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on August 29, 2013, 11:30am
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There are few places that Neko Case has ever called home. The singer lived a transient existence as a touring artist for more than 20 years, and along the way has crashed in hotels, surfed friend’s couches, and dwelled in tour vehicles. She’s also resided in Virginia, Washington, Illinois, British Columbia, and Arizona.

But Case, 42, always felt drawn to Lamoille County, a northeastern section of Vermont where she spent time as a child. Growing up, she admired the rolling farmlands, gazed upon the mountainous landscape, and connected with fellow Vermonters.

While the redheaded Americana artist never expected to be living again in the Green Mountain State, the singer-songwriter wasn’t entirely surprised that she returned five years ago.

Case purchased a 226-year-old farmhouse 90 minutes outside of Burlington, the state’s largest city. Her property has since been renovated with reused materials in an environmentally conscious fashion. Some of her friends say the house is haunted, but she doesn’t buy it. For the middle-aged animal lover — who currently lives with four dogs, four chickens, two cats, and one horse — it’s home.

“I feel a very familial connection to it; it feels very much mine,” Case says. “It’s the only place I ever felt like I fit in.”

Last June, Case announced her sixth studio album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, with an 85-second album trailer. The short video offers a glimpse into her idyllic farm. Surrounded by nearly 100 acres of rolling fields and woodlands, her house has a warm and homey ambiance. It’s a carefully crafted space that boasts a retro kitchen with custom white tiles, a black upright piano that she salvaged from a nearby fraternity house, and a wooden dining area primarily made from recycled materials.

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It’s also filled with an assortment of trinkets, matchbooks, and other knickknacks. A mounted deer head hangs on one yellow wall. Owl figurines, historic placards, and a collection of belt buckles, including a gold one bearing her last name, line the shelves.

“Her house is like a museum of items from her travels,” Kartemquin filmmaker Xan Aranda, who directed the trailer, says. “It’s full of things, but it doesn’t feel like a hoarder’s house. It’s very alive.”

Most of Case’s possessions are now in their right places, except for certain rooms with unpacked boxes and suitcases. Aranda says it’s difficult to tell if the songwriter’s remaining belongings are being packed or unpacked. Case’s arduous work schedule over the past five years adds to that confusion. She’s frustrated, and slightly anxious, about her lack of progress.

Case only returns home from the road for brief stints. Her time there is often spent tending to her animals, vegetables, and other parts of her homestead. She occasionally finds time to unpack, or even write new songs, but those moments are few and far between.

The album trailer excerpts “Where Did I Leave That Fire?”, a new introspective and ethereal song that largely sets the tone for her latest record. Since releasing 2009’s Middle Cyclone, her most successful record to date, the fiery, greying songwriter has weathered a particularly harrowing period of her life marked by loss, grief, and adulthood. While physically planting her roots during that period, she was forced to face personal demons and grapple with her own humanity.

Case’s struggle emerges though her latest collection in a more personal way than she’s ever accomplished before. That departure ultimately proved to be a bold move for a songwriter best known for penning fictional tales and conjuring vivid metaphors within her compositions. But this time around, she’s provided listeners with a rare glimpse into her personal world that, in many ways, exemplifies why she’s one of today’s finest songwriters.

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Neko Case was born in Alexandria, Va., on September 8, 1970. Before she came into this world, her mother and father were young and poor Ukrainians who had changed the family’s name from Shevchenko. They were unprepared for parenthood. “I should have been an abortion,” Case, in her typical candor, once explained. Only she wasn’t, due to her dad’s strong religious beliefs.

She was young when her parents divorced, and she split her childhood years between her dad, a United States Air Force veteran who was also a heavy drinker and drug user, and her relatively absent mom, who later remarried an archeologist and moved frequently to places including Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Case has said that her family grew up in poverty and was raised in environments that made her feel overwhelmingly unimportant.

“In my family, the greatest sin was vanity,” Case says. “It was kind of beaten, or shamed out of you. No one ever talked about or drew attention to themselves. I was totally torn down by the experience.”

Case soon turned into a reckless teenager. She failed to do household chores, regularly drank, and didn’t come home on some nights. When she was 15 years old, she moved out of her father’s Tacoma home and latched onto Washington’s burgeoning early-90s punk scene. She eventually obtained her G.E.D. and, at age 24, moved to Vancouver where she attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

cub Neko Case: Through the WoodsAfter moving north of the border, Case joined several Vancouver bands — including Del Logs, the Propanes, and the Weasels — as a drummer. But she couldn’t sing behind her kit. Mint Records owner Bill Baker, whose label put out Case’s earliest records, remembers meeting her when she filled in as a touring member for local pop-punk outfit Cub. He would drive the all-girl trio across Canada and the United States while managing their five-week North American tour. Together, they crammed into an unreliable Buick LeSabre, which was prone to its share of breakdowns, and traveled the continent.

”She was really rude, like a funny rude, and loved great jokes and had so much energy and enthusiasm — she was a firecracker,” Baker says. “One time, the alternator on the car broke down near the Ohio turnpike and we all had to sleep in the car in a mechanic’s parking lot…It was a group of strong personalities in that car. Everyone held their own.”

When one of Case’s bands, Maow, started recording a new album, she contributed vocals on several tracks. That caught Baker’s attention. “It was just kind of, ‘Wow, where did that voice come from?’” he recalls. “How had we never heard that before?”

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The New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman was first introduced to Case around the same time. She was dating one of his friends, but he didn’t get to know her until one evening when they struck up a conversation. Their friendship blossomed over the next several months without Newman knowing about her vocal talents. Then he heard Case sing a song by The Ronettes at a mutual friend’s wedding.

“I remember her singing a song from an old girl group called ‘So Young,’” Newman says. “It was pretty clear that she was a pretty amazing singer.”

It wasn’t much later when Case decided to record her own songs. She nervously approached Baker in his corner office one day to see if Mint Records had any interest in releasing her solo debut. Despite the fact that the label had mainly worked with “three-chord DIY bands,” Baker says he had been extremely eager to release Case’s own material, no matter the style.

“She’s not a sheepish person, but she seemed very self-conscious. We closed both doors and she said: ‘I want to make a country record,’” Baker recalls. “There was no debate and we said yes immediately and [that’s how] it started.”

Neko+Case+and+Her+BoyfriendsCase and her backing group, Her Boyfriends, released The Virginian in 1997 and, with the help of Chicago-based alt-country label Bloodshot Records outside of Canada, quickly garnered attention. The record was half originals, half covers, and an unlikely success. According to Baker, early critics compared her often to k.d. lang. It helped raised her profile around the globe.

“She was a relative unknown,” he says. “But she quickly went from quirky local upcoming talent to a more international thing.”

Kelly Hogan, Bloodshot’s publicist at the time, first met Case right after her debut arrived in Canadian record stores. One of her Toronto-based writers mailed Hogan a seven-inch review’s tear sheet. Along with his work, the music journalist also sent along a short sidebar interview with Case. They soon met at CMJ and bonded over a mutual love for the movie Fame and because they weren’t “girly girls.” The two quickly became friends, but Hogan didn’t tell Case that she was also a singer for some time. “She punched me in the arm 10 months later, saying, ‘I didn’t know you sang!’” Hogan says.

When Case played in Chicago, she started asking Hogan to sing backup vocals as well as open her shows. They recorded together for Case’s sophomore record, Furnace Room Lullaby, and would later share the same backing band on a co-headlining tour. They traveled in the Ultra Beaver, Case’s new “Snickers-colored” 1988 Dodge conversion van.

“[That was] back in the days when you had to FedEx [recording materials], sing at the crack of dawn, and send it back at noon,” Hogan says. “I’d ask what she wanted me to do on these songs and she said, ‘I trust you. Do whatever you feel is right.’ That was a big responsibility, and it felt good that she thought I was a good enough musician to not mess up her song.”

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In her early years as a solo artist, Case continually surrounded herself with the same rotating cast of trusted players that has included Hogan, guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom Ray, and pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse. The latter, her labelmate at the time, remembers meeting Case in 1999 when she first moved from Seattle to Chicago. He says the two hung out a lot because they both couch surfed in the same house. She asked him to record banjo on “Favorite”, which would become one of her live staples. Months later, Case asked Rauhouse to go on tour, and he’s supported her onstage ever since.

“She’s the fairest person I’ve toured with as far as she treated people,” he says. “When she had money, we all had money…I’ve seen some really crappy people out there, but I’ve been lucky enough that we became really good friends.”

The singer-songwriter’s bandmates also describe her as fiercely loyal. She’s someone, they say, who brought many of her trusted players along for the ride when she played to larger audiences. That surge in popularity wouldn’t happen for several more years. Although she launched her musical career with a ballsy country record, it wasn’t until she made 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby that she fully blossomed as a solo artist.

“That was the record where we all said, ‘God, she can sing,’” Newman says. “Between The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, [that’s] where she came into her own. That seemed like the biggest creative leap she made.”

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Around the same time, The New Pornographers — Case’s indie-rock supergroup that also features Newman, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder, and other Vancouver musicians — garnered critical acclaim with their 2000 debut, Mass Romantic. During that timeframe, Newman witnessed her artistic strides on songs like “Letters from an Occupant” and “Mass Romantic”. That progression would continue over the course of the power-pop collective’s four subsequent records.

Case also staked her claim during the following decade with three career-defining solo albums in 2002’s Blacklisted, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone. During this three-record run, she transformed into a full-fledged singer-songwriter. Her “country noir” label, cast onto her years earlier, finally came to fruition.

After signing with Anti- Records in 2004, Case continued to retain ownership of her music as both Fox Confessor and Middle Cyclone respectively sold more than 200,000 copies. The latter debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and received two Grammy nominations. Case’s career arc steadily pointed upward to the point where she was able to maintain a relatively comfortable existence. She purchased a house in Tucson, where she lived for five years, before moving to her current farm.

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As Case’s career reached its apex following Middle Cyclone, she found herself in a rut as she dealt with a number of personal issues that included depression and her father’s death. She describes her woes as “super, normal human stuff” such as coming to terms with her family’s past and adulthood. Because she avoided some of those issues earlier in her life, she opened up a well of emotions when she faced her longtime problems.

“It was really overwhelming to deal with all that I was running from,” Case says. “It was odd, just finding a box of stuff in the attic. I know the people that put this stuff here, but what is it? What do I do with it?”

Perhaps as a result of Case’s inner search, her new songs possess a far greater intimacy than her past material. She had primarily written fictional and metaphorical stories throughout her first five records. But The Worse Things Get took her in an unexpected direction that was largely born out of necessity.

“This record was really autobiographical because my mind just didn’t have room for anything else,” she says.

The Worse Things Get captures Case unraveling her rocky past and unpacking her pent-up emotional turmoil. It’s done in a way that, as her friend Hogan explains, pushed her as a human and an artist.

“She’s just hanging it out there,” Hogan says. “Every record gets better and better, more and more frighteningly honest.”

On “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, Case recollects an unforgettable conversation she witnessed between a daughter and mother, who tells her child to “get the fuck away” from her. It happened, she says, late one evening at a Hawaii shuttle stop en route to the city’s airport. Few witnessed the event besides Case, who was jarred by the incident and the potential ramifications it had on the girl’s life.

Case — backed by Hogan, Newman, Camera Obscura frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell, and Rachel Flotard — reflects on the event throughout the commanding a capella song. In many ways, the child’s resiliency mirrors Case’s own familial woes.

“That song is a verbatim conversation I heard,” Case says. “You can survive and you’re an awesome, plucky little kid, but you have to take care of yourself because your mom’s a fucking asshole, but you’re gonna have to pay for that later; the fact that you can turn around and start singing again, you’re gonna pay for that later, also. It’s really fucking unfair.”

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Above all, “Where Did I Leave That Fire?” captures the essence of Case’s internal tussles, helpless feelings, and uncertainty that comes with navigating the darker parts of human existence. Simply put, the song captures how it feels to be adrift in this world.

“I wanted so badly not to be me/ I saw my shadow looking lost/ checking its pockets for some lost receipt,” Case sings.

Though acquaintances for many years, Aranda didn’t become friends with Case until this tumultuous period. But she thinks the songwriter’s latest collection of songs represents an honest, vulnerable, and brave representation of “someone who’s worked hard for her survival.”

“She was coming out of a shitty deep winter,” Aranda says. “I saw her deep in it: feeling a lot of personal things and family stuff…That’s some fucking hard work to face yourself, face your life, make art, and make it available to others. [And] working hard takes a level of bravery and a level of commitment that we all have to have to keep moving forward.”

That “deep winter” is largely why Case felt it was appropriate to cover Nico’s “Afraid” on this recording. She found the song comforting in recent years and admired the German vocalist’s candor. “She’s like, ‘It sucks!,’” Case says. “‘But it’s also pretty awesome. Just let it suck and roll with it.’…It’s totally no-bullshit, not-sugarcoated, German style. And it’s beautiful that way.”

In that same vein, Case appreciated the personal growth that followed the reopening of old wounds while revisiting her past. She doesn’t deny that those experiences “hurt” and “sucked,” but in shedding her emotional baggage, she says she’s settled into a comfortable place.

“I feel a lot lighter, and I feel I’ve arrived at this weird place where I’m 42 with no husband or kids,” Case says. “It’s kind of weird to people; they don’t really get that. They think something’s wrong with you if you haven’t been married or divorced. I’ve felt weird about that for a while.”

She continues: “But the fact is that I’ve chosen this. Nobody made me do this. I didn’t settle. I did what I wanted, and that’s what I’ve been fighting for so long. And I’m owning it, and I feel good about that.”

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Over the past decade, Case has continued to collaborate with her closest friends. That hardly changes on The Worse Things Get. But she also recruited more talented outsiders than on any of her prior efforts. That’s no small feat, considering she’s already worked with the likes of Ryan Adams, Garth Hudson, The Sadies, Ron Sexsmith, and others. Yet there’s a mighty cast supporting her now that includes members of Calexico, Camera Obscura, DeVotchKa, Los Lobos, Mudhoney, My Morning Jacket, New Pornographers, and She & Him.

It’s a star-studded affair. But The Worst Things Get never feels that way. It’s elegantly assembled to the point that it is hard to recognize all that talent behind Case without looking at the liner notes. That’s a telling sign for a musician who prides herself these days on being a meticulous producer as much as an esteemed musician.

neko case 2013 Neko Case: Through the WoodsCase’s bandmates describe her as a perfectionist in the studio — one who makes sure each song is perfectly crafted without bruising any artistic egos. She records exhaustively, but selectively edits based on her vision for each song. It’s a subtle art that enables her to bring out the best in her fellow musicians.

“She’s really hands-on,” says Bo Koster, My Morning Jacket’s keyboardist, who contributed on most of The Worse Things Get’s tracks. “She’s not lackadaisical about anything that she does. She has an interesting way of having it all in her head without showing her hand like in a poker tournament…She’s open to anything, will let you go for it and try new things, [but] I have a feeling that the picture is already in her head.”

The Worse Things Get’s painstaking recording process took place in at least a half dozen cities. Unlike other artists, who set finite time limits for recording, Case takes her time in the studio and does things at her own pace in order to savor the experience.

“I like to work on a record until it’s done, so I don’t give myself two weeks,” Case says. “I want the recording of the album to be a time of my life. It’s not a mercenary thing for me. Being in the studio is the life for me, and I need to enjoy it while I’m in there.”

Before anyone laid down tracks, the songwriter traveled down to Athens, Ga., with her bandmates for nearly one week to practice sans distractions. “No tourists, no press calls, absolutely no distraction,” Rauhouse says. “We got up in the morning, went to the studio, worked on the songs, knocked them all out, and went back to the hotel. It was strictly to get it all done.”


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Following rehearsals, Case headed out to Tucson for an 18-day recording session at WaveLab Studios where she teamed up with recording engineers Chris Schultz and Craig Schumacher, who worked with Case on Blacklisted as well as past Calexico and DeVotchKa albums. She originally had hoped Schultz and Schumacher would help her build a home studio in her farm’s practice space. Those plans, however, were scrapped after Schumacher fought, and ultimately overcame, a tumultuous bout with cancer. She decided it would make more sense to record most of The Worst Things Get’s instrumental tracks in their comfortable and homey Sixth Street studio.

“What started out as a really shitty, horrible situation ended up being triumphant,” she says.

Case later ventured up north to work with producer Tucker Martine — who has assisted in crafting records for The Decemberists, R.E.M., Sufjan Stevens, and My Morning Jacket — in Portland. A.C. Newman, M. Ward, Jim James, and Hogan all lent their voices during the sessions at Martine’s northwest studio. Beyond Tucson and Portland, Case also had others artists contribute parts from others studios in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Catskill, NY.

Her role as executive producer on The Worse Things Get shows how tirelessly Case has worked to hone her studio skills. That’s happened over the years as she’s closely observed how Schultz, Schumacher, Martine, and producer Darryl Neudorf shaped her past albums. By surrounding herself with talented audio professionals, she’s learned the finer points of the recording process.

Case — who has produced all of her records since Blacklisted — thinks her studio knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. She never had formal musical training, which allowed her to rely less on conventional structures and chord patterns. Learning the ins and outs of recording has helped Case bridge that gap. It’s also kept her busy with an additional responsibility on top of writing songs, playing instruments, recording vocals, arranging instrumental parts, mixing, and engineering.

“You’re able to notice more of what you could do, so it triples your work in a way,” Case says. “Part of the art is knowing when to stop and when to take a break and when to edit yourself. It’s really easy to get really lost and to forget what you’re really doing. There are endless possibilities, which is exciting, but sometimes I can’t hear my own voice anymore.”

With each and every record, Hogan says, Case’s technical know-how has substantially increased. While her friend says Case’s “voracious” desire to learn expands to reading, history, and other subjects, her recording acumen these days is more than evident.

“I’ve got rabies for music; she’s got rabies for everything, for knowledge,” Hogan says. “It’s like she learned Chinese. She worked really hard to learn the language at the studio and how everything works.”

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Despite her artistic growth over two decades, Case thinks she has a long way to go before her music reaches what she considers masterful. She has no delusions about the work ahead, no matter what praise fans or critics may offer, and thinks it’ll take years for her to even approach that level — if ever.

“I’m not a genius by any stretch of the imagination,” Case says. “But I want to go from being a journeyman to being a master – of music, or art, or whatever it is I’m trying to become, and it’s going to be way harder than I think.”

That doesn’t mean Case isn’t trying to approach that place. The Worse Things Get represents an important step down that path. It also led to a particularly fruitful songwriting period, out of which came songs for her next record.

“The [next] record itself is kind of a part one of two, so I didn’t really think it was so horrible that we would just wait and get them on the next one,” she says.

Case says her follow-up album won’t take as long as usual to complete because of the progress she’s already accomplished. And although there’s another New Pornographers record on the way, she still treasures the few songs she’s able to churn out, considering that she doesn’t consider herself a “prolific” songwriter. “I kind of got to horde my eggs,” she says.

That’s Case’s life in a nutshell: Make a solo record. Tour. Contribute to a New Pornographers album. Tour, tour, and tour some more. Rinse and repeat. As her longtime colleague Rauhouse insists, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve been doing it the same way,” he says. “We’re these weird working-class musicians who schlep around and turn out these records and then we go out and schlep around [and tour] and do it again.”

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So far this summer, Case has appeared at a handful of festivals including Solid Sound Festival, Edmonton Folk Festival, and First City Festival. It won’t be long, however, until she commences life on the road once again this fall with a U.S. tour in support of The Worse Things Get. That’ll likely be the first of several tours around the world over the next couple of years.

For the time being, the songwriter will savor her days left on the farm. She’s hoping to get a few more chickens in the near future and wants to continue getting her house in order. For anyone who has moved so much, the homemaking process can be an immense, if not impossible, challenge. It’s taken five years so far, but she’s getting closer than ever to finishing. According to Aranda, Case’s progress toward that goal is quite apparent.

“For someone who’s struggled so much with life’s circumstance stuff, there’s a very clear love of life in her home,” Aranda says.

As Case has found meaning through her new home, she has also learned to embrace the process of making music as much as the end result. She understands full well that creating music as well as the process of making art are both endeavors worth pursuing. At the end of the day, that’s a process that the songwriter can control and embrace. She may receive praise from her friends, peers, critics, and colleagues. Or she may not. What happens from this point forward, and wherever that leads, is beyond her control.

“I may not make it, and it may take forever, and I won’t know when I’ve reached it, if ever, but it’s the right thing to do and this is what I’ve chosen,” Case says. “It’s mine. I own it. No one else is responsible for it but me.”

Max Blau is a staff writer at Creative Loafing and contributes to Consequence of Sound, Grantland, NPR, Paste Magazine, and other assorted media outlets. Follow him at@MaxBlau or check out his blog.

Artwork by Cap Blackard; titles by Drew Litowitz.

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