he title of Neko Case’s latest album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, is as revealing as it is head-scratching, yet another reminder of how this fearless lady has channeled a turbulent childhood into a singular career as a singer and songwriter.
A Virginia native, Case left home at 15, the result of an upbringing marked by her parents’ messy divorce. “I should have been an abortion,” Case once said, her trademark candor being used as both an emotional shield and a sign that she isn’t to be messed with. In 1994, after nearly a decade of soul-searching that would become a staple of her nomadic life, she enrolled at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, B.C., where she would also expand her creative horizons as a drummer in numerous Post Punk outfits.
A fine arts degree in hand four years later, Case released her Country-centric solo debut, The Virginian, which revealed a gift for storytelling and a singing voice that was at once powerful and seductive. But it was the one-two punch of her next record, 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby, and her vocal contributions to a new Vancouver band called The New Pornographers that would break her to a wider audience and confirm that she was heading in the right direction.
By 2010, Case had released three increasingly successful solo albums — from the Country Noir stylings of Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood to the textured Folk Pop of Middle Cyclone — and contributed to four more New Pornographers records, in the process cementing her place on a musical landscape that is exponentially more interesting because of her presence.
And now, at age 43, Case has dropped what might be her most compelling effort to date. The Worse Things Get is an addictive, emotionally satisfying record that moves from the majestic Power Pop of “Man” to the stark atmospherics of “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” with uncommon grace and lyrical richness.
Which brings us to the influence of Case’s most recent personal upheaval — her mother, father and grandmother, among other close acquaintances, all passed away prior to writing the new songs — a sensitive topic she addresses directly in the biographical information that accompanies the release of The Worse Things Get: “I fought hard against the feeling of grief all my life, but about three years ago I finally had to give in and mourn the dead. I had to look inward more than I wanted. It was sobering, and I often felt like I was blurring the lines of mental illness. When I stopped fighting it, it took me where I needed to go.”
CityBeat recently connected with Case via email to ask about the personal nature of her new songs, the influence of Moby Dick on her current state of mind and how physical appearance impacts a performer’s musical output.
Do you have a specific theme or set of goals when you start to write an album? How has your writing process changed or evolved over the years?
No, I go with whatever I’m being influenced by at the time: books, music, etc. It hasn’t changed much, but I have a more solid sense that it will get finished and it will be OK.
I found it curious that you listened to a lot of Ragtime and read Moby Dick while writing this record. How do you think that impacted the songs?
Ragtime was a happy, industrious, motivational placeholder while I couldn’t listen to any other music for a while. Moby Dick was inspirational because it was so funny. It really put a lot in perspective for me — as in, I had to find humor in my situation, which definitely was not as bad as whaling aboard the Pequod.
This record seems more overtly personal than just about anything you’ve ever done. Was that intentional?
No, but it became necessary. It’s all I was coming up with. I just feel like I’d rather tell a story than talk about myself. I’m not so interesting.
Can you talk about how you craft the songs? Do you write the lyrics or music first? Do the lyrics reflect the mood of the music or vice versa?
The lyrics usually come first, but not always. It’s a collage process of bits and pieces, a scrap of guitar part here, an influence there and lyrics from all over.
In “I’m From Nowhere” you mention that you remember the 1980s. Can you talk about how growing up in that very different, pre-Internet era — an era that seemed to value the album experience more than we do today — impacted your approach to music?
Music was rarer, radio was a big deal. It made you really cherish a recording in your hands; the art, the music and the liner notes were like The Bible! I miss that era for that very much. Music had more value then, it wasn’t so instant and disposable. I’m sure records, LPs that is, are the reason I still care about making a side A and B, with a sequence rather than “stacking the deck” with the fast songs.
This might come off as an odd question, but I’m curious about how you think a performer’s physical appearance informs their music.
I have no idea. I like anonymity. On stage I mostly dress how I dress every day. It just makes me more comfortable, which gives me more confidence.
Why do you think you ended up expressing yourself through music as opposed to any other art form or endeavor?
I don’t know. I think the live show aspect was the most physical and immediate way to go about it. It’s a fantastic, joyous release, even from sadness.
NEKO CASE performs at the Taft Theatre with Karen Elson this Tuesday. Click here for tickets and more info .