When it comes to putting on a brave face, Neko Case has the market cornered. Her solo career is one populated by work that celebrates an unabashedly raw sense of honesty delivered by a fearless set of pipes. However, her recent album is notably more vulnerable: from the first listen, an element of struggle is palpable. What could cause the foremost authority on bravado to lose her poker face? According to Case, a depression swept the gates and took her down a peg or two. And the resulting album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, documents the long hard road out of those woods.
“This record was made despite feeling like an ugly, drowned rock,” says Case. “It was definitely not cathartic, but I’m sure on some level it kept the box cars moving just in a purely functional sense.”
Case lost both her parents and her grandmother in fairly close succession and the effect it had on her was profound. Described as a period of “concentrated grieving,” she was forced to meet the emotions head on and find a way through them. The album, her sixth studio release, was a struggle for closure, but it didn’t give her thae direction creative projects usually do.
“Work is usually a coping mechanism, which didn’t work this time. That was scary.”
Nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped the recording from garnering good reviews and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. Along with that, Case started getting over the sadness, was able to enjoy herself more and began move forward.
In an interview with Vice Media’s Noisey, she reveals, “After a while you kind of start, you don’t feel like you’re really making progress, but you kind of start to see the humor in things again and especially in your situation. That’s when I found things got a little different.”
Finding her way clear of the suffering without the help of her creative process brought about a new understanding of not only music’s role in her life but also her personal strength on a whole.
“I’m glad that it worked out the way it did, but I don’t think music saved my life, which is terrifying, because that’s the first time that’s ever happened. It’s a good lesson, though; you can’t rely on one thing,” she relayed to 77 Square, an arts and entertainment website out of Madison, WI.
At the same time, that didn’t stop her from crafting self-aware lyrics during the writing process. In the disarmingly honest “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” she astutely describes what happens to you when you lose yourself to a personal abyss of depression: “A chill ran through me/And I grabbed on tight/That’s when I left my body for good/And I shook off all the strength I’d earned.”
And in the melancholy yet optimistic “Ragtime” that follows closely behind, she promises: “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready/I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”
And so the audience follows her through the woods and out the other side. At the end a feeling of defiant empowerment emerges — the kind one can only gain by taking on their own demons and emotions head on, something Case credits as a drag but a necessary one that made her healthier.
Since then, Case has been on the circuit with the album almost non-stop. Though the process has been exhausting and the singer longs for a spot of time off, the songs have enjoyed their time on the road. Case especially likes playing “Man,” the defiant ditty on The Worse Things Get that features that loud, distorted guitar she happens to love.
Her touring band also features four vocalists, making it possible to deliver soaring and complex vocal harmonies that flesh out the music more wholly. A huge part of that sound is collaborator and backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Hogan and Case have been working together since 1998 and have crafted a big part of what has made Neko Case’s sound evolve in the way it has.
In 2012, Hogan released a solo album, called I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, which featured the famed Booker T. Jones and the eclectic talent of Andrew Bird. It introduced the world to what Hogan’s voice was capable of. Her voice also lent itself dearly to Case, not only for the music but on a personal level, personified perfectly within the lyrics of “Golden” which she wrote with Case in mind during a period of professional doubt: “And I wanna hear you talking to me from a pay phone/telling me that dreams can turn real/‘Cause I been there before/I’ve been knocking at doors/And I know how that burns, I know how it feels.”
With the gentle ear and backing voice of her good friend, Case has been able to bring the emotion of the last few years to the forefront and share her exploration with fans. Her live vocal performances of late have been described as defiant, primal, athletic, emotional and honest, proving it is not just her lyrics that pack a forthright punch.
Despite being weary from the road, Case is happy to be touring Canada.
“I lay back into the fuzzy, maple leaf flag-Snuggie arms of Canada and exhale with joy. I feel at home there and I’m homesick for it quite a lot. A tour in Canada is always too fleeting.”
So, as the Great White North welcomes her with open arms, Neko Case licks her wounds and keeps her eyes on the road to the other side of acceptance and peace. Case has stamps on her passport from all the important stops along the way. If you want a good opportunity to hear about them all, check out her set at Sled Island and follow her story, “Ragtime turning out the sun and moon/Its gravity is soothing/It winds me in a sleek cocoon.”
Neko Case plays Olympic Plaza on Friday, June 20.
By Jennie Orton