Neko Case On 'Hell-On'

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 9, 2018 4:45 pm
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Every new album from Neko Case brings something interesting, unexpected, clever, maybe just a little odd. That continues with "Hell-on," her first solo album in five years.


NEKO CASE: (Singing) Early in the morning, where there used to be a stream, is a tiny business lake. Don't let the cattails fool you. Down in the bottom, where nothing is born....

SIMON: Neko Case joining us now from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Ariz., right outside of Phoenix. Thanks so much for being with us.

CASE: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: So you're recording this album in Sweden and then found out that your house in Vermont had burned down.

CASE: Yeah, it was kind of - it was burning as I got the phone call. There wasn't anything I could do, obviously, except for panic and be freaked out. It wasn't a good time.

SIMON: Yeah. Do we hear that in the song "Bad Luck?"

CASE: Well, the song was written long before the actual event, but I had to sing it the morning of the fire. So I thought for a long time that it just sounded really blah and very cold. But the backing vocals are so energetic and they're a great counterpoint to the kind of shock-ness (ph) of the lead vocal, I guess. And, you know, I thought about replacing it and then Lassam Yorten (ph), the mix engineer that I was working with, said, well, maybe that's just what somebody sounds like when their house burns down. And I thought, you know, you're right. So I actually turned up the backing vocals to be slightly louder than the lead vocals.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to it if we can.


CASE: (Singing) Woke a dog from a running dream and that's bad luck, bad luck. Ate a black fly in the cream and that's bad luck, bad, bad luck. Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring and that's bad luck...

I was thinking about things that are considered bad luck, like, you know, walking under a ladder or something, and then, the things you do to undo bad luck where you throw salt over your shoulders - just really bizarre things - so I wanted to invent some things.


CASE: (Singing) Woke a dog from a running dream and that's bad luck, bad luck. Ate a black fly in the cream and that's bad luck, bad, bad luck.

SIMON: Wait, wait, hold on for a second.


SIMON: I'm just knocking on wood.

CASE: OK (laughter).


SIMON: I want to listen to the title song, and I'm going to ask you, what the hell do the lyrics to "Hell-On" mean? Let's listen.


CASE: (Singing) God is not a contact or a guy. God isn't a specified tide. You cannot time its tables. It sets no glass or gables. God is a lusty tire fire.

SIMON: Now, I love that line God is a lusty tire fire, but I'm not sure why.

CASE: Well, that's what poetry is supposed to do. Poetry, music, art - you're making a language to explain things that your native language or any language you know isn't quite enough for you to explain something. Sometimes it's really difficult to, you know, explain what an emotion is. And so art and music and poetry and things like that are a way to attempt that and to feel that you can stretch much longer than you're capable of and it feels really good.


CASE: (Singing) Have mercy on the natural world.

SIMON: We found a quote thanks to the magic of Internet technology these days. You have described your singing as, quote, "heavy-handed, nasal, vibrato-less" and compared it to Bulgarian folk singing.

CASE: Well, yeah, because my voice is very nasal and until I found Bulgarian folk singing, I couldn't really put a finger on where it sat or where it belonged or what it was related to. But those folk records are - they're all about drones and they're all about making strange harmonies.



CASE: It's a really powerful feeling and a powerful sound. And it's not always a super musical sound, but I do have a very nasal voice and it doesn't blend well with other people, so I'm not the greatest harmony singer in the world, for example. And it's not a pretty voice, but it is a very loud voice.


CASE: (Singing) He said, come on sweet girl let's find you an ocean that goes with your eyes.

SIMON: You are in the early stages of touring for "Hell-on." Do you like it?

CASE: Yeah, I love touring.

SIMON: So many people complain about it.

CASE: It's an incredibly physical task because singing on its own is super physical, and then, when you add guitar playing to that and connecting yourself to other people onstage, it's incredibly physical. And I've got to eat right. I have to go to bed at a certain hour. I've got to drink a lot of water. I've got to go to the gym, like, otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do it. But it's so worth it. And it's good for my mind. I feel very present. It's a really rewarding thing to do if you can figure out how to keep at it without your innards crumbling from exhaustion or boredom or - you know, I think that's what gets a lot of people is the waiting.

SIMON: What was that - there's a French Francois Truffaut film "Day For Night" where they're looking at the rushes of the film they make. And the actress turns to the director and says, every time I see one of my films, I wonder, when did we do that? All I remember is the waiting.

CASE: Yeah, that is how I could probably explain a lot of my life. On this record, however, I was very present for all of it. And I always am and it's a - it's a great job and it's so nice to be really engaged because I don't want to look back on my life anymore and think about, you know, wow, those three tours, I remember these two things from those three tours. I want to remember as much as I can. And a lot of the people I work with are close friends, and I want to be with them. And it's a time in your life. It's not a time to be rushed through to get to your life. Does that make sense?

SIMON: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Neko Case - her new album is "Hell-on." Thanks so much for being with us.

CASE: Thank you for having me.


CASE: (Singing) Last lion of Albion, they'll use you for centuries to come. They'll you steal your patents for the sun and you'll feel extinction. Last lion of Albion, they'll use you for centuries to come. Your wound is the main road into London. And you'll feel extinction when you see your face on their money. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.