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Neko Case on #MeToo, Art History, and Becoming a Producer: The Spin Interview

The best Neko Case songs walk familiar paths to new realms. She’s recorded eight solo albums, a half-dozen more with the New Pornographers, plus notable side projects like 2016’s case/lang/veirs, a collection of folk harmonies with the songwriters k.d. lang and Laura Veirs. With a craftsman’s consistency and a folklorist’s flair, Case charts passions and frustrations in calligraphic lines about fox confessors, righteous wrongs, and anthropomorphized disaster. From the outside, her work evokes a sense of mystery not entirely divorced from her real life: An artist of no fixed geographical origin, surrounded by a menagerie of companion animals, the proud owner of an antique barn filled with the busted pianos she captured on 2009’s Middle Cyclone.

That barn is a hole in the ground now. As you’ve probably heard, Case’s Vermont home burned down last September in an apparent freak accident. The house was insured but the barn couldn’t be, Case says, and she’s not sure whether she can afford to fully rebuild—assuming she wants to. She’s lived in Vancouver, Tacoma, Seattle, Chicago, Tucson; she’s thinking about moving again. For the moment, her beloved animals are boarded with friends, and Case is on the road, ready to test the theory that you don’t need a home if you can book enough tour dates.

At the time of the fire, Case was visiting Sweden, finishing up her new album Hell-On with Peter, Bjorn & John’s Bjorn Yttling. A local paper reported on the blaze, and—to Case’s horror—included her name. They were probably within their rights, but unbeknownst to most outside of Case’s close circle of chosen family, she’d been dealing with a stalker. She even went to court and saw him face-to-face, she says, a process she found obscenely expensive and personally galling.

It’s a decidedly unromantic turn that, in the sinking feeling of retrospect, makes a certain sense: Case, who’s been open about topics like her recovery from depression and her estrangement from her late parents, is not really the Barbra Streisand type. She left home as a teen, as she sings on Hell-On’s affecting “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” a duet with Mark Lanegan. The new record carries some of the themes of her previous solo album, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, wedded with a pop influence apparent on the biting “Bad Luck” and the A.C. Newman co-write “Gumball Blue.”

A week before the release of Hell-On, Case and I met in Brooklyn to speak about her new album, the legacy of #MeToo, finding a new identity as a music producer, and the very strange timing of it all.

***

I’m sorry to hear about some of what’s happened lately. Have you been out to visit your property since the fire?

I saw it after it was burned. It was interesting. It was a very surreal landscape. The fact that nature wasn’t angry at me—it’s just a thing that happens, you know, people’s houses burn down—made it so I could be a little more objective and appreciate what nature can do to things. Just seeing the way a bed burns or… It was fascinating, and my house burned as Puerto Rico was underwater and right after Houston and right before all the fires in California. In the grand scheme of things, I got really lucky, as no one was hurt, and no one died.

Have there been other points in your life where you can point to a kind of disruptive act of nature?

Well, I’ve seen it disrupt lives really close to mine, like Hurricane Irene in Vermont was a really big deal and a bunch of friends upstate lost their homes. It’s just been so much natural disaster in the past 10 years that it’s not really shocking anymore. I’ve probably just been really close to nature so I don’t know, I think I’m more amazed by times I haven’t been in trouble with nature or that I’ve missed being at home, for example or I’m glad I wasn’t asleep in the house you know, I mean I wasn’t there, but Jeff was asleep on the couch and one of the dogs was like boop boop boop kind of poked in the face with his nose.

Are you planning to rebuild? Is that still a good place for you?

I may end up moving just because I can’t build what I had, and my barn couldn’t be insured for anything because it was so old, so I don’t know if I can afford to do it. I’m near—I’m in a space where I don’t know what’s gonna happen.

You’ve lived a lot of different places, I wouldn’t totally shocked to see you move on to another one.

But right now, I’m kind of not thinking about it, I’m just like, You know what? I’ll just put all my energy into being on tour and getting the record started.

That creep Cliff Antoine grabbed me by the throat once thinking I was lying about being in the band. I don’t think anyone believes me to this day. https://t.co/6CoSDkZUae

— Neko Case (@NekoCase) May 21, 2018

I hope you don’t mind me asking about a tweet you sent about Cliff Antone. [Ed.: Clifford Antone, founder of noted Austin blues club Antone’s, died in 2006.] Do you know what I’m talking about?

Yeah, I was talking to somebody about how people didn’t believe she was in the band ‘cause she was a girl and she was feeling bad and I was like, “Yeah, it happens.” I’ve been thrown out, hit by the door, [but] being picked up, grabbed by the throat, was the worst.

That’s—I mean, that’s assault.

I do believe he called me a “dumb cunt” as well.

Have you talked about it before?

No. I mean, I come from a really violent place where those things aren’t that unusual. I’m not outing him. I was just saying to her, like, guy owned the club and he still didn’t know that I was in the band—what are you gonna do?

I was thinking about something we’ve heard about a lot lately, which is the “whisper network” that often develops when women feel like they can’t speak freely in public. Is that something that you’ve seen in action?

Yeah, I know a lot of women and I’ve heard a lot of things. Me myself, I’ve been groped by strangers and stuff, but not anyone in the industry. But I know there are people in the industry who are creeps. The whisper network is a real thing though. I tend to just confront people. Some people, I just don’t know how they still work in the industry—I’ve quit tours with crew who were misogynists and what have you.

You weren’t in a position where you could fire them?

No, I just left. It wasn’t my band, you know? What do you do? I’m pretty proactive, I don’t stick around for that shit. I’m not afraid of losing my job, and if I do, so be it. But I’m pretty loud about shit.

Where do you get that fearlessness?

I don’t know, but it’s served me well, because people who want victims don’t want people to fight them. A fight will usually back a bully down really quickly, and some people are just too stupid to know what they’re doing. I’m not saying that’s okay—I’m saying that you can rail against them all you want, they will never understand what’s happening. You can remove yourself from the situation unless you know who can get through to them, but that can be a real losing battle when you’re fighting people who aren’t as smart as you are.

It seems like #MeToo and the outing of harassers and abusers has not happened in music the same way it has in film and television.

It really doesn’t. I know of guys who are fucking creeps and do horrible shit, but I can’t necessarily say that what they do is illegal. Do you know what I mean? They’re horrible, manipulative, fucking assholes, but people also fall for it. I don’t mean like people are stupid. Like I said, I don’t stand for that shit myself. So, you know, I know women who have been hit by guys that they’ve been dating or whatever, but they throw them down a flight of stairs. [Laughs] I’m not saying that’s the right answer either. I’m actually shocked that I haven’t seen more of that in the music industry.

I don’t expect you to have the answer, but I question what structural forces, contractual forces are in place that are keeping people’s mouths shut.

There’s a big myth in the world of music and Hollywood: the “You’re lucky to be here” myth, which is total garbage. People think there are people who can ruin their careers and I really don’t think that’s true. I think you can come at things from another angle. I know a lot of people in Hollywood would disagree with that, and I would trust them, because I haven’t worked in that system. But in music nobody can ruin your career—[although] if you’re in the top 2 percent or Top 40, maybe. I don’t know why we’re not talking about Dr. Luke again. Kesha really tried.

She put everything she had on the line.

She really did, and maybe that’s why women in music aren’t coming forward like that.

It can be hard to prove because they won’t always put Dr. Luke’s name on things now, but he is still somewhat active behind the scenes and helping develop at least one rising pop star. It’s very frustrating that there’s not as much scrutiny there.

I guess the men who are helping him need to be afraid—and the women who are helping him—and if there are young people stupid enough to think that they’re the exception and he can help them, that you’re just part of the problem. That’s just greed. Because there’s no—I don’t know, I’ve dealt with a lifetime of abuse and seeing other women abused, and men don’t come to help you, never. Police don’t come to help you, never. And we’re not allowed to protect ourselves. They have you in a really tight spot where the trope [is] of women being quote-unquote “crazy,” “moody,” not sure of what happened. That trope is a fantastic one, because it really works well.

But it’s not because we inherently are any of those things. It’s because there’s an unspoken rule that it’s illegal to do all these things—it’s illegal to harass women, it’s illegal (supposedly) to rape them, to murder them—but people get away with it every day and no one’s ever prosecuted for it, so what’s the deterrent, really? I mean, you can still get a gun, you can still do whatever you want. When I was young, and these things would happen—you know, I’ve had policemen laugh in my face. I’ve called my father, my stepfather, they never came to help. My mother—nobody ever came to help. Nobody. Ever. At school, I remember saying things to my school counselor and them saying, “I don’t even know what to say to that.” Nobody’s coming to help us. We have to do it ourselves, which seems impossible because we become dangerous when we’re not allowed to protect ourselves—that sort of evil boxing-in where you aren’t allowed enough of your own humanity to stick up for yourself, do you know what I mean?

I’ve been there in the poor version, and I’ve been there in the middle-class version where you go to court and all you get to do is give people your money, and you’re not really protected. In the poor version, where I was dirt poor and had no money, the cops just laugh at you and say things like, “Well, it’d be better to get him for drugs,” and you’re like, “Thanks!” And then the middle class version is, “Well, clearly you can hire all these people, and give up your life savings, and go to court, and give whoever it is that’s bothering you everything you have,” and that’s the end of it. No one goes to court, no one pays, and you start to wonder if you’re crazy, because of the rage. ‘Cause when you know you’re an intelligent, cognizant, self-aware human being, that these are not things that are supposed to be happening to you. And usually women just become dangerous to themselves.

When you say “giving everything up,” what do you mean exactly?

It costs so much money to get a restraining order, and that’s all you get. It’s a piece of paper. It doesn’t do anything. And in the end, I didn’t do it for myself; I did it for the people who love me. It was making them crazy, and they were so scared and worried, and it doesn’t do any good. There’s no such thing as safety. Your government says to you you’re not worth anything, like, “Okay, give us your $35,000 that you saved, see ya, thanks, here’s your piece of paper.” It’s just a racket, there’s no interest in protecting women. None. It’s just like going through the process of getting a parking ticket getting taken care of, except you have to go to where your stalker is and validate everything they do. And you have to see them in court, so basically, we just gave the stalker everything he wanted, and I had to bring myself and a team of lawyers and another team of security. There’s zero justice in that. I don’t know if there is such a thing as justice. I just don’t know.

Is there anything that gives you hope that the system is alleviating?

No, not a thing. #MeToo does not. #MeToo makes me glad for the women and the men who can say these things out loud and not feel alone. I don’t think it’s had any effect on the law. None of these people who have raped women, drugged them and raped them, assaulted them—none of them have gone to jail. None.

That’s true. [Ed.: Four days after this conversation, Harvey Weinstein turned himself in to face rape and sex crime charges.] There’s so much blowback, Have we gone too far? and you’re like, Hold on!

I don’t know how anybody could read the accounts of what happened to these women and young men—the details are what really stick in your mind and there’s no putting that back. “Have we gone too far?” Are you fucking serious? None of them did jail time, so what are you talking about? Not one.

Is there any level of respect that you’ve gained, where you feel like things are different than they were maybe when you were first starting?

Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. With the record companies I’ve been with it hasn’t been a problem, because I’ve always worked with people I really like, and I own my own content and do a 50/50 split. We’re all working for the exact same thing, and all the people I work with are really invested. We’ve had disagreements here and there and there have been misunderstandings, but in my own business, in my own company, it’s good. But I don’t totally know how to navigate things like Spotify, for example. I don’t know what things are gonna change into, so it’s nice to have a team of people that do know what’s up with that to help you navigate it. As far as touring goes, the audience has always been really great, and I’ve been touring for so long I have people who have come back again and again and I’ve never really had like any sort of animosity with my audience, I don’t think. So, I—it’s so insidious because there’s never anything you can prove. There’s a lot of kind of gaslighting stuff, where people tell you one thing, but you maybe don’t trust it.

I know you’re someone who’s very results-oriented, like “don’t just talk, show me the check.”

There have been bad moments in those situations where I’ve been ripped off, but it’s been few and far between, luckily. I have a good agent and a good team of people. There’s a lot of women in my organization, so they know what they’re fighting for, and the men in my organization care very much about that and they know where we’re all coming from. They’re good feminists, these guys!

Have you always had control of your original recordings?

No, not always. I definitely was really lucky to worth with people that were very understanding, and [who] I could negotiate with because they listened. I ended up working out really good deals with everyone, so I’m proud of that. Not owning the material that you paid for is one of the grossest things about the music industry. I don’t know how prevalent it is anymore. I’m hoping people figured out that they needed to really get into the contracts and find out what they were paying for, and who paid for what, and what was a loan, and what is a royalty rate, ecetera, ecetera, because it’s really important. It makes my relationships with the people I work with a lot better, knowing what is actually yours. If you own something and somebody is working with you in a 50/50 partnership and they really bring everything to the table they’re supposed to, you wanna work for them, you wanna give them more, you wanna make yourself vulnerable to them. So it’s very much like a relationship with a friend or a partner—it’s a partnership, it’s a very real thing. I’ve been burned less than some people I know, but it hasn’t been perfect. I can’t really pat myself on the back too hard, but I’m proud that I stuck to my guns and grew in the business. I mean, if I had been signed by a major when I was 22 years old, we wouldn’t be talking about this, ‘cause I would have been out of the game a long time ago probably. Because I would have owned nothing.

That’s true—people don’t realize they’re doing it at the time, but they sacrifice that longevity.

Anything could happen, but I know for sure I would have signed that contract, thinking that I was gonna have money and security, and none of that stuff is guaranteed. It’s just so easy to be bamboozled by that much money—or what you think is that much money, you know what I mean?

I really loved case/lang/veirs. Are there any lessons you learned working on that album that you brought to this one? You brought some of the same singers, of course, but beyond that?

The ceding of control is a really wonderful thing to be able to do when you’ve been a control freak for so long, because it can really serve the song, and it can really change how you do things in a really great way. It can keep you from getting stale and bored with yourself, which is really nice. It was scary to walk out on that plank—it was like, “We’re all control freaks!”—but you know, we’re gonna have a three-way decision making process and we really stuck to it. I was so proud of us! And [producer] Tucker Martine, he was like the fourth Case/Lang/Veirs, kind of our “honorary lady” in our band. It was hard but man, was it fun! I loved the way the record ended up sounding, and the touring was so rewarding and silly and fun. We just had the best time.

I think leaving that and then going to the WomanProducer [panel discussion] here in Brooklyn a few years ago—that was something that gave me a lot of confidence. Between that and WomanProducer I was kinda ready to make this record. I was very focused and very present, and I felt comfortable giving up a piece of control, and I felt qualified to do the job, even though I had thought I always felt qualified to do the job and to be the producer as well.

WomenProducer was such a huge thing for me because it was the first-ever WomanProducer summit in the history of the world! There are women that have been there for every birth of every technology, heavy hitters, and still we’re not thought of as producers. I didn’t know either, like, I can’t be blaming people—people just don’t know. It was so crazy to be representing and see the representation back at myself. They say representation matters—it was like a crazy journey through time, and it was the most moving experience to be on stage with you know, six other women, all different musicians or producers, from all over the world, from every age group. We all just exploded into discussion with each other. We had no idea how starved we were for that sort of interaction, and for that sort of validation, like, here we are! We talked about music and gear and sound and science and all kinds of other things in front of a completely mixed group of people and that was, I think, the highlight of my musical life. I just could not wait to go back to work, and I felt really good.

Who else was there on stage with you?

Well, there was The Blow [members] Melissa Dyne and Khaela Maricich, and Suzi Analogue, and Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto, and Nicole [Hummel] who is the band Zola Jesus. All of us do completely different things and they’re all different ages—Miho’s from Japan originally, and Suzi’s only like 26. Khalea and Melissa and I have known each other for a long time, but none of us had ever met except for Khalea, Melissa, and myself. We just couldn’t stop talking. It was like how you’d think winning an Oscar would feel, I think. I’ve never felt that elated or that high from an experience.

In your press statement ahead of the album, you like identified yourself first as a “music producer,” and then you put “songwriter, musician” after, which seems like an intentional choice.

Yeah, I think the summit really put that in my mind. I had a lot of discussion with people in real life and online about how people don’t realize what we do, and that we are there. And we generally end up producing our own records because we’re not really produced to ask other people’s records—they don’t really think of us. So I thought, “Well, I should just own it and put producer first,” because it is the largest of the three jobs. Of the songwriter, musician, and producer, that’s the largest of the three—it lives in every single portion of it.

What kind of producer are you?

Well, I’m a musician, and a performer who collages, curates, writes. I’m not musically trained so I can’t score anything —some producers are really well trained and can write all the string charts and what have you. I’m not that guy, but I do more jobs than a lot of producers do.

Would you be interested in producing someone else’s album if they asked?

I absolutely would! I feel kind of bad saying that because if somebody asked me right now I wouldn’t have time and I wouldn’t be able to do it, but someday, I would love to produce somebody else’s music.

This record in particular has a whole bunch of backing singers, probably more than you’ve ever used before. You have such a recognizable voice, so how do you choose who’s going to sing with you?

Well, most people work well because I’m really nasal. I’m actually the person that’s not the best backing vocal singer, unless I’m singing with myself, because I have a super nnrrrnnn like very midrangey-very nasal [tone]. I’m just really into the group vocal and the big chorus these days, which I think has everything to do with being in the New Pornographers—they’ve kind of made me a big chorus addict. You know, one point on the record they’re all on there singing too. I love it when our bands crossover—that’s a very Canadian thing.

I was gonna say, it’s starting to feel like Broken Social Scene.

Well, in Canada it’s really easy to know all the musicians because Canada is a very small population, you tour all the big cities, and you meet all the other musicians. There were so few of us that in a way it wasn’t even a question, like, you’re gonna play music in someone else’s band and they’re gonna play music in your band. I’m so glad I came up that way, because it was all about camaraderie and it wasn’t about competition. Competition is something that comes in next to the whole “You’re lucky to be here” myth—it’s like no, there’s room for everybody!

I have some questions about particular songs—the first one’s “Last Lion of Albion.” That idea of Albion has a lot of historical meaning, so I was wondering where you came across that imagery.

It’s just one of those things that when you’re somewhere and you’re looking at a flag, you’re thinking, How did that image get on that flag? There’s a lot of lions associated with England, and yet lions are completely extinct in England. It makes you feel sad inside, and then you realize how every culture everywhere has that, and I was just kind of meditating on that thought.

A similar question about “Winnie,” which has some classical imagery but feels really personal. Are there any particular people that inspired you?

Well, I read this book The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor. She’s an incredible historian and she pretty much figured out —with the help of others—that Amazons were real people. They’re not mythological at all. That was at the height of my anxiety and rage about dealing with stalkers and I just was like, “Okay, I have to focus on something because my adrenal glands are gonna burn out and I’m gonna become really sick and unhealthy.” I was like, “I need to know when in history we started hating women,” so I started doing a lot of research, and I read a lot of things that made sense, and I was able to kind of calm down a little bit. But there was something about Adrienne’s book, where she figures out all these things about Amazons, and tells the stories and how they correlate to the legends, and how there are Amazons everywhere—it’s not just one tribe of people, there were tribes in Africa and India and Mongolia and Russia.

Matriarchal cultures?

Not so much matriarchal—I’ve heard it described not as a culture ruled by women, but egalitarian culture, where people were leaders based on their merits, and where women and men lived together and did things together. It wasn’t a “you are slaves, children, or property” situation. There’s something about Adrienne’s book that was almost overly researched, like she left no gaps, and I realized, I’ve always thought we were there and we’ve always been there. I went to art school for years and years and years and took so much art history and there were no women, and you know in your soul that we were there. Women have been discredited and erased and buried, but the graves are so shallow and sloppy.

When I studied art history in college it’s clear that they’ve replaced and improved the textbooks more recently. Like the classic art history textbook, compared to my mom’s edition…

Gardner’s or Janson’s or both?

It was Janson.

Yeah, both Gardner and Janson get the finger.

That old edition of Janson basically dismissed all non-Western art. When you’ve just come from reading a new textbook written with an angle to rehabbing the history of women and non-Western artists, you see that and you’re like, “Oh, Lord.”

There’s the thing in the old Gardener’s [with] Eastern art—never was an artist ever referred to as a woman, even though they don’t know! Augh, don’t even get me started! Like I said, the graves are shallow and sloppy and we can get us back.

Art history’s not even that old, there’s still time to fix it!

DNA evidence—that’s how they figured out the warrior cultures, the horse cultures in particular. Horses made women the same strength as men, and they were great archers and warriors and leaders. They figured out like 30 percent of these warriors buried in these mass graves were women! They just always assumed they were all men and they just didn’t know. I definitely look at history books much differently now, and if the women aren’t referenced, I have a hard time. Especially knowing all the books I read about Genghis Khan, and how women were hardly ever brought up except for [gruff voice] how many kids you fathered. You’re like, fuck, knowing that a lot of these armies were women may be a big deal!

If you don’t mind, I want go into one of the really personal lyrics on this album: “I left home got a fake ID / I fucked every man that I wanted to be” [from “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”]. Then the next line is, “I was so stupid then.” So I wanted to ask: How long did it take you to reach that judgement of your past self?

Well, I didn’t have any parents, so I didn’t know what love was. I know a lot of women and men who did that: You’re children, you don’t know what love is, you don’t have any parents, and you don’t understand why you gravitate towards something or someone sometimes. Then you look back at yourself a few years later and you’re like, “That’s so embarrassing, what I did and who I slept with,” or whatever. But in the absence of shame there’s only acceptance, and you can reason it out and understand why you did certain things. I don’t feel any shame about anything.

Some people would hear “I was so stupid” as casting shame on your younger self, but is that not the case?

I wouldn’t expect somebody that old to understand those things with zero guidance. There’s just no way when you’re a kid, but hindsight being what it is—like, “Ah, if only I had started doing what I needed to be doing sooner,” that kind of regret. That kind of “I was so stupid then” wasn’t like, “Shame on you for what you did,” it was more like, “It was a waste of time.” I hate waste. I think that’s what it is more than anything, the regret of the waste of the time, not the relationships with people necessarily, but of the time not spent. But then again, I had no course or choice.

Would you ever write a memoir?

I think about it sometimes, but I don’t know that I’m that interesting. I think I would mainly write some stories about some experiences, maybe, or write about music and the exciting part of it—the grey area that we can’t understand, why certain songs make you feel these weird endorphins that make you time travel to a different place, or how you can hear a certain song at a particular time and you’re just grafted to it forever—stuff like that.

Read Spin’s review of Neko Case’s new album Hell-On, written by Katherine St. Asaph.

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