It's a cold, gray April morning in Brooklyn and Neko Case has come downstairs to check out of her hotel. She says she's jetlagged but looks relaxed, her hoodie pushed up to show her arm tattoos that read "scorned as timber" and "beloved of the sky" (the title of a painting by Emily Carr). Tufts of green socks with foxes on them stick out of her boots. After settling up, she finds a seat on a long couch in the hotel lounge, placing bottles of sparkling water and an organic tonic for her throat next to a flier for the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
"It was gorgeous," she says of the exhibit. "I loved the notes about the costumes and reading the breakdowns of how much it cost to get from here to there and how much it cost to pay session musicians, like string quartets or horn sections. It's so cool to see those nuts and bolts for somebody you really idolize. It reminds me that they're doing the same job you're doing and makes it feel like it's totally possible."
Over the last quarter-century, Case has reveled in getting her hands dirty in the music business, making albums on her own terms and touring relentlessly. A strongly independent spirit, she recorded everything from punk to rockabilly-pop before launching her own career as a dusky country singer with a powerful voice and evocative lyrics about broken relationships and humanity's often failed interactions with nature. She's also recorded with power-pop–sters New Pornographers, her homegrown folk duo the Corn Sisters and a supergroup trio with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs. Early in her career, Rolling Stone described her as "the most arresting female alt-country singer since the Mekons' Sally Timms" and she's since become a crossover success with records reliably charting in the Top 40 of Billboard's albums chart.
On her latest, Hell-On, she sings the praises of women throughout history who have been overlooked and underestimated, laments the cruelty of men (and mankind) and pontificates on just how the world works ("God is not a contract or a guy," she sings on the title track, "God is a lusty tire fire ... be careful of the natural world"). The music ranges from brooding, xylophone-assisted twangers ("Hell-On") to dreamy country rockers ("Pitch or Honey"). When she was recording the upbeat "Bad Luck," a sarcastic, rocky tune sung with a forked tongue ("Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring, and that's bad luck"), she found out that her house burned down. So she embraced the bad luck and made fire the focal point for Hell-On's cover art, a portrait of her with cigarette butts covering her red hair and a small fire smoking on her shoulder.
Making sense of mystery and coming to terms with uncomfortable topics are ideas she returns to repeatedly on the album. They're also the sorts of things that irked her at the Bowie exhibit, such as seeing the Thin White Duke's miniature coke spoon on display. "It just makes me kind of sad," she tells Rolling Stone during an hour-long interview. "I'm sad that it's part of the mythology of rock & roll. On one hand, I'm glad they were honest that he had a cocaine problem. That's an important thing, because you can't do this job without being under an extreme amount of stress. It's a really difficult job, hence the many beverages I'm drinking now.
"I just don't want people to think that's hilarious," she continues, making eye contact. "It's honest that it's there and I'm sure he was honest about it for a reason. So I respect that. I'm not saying people shouldn't notice it. It's just that it's, like, a bigger picture in my life. The 'getting wasted in rock & roll' has always bummed me out."
You have a song on Hell-On, "Curse of the I-5 Corridor," that's not necessarily about getting wasted but it is about growing up and becoming a musician. Is that how you see it?
It's about getting into the groove of becoming a human with zero guidance and missed opportunities, based on being completely unprepared and feral, basically [laughs]. And it's about that cliché that you can never go home.
With lyrics like "I miss the smell of mystery/Reverb leaking out of tavern doors" in the song, you seem to be both coming to terms with childish naiveté and mourning its loss.
Yes and no. At that time in my life, I was obsessed with music. My desire to make music was so huge and intense. I carried the feeling that I wanted to make music around all the time, but women playing music was frowned upon by my peers. I started playing in a band slightly after the time period in the song because I met the right people.
Around the Grammys this year, there was a study that claimed that women were vastly underrepresented in the music industry. Only four percent of pop songs have female producer credits.
That they know of.
Since you recently participated in the WomanProducer conference, what do you make of that?
Well, there have always been women on the tech side and women on the production side. But like the musicians, they're not lauded. For example, the WomanProducer conference was the first of its kind in the history of the world, which is ridiculous. I hope it continues.
I was so excited to go to the conference and speak. Usually in a greenroom situation, you're kind of polite and shy when you're first meeting people but we were all explosively talking. We were so excited and starved for this kind of interaction. And to be on the stage, talking about tech, ideas and creativity in front of a completely mixed audience of people was such a validating, amazing experience.
What did you feel leaving the conference?
I left there feeling completely qualified and kind of ashamed of myself – but not hard on myself – for going, "How come you didn't have that confidence before? What was keeping you from that? But really, you were fighting for it." It's exhausting fighting all the time, and it's exhausting when you have to convince yourself, because you don't feel entitled to a place in the world that seems like a man's world.
And it's not logical. Of course you know you deserve to be there if you worked hard and you do these things. But it's a really difficult thing to convince your inner self, which reacts to things and rules you in a more emotional, of that. And everybody deserves the experience of having that sort of validation.
On the Grammys red carpet, a lot of women told me that part of the reason they haven't come together the way people have in Hollywood is because music is so decentralized.
A feeling I have about the #MeToo movement and the Grammys and Hollywood is I don't want us to be better represented because we're abused. I want us to be better fucking represented because we're fucking good and we fucking deserve it. Like, separate my abuse from why I'm awesome.
On another note, the guitar maker Ibanez, who has made custom guitars for Steve Vai and Joe Satriani over the years, recently announced that they were making their first-ever signature model for a woman, Alice Cooper's Nita Strauss.
We're all behind the curve. Women are behind the curve, too. We didn't know. We're not trained to. You're brought up never seeing women in that capacity. Your brain doesn't go there. You don't think about it either until stuff starts to smell rotten to you or something is bugging you, and you can't figure out why and you fucking chase the question. There's no putting it down and going, "OK, it's OK now."
You wrote the song "Winnie" after you read a book about the Amazons, so you were thinking about these things when you were making the album, too. What made you curious about women's place in history?
I took art history class every year for about 10 years, and every year there were, like, five women in this book that was about three inches thick. After a while, you start going, "Where the fuck are these women?" I know how I feel every day, and I don't really believe that we were just passengers, slaves or baby-making machines. Yeah, that's how we've been treated, but at a certain point, I couldn't stand it anymore. And the question of "Where did the women go? Why do we hate them?" was killing me. So I decided to go back into ancient history and try to figure out where things went wrong. That led me to a lot of places and books.
"I don't want women to be better represented because we're abused. I want us to be better fucking represented because we're fucking good and we fucking deserve it."
The one I found to be the most hopeful and joyous was Adrienne Mayor's book about the Amazons, and like so many things in history, women were erased. But thanks to science and people coming from an outside perspective, our ancestors' graves are so shallow and sloppy that we can still find them – and we were there. It sounds like a dumb thing to say, but in my DNA, I know we were there. I didn't become this for nothing. So that book cheered me up and got me out of a really bad place. I have a renewed sense of [pauses] mission isn't really the right word, so much as ... maybe it is mission. I don't know.
I love the part of "Winnie" where Beth Ditto sings the part of Winnie. Did that come from thinking about the book?
No, I just made it up out of pure joy. I wanted to express my love of women in general, and I wanted it to be platonic, Sapphic, [full of] humanity and compassion. I wanted it to be from every angle, like my love and appreciation of women in history and now, as well as that feeling of being so lost and then this character comes back and changes the light and the setting and gives you hope. It's funny because it wasn't supposed to be a duet or a play, but I just realized partway through, "Ugh, Beth Ditto would be the greatest 'Winnie' ever." And she was so gracious and recorded it. It was so much fun to put the huge chorus of women behind her. It's just this joyous statement.
On the album's closing song, "Pitch or Honey," you use the phrase "my huckleberry friend" from "Moon River." Why?
"Moon River" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and whenever it comes on, I can't help but tear up. And "my huckleberry friend" is such a bizarre phrase. I don't know what it means, and yet it's so evocative somehow. Then the fact that it's so rated-G at the same time makes it even more evocative and bizarre. There's something about that melody and then "my huckleberry friend" happens and, "Aaahhh," I could start bawling. So it was a little "Moon River" tribute.
Whenever I see Breakfast at Tiffany's and Audrey Hepburn sings the song, it doesn't seem to have the same effect, at least not on me.
Yeah, I love the song, but I've always hated Breakfast at Tiffany's. I couldn't get past the yuckiness of that movie. Like, what? This doesn't make any sense. As a young person watching it, I was just like, "That's not how shit works. What are those rich people doing? What?" It never computed. And then Mickey Rooney was terrifying. I think I grew up in a much different, yet similarly imperfect generation where that was just really ... yeah. I'm sure that's what they wanted of him. Not that it makes it OK.
Going back to "Curse of the I-5 Corridor," what inspired you to write about that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia now?
Just being on tour in my home state triggered a lot of memories – ones that were really awesome and some that were really sad. They're very melancholic, and it was a really hard time. A lot of people are gone now, and a lot of people just settled, which is just as sad as the people who are gone.
It seems like a lot of the themes on the album are about coming to terms with these sorts of upsetting feelings.
Yeah, but it's not because you want that outcome. You know how some people write about things that are tragic, like, "And this is how it is," and it's like they're getting some kind of glory out of telling you that or they get to be smarter? There's none of that feeling in there. It's all loss. Like, "This is not how I wanted it. This is not how it should have ended up." It's sad.
Another song like that here is "My Uncle's Navy," where you sing about a relative who was cruel to animals and how that terrified you. Is that a true story?
I'm always in my songs. My perspective is the only one I have. That song is an amalgam of a lot of people, each of whom crossed the line into some other creature. But it's less about them than it is about the people who allow them to exist in your life and how it really distorts love, trust and confidence.
The guy in your song who abuses snakes – everybody knew someone like that when they were a kid.
Yeah. That's a real story I was told when I was a kid, and it haunted me ever since. It still does. I hate that story.
Your music has always had a strong empathy for animals and the natural world.
There's no language that I can apologize to the natural world enough in [laughs]. [Sighs]
On the song, "Bad Luck," you sing, "My heart could break for a one-legged seagull and still afford nothing to you – that's bad luck."
I think we've all been there. Like, "I should have empathy for that, and I don't, and yet a little animal fell out of a nest and I'm crying about on a sidewalk."
You found out your house burned down when you were recording the song "Bad Luck" in Sweden. How did you find out it happened?
It was halfway into my trip in Sweden, and I got a call at 3 in the morning that my house was on fire and it was bad. I just had to go into fight-or-flight mode. I didn't know if I was going home or if I was staying. I was just in shock. So the next day, things hadn't been decided. Lots of crazy things were happening from all directions. So what could I do but just continue with my day? It was just a stupid coincidence that "Bad Luck" was on the slate for that day. It was odd.
I'm sure that once you found out your dogs were OK, you felt better.
I knew the dogs were OK right away. The cats weren't located yet. But everybody was OK [in the end], luckily. It was bad. There's no other way to put it, really. It was just traumatic and bad. But I had to keep it together. And I'd have moments of outbursts and moments of calm – like a little bit too calm. Just up and down. But I continued my job in Sweden.
How long was it before you went back?
I stayed about an extra three weeks, because I had nothing to go back to. So things got a little behind. It was kind of a safe buffer zone. I was lucky that the people I was renting the apartment from were OK with me staying a little longer. They were really kind and supportive.
I don't know. It's kind of a blur, 'cause I had to work so hard to get things done and it took longer than I thought. You have to internalize that feeling of panic. You have to internalize the possible future, your lack of control to forge ahead on this timeline. And I'm sure that I'm going to pay the price for that. I probably already am.
How was it when you returned?
It was good to be back, because I was actually there and go to see everyone in person and look at what the actual damage was and make real sense of the whole thing. I could see it physically and feel what it was like to look at things that were burnt up.
You know, it wasn't such a big deal: It was stuff that was burnt up. It was nature that did it. It's not like somebody had a grudge and wanted to burn my house down. There was nothing to take personally. It was things that happened to people, and honestly, my house burned as Puerto Rico was flooding. This was right after Houston and right before the fires in California, and I was in California for most of the fires. It was like this thing that was just not gonna end, and the loss of my own house seemed pretty unimportant to what was going on in the big picture.
It sounds like you've been able to move forward.
I mean, I still don't have anywhere to live and it's not gonna happen anytime soon, because I have to go on tour. It's a huge undertaking, and it takes a long time. I've just kind of peeled away the first layer ... barely.