“Earlier in my career, I was kind of worried that people were going to think that I was so dark,” Case says. “I guess the outlet of making music that’s often so dark makes it easier for me to balance that out the rest of the time – ’cause, y’know, I’m actually pretty silly most of the time. Most of the funniest people I have ever known don’t even let that side of them show in public.” She goes on to point to the aforementioned podcast interviews as some of the most enjoyable ones that she has ever done.
“I’m going to sound like a total dick,” she prefaces, “but talking about yourself can really suck. It’s just kind of awkward. I mean, I don’t hate it – it’s part of my job, and that’s fine. But it’s when the conversation swerves to something that a) you’re interested in; and b) isn’t about you – it can become the most fun thing ever. You more or less get to say whatever you want. The thing about musicians and comedians is that we’re both very independent. We travel the same. We tour the same. The crossover is really nice. I dunno… most comedians want to be musicians, most musicians want to be comedians. We’re all very in love with each other.”
Case has been doing all this talking about herself in relation to her fifth solo album. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You may be a mouthful, but its contents are far more easily digestible – her defiant, implicit lyricism and its lush surrounds make for what is potentially her finest album to date. It’s worth noting that many of these songs did not begin their lives with Neko behind a guitar or behind a piano – rather, they found her behind a steering wheel.
“I think of a lot of melodies while I’m driving,” she says. “I just sing it into my recorder. A lot of songs started that way. It comes when I’m doing the dishes or whatever, too. Sometimes, I’ll just be fucking around on the guitar or something. There’s no one way for me when I’m writing songs.” One of the songs that springs to mind instantly is Nearly Midnight, Honolulu, the album’s centrepiece and a thoroughly devastating song involving an abusive mother at an airport bus stop. It revolves almost entirely around Case’s vocal delivery, and it makes for a bittersweet, heart-wrenching listen.
“It’s a verbatim conversation that I witnessed,” she says. “I’m the narrator in the story, and I am the witness in the story. I still think about it – I think about that kid all the time. I wrote the song in the car, and I sang it into the recorder. The melody came to me very quickly. I tried putting music to it, but I eventually came to realise that the version with just the voice was the most honest version I could put out there.”
Case recorded the album across several locations, including Tuscon, Portland, LA and Brooklyn. A slab of musicians were reeled in to work on the album, including M. Ward, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rachel Flotard of Visqueen, Tom Waits collaborator Marc Ribot and even The New Pornographers’ Kurt Dahle, who drums on the entire album. Of course, Case can’t take everybody who worked on The Worse Things Get with her – and so she has assembled a touring band to bring songs both new and old to life on tour.
“It’s a lot of the same people that worked on [2009’s] Middle Cyclone,” she says. “Paul [Rigby] played on the record, but he is staying at home because he has a new baby. We have a new drummer, Dan Hunt – he’s really cool, an absolutely fantastic player; he’s from Portland. We’ve got Eric Bachmann from Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, he is playing guitar with us and adding his gorgeous singing and piano playing as well. We’ve never had piano on tour before, it’s really exciting. Bo Koster from My Morning Jacket did so much amazing piano work on the record, so I was going to bring in someone anyway – but I’m so lucky that we managed to get Eric in. I’m really proud of what Bo did on the record, and I’m really excited to have that aspect of it represented live.”
Before getting back on the road in support of The Worse Things Get, Neko has some business to attend to – during the interview, she confirms that her “other” band, legendary Canadian collective The New Pornographers, are working on their first batch of new material since 2010’s Together. “We’ve been recording on and off for the past few months,” she says. “I’ll be going back in again soon. I love playing with those guys.”
A few months prior to our conversation, The New Pornographers’ Electric Version LP celebrated its tenth anniversary. A moment is taken to let the milestone sink in – “Shit, really?” Case asks with a laugh – before a quick reflection on what she remembers about making the band’s second studio album. Case recalls, in particular, some dizzying vocal runs during the recording process of the recording – particularly when it came to the delightful All For Swinging You Around.
“We did SO many takes of that song,” she recalls with a laugh. “I remember Carl [Newman] and Dan [Bejar] were in the studio with me, and they just kept pushing me. I was yelling at them…” – she then takes on a cartoonish, caricatured shrill – “I can’t do it! It’s toooo high! The guys just kept at it – ‘Nah, it’s not too high! You can totally do it!’ I guess I needed the encouragement. It turned out so well at the end – I’m really proud of that whole album.”
Back to the present, and conversation shifts back to the matter of Case finally returning to Australia. Neko and her band – completed by vocalist Kelly Hogan, guitarist Jon Rauhouse and bassist Tom V. Ray – are set to return to Australia in March for the first time in just over four years to perform at the WOMADelaide and Golden Plains festivals, as well as a series of headlining shows. Asking Case whether she looks forward to her Australian return is probably one of the more obvious questions one could possibly ask of her.
“Are you kidding me?” she responds in a tone that’s half-joking and half-incredulous. “I always save Australia for the last part of major tours. It feels like the dessert after dinner. It is the absolute best place to tour. I’ve got nothing to hide in saying that.” Part of this dessert in question will see Case performing at the Sydney Opera House in the Concert Hall. Although a prestigious honour for any act to be able to perform on such a grand, iconic stage, Neko displays a degree of reticence when it comes to that particular date on the tour.”
I’m trying not to think about the Opera House show,” she confesses. “As a person who’s not from Australia, the Opera House is the first thing that you see in your mind when you think of Australia. It’s so very intimidating, but I’m very excited about it. I’m going to try my very best not to pee my pants on stage. Maybe someone else has done it before me, but I really don’t want to be the first!” Will we see a night of both broken hearts and burst bladders in Sydney? There’s only one way to find out.
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG