Neko Case on depression, the Hunger Games, and rediscovering family

The singer-songwriter in conversation with Michael Barclay

Photograph by Emily Shur

The sound of Neko Case’s voice usually stops people in their tracks; the mighty k.d. lang is only one of her many prominent admirers. But staring down the black dogs of a deep depression—triggered by the death of her two parents, from whom she was estranged, and a beloved grandmother—sucked the joy out of the normally fiery, funny and fierce 42-year-old songwriter, whose unique repertoire ranges from alt-country barn-burners to smoky torch balladry to abstract tone poems.

Case had to apply brakes to her normally busy touring and recording schedule—along with her solo career, she’s part of Vancouver power pop band the New Pornographers, and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan recruited Case and her band to record and tour for his last solo album—to retreat to her rural Vermont farm and heal. The experience weighs heavily on her sixth album: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. But Case is determined not to parlay her personal crisis into the defining story of her new songs, some of which are raucous (Man) and reassuring (Calling Cards). Case has never been one-dimensional; she’s not about to become a caricature now. The album closes with the defiant lyric, “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready / I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”

Q. You have new tattoos on your arms: one says “Scorned as Timber,” the other “Beloved of the Sky.” Together they’re the title of an Emily Carr painting. What’s the story?

A. I first saw the painting when I went to school in Vancouver. I’ve wanted these tattoos for about 20 years. That was now a responsible amount of time to wait, and now I can have them. It’s that simple.

Q. Was it the painting, the title, or both?

A. I always loved the painting. It’s not my favourite painting of hers, but the combo of the painting and the title is like poetry and an image, it really worked. I don’t have any parents, and it’s a really lovely way to say ‘orphan.’ A really kind, non-confrontational way to say ‘orphan.’ Her life and her painting style are very meaningful to me. Of course, I went to Emily Carr College of Art and Design. That’s a huge part of my life, and I’m sure the reason I play music now, and the reason I know how to work in this medium.

Q. This record is about recent events in your life, but it’s not The Ballad of Neko Case; it’s not transparent and confessional.

A. It’s a lot murkier than that. I would love to say that it’s not about me, but I don’t want to lie about it either. On the one hand you don’t want to reveal too much because the listener brings 50 per cent of what it means to them to the table. This album is not me feeling sorry for myself. It’s not me saying my experience is sooooo potent and powerful that I’m going to bless you with it. That kind of stuff is so gross: ‘My incredible time in rehab!’ That’s bulls–t, and not my goal. But I didn’t have anything else to offer at that time. It was so viscous, what was going on, I couldn’t really shake it. It had to be about me, and I had to say, ‘Yeah, it’s about me. Sorry. I’ll return to my funner self.’ This record didn’t happen because of those situations; it happened in spite of those situations.

Q. This album stops cold in the middle for a stark a cappella song (Nearly Midnight, Honolulu) about witnessing a child being verbally abused by her mother in a public place. It’s written with not just sympathy and concern, but deep empathy. What went into that song for you?

A. It’s a verbatim, word for word thing that happened. I just sang it into my little phone thing. I tried to set it to music, but it didn’t work, so I kept it a cappella, with only one keyboard note under it.

Q. It’s incredibly poetic as music. It’s ironic to me that it takes the most literal story and yet comes across as some of my favourite lyrics on the record, as a short story distilled.

A. I wonder about that kid a lot. It was so horrible.

Q. How old was the child?

A. About five. I’m a really aggressive, action-based human being, and my desire to take the mother down like a gazelle was pretty hard. Resisting it felt like heroin withdrawal. But I watched how the kid handled it, and the kid just kept singing her little song and turned around walked away from her. I’ve been that kid a lot, so I knew that the kid loses twice in this situation. If the kid is coping with it now, that’s what kids do: they survive. That’s all they know, they don’t know any different so it doesn’t seem odd to them. So later they’re going to learn what that means, and they’re going to pay for the fact that they had to cope with it. They lose twice. It’s so unfair.

Q. Recently, you’ve talked about being over 40 and single and childless and owning that.

A. I made that decision. I don’t have to be married to my job, but it’s the only thing that’s never let me down. It makes me feel like I have a purpose. I didn’t feel like that for most of my life, so I’m not going to abandon that. My friend Phil, who is our sound engineer and a super good friend says, ‘Don’t you think people think you’re extra weird because you’re in your 40s and you’ve never been divorced?’ Actually, it’s like: I didn’t get married because a) no one ever asked me and b) I was waiting for it to be the right one. Now being 42 and not being married is like: ‘Oh, what kind of monster must she be?’

Q. But does anyone think twice about a 42-year-old male musician who’s never married and doesn’t have kids?

A. Probably not, but I don’t even care anymore. I can’t worry about them. Yeah, there are differences in how media see us and how we see ourselves, and the real problems are the gulfs between what male and female musicians get or don’t get, what they do or don’t do. And it’s not so much even that as the financial gulf between the musicians in the top five per cent and the rest of us: it’s massive. If you’re in the newspaper, people think you’re super wealthy, but no, it means I have a good publicist.

Q. I was excited to see you on the Hunger Games soundtrack, because so much of what you’ve spoken about over the course of your career was embodied in the heroine. Did that gig mean anything to you or was it just an opportunity?

A. It meant a lot to me. Half because I really admire [soundtrack producer] T-Bone Burnett. His trust in me—I could live on that. His enthusiasm will make you better than you thought you were. It’s an incredible, wizardy gift. And then I read all the books, and I was so excited for young people, not just women, to see a strong female character not sexualized, not made really girly or really masculine. Girls and boys, men and women, gay, straight, transgender—everyone can relate to this character as just a human and can insert themselves into her position. To see a strong female character like that? I did not have that when I was young. I was so proud to be on that soundtrack. Being pretty down for a few years, that trilogy of books was a really wonderful place to go for me.

Q. You were born in Virginia and grew up in Tacoma, Wash., and then lived in Vancouver, Chicago and Arizona. How is rural Vermont treating you now?

A. Fantastically. I love it so hard. I come from farming Ukrainians. That’s what my family bloodlines are, even though I don’t really have any relationship with my family. It’s super DNA style.

Q. Are you on a country road or somewhat close to a town?

A. No, I’m out there. But ‘out there’ in Vermont is not the same as ‘out there’ in Utah or Montana. It’s not like, ‘I live 31 miles from my nearest neighbour.’ I’m in love with my neighbours. There are not people my age where I live. I think the person I’m closest to is about 65, and she’s incredible. I’ll go out to lunch with a group of people who are anywhere from 15 to 85. I love the cross-generational discussions that happen, and it’s such a fantastic education and very validating. I get a sense of what family is supposed to be, because I don’t have a family: I don’t have parents, I never had brothers or sisters. I think it’s a really important thing, even though I’m only learning it now. Maybe I appreciate it more now, because I didn’t take it for granted when I was eight years old.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.