It's a rainy Monday night in a North London boozer and Neko Case is onstage, pondering life's mysteries: "You know, like when you get a hair…in your butt, and you pull it out and you’re like ‘Did I eat it, or did it happen in the shower?’ Terrifying feeling. It’s like the most terrifying feeling there can be, but you’re not actually in danger. There’s gotta be a word for that…"
This is how she chooses to introduce "Maybe Sparrow", one of the most sparse, affecting songs in career that spans twenty years. The thought lingers in her mind long enough to have her laughing her way through the song’s acapella intro. She needs to start over.
Neko Case isn't what you expect. She has the voice of siren and the mouth of a sailor. Her songs may be ornate, almost gothic, and drenched in sadness but in person she’s giddy, hilarious and crass as they come.
She has reason to be excited; her six studio albums (plus a tour-only EP and live disc) have been anthologised in a hulking vinyl box set Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, which also comes with an 80-page book of photographs and memorabilia. We talk only a few days before the release and I ask how she felt being able to hold her entire career in her hands.
"I still haven’t got a finished copy!" she says in a slightly disappointed voice. "I went to Los Angeles, and I saw the finished packaging, so it was like, fiiiinally I can relax now, it’s gonna be fine. The packaging made me realise it’s going to be an actual thing…but I haven’t picked one up yet with the vinyl in it, so that thrill has yet to be had. But I look forward to it. I’ll just be benching it, ‘cause I’m macho. I’ll be like “Let me curl into it and get my photo. Look how heavy it is everyone, look at this muscle bulging as I lift it!"
The set isn't attached to any anniversary - it's not a line drawn in the sand. I put it to her that a box set is a strange gesture for an artist who still has something to say - and it comes only two years after her last album. Case roundly disagrees: "I wanted to make a box set because I have a lot of stuff...My friend Rachel [Flotard - ex-Visqueen guitarist and songwriter], who works with me and has played in my band for many many years - it was kind of her idea to do it. I have so much artwork and photos and ephemera and whatnot, so the idea of making a box set just seemed natural because there was so much artwork and correspondence and keepsakes. Plus, all of our vinyl has gone out of print, pretty much, so what a great thing to do. I’ve been working on other projects, and since I don’t have a new release either, it just seemed like so much fun to dig through the archives and get things out."
"All I’ve done is work since the first record came out. It’s almost like you’re running from something, but really it’s just being poor and wanting to do something like music."
Remastering her back catalogue was the easy part. The real work came in assembling the accompanying book of artwork - the sequel to which Case has already started putting together. “I worked closely with my friend Kathleen Judge on all the artwork, and we’d figured out that an 80-page booklet would be great. And, I’ve been to art school, I have a degree [but] I did not realise that eighty pages is a lot! Like, there’s no fucking way you could get twenty years into eighty pages. There’s no way to put it all in one place that would weigh less than…I think a box set is nice as a box set, but it probably wouldn’t be nice as, like, a filebox of your taxes for four years!"
Despite the inherent nostalgia in putting together a set of your entire recorded output to date, Case isn’t one for looking back. She chalks this up to the constant momentum of of her career: "All I’ve done is work since the first record came out. It’s almost like you’re running from something, but really it’s just being poor and wanting to do something like music. You don’t get to rest if you really want to do it. It’s like a compulsion, it’s like half compulsion, half need."
And while her restless streak hasn’t quite left her living a nomadic lifestyle, she found herself moving all over the continent, "whether it be finishing art school or just trying to build a life back in the States when my visa was up, after having lived in Canada for four years."
Before settling down in relative isolation and self-sufficiency at her Vermont farm, which doubles up as her studio, she was fortunate to have clearly been surrounded and supported by a large pool of extremely encouraging people in the local artistic communities she’s lived in.
“I had two jobs in Chicago,” she explains, "and one day I was on tour so much I couldn’t go to work anymore. Since then, I’ve just been on tour. I was animating shadows and doing pencil testing at an animation house, and I was bartending. Both jobs were incredibly supportive of me, by the way – I always want to give a shoutout to The Hideout and Calabash in Chicago. The Hideout support a lot of musicians who are going on tour, and they’re just wonderful. Some people love the arts, and understand why music is important – like, of course there’ll be shifts for you when you get home!"
While her early records were made under the banner of Neko Case And The Boyfriends, the line-up dispersed in 2000. From 2002’s Blacklisted onwards, though, a solid cast of players has been Case’s secret weapon. She's backed at her recent London show by multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, Tom V Ray on bass and Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann on guitar and keys.
“The people in my band are so shy about being photographed or getting attention.” she explains. “They’re like ‘We don’t need to do the interviews, we don’t our want photos taken! No, you don’t need a name for your band – we like to tour. We like to play on records!' They wanna be sidemen, but that’s not their level of dedication. They are all in, and they are my best friends, and my family. But they’re like not into that part. So in a way it was super nice for me to get to go through pictures of them, and things they’ve contributed. And again, there was not even close to enough room in eighty pages! So that’s another reason there’ll be another book.”
Case seems incapable of taking anything or anyone for granted. “I was in art school, I was playing in punk bands. Compared to Canadians, who I lived amongst at the time, it’s a pretty aggressive thing to go to your record company [Mint] who your other band [Case drummed with Canadian punk trio Maow] is on, and go ‘Can I make a solo record? I wanna make a solo record!’ And they’re like ‘Hmm…okay!’ So it was really sweet that they let me.”
That solo record was 1997’s The Virginian, which makes its first appearance on vinyl in the box set. It’s a tentative work, the sound of an artist who isn’t entirely sure who she is or what she wants to be. All the signs are there - you can just about tell it’s Neko Case - but there’s no real way to know in which direction they actually point.
When I ask if time has made her want to change anything about her debut, Case gives a very firm no: “Every second of that was magical to me, and the people I worked with… It was the first time I’d worked with Darryl Neudorf on a record, and I’ve worked with him on all my records since. Brian Connelly’s played on pretty much all my records since then, except for one – and I will remedy this time, because he didn’t make it on the last one.”
“I’m not ashamed that I learned in front of my audience, I guess. I have to own it. I am proud of it. I think I’m a lot more forgiving of things. I’d always listen to my first record and I cringe a little bit at my vocals because, as somebody pointed out to me once – and it kinda seemed maybe bold and rude at the time – you can hear me being afraid. I remember a friend of mine in the studio said ‘You have absolutely no dynamic. You’re a good vocalist, but you don’t have any dynamics whatsoever.’ Which seems really rude, but he’s right!"
“[He was] an American who was almost German in his forthrightness: 'No dynamic!' Which is something I love - when people are telling you the hard truth when they’re not trying to be mean, it’s like they have a bit of faith in you. They’re kind of investing a little bit. It’s an uncommon thing – something a really close friend would do."
"So the first time I went to Germany and fans came up, they’d say,” [Case affects a German accent] 'This record is…not as good as your last record.’ And I’d be like ‘OK, that’s kinda strange…’"
“But then I realised, y’know what? Germans don’t bullshit each other. And I admire that. And I could use that a lot more, because I’m kind of a feral kid with no parents, like…I could use a little help. The Canadians taught me how to use a knife and fork…and the Germans taught me to seek good criticism.”
"It just seemed like so much fun to dig through the archives and get things out..."
One moment in particular highlights the all-in-the-red vocal style she adopted on The Virginian - her surprising cover of Scott Walker’s tender “Duchess”. Compared to her more nuanced later work - such as belting the penultimate line of 2008’s “This Tornado Loves You” just the once, where other artists would milk it to the song’s end - it’s something of a fiasco, and one about which Neko is circumspect.
"The Scott Walker song didn’t really work, but I didn’t really think anybody would ever hear it! I didn’t know enough about music at the time to know I could actually move it down a key or up a key, so that it wouldn’t be too high or too low. We’ve just started playing it again now, and I moved the key!” She laughs, incredulous that it took her this long to realise such a thing was possible. “And it’s like going from a large man’s shoe to a women’s size nine, and going ‘Okay! It’s not a clown shoe anymore! I can actually walk in these shoes.’”
The clown shoes have remained in the closet but Case’s choices of covers - from Sparks to Nico and, with “Don’t Forget Me”, the definitive interpretation of any Harry Nilsson song - have never been anything short of ambitious. When I ask why she tends to pick songs of that scope when others might shy away, she simply retorts “Because they’re super good bands?”
What makes an ideal cover song? "I am of the opinion that there are songs that really don’t need to be covered, and it’s even kinda weird to cover them. And I have covered a couple of those songs, without realising that at the time.”
"Runnin’ Out of Fools’ is a pretty weird song to cover! You’re never gonna do it better than Aretha Franklin…but the lovely Kelly Hogan pointed out - ‘You do it differently than Aretha Franklin, and then if somebody’s never heard the Aretha Franklin version before, that’s how they hear it.’”
Hogan has been Neko Case’s vocal and onstage foil for the last fifteen years. The lovely Kelly Hogan who was extremely conspicuous by her absence from Case’s current tour - an absence which doesn’t go unnoticed. “Where’s Kelly?” asks one hardy punter during her London show. Case doesn’t blanche. “She’s cheating on us with The Decemberists right now,” she tells the crowd. “The scandal is in all the tabloids in America. You can’t buy a fucking lighter and a bag of Christmas oranges without seeing Hogan’s face leaving a restaurant looking mad, and me looking sad, sitting in a restaurant alone.”
“Me and Hogan,” Case elaborates, "...it's like we’re a gang, y’know? I met her in ’97 in New York at a CMJ conference. She came as a representative of Bloodshot Records to a show that my friend Carolyn Mark and I were doing. We hung out that night, had knishes at Yonah Schimmel the next day, and we were just like ‘God, you’re the best!’ It was a sweet connection, immediately. She knows so much about music, and cares so much. Just watching the way she’s figured out how to do that or the way she shares that with people is really super-inspiring. So of course I was going to ask her to sing on my records because she was a fucking genius. We toured together and,” Case pauses, before adopting a melodramatic voice. “We fell in love, man!”
That love is frequently demonstrated in the pair’s exchanges on Twitter, where Case's deliciously twisted sense of humour becomes even more apparent. My current favourite: “‘Periods a' comin' and I'm cryin' about dogs..’ **sung to the tune of ‘Folsum [sic] Prison’.”
She’s all too happy to interact with fans, in part because of just how busy she can be before, during and after her shows. “I kind of enjoy just getting to be myself,” she says. “When you meet somebody, and you know you’re gonna talk to them for a second, there’s a self-consciousness that happens on both sides. Sometimes people are like 'Oh, I love your music,' and I’m like 'Aw, thanks man, that’s great!' So we’re both shy. But [on Twitter] you just get to talk to them about regular stuff – like, the conversations you’d wanna have with someone. I mean it when I say thank you so much for coming to the show, but you wanna be able to know them a little more, you know what I mean?”
“Like, their sweetness and their gratitude means everything of course, but getting to talk to somebody about where they get baby chicks from in the springtime is fucking adorable. You get to actually bond with them, which is really awesome. They are the greatest source of books and music to me. That’s the really wonderful thing about it – it’s short and sweet, and you can attach links to stuff which is great, and read later. And of course, like everyone else, I go down the rabbit hole, and sometimes I’ll just be like 'Duhhhhhh' and an hour and a half will go by! It’s a really great thing to get away from the feeling that you’re trapped in an airport...which you are.”
As well as her prolific tweeting, Case has also begun making regular appearances on podcasts. Her rendition of Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” on Wits shows that if the whole Americana thing doesn’t pan out, there’s an alternate career waiting for her in metal. Meanwhile, her ire for one particularly deathless Christmas classic spewed out over two separate episodes of Comedy Bang Bang, and finds its way into our conversation. ‘tis the season, after all...
“‘Santa Baby’ is the grossest fucking song ever written. No offence to Eartha Kitt, because I love her, but that song is just infantalising, and the golddigger stereotyping. Christmas songs are just gross – ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’…y’know, people argue it’s a little bit rapey, which…I see the point. But, y’know, there is that awkward period at the end of the night if you’re on a date or whatever, where you’re like 'Do I stay or do I go?' and you go back and forth. Or you could just pass out on someone’s couch, but that doesn’t make a good song, does it?”
Venom suitably excised, we go back to talking about podcasts, having recently completed a mini-tour of return appearances on some of podcasting’s big hitters. I ask whether people have got in touch to say that they became fans of hers via her detours into comedy. “Yes, strangely. And that always makes me very happy because…I’m gonna sound like a dick for saying this, but whenever there’s a thing where I’m not talking about myself specifically, it’s easier to run with stuff. Who doesn’t feel self-conscious talking about themselves when you could be talking about ‘Santa Baby’? It’s a different thing, so you kinda open up.”
“The shows like that that I’ve been on, they’re very laid back, and usually you just go into an office and sit around a desk, and you guys are just fucking with each other, and it’s really fun. The first time I ever did Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! was by phone from Winnepeg to Chicago; the Nerdist podcast is in this little tiny cubicle, that’s like a little treehouse inside a giant comic book store in Los Angeles. “I’m huddled in there with Matt and Chris, and we’re all 'Hee hee hee!' laughing about boners. Y’know, it’s super fun.”
One of Neko’s more memorable recent podcast appearances was a two-way interview for NPR’s All Songs Considered, finally giving her the opportunity to speak (over the phone) with long-time Twitter sparring partner John Grant. During their conversation, they tentatively made plans to make a Eurythmics-style electropop album. I ask her how it’s going, and whether they’ve actually had the chance to meet up and discuss it properly.
“No, not in person,” Case sighs. “Our love affair continues in the ether.”
But you’re still thinking about doing the record? “Oh yeah! It’s a text message conversation that includes photos of plants, some knitting…he’s like the best friend I’ve always had, but we didn’t start actually speaking until about a year and a half ago. I mean, he was on tour, and now I’m on tour – basically I just have to go to Iceland.” She stops for a second, before liberally dousing her voice in all the sarcasm she can muster, “and that is a really horrible thing.” Normal service resumes: “It’s like a fantasy come true – getting to go to Iceland, and then there’s John Grant. Like, how good will that be?”
"Mostly he’s been sending photos of slippers and stuff. I think it’s a good way of starting – it’s just gonna naturally evolve, but I’m super into it. I have a lot of faith in it. We just discovered on the phone we both speak Russian, so maybe we can come up with a song in Russian which…people don’t really like those unless they’re Russian, so there you go. We even got John Congleton on the phone [during the podcast]. We were like ‘John Congleton! What uuuup!’ And he was really sweet, he was like ‘Hey, I’m in the studio right now with Nelly Furtado, but I’ll get back to you.’”
I can think of a lot of people who would really, really want this record to happen, I tell her. "I really want this record to happen! Don’t kid yourself, I want this.”
If talking to Neko Case has taught me anything, it's that she is very good at getting what she wants. If Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule can teach you anything, it's that she has damn well earned it.