Role Models: Neko Case

(This article appears in our September/October issue. Subscribe here.)

neko case
Indie-rock siren Neko Case is back with the The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (stream the album here). We talked with her about writing songs while dish washing, covering the other Nico, and learning how not to get screwed by the music biz.

Darkness visible

This record is really weird for me because I wrote it from my own perspective, where normally I’m trying to write stories about other people. During the 2000’s I lost a lot of family members and I never stopped to mourn the dead and it kind of caught up with me. So basically I went into a kind of grieving depression for a few years around 2010 and I fought it for a long time but then finally I just had to go, “Okay, you gotta be sad.” And when I came out on the other side and was ready to put songs down on record, I didn’t really recognize the person who had written them.

“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”

The song is a verbatim conversation [I overheard] between a mother and daughter and it was really heartbreaking. And I still think about that kid every day. I just wanted to feel that kid. Then again, at the same time, when her mother yelled that at her she just kept singing her little song and I thought that was kind of awesome, but I also knew that that kid was going to pay for it later, too, because that’s what happens.

Nico

I have always loved the song [“Afraid” by Nico, from the album Desertshore], and sometimes you need a reason to cover something and I thought, “That song is just so comforting even though it’s so sad.” And you know, that song has been comforting me forever. And from a technical standpoint, I thought, “Well, I can’t sound anything like Nico, I don’t have her incredible low range.” So I didn’t do it on a piano the way she does it, I tried to do it differently.

But people focus on very different parts of Nico’s career, like the Velvet Underground periods and Chelsea Girl and records like Desertshore don’t get their due. Or not that they don’t get their due, I just don’t think people are as familiar with it, because it is odd.

Learning the biz

I’ve been touring for at least 20 years. But I’m glad it’s taken so long [to get to this point] because I had to learn what was fair and what wasn’t fair and actually know some of the legal jargon to get from here to there. And learning that, you realize it’s not just the big companies that have been fucking us over, it’s our desire to be famous, quote unquote, for whatever it is that people want – and they want it now. It’s just as much your fault for not reading and signing [the contract] as it was for them to offer it to you. We [as artists] haven’t done ourselves any favors. It’s like, don’t settle for less but don’t be ridiculous, either, you know what I mean?

There are several different music businesses yet everybody kind of expects them all to be exactly the same. Like if somebody expects me to operate at the same level that Britney Spears does, that would be ridiculous and insane. But the fact is, there’s no limit to the combinations of what you can do as a musician or what kind of career you want. I don’t want to be famous like that. I want longevity. So I’ve got to know that and try to play to my own strengths and be smart and look out for myself and treat people the way I want to be treated.

Jakob Dylan and T Bone Burnett

[Singing on the Jakob Dylan album Women And Country] came about because of T Bone; he asked me to come and do it. And I had been a huge fan of Jakob’s for a long time. I love The Wallflowers and his solo stuff, so it was a no-brainer. T Bone knows what’s what, so I don’t have to worry that it’s going to be a bummer. He doesn’t work with people who are jerks and it’s always the most fun and collaborative experience. It’s like I get to go to some kind of master class at the Sorbonne that I would have to pay a million dollars for or something [laughs]. And you’ve got to live every second of that and take it in.

The seed

When the ideas are first forming, I just let nonsense and what-not inspire me. Like when I’m doing the dishes, that’s when your physical body is engaged in something so your subconscious gets some playtime, because your body is doing something it knows how to do and it doesn’t need help from your whole brain. So little melodies will come in or little snippets of a lyric, and you’ve really got to train yourself to pay attention to those things. But other than that, it doesn’t feel so much like work as it does play. And that’s the big fun, when the seed of ideas that are usable and transformable happen.