How Neko Case Finally Unleashed Her Feminist Rage
Posted May 24, 2018 6:52 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The fire itself — the one that decimated Neko Case’s Vermont home last year, reducing her refuge of more than a decade to what she called “a hole in the ground” — wasn’t even the worst part.
Case, the longtime singer and songwriter, had been in Sweden at the time, finishing studio sessions for her seventh solo album, “Hell-On,” out June 1. Her boyfriend was unharmed in the blaze, which started in the barn, as were her two horses, three dogs, three cats and five chickens. There was even a brood of baby chicks born that September night.
“To go through something like that and then know that your suspicion that you think stuff is just stuff is actually how you feel is a real relief,” Case said. “Everyone was still alive.” The very next day, she cut vocals on a song called “Bad Luck,” powering through the guilt and uncertainty.
But it was in the immediate aftermath of the fire that Case’s recent travails all collided in a seven-car pileup of emotions. A local newspaper reporting on the destruction tied the two-century-old farmhouse to Case, sending her into a panic that included a bizarre string of public denials and livid, desperate calls to the editor, who refused her requests for privacy.
It wasn’t a diva fit — Case had for years faced threats from aggressive stalkers, she said, and she feared for the safety of her family. She turned apoplectic at the thought of another man, this time a member of the media, wielding power over her. The deep depression she’d been battling reared its indomitable head. She felt powerless. And it struck her then, not for the first time, that being a woman was not beside the point.
“There’s this weird tear inside of you that’s painful and open all the time — it flares up out of nowhere,” she said, “and it feeds this trope about women, that we’re kind of unstable or overly emotional. No, man! I’m dehumanized and I’m pissed.”
“We’re still wild creatures inside,” she added, and “if someone tries to make you less of a human, you go crazy.”
That energy is all over “Hell-On,” which was largely written before the fire but was imbued with even more meaning after. (See, for instance, the tongue-in-cheek album cover, featuring Case in flames, with a crown of lit cigarettes.) Case’s tour supporting the album begins Sunday in Washington.
Long considered a siren-voiced beacon of consistency across her own albums and those with the New Pornographers, Case tends to favor cryptic storytelling through fairy tales and fables in her lyrics. But on “Hell-On” — which begins with the lines “God is not a contract/or a guy/God is an unspecified tide” — she is more pointedly wrestling with her own place amid timeless thematic clashes between the masculine and the feminine, man and nature.
“Honestly, I have so much rage,” Case said over vegan food in Brooklyn last month, her trademark auburn hair piled high atop wisps of wizened gray. “I think there’s some sort of heat coming from the rest of the world that finished baking a long-existing rage-loaf that started in my body as a little kid.”
It was only in recent years that Case, who radiates hard-edge realness, would label that anger — or herself — feminist in nature. “I’ve always been one, it’s just not something I was comfortable calling myself because I didn’t fully understand it,” she said. “I’m 47 now, and it took me a while, but I get it. I get it.” Case’s personal reckoning stemmed in part from two experiences that also inspired her new album.
The first was “case/lang/veirs,” the 2016 collaborative LP she made with songwriters K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs, which got her back in fighting shape as a songwriter following the draining experience of her previous solo album. “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You,” released in 2013, chronicled, in a more confessional way than she was used to, the despair Case felt after the death of her parents (both addicts from whom she was estranged) and her grandmother, with whom she was close.
Not long after her trio’s album, Case participated in a panel called WOMANPRODUCER, organized by the Blow’s Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne, which provided another jolt to her system. “The Grinch of my self-esteem just opened up,” she said, as she realized, “I’m actually an expert, and I know what I’m talking about.”
Case referred to that period as a “massive growth spurt” and decided she would produce her next album, which she had not done since “Middle Cyclone” in 2009. (“Hell-On” was co-produced by Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John.)
“When she sings, you believe every word,” Yttling said. He praised Case’s extended stay, alone, in Stockholm and her openness to collaboration — the album also features Mark Lanegan, A.C. Newman, Veirs and Lang — as well as her natural sense for lyrics and melody.
Although often abstract with her turns of phrase, Case can also be direct when she needs to be. “Winnie,” a rousing track from the new album featuring Beth Ditto, is “about my love for women in the world,” Case said. “I love them so much that it’s crippling at times.” In character as the titular figure, Ditto belts: “We were warriors!/We clothed ourselves in the guts of our enemies/who’d no respect for the wild!”
Complementing the empowerment of “Hell-On,” which finds Case in her musical sweet spot between alt-country, folk and pop-rock, is the seething fury. “Bullies are not born/they are pressed into a form,” she sings of a violent male figure in “My Uncle’s Navy.” On “Halls of Sarah,” Case adds wryly: “You see our poets/do an odious business/loving womankind.”
In facing the loss of humanity she felt dealing with her stalkers, Case was able to fuse her own struggles with those of her mythic, historical heroines. “You can know your country thinks you’re a second-class citizen, but when you actually go and face it, everything in your life kind of falls apart,” she said. “To get a restraining order, I had to travel to the state the person lived in, despite the fact that they were threatening me. I had to validate every impulse this person had.” She also spent about $35,000 (“my life savings”) hiring lawyers and security specialists.
In contrast to the human evils of the world, the fire that burned her house down struck Case as almost beautiful in its all-encompassing, indiscriminate power. She spoke of the event with awe and a sense of perspective — devastating hurricanes had just hit Houston and Puerto Rico, Case pointed out — and recalled the strange serenity she felt touring the aftermath.
“An heirloom seed box had burned in the guest bedroom and was there long enough with the firefighters’ water that there were pea vines growing up inside the room,” she said, comparing the damage to a twisted, “expensive art project.”
“When nature does things in that way, it doesn’t even see us,” she said. “It’s not God. It’s not this thing that wishes us harm.
“I find it so comforting.”