songs?

I already know them in that respect doing them live, and they become their own thing live as opposed to that. To me it’s often better live, so it’s not like when you’re doing an old song it’s ‘I don’t want to do that song again’, ‘oh God, we gotta do that one again’. You’ve got to love it. If you don’t still love it, then don’t play them. I don’t like going through the motions for people. They’ve paid to come to the show, they don’t want to see me go ‘I don’t want to do that’. That’d be bad. Bad showmanship.

Blacklisted was a big shift in your career….

Yeah, that was where I figured out playing an instrument. I’d been playing an instrument, and that really helped in expressing and phrasing, and therefore emotional impact and just being able to write the songs as I want them, rather than writing them in my head, and singing it to somebody and asking them to reinterpret it. I kinda have some backward concepts because I’m not a trained musician. I like things in different time signatures, or to change tack within a song, or have an odd note or an odd transition. It’s a lot easier now that I play an instrument. Now I also have Paul Rigby [guitarist on Middle Cyclone] who’s a huge help. He’s in the band and he’s the dictionary of notes. It’s a lot easier now because he’s such a great translator in that way.

In hindsight, did it seem like such a big shift when you were doing Blacklisted?

Everything seems very gradual to me. It’s weird to talk about it, because I’m so close to the actual stuff, I can’t remember where the changes occur. It’s all about just moving forward all the time, or doing something better than you did before. Or, just trying to feel like you’re doing justice to your ideas. It’s like art school, you go to art school for four years to learn the phrase ‘have I got my idea across in the most broad way possible?’

You’ve been involved in a couple of other big-name bands – particularly New Pornographers and Corn Sisters – has that been helpful for your own writing being involved in bands where you’re not actually writing?

Absolutely. It’s like rock n roll Six Flags. It’s awesome. I get to sing songs written by a couple of my favourite song writers – Dan [Bejar] and Carl [Newman] and Carolyn [Mark]. It’s fantastic. It’s such a nice way to put down the control and be more of the body/heart than the governing boss of everything. Boss is too harsh of a word for what I am – the corraller of ideas, it’s nice to stop corralling sometimes and go with the ideas.

Your popularity exploded just before the New Pornographers – is there a bit of competition between you guys?

They’ve always existed together. Basically my band and the New Pornographers have existed for the exact same amount of time. I’ve never had one without the other. There’s never been a competition between the two. We’ve always been very aware and very careful that the albums are staggered and put out at different times. It makes touring a lot easier, and obviously if one record is getting press and someone is talking about the New Pornographers when my record comes out, it’s obviously good press for them too. So the hard part is sometimes scheduling as far as touring went. And so a few years back Kathryn Calder joined the band, and she doesn’t just fill in for me. She’s an amazing musician in her own right. Having her in the band allowed them to tour even if I can’t go. So the conflicts just aren’t there anymore as far as scheduling and it makes it so much easier for everyone. It’s been really great, I’m so happy we’ve figured this out, and I’m so proud of everyone for being so diplomatic. Everyone puts their heads together to figure it out because in a way it sucks – it doesn’t suck having so many ideas (it is the greatest feeling on earth) – but there’s only so many hours in a day and so many months in a year, so you have to make priorities and make time, and allow yourself time to be a human being and take time off, which I don’t do very often. But definitely going to the New Pornographers after doing my thing is a breath of fresh air. I kinda get to sing along, it’s very athletic.

Any specific reason why Middle Cyclone took a while to come out?

Precisely because of the New Pornographers thing, and being in two full time bands. Also I’m not the most prolific songwriter in the world. Plus I take a lot longer to make records. Most people will take two years to make a record, I’ll take three. And a lot of that has to do with taking time to tour with the New Pornographers as well. I’m very slow in the studio. I’m totally the opposite of Carl. He is the most prolific songwriter and he works so fast. I’m always really envious of that skill. But I’m just me, I have to live with that. It’s fine.

Was there a bit of pressure after the success of Fox Confessor and Blacklisted to make Middle Cyclone?

Oh yeah everytime, everytime [I record]. I’m really hard on myself. I work ridiculous hours. After a while, you need to change your focus. You can get your blinders on and work really hard, and it’s hard to go ‘I need to take three weeks off and go to a different location because I need to shake off the shackles of this project’. It’s easy to get bogged down, and eddying with one problem. If you’re having a problem or difficulty, it’s good to snap yourself out of it by changing the scenery. It’s healthy.

Middle Cyclone has a lot of love songs, and isn’t as dark as some of your previous material....

I suppose so. It’s so hard to say. I don’t usually think of the other stuff as dark, but this stuff definitely has a sense of humour. I think there are more love songs on this record because I didn’t think I wrote love songs. I said that a lot while doing the press for the last record. Whenever you say something like you know what you’re talking about, you always prove yourself wrong.

What was the rationale for the animal noises, especially the frogs at the end?

Those were just happening at the time. I went down the hill with my field recorder and I recorded them, and just off-handedly one day in the studio, I was asking Darryl [Neudorf, the co-producer of Middle Cyclone with Case] how long the record was, and he said ‘it’s forty something minutes’. I asked him how much time is on a CD and he told me there was thirty something minutes left. I told him ‘we should put something on, we shouldn’t waste it. What could be more soothing than frogs?’

You’re big into architecture and how it preserves memory. Does music play a similar role for you?

Absolutely, probably even more so. It’s nice little storehouses, or letterheads of your memory, little page markers.

Brannavan  Gnanalingam