In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Neko Case has generally avoided getting too personal—or at least autobiographical—in her music, but it doesn’t get much more personal than the title of her new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Its 12 songs contain the most autobiographical music Case has written over her six studio albums, with numerous allusions to family and romantic entanglements that seem to come from a place closer to her heart that on previous records. Surprisingly, she wonders if fans will find that tedious, as she told The A.V. Club for a special, album-specific Set List for The Worse Things Get…
Neko Case: I just like to think of myself as a species rather than a female, necessarily. I mean, I am one and I’m into it, but sometimes if you refer to yourself as a guy, people will correct you, and I’m like, “Why are you bothering to correct me? I can be whatever I want.” [Laughs.] And then the person will say, “I don’t know. Why am I correcting you?” So it kind of came from that. Plus my grandma always referred to herself as a guy. [Old-lady voice.] “Well, how does a guy get on the 90 from here?” I would talk like that because of her, then I would get corrected, and I’d be like, “Fuck off! I’m a guy if I wanna be a guy.” But the song isn’t so much a “fuck off” as it is a light-hearted, “everyone’s included” style.
The A.V. Club: Many of your other songs, such “I’m An Animal,” “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “The Tigers Have Spoken,” have identified with animals.
NC: We’re animals, and I think that I’m much happier thinking of myself that way than separate from natural, organic creatures.
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”
NC: It’s exactly verbatim as it happens in the song, quite literally.
AVC: In this case it was a mother saying a terrible thing to her child, but there’s always a question of whether should you say something. It’s always tricky being in that kind of situation.
NC: My animal instinct said to kill that lady, and I watched how the kid handled it instead. She handled it well, so I took her lead. She just turned around and ignored asshole mom and sang her little song. She just blows it off. She didn’t even shut down; she just turned around and went the other way.
AVC: How old was the kid?
NC: Probably about 5.
AVC: Why do it a cappella?
NC: Well, the demo of it I just sang it into my phone while I was driving. I tried it with music briefly, but it just made a lot more sense by itself. It didn’t work with music.
AVC: It hits harder that way—there’s nothing else there to make it easier for people to hear.
NC: And it didn’t make it easier for me to sing, either. It’s really difficult to do a song a cappella like that, so also, just in the realm of recording, it was a fun challenge to have backing vocals and no time signature, no anything. There was no click track or anything.
AVC: It’s not a consistent tempo.
NC: No, it’s not. There’s a couple things that happen, but for the most part it’s just off the floor.
AVC: Have you witnessed any other especially awful situations like the one that inspired this song?
NC: I don’t know. I’ve been that kid a lot, so I’ve seen a lot of it—fighting in general.
“Where Did I Leave That Fire”
NC: That one just came from feeling really numb and not being able to connect with people, even though I was around people all the time. Kind of lost my people skills and felt like I was in a plastic bag. [Laughs.] So you could talk to people and communicate with them, but I didn’t really have an ability to conduct electricity at all. I was just kind of isolated within my world. I don’t know; I just found I was down in the ocean a lot, moving really slow, walking across the ocean floor or something.
AVC: Is the dissonance at the end of the song a reaction to that feeling?
NC: I didn’t think about it that hard. It’s just more of a sketch of a really super-constant monotony, kind of a grind.
AVC: Was this record tougher to do? It seems like it was a bit arduous.
NC: No, it took a while, but it always does. It just took a long time to get stuff together for the record. There was just too much going on, so it just took a long time. This time, I feel just lots of relief now that it’s done. I’m like, “Aaaahhh.” I just really want to go out and go on tour. We’ve been practicing like mad.
AVC: Do you have a hard time stopping work on a project?
NC: No, I definitely get to a point where I can edit, and I’m okay with it. Sometimes I feel like it’s going to end up that I work on something forever, but it always ends up working out, and I trust myself more and more as the years go by that it’s going to be okay.
AVC: You haven’t done a lot of autobiographical stuff over the years, but it seems like there’s more on this record than there has been in the past. Is that accurate?
NC: Yeah, there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff, which I hope that people don’t find too tedious. I didn’t really want it to be that way, but it’s kind of what I had at the time. I decided to give my audience the benefit of the doubt and trust them with it and just go, “Well, okay, if they don’t like it, that’s okay. I will go back to more of a story-writing form later.”
AVC: Why do you think it would be tedious?
NC: I don’t know. I go on tour and make music—that’s all I do, like I don’t have anything new to tell anyone, you know what I mean? So I don’t know that my life is really so exciting that it’s worth autobiographical things—I’d rather make up stories about things. I’m not saying that my life is boring to me, but it’s pretty relentlessly work-y, so I don’t know if people necessarily want to hear about that.
AVC: There have already been so many songs written about life on the road.
NC: Yeah, I don’t need to write about life on the road. Sometimes you want to not be on the road. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Well, I’m not going to write about it also,” not that I don’t love it, because I do. Plus I’m never going to top “Turn The Page”—what’s the point, right? I think Bob Seger owns all rights to all songs about being on the road, so I don’t want to get into some kind of legal battle. I don’t want to mess with the Seger cartel.
AVC: Is the autobiographical diffused over the record, or concentrated?
NC: No, it’s pretty straight up. There are some songs that aren’t really autobiographical, like “Bracing For Sunday” isn’t. That’s a holdover from the last record, storytelling-style. But most things are pretty autobiographical.
“I’m From Nowhere”
NC: “I’m From Nowhere” has been around forever. The band and I had many versions of it, and finally we decided to make it as simple as possible for it to sound like a song. We had to cut out lots of bridges—we just worked too hard on it before, so we had to all leave it alone and start from the ground up, and it was just better more simple.
AVC: Was that what’s kept it off records before?
NC: Yeah, it just wasn’t done. It was just not right—too much, too many lyrics, too many parts. It just needed to be left alone and then packed apart. It needed to be trimmed. [Laughs.] It wasn’t making any apples.
AVC: Have other songs on previous records lingered along like that?
NC: Not like that one. I can’t really think of anything else that’s been around that long. I’ve never had anything that’s been around for longer than, like, two records before it got used. That one, though, has been around for three records—it’s Fox Confessor era. It’s been around, but it’s changed also, so it’s not totally old, so it’s just got the basic concepts of it and the main melody.
“Bracing For Sunday”
NC: It’s just a story I made up. I’m sorry, I can’t describe where everything comes from because I don’t totally know. It’s just one of those things that you start singing while you’re doing the dishes or something. It’s an idea that won’t leave you alone. Why I wrote it? I don’t know. It was just fun. I like to make up small stories. And that one was more about playing guitars than going with lyrics first.
AVC: When you’ve done more story-song stuff in the past, has it come to you that way as well, just during mundane moments?
NC: Yeah, there’ll be a couple ideas that I’ll write down here and there, and then I’ll look at them all at the same time. I kind of collage them together to see which parts fit with what and what makes the most interesting “choose your own adventure” style. [Laughs.] What route would be the most interesting.
AVC: It seems like where songs end isn’t necessarily where they start, too.
NC: Yeah, I generally end up with the very first thing that I thought and cut out a lot of what happens after that. I’ll push the idea, but then I’ll often come back to the very first thing. I like to edit a lot.
AVC: Do you tend to think your first idea is your best idea?
NC: Yeah, most of the time. Nine times out of 10, it usually works that way.