Music history has innumerable examples of "next big thing" artists who never lived up to the expectations. Hype burns brightly but extinguishes quickly, and that can crush those who bought into it. The buzz around Neko Case has long called her a star in waiting, a songwriter with an inimitable voice who moves closer to the big time with each new record. As Case prepared her fifth album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, rumors circulated that it was her best yet—and they were right. A shoe-in for year-end best-of lists, Confessor expands Case's airy, country-leaning Americana into new spaces far beyond the alt-country template. During its opening week, Confessor sold 18,000 copies to debut at #54 on the Billboard Top 200, an unprecedented accomplishment for Case. Her new success has a lot to do with her move from a small indie (Bloodshot) to a big indie (Anti-), whose considerable resources have helped sustain the buzz.
But Case isn't buying any of it. She's the first to say she's too old and too clothed to land any arena tours—and she prefers it that way. Her punk-rock background gave her a DIY ethos, plus a desire to avoid the eviscerating limelight. Whether Confessor will boost her to new heights remains to be seen, but she's content where she is. Before she began her spring tour, she spoke to The A.V. Club about fame, turning 35, and the Green River Killer.
The A.V. Club: It seems this record is getting a really big publicity push.
Neko Case: Anti- is a much bigger label than any I've ever been on, and they're all really behind the record, and they've been great. I'm very surprised by their enthusiasm, which sounds like an insult, but really it's kind of heartwarming.
AVC: Does it feel weird?
NC: On one hand, I've been with [Canadian indie label] Mint for, like, 12 years, and it's two guys, and I've never had a problem with them—we've always gotten along really good. But it's another thing when there's 40 employees, how much quicker things can get done—which is not a slight on Mint, because they work way too hard over there—but it's like a machine, man. It's amazing. I'm enjoying it for sure.
AVC: You said this album has the only autobiographical song you've ever written, "Hold On, Hold On." What do you mean by "autobiographical"?
NC: I mean that the song is actually about me. It's not metaphorical about other people. It's not little pieces of my life made into a story about someone else or someone fictitious.
AVC: Why do you think you've avoided that?
NC: I don't necessarily think that I'm the most interesting person in the world. [Laughs.] I'm more interested in stories about other people or stories in general. I was raised to be overly modest. In my family, they don't talk about themselves, and so talking about yourself almost seems sinful or vain, which is totally silly. I think I just have a natural aversion to it. I use my own experience, 'cause obviously I don't have anybody else's experiences to use firsthand. I put that in there, experiences of people I know, I make things up. I was really inspired by fairy tales on this record, so I wanted to make stories that were more like fairy tales than modern-day stories. Things that were a little more fantastical, with characters like animals who talk and whatnot, 'cause I was always really attracted to those kinds of things in stories.
AVC: You've written personal stuff before, though, like the Tacoma tribute "Thrice All American" on Furnace Room Lullaby.
NC: "Thrice All American" is more about a town, and there are other people's experiences in there too, 'cause I grew up with a lot of other people. We were all very poor, and we really loved our town, so it was this weird camaraderie we all had. That camaraderie wasn't just generated by myself; it was me and a lot of other people that I knew. It was for them and about them as well. Whereas this song is just me. It's not so dark as some people think; it's a little more smartass. It's not really knowing where you fit in—35 years old, I'm supposed to be married with kids by now, and I'm not really feeling that. I feel about 19 pretty much all the time.
AVC: That's good?
NC: Yeah, it's good. Sometimes, you have to wonder—pretty much everyone does it—when you just have your little reality check where you're like, "Wait a minute, there's nothing wrong with what I'm doing."
AVC: Was your 35th a big, taking-stock kind of birthday?
NC: No, I don't really notice them that much. I'm not really that concerned—that's why I'm not afraid to tell people how old I am, I guess. [Laughs.] I've been having that realization for quite a few years. There's just societal pressures, things you grow up with. You wonder, in your sad moments, "Is there something wrong with me? I don't have a mate. Will I ever have a child?" And then you realize, "Wait a minute, I'm responsible. I don't need to be wondering that about myself." I'm sure I could have had plenty of children by now. None of them would have had the attention that they should, and that would have been wrong.
AVC: The personal theme also extends to "Dirty Knife," which is about people you know who went crazy, right?
NC: It's a story my grandmother told me about a bunch of people in our family who all went crazy at the same time. People didn't realize it 'til they went and found them in their house. They had just stopped leaving the house, and they were burning the furniture for heat. They were pretty nuts. I made the story on the record about one person, because I couldn't quite figure out how to make the story work about several.
AVC: "Dirty Knife" and "Deep Red Bells" on Blacklisted are both pretty dark, but country music has a long tradition of murder ballads. Do you think the songs are more related to that, or to the macabre elements of your own life?
NC: I know that they're definitely related to that [tradition], because I listen to that kind of music and have as long as I can remember. But then, I have a pretty macabre sense of humor—I think most people do. I think it's a part of life. Eastern European fairy tales are very much about that. We happen to live in the modern West, where Disney has just ruined everything. Those things exist and they are palatable in a lot of ways, but they try to strip everything of any kind of danger, which I find incredibly boring. It's almost disrespectful to the intelligence of people, I think, especially kids.
AVC: "Deep Red Bells" was about the Green River Killer, whose murders you've said really affected your childhood in Tacoma. What did you think when he was caught a couple of years back?
NC: You know what's really fucked up about that? He got caught right after we recorded that song, and he got caught after like 10 years of hearing nothing on the news. Not that I had anything to do with him being caught, but it really was a huge emotional blow. I remember I cried really hard when he got caught. It was opening up a chapter in my life. I grew up while he was killing women, and on the news, they never talked about them like they were women. They just called them "prostitutes." Myself and other little girls in my neighborhood didn't make that distinction; we thought the Green River Killer was going to kill us. We were scared of him. We'd go to school with steak knives in our pockets and stuff.
AVC: Do you still think about it now?
NC: I think about it every time I walk somewhere by myself, which is a lot.
AVC: Your Chicago neighborhood, Humboldt Park, is notorious for crime, but not that kind of crime.
NC: Yeah, it's a different kind of thing. I've lived around crime my whole life. I don't really feel threatened by it; it makes me intensely sad. I can feel it all the time. People have been shot to death right out in front of my house. You can hear their sister in the street screaming for two hours, and the ambulance never leaves, and they die right there. You hear every word. These houses are old—you can hear everything that happens in the street.
AVC: Is that the inspiration for "Star Witness"?
NC: Yeah, that song's about Humboldt Park.
AVC: You've been living all over the place the past few years. How has that affected your writing?
NC: Well, it's pretty normal for me. I've kinda done that since I was really little. I think maybe it's good for thinking up new ideas. Scenery is definitely very inspirational. I like driving. I'm a real sucker for driving across North America—I never get sick of it, ever.
AVC: What are you touring in now?
NC: This time, we're taking a bus. I never thought I would ever take a bus, but it's actually cheaper to take one now than it is to drive a van, due to the price of gas and the fact that there's nine of us on tour.
AVC: Do you feel like you're "making it" now that you're on a bus?
NC: No. Anybody can have a bus—you just have to pay for it. It doesn't mean anything. It's just something that is either a necessity or it isn't. Some people think maybe it makes you look like there's some kind of status, but if I had my way, I'd be driving, which I prefer. I'm a control freak, and I like to be in control of when we stop and when we don't. [Laughs.] You don't feel that as much on a bus, because you can pee whenever you want. What if you want to pull over and take a picture of something cool? You don't have that luxury as much on a bus. It's a little more day-care-style, which freaks me out a little bit, but I'll be all right.
AVC: Have you thought about what level of fame you'd be most comfortable with?
NC: I'm probably most comfortable with this. I'm not really working for Kurt Cobain-style fame, and I might be a little old for that anyway. I'm not going to the fat farm or getting lipo anytime soon. I don't know if that's possible in America, even. You could compare yourself with such a thing, but I think it's apples and oranges. I have a good audience, but I've just been maturing for so long, and hopefully they'll just keep coming back. I'll keep begging them on my knees. "Please, please!"
AVC: It's not like you can't escape strangers saying, "Oh my God, it's Neko Case!"
NC: Nobody ever recognizes me, ever. It's great. Every picture of me looks different from every other one. I have this stupid Eastern European face, so I'm easily disguisable. The only picture that's ever looked like me, I think, is the one where I had the braids. That looks like me to me—grubby hair.
AVC: That's good, considering how much you hate your photos.
NC: I have a pathological fear of getting my picture taken.
AVC: Is that why you're hardly in the video for "Maybe Sparrow"?
NC: Yep, exactly. [Laughs.] I'm not very interesting. Birds are interesting. I could stand there lip-synching all day long, but it would feel funny, and people would be able to tell. I'm not a good actress.
AVC: You spent so long recording this album. Are you sick of the songs by this point?
NC: I don't listen to it anymore. When I play them, they're completely different, so it's not the same thing. They sound different. It's kind of like a relief to be playing them live. Because listening, while not completely a passive activity, is not the same thing. You're not upwardly moving through something; you're sitting by it while it moves. It's kind of exciting to figure out how those songs should be performed live, because obviously we can't do them exactly the way they're performed on the record. To make something sound that thick live, you need way less people. Things become smaller on a recording. You can have 15 people doing a song, and maybe you only need four to recreate that live. The records are about the vocals, so as long you have those, and you have the general mood, and people doing little parts here and there, it works, I think. It makes it a little more intimate.
AVC: You've said that you're a control freak, but this album is more collaborative than its predecessors.
NC: Well, they've all been—lots of people are involved. I mean, I have the executive decision-making powers, but I'm a soft control freak. I try to ambush myself by making it as easy as possible. I hire people who are really good, and who I don't have to give a lot of direction to. The most direction I'll give is like, "Oh, I like that, will you do that some more?" or "Do that again. It may not end up in the final edit." We just make sure we put down as many ideas as possible and then edit them down. You've got 24 to 36 tracks; why not use them all? 'Cause there could be some really great idea that you could miss out on if you didn't try it.
AVC: Has your musical knowledge grown a lot in the process?
NC: I wasn't overstudying too hard. It was more like doing things that felt natural and not trained in any way. It's kind of like the happy accidents. I really don't know how to use the tools that well in a traditional sense, but sometimes it makes for interesting outcomes. I'd love to paint myself as some kind of genius, but really I'm just kind of lazy—that's what it comes down to. My laziness, luckily for me, has produced some different kind of style in some of the songs, which is a happy accident.
AVC: A lot has been made of the lack of traditional song structure on this album. Was that another "happy accident"?
NC: It wasn't so much saying, "Traditional song structure sucks. I'm gonna bend that." It was that the ideas I was having weren't coming together in a way that suited repeating them. I thought they had a lot more emotional impact when things were said once. It's more of a linear thing than your cyclical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-out. That works well, but it can make you a little bored after a while. I think I would feel like I was just trying to stretch it out and fake it. I'm pretty self-conscious about my songwriting. Between this record and Blacklisted, I kind of figured out my own style, and I think it just means my own style is less traditional. Ever since I started playing guitar on the recordings, I've found it's a lot easier to get my ideas across. If you're singing a song to somebody who's writing a song with you, that's really great, but say you have some melody idea that's in a completely different key. They're gonna put it into the key that you've already been working in, and so you have to change yourself to that. You don't have to, but I may not know what key it is unless I have the guitar in my hand, so it's nice to make sure that those things don't get lost. Even if the keys don't fit together, you can find a way to make them fit together, and that makes an interesting-sounding part. That's what really ended up happening. It wasn't forced. I realized that that was the style, and I don't fight it anymore. [Laughs.] There's less fighting with myself now.