Indie-Rock Superstar Neko Case Invites Us Inside Her Cozy Vermont Farmhouse And Opens Up About Depression, Dogs, And Doing What She Loves
"When you’ve got a barn, you’ve got a place to skate in the winter,” says Neko Case, explaining why there’s a full-sized skateboard half-pipe in the barn on her property. It’s not actually hers — it belongs to her roommate and best friend, “Stuntman Nate” — but the half-pipe is only one of many weird, amazing artifacts scattered around her Vermont farm, where Case has graciously agreed to be photographed and interviewed for BUST. It’s exactly the kind of place you would expect someone like Case to live. You can picture the 43-year-old alt-country/folk/indie-rock queen writing songs on the front porch while she stares out at the White Mountains, or singing to herself in her unmistakable alto voice as she’s fixing dinner in her trinket-packed kitchen.
If you know Case, you know her because of That Voice (capital letters required). It’s loud, it’s clear, it’s loaded with texture. On her solo records she can be a bit reminiscent of Patsy Cline, and on her collaborations with the New Pornographers, she can evoke a twangified Kristin Hersh. But ultimately, she just sounds like Neko Case, and no one on Earth can match her. At live shows, when her band sits one out, she can fill up the room with sheer lung power, no microphone needed, and audiences applaud the impressive force of what she’s able to create when she hits the long notes. You don’t hear Case and soon forget it.
Nor do you forget her lyrics. Her albums are made up of stories about everything from tigers to serial killers to prison, so beautifully detailed it’s easy to dismiss how dark they can be. Her last album, 2009’s Middle Cyclone, found her empathizing with killer whales and speaking from the point of view of a tornado, and ended with a 31-minute-long recording of frogs croaking outside her house. It might sound bizarre, but fans and critics loved it — Middle Cyclone was the first Neko Case album to debut in the Billboard Top 10, and it garnered her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
While this type of mainstream success may be relatively new for Case, she’s an old hand at the music game — her first solo LP, The Virginian, debuted in 1997, and she’s been a full-time member of power-pop stalwarts the New Pornographers since 2000. Her latest release, however, gave her some trouble. Titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, her sixth solo album, is highly personal, which is unusual for her. “I went through several years of pretty bad depression, because I lost a lot of family members in the last decade,” she says. “And I just never really slowed down to mourn the dead. I’m a bit of a workaholic, so it was really hard to stop fighting it and let myself be sad.” Case typically spends about three years on each album, but this one took her four. “People keep asking me if it was cathartic, and I feel like a dick saying this, but it wasn’t cathartic,” she says. “It was just a monotonous bummer of a time. It wasn’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.”
The Worse Things Get, though personal, still features a few of those maddeningly vague is-it-about-her-or-isn’t-it songs for which Case is known. “I think people sometimes don’t realize how literally I write in songs,” she says. “So a lot of people assume that you’re writing about a lover or something, or that women just write love songs all the time, and we don’t. We do think about other stuff, you know.” For Case, “other stuff” includes a heartbreaking conversation she overheard in Hawaii, documented in “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” and what it’s like to be a man in the Animal Planet sense of the word, as on “Man,” the album’s first single. “Somebody reviewed the record—and it was a really nice review, so I feel bad—but they said, ‘In the song “Man,” Case takes a lover to task,’” she complains. “But I’m like, No! Not even close! I’m just talking about being a man, as in mankind, Homo sapiens.”
Born in Alexandria, VA, where her father was stationed in the Air Force, Case moved many times before leaving home at 15. She eventually ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she attended art school, then headed down to Seattle, where she began her music career in earnest. For a couple of years during her childhood, though, she lived in Vermont, and she liked it so much she decided to come back permanently in 2007. “My stepdad’s an archaeologist, so we would travel around a lot for his work, and we ended up in Waterville, Vermont, at one point,” she says. “It was kind of the only place I ever really felt like I fit in with the other kids. I loved the scenery and the outdoors, and everybody else was poor too, so we kind of just made our own fun. It was the ultimate kid experience.”
If an outdoorsy upbringing in the country is the ultimate kid experience, then Case’s current setup might be the ultimate adult one. Her farmhouse sits on a sprawling 100-acre plot of land near St. Johnsbury and is full of curios and tchotchkes from her travels. “I think a lot of the things would be antiques if they weren’t kinda junk,” explains Case, laughing. “I’ve been collecting stuff since I was about 16, just kind of cobbling it all together.” And what stuff. In the aforementioned half-pipe barn are several dusty, dilapidated pianos, which superfans (and NPR listeners) will remember from Middle Cyclone; the “piano orchestra” on the record featured free pianos Case found on Craigslist. The few that remain after that experiment aren’t really playable, she says, because “one season in a hay barn will ruin anything, except for hay.” Her kitchen hosts a giant black piano that also doubles as a bar and iPod-speaker stand (she puts on jazz musician Wilbur de Paris’ At Symphony Hall while we chat), as well as an impressive coffee-mug collection and bottles of homemade poison-ivy balm that she whips up in her free time. A painting of a bear clawing at an airplane, a telephone with deer antlers, and a vintage cigarette dispenser are just three of the many treasures in her dining room, which also contains her gut-wrenchingly amazing record collection (think vinyl box sets of Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, and the Carter Family). The gorgeous bathroom features a luxurious, egg-shaped blue bathtub, and though the giant windows have no curtains, she says peeping Toms aren’t an issue. “There’s no one out there to see you except the cows,” she says.
A lot of people assume that you’re writing about a lover or something, or that women just write love songs all the time, and we don’t. We do think about other stuff, you know.
The cows don’t belong to Case — she lets her neighbor use her land to graze them — but she has quite a delightful menagerie of her own. There are three dogs (Liza, Swany, and Jerome), two cats (Rhoda and Marty), four chickens, a horse named Norman, and a fourth dog (Bert) who’s away in Arizona with Stuntman Nate. During our interview, Marty the cat, who is “really nosy,” comes over to hang out with Liza, who’s been camped out on a giant dog pillow for most of the day. “You gonna love on your dog?” Case asks Marty, who’s busy climbing into a travel bag left out by our makeup artist. “He’s like, ‘No, I’m gonna get in this awesome suitcase.’”
With album titles like Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and The Tigers Have Spoken, Case’s easy way with animals should come as no surprise. “I grew up with animals as constant companions,” she explains. “I was alone a lot, and I spent a lot of time observing their behavior and the way they settle things, ask for things, and tell you what they need. I think they’re kind of a key to a better part of ourselves that we’ve lost in trying to be so detached from nature —detached from where our food comes from, detached from the wilderness, detached from being animals ourselves, which we are. We’re just organic, biological organisms.” Rhoda the cat wanders over to brush against Case’s leg as she speaks. “And they’re just fuckin’ hilarious.”
Case is a bit of a ham herself, doing impressions of a snooty critic, her elderly grandma, and a self-important novelist throughout the day. Her sense of humor might explain her popularity on Twitter, where she posts cute pictures of her pets and chats with fans about things like wheelbarrow tires and the bugs she encounters in her house. She also jokes openly about her life as a single woman in a super-rural area. Sample tweet: “Necrotic looking horsefly bites and still single! #WhatACrazyWorld!” She says she’s attracted to Twitter because it makes it so easy for her to talk to her audience. “After a show, I can’t really go sign things because there’s no time anymore,” she says. “But Twitter is just a really nice way to connect. I’ve talked to a couple of other musicians who really love it too, one of whom said, ‘I didn’t realize how much I liked my audience, and I liked them a lot, but now I’m so in love with them.’ I feel that too.” It also doesn’t hurt that she has a million funny anecdotes to share about the inhabitants of her miniature zoo. From February: “I forgave Love Wolf [Liza] for getting in the trash and then she burped up garbage on my hand. #Valentines2013.”
But when it comes to certain topics, she can get serious, fast. For instance, I tell her I have to ask her about feminism, since this is BUST, and she gamely tells me to “bring it,” then launches into a full-scale rundown of her beliefs. “I consider myself a feminist because of the sacrifice other people have made,” she says. “I consider myself a feminist in a monumental, carry-the-torch-for-women-who-marched-for-suffrage-or-became-doctors-or-changed-laws-or-fought-for-human-rights way, but I’m a humanist overall, or a creature-ist or a planet-ist or something. I get pretty down about people fighting about the term ‘feminism’ and what feminism is. It seems to be pretty antifeminist a lot of the time.”
Case also believes, however, that women shouldn’t disparage other women for refusing to adopt the descriptor “feminist” for themselves. “I remember reading an article on PJ Harvey where all they did was take her to task about whether or not she called herself a feminist, which she didn’t,” she says, clearly upset. “The whole point of feminism is that she can do whatever she wants. Feminists from long ago didn’t want us to forget [history], but they wanted us to be able to take our humanity for granted, so if [PJ] doesn’t want to call herself that, give her a break. Because not only did she write her own music, sing it, play the instruments, go on tour, become great, and inspire shit-tons of men and women; she’s also living the life that those people fought for. So get off her fucking back.”
I’m really good at being cool around people’s parents and grandmas and stuff, but it’s taken me a long time to not talk like a sailor.
I bring up Taylor Swift, a young woman who’s often chastised for neglecting to declare herself a feminist even though she influences millions of little girls with her work. Case admits to not having heard much of her music but seems willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. “We can’t know Taylor Swift personally,” Case says. “She shows up for her job, and she does it, and she’s not pretending to be anything she’s not. When I was a little girl, I didn’t really see women writing songs and playing guitars in rock, that’s for sure, except for Heart. I think it’s really important for little girls and little boys to see Taylor Swift playing guitar and winning awards for her work. Even if it’s not our taste, it’s music. It’s not a B-52 bomber hurting people. It’s pleasure.”
Case can talk about practically anything for a while if you let her: how much she loved Lady Gaga’s hat at the Grammys three years ago (“It was awesome”), which cookbooks she uses the most (“Bill Granger’s recipes always turn out”), and, of course, country music. “It was considered to be this supersexist boys’ club, but actually, there was a whole lot of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn going on. They were makin’ shit happen!” she says excitedly. “Loretta Lynn wrote the punkest song ever written, ‘The Pill.’” By this point, she’s practically yelling. “I’m sorry, there’s never been a punker song than that, ever. No one’s ever conquered it, as far as being balls fucking out.”
Despite her predilection for dropping an F-bomb or two in conversation, Case had never really done it on a record until The Worse Things Get. “I curse in real life a lot,” she says. “I’m really good at being cool around people’s parents and grandmas and stuff, but it’s taken me a long time to not talk like a sailor. I always resisted doing it gratuitously [in music], but these songs didn’t work without the ‘fucks.’”
Her casual way with dirty words extends to the stage, where she and her band mates often trade fart jokes and tampon anecdotes in front of their audiences. Case attributes this bawdy side of herself to what she calls her “feral upbringing.” “I was raised around older boys from random backgrounds who were really good to me, and I guess I emulated them in their toughness and casual swagger,” she says. “But I don’t know. I’m just kind of a dude.” She’s kidding, of course, but she’s definitely not a girly girl. When Case gets her makeup done for our photo shoot, she laments, “Lipstick’s good, but I just look like a drag queen when I wear it.” I commiserate by telling her it always gets on my teeth and gives me a crazy-old-lady vibe. “Which is a good look,” she replies.
Now that the less-than-cathartic process of recording The Worse Things Get is behind her, Case will head out on the road for another long tour, which she loves to do. “It’s totally the main part of my job, for sure,” she says, admitting she already knows what she’ll do as soon as she gets home: she has a backyard garden where she grows tomatoes that supply a local restaurant in St. Johnsbury.
I ask her if she writes any non-musical short stories, since she so accurately describes her songs as being like little chapters of a book. “I worked on a book for a while,” she says. “But it’s kind of a jinx to go, ‘Yes, I’m working on a book, my important work of fiction,’ if you haven’t worked on it in eight months. You just end up sounding like a jerk when you don’t get anything done.”
But Neko Case not getting something done seems like a very unlikely scenario. After our interview, she headed into town to practice with her solo band, and the following week, the New Pornographers came out to work on tracks for their upcoming new album in Case’s studio. “I just like to make things,” she says, “be it something that you’re welding, or something made out of wood, or a soup. I’ll try anything once.” Even a half-pipe in a hay barn.
Styled by Turner at The Wall GroupPhotographed by Anna Wolf At Judy Casey
Hair and Makeup by Claudia Lake at Contact Agency
Jacket: LACAUSA; Makeup:Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics; Cuff: Aesa
By Eliza C. Thompson
This story appears in the Oct/Nov 2013 issue of BUST Magazine with Neko Case.