It’s mid-afternoon on an October day and Neko Case has her work cut out for her: She must sign 500 copies of her new vinyl box set, Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule. “My wrist is feeling supple,” she says with a big laugh. “It feels pretty NASCAR.”
Today marks the first time the auburn-haired, bright-voiced country singer, 45, has seen the collection, which spans seven studio releases and a live record and ostensibly her life’s work. But rather than dwell on the deep meaning behind how she’s spent the past two decades, like Proust with an acoustic guitar, her main thought at the moment is how grateful she is that she doesn’t have to number each box along with her autograph. Nevertheless, she’s happy with the way the collection has turned out. That’s mostly because it’s a testament to the work she put into each record, which she’s reflected with the title.
“Everything has been kind of homemade in my career,” she says. “I’ve been a booking agent, driver, tech, publicist at some points — I have done everything. The title is a sweet nod to the fact that there isn’t actually glamour in rock & roll at this level. It’s all work. But it’s happy work.”
Case learned that lesson early, having put out her first solo record, 1997’s The Virginian, while still studying for her BFA. Although she’d spent her late teen years playing drums in punk bands and dedicated some of the time after she graduated to recording expansive harmonies with indie rockers the New Pornographers, she focused her own work first on twangy, rollicking country and then softened her sound somewhat to embrace folkier textures and let her powerful voice soar. All the while, she’s put in the “happy work,” and her latest record, 2013’s The Worse Things Get … , bowed at the top of the indie chart.
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When Case does reflect on how she got to this point, she speaks frankly and casually, and she’s quick to stop herself when she sounds “pretentious,” to use her word. For as heavy and poetic as her lyrics can be, she doesn’t like to be overly serious. As she looks through the photo book that accompanies Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, she chuckles frequently: at her drummer dressed as a baby for Halloween (“That’s pretty fucking upsetting,” she says), at graffiti depicting a crudely drawn bird with a penis (“It makes me pee my pants laughing”) and at a friend’s foot with googly eyes on the toenails (“She did that to cheer me up once when I was sad”). When she spots one of her guitars in an airport, she becomes more serious, calling them the “cause of my shoulder injury” and says she’ll never get rid of it because “there will always be guitars to take to the airport.”
Even as she wraps up the box set, she’s begun work on a new LP (“I have one demo on my phone, probably,” she says) and is getting ready to bring more guitars to airport for a handful of U.K. dates toward the end of the month. When speaking to Case, one thing is clear: The work is a constant thing.
Did you come up with the title for this box set to remind people that being a singer is no vacation?
It’s a vacation for visiting feral truck stop toilets, if that’s what you’re into. It’s definitely not a vacation but it’s gratifying.
Has anything gotten easier over time?
There is still hardship. I don’t drive my own tour bus, but there are times when we still all travel in regular vehicles ourselves because the price of gas is so incredibly high. There is no J-Lo level where you have your own tour bus with a Whirlpool in the back.
You can still strive for Whirlpool status.
No, thank you. Gross.
What was the hardest part of touring when you were starting out?
We would have nights where we’d do a 12-hour drive to the next place. I had definite belief that I had superhuman strength. I was completely wrong.
When did you realize you weren’t invincible?
I got a deep vein thrombosis in the back of my legs in my 20s from sitting down, driving vans from six to ten hours a day, and I needed an operation. I am a very strange-shaped person, too; I’m all legs. There’s so much pressure on my legs when I sit. You don’t need to hear that, but people aren’t supposed to get things like that in their twenties.
The box set features your debut, The Virginian, on vinyl for the first time. What do you hear when you listen to that album now?
I hear really great musicians and me, kind of frosted over the top of it, as the emblem of fear. I am a trumpet of fear, but I own it. I was scared. I was taking a risk but I made a record and I am proud of it. I never thought anyone would hear it.
You were in art school when you made it. What did you bring from class into your career?
I learned how to be my own boss and discipline myself. It also ingrained in me the question, “Did my work say to the audience what I intended it to say?” I am definitely not a believer in, “Oh, I let the music carry me.” That’s bullshit. Some things come really easily when you’re writing songs … but they are not some spirit coming to visit you. Some people might do that but it gets a little bit pretentious. But then again, what I am saying now would seem pretentious, so it is all relative.
You’d previously played drums in punk bands. Was that a hard transition to country?
It wasn’t really a transition. It has always been do-it-yourself — same venues, same people, same studios, same instruments. It was more about community than styles.
“There was nothing ‘punk rock’ about being kicked off the Opry.”
You recorded with the New Pornographers early in your solo career. Did that influence how you wrote songs?
I’ve been heavily influenced by the New Pornographers’ arrangements. I never used to have choruses early on. With the New Pornographers, being there singing the choruses every night, it’s like, “It’d be nice to have some more choruses, because it’s terribly fun to sing.” Their songs just feel good to sing, and they bring me great joy.
You titled Blacklisted after you got kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry, for taking your shirt off during a performance on the plaza. Did you pick that title as a badge of honor?
No. There was nothing “punk rock” about being kicked off the Opry. I was having heat stroke, trying not to barf or pass out. It just sucked. I was a perfect storm. There is no awesome, “I stuck it to the man,” story behind it.
So being part of the Opry was something that mattered to you greatly?
It mattered very much. I will never play in that town again, according to them.
You’d think they’d be more understanding about your general well-being.
Eh, I guess [pauses]. It was one person’s decision, and I don’t know what will ever happen. I can’t really worry about it, though. What are you gonna do? I’m happy just to play the Ryman [in Nashville]. It’s the greatest-sounding venue, and that’s really what matters to me.
Which of these records was the easiest to make? The live album, The Tigers Have Spoken, doesn’t count.
The live album was one of the hardest ones.
Why is that?
Because there was so many takes to choose from, and there were eight different nights to choose from and they were all very different, and so there was no cobbling it together in the end. After doing some research on live albums with the band I was playing with, the Sadies, we found out our favorites are not actually live records. The Last Waltz is great, and I’m not complaining about the final product, but there is overdubbing; we did only one overdub. I wanted to hear what it would be like to do real live album with songs no one had heard before.
Was it worth it?
I learned that it is important to experience live music live because even the recorded version of the Sadies isn’t the same as seeing them live. The physics are completely different with the audience in the room with you. I tried to get as close to that as I could and I didn’t succeed, but there is no such thing as succeeding so it kind of lets you off the hook a little bit.
Which of your records are you most proud of?
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, at the moment. There were some really complicated songs that were really hard to put on tape. I feel very gratified that it could actually happen. There were times I was pulling my hair out not knowing how to make a certain chorus fit with a certain part of another song and make it make sense. The song “Fox Confessor” has a couple different time signatures and key changes. It’s pretty weird but it was very personal and heartfelt to me, so I wanted it to be right.
How did you get it to work?
Paul [Rigby, guitar] and I were basically cuckoo-pants after like a week of working on it; our eyeballs were spinning in our heads. It was like, “We might need to go outside and get some fresh air now. … ” So we tried to take the day off and relax, and Paul put on an Aerosmith record, and we ended up getting wasted and listening to records all night and having the best time of our lives, just blowing off some steam. The next day we had horrible hangovers, but it was like a get-out-of-jail-free hangover where you just giggle a lot. Finally, though the estranged, disjointed rhythm is there, it actually flows somehow. I think it turned out good, so I’m not going to try to go back and fix it.
Marianne Faithfull covered Fox Confessor’s “Hold On Hold On.” How did that feel to hear?
I feel like I’m not worthy. I love her Eighties career, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” So when she did my song, It felt numbing and crazy, and I mean that in a positive way. I don’t really know what to think about it still.
Re-pressing Middle Cyclone means your sound-effects collage, “Marais La Nuit,” will take up one side of vinyl.
That’s gonna be sweet. Sound-effects records, they never last long enough, so you could just put “Marais La Nuit” on in your tiny city apartment if you’re feeling like you need a little Vermont fresh air — it works out. Springtime froggies. A lot of people told me it’s really helpful for putting their babies to sleep. I’m glad I can help.
“I want to go to my own funeral — who doesn’t?”
When you look at all these records together, how do you think you’ve changed most as a songwriter?
I’ve loosened up a little. I have gotten a little better at self-editing. I worry less. I would like to say there was some marked change, but every time I’m in the studio, I think, “Well, I’ve made a lot of records now, so this next one is going to be a piece of cake because I know what I am doing.” But all you are doing is enlarging your capacity to spot possible mistakes, so it actually gets harder every single time. The nice thing is that I don’t really have to worry about being a prolific hit maker so I am free to try out new things.
Have you found that people think you’re quitting, now that you have a box set?
Yes. It was pointed out to me also that it’s a strange point in your career to have a box set, which I never thought about. But I want to go to my own funeral — who doesn’t?
Since you don’t look at it as a career epitaph, are you ready for a “Best Of” album?
I think you’re supposed to have hits to have one of those.
That’s a “Greatest Hits” album. The “Best Of” would be your best songs.
I think of my records as one piece. I’m not good at separating that. To me, they’re always like little trailers for a movie, but maybe they make the movie together. I’m not sure. It’ll all sound super pretentious when I try to tell you, because nothing is that precious. It’s all a lot of hard work and gratifying, awesome hard work that I do not regret. I feel good about it.
You don’t sound jaded.
I’m not. I still feel like I’m 19 and excited, and the world is still there, in front of me. I feel able to represent myself in business situations. I own it; I don’t have any reservations or fear about the future. I just want to do as good a job as I can.