Neko Case has written lyrics from the perspective of a teenage bride, a tornado and a killer whale, but she's singing for herself on "Man," the first single from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
"'Man' is definitely autobiographical," Case tells Rolling Stone in her dressing room at Wilco's Solid Sound Festival this summer. The country-noir singer makes a declaration of sorts on the raucous tune, which features M. Ward on guitar: "It's what kind of animal I am," she sings. "It's that simple." The song grew out of Case's observations about the rigid way people often respond when she refers to herself as a guy – as in, "I'm the kind of guy who . . ."
"Everybody wants to remind you that you're a girl," Case says. "And I'm like, not if I don't want to be. I grew up in America, man."
More specifically, she grew up in America in the Seventies and Eighties, when children were told they could be whatever they wanted, without mention of gender. "The Seventies went out of its way to show little girls as firemen and stuff. Let's not hash it out and make it firewoman or fireperson," Case says, noting that such gender distinctions only matter to humans: "Is a lioness not a lion, motherfucker?"
"Man" isn't the only autobiographical touch on the new album, which is a deeply felt collection of songs that frame Case's powerful voice with intimate, enveloping arrangements featuring contributions from members of My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos, Calexico and Camera Obscura, among others. After drawing inspiration from eastern European folk tales on 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and from fanciful interactions between people and animals on 2009's Middle Cyclone, the singer wrote songs for her latest while submersed in grief.
"Throughout my life I haven't really stopped to mourn the dead, so I kind of had to do that," Case says. "I've lost my parents, my grandmother and many friends way too young. Just relationships and a whole childhood and all kinds of things that I just never let myself transition from – I just would fly by them and have my blinders on and be like, 'Next thing now.' It was a total survival mechanism, I'm sure."
She pauses. "Not that it's some grand incredible mining that I did of my soul – I don't mean it like that," she says. "It happens to everyone. But for me, personally, it kicked the shit out of me. So I kind of had to rebuild myself."
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, out September 3rd on Anti-, is Case's sixth solo studio LP (there have been five others as part of the New Pornographers). Although it follows her most commercially successful album so far – Middle Cyclone debuted at Number Three on the Billboard 200 albums chart – the singer says she has no predictions for how the new record might fare.
"I kind of leave it at the door, because it's so hard to make a record to begin with," Case says. She's not a prolific songwriter ("I kind of write not quite enough for the record, usually," she cracks), and she finds that each album presents a new set of challenges to overcome, be they musical or logistical.
"There are stymied moments that are crushing, but I think that I get less crushed than I used to," she says. "I think I'm a little more eager to go forward than I used to be."