Neko Case. Photo by Emily Shur
Her insides were raw, and she found it difficult to breathe. Neko Case hacked and wheezed, but to no avail. There seemed to be no relief from the build-up deep within her.
Throughout this past autumn, the critically acclaimed songstress suffered from a lingering cough. She dealt with it in the same way she handles most problems: head down, pushing onward, in this case gulping up enough medicine to maintain her rigorous schedule of gigs. And, as usual, that noble approach only made things worse. It was a situation fitting for a tour in support of her latest album, titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
“Antibiotics are what caused it. I had to use them early in the year when I had pneumonia, and they really messed me up,” Case says over the phone from her farm in Vermont. She adds that her recovery only began after she returned to that rustic locale.
“When I got home, one of my neighbours took me out to get some of this anti-bacterial moss. We made tea out of it, and it was the first thing that actually got some of the phlegm out of my lungs,” she says. “And I thought ‘thank goodness I’m home and in control of my situation, and not at the mercy of bad medicines or bad food.'”
Such a seemingly benign affliction can petrify some singers, who depend on having a pristine voice night after night. But Case says her situation wasn’t debilitating, at least not at first.
“It wasn’t necessarily painful, but it really makes you tired and exhausted. Everybody knows what it’s like when you have to carry that crap around in your lungs, and it’s not loosening up, and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, when is this gonna be over?’” she says. But she was still able to muddle through, cancelling only one show because of that stubborn cold and its persistent mucous. “If it’s in my chest or lungs, I can still make sounds. But if you get that laryngitis thing in your tonsil area, when you can feel it on the tip of your tonsils, that’s when it’s a problem. Because no one wants to hear you miming into a microphone at your shows.”
Fortunately, that leg of the tour ended when it did. Moss tea was the only suitable remedy for her inflamed sinuses and beleaguered lungs. But this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Case. After all, she needed a similar sort of downhome wholesomeness to soothe other recent, but far deeper ailments.
Much has been made, in other articles, of the tumultuous period Case endured prior to writing and recording The Worse Things Get. During that time, her doting grandmother died. Then both her biological, mostly neglectful parents also passed. Out of her life. Once and for all. But Neko treated it all like nothing more than the common cold– pushing forward, gigging and recording, as if she were immune, refusing so much as a sniffle. Eventually it left her breathless in every sense of the word. She found herself unable to muster a chuckle or find enjoyment in anything.
She described that stretch of depression in an interview with The Guardian prior to the release of The Worse Things Get, saying:
“You’re just in this murk. And you’re with other humans, but you lose all your human skills and it’s just like you’re in this plastic bag and you can’t quite connect with people.”
But she found relief back on the farm. She may have purchased that patch of land in 2008, but it is quite akin to the acres across the state that her grandmother had owned for decades. Growing up, it was a safe haven from her parents’ divorce, where she could play with the numerous barnyard animals. That affinity for pets was one of the few things that the whole family had in common, the one thing that offered little Neko some solace when her mom or dad finally came to pick her up again from her grandparents’ place.
“We always had dogs or cats around, because my parents always grew up farming and were used to animals,” Case says during our interview. “My parents were not good with humans, but they were really good to animals. That’s the one good thing I learned from them.”
Her mother, of course, learned that sole redeeming trait from Case’s grandmother, which made Neko all the more eager to return to the pastures that fostered those lessons in compassion. Such natural settings provided much needed nurturing, both in her childhood and again during her all-too-adult period of grief. But the big difference this time around was who became the mother hen.
“I think probably the greatest thing during a depression is having animals,” Case says, before elaborating: “You can’t stay in bed all day and feel like crap. You can do that for a lot of the day, but they make you take the really important step of getting up, and taking care of them and giving them love. It keeps you in practice of being a human being.”
She doesn’t simply own a couple of pets. Case’s farm currently consists of two cats, a horse, a few chickens and numerous canines. The dogs bear the most affectionate of monikers: There’s Swany, a retired racing greyhound named for the grace of her steps. Then there’s Jerome, namesake of Jerome the Giraffe from the Canadian kids’ series The Friendly Giant.
Case’s German Shepherd is called Liza because, the singer explains: “She’s a big black mutt that I got at the pound in Tucson years ago. All my dogs are rescues. Her name in particular is Liza because she has big brown eyes, like Liza Minnelli, who I love.”
But her most prized four-legged pal is a mountain dog husky mix who had been constantly chained to a tree before Case took him in.
“He’s a powerhouse of energy and hilariousness. His name is Burt, because he is unflappable and just handsome, like Burt Reynolds.”
Of course, that last description would have aptly suited Case herself, considering the years of neglect she endured as a girl, and the endless charm she exudes today. But she’s never been prone to such comparisons, self-reflection or grand revelations— until now. In the past decade, critics and fans have fawned over her work, both as a solo artist and as part of the great indie pop troupe the New Pornographers. But through all those songs, her lyrics rarely grew too personal. Instead, Case often preferred to sing in metaphors about animals, in the same way she describes Burt, Swany and Jerome. Her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was inspired by Ukrainian fairy tales about the titular title character and his fellow chatty, conniving beasts. She followed that up with 2009’sMiddle Cyclone, and it also fixated on myth and nature— this time of Case’s own imagining, concerning a lovelorn tornado. That disc became her highest selling yet, debuting at #3 on the Billboard music charts, and eventually garnering two Grammy nods, for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Recording Package.
But fans consider Case’s latest album to be her biggest success of all. On it she all but abandons her famously high concept writing style, in favour of lines that dig deeper into her heart. The L.A. Times called The Worse Things Get “both her most personal and her most imaginative album in years.” A reviewer for Pitchfork said “the opener ‘Wild Creatures’ has an intrepid air about it… until it ends on a minor-key revelation: ‘There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me.'” Other critics focused on the more overt themes of maternity— or lack thereof— on the album’s centerpiece, “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” Its unusually upfront lyrics describe a mother shunning her daughter, cursing all the while.
Case may sing of loneliness and alienation on The Worse Things Get, but the delivery of those notes may be her most collaborative yet. In fact, the disc nearly doubles as a gathering of all her best friends—from adept indie strummer M. Ward, to Jim James of twangy alt-rockers My Morning Jacket, to some of her fellow New Pornographers. And yet, Case sees no contradiction in wrapping such guest-laden instrumentation around lyrics that are so focused on isolation. Nor did she have any trepidation about revealing those vulnerable lines to her friends.
“That was never really a concern because I had worked with these people before, and they were like family,” she says of the pals with whom she first shared those grief-laden lyrics. She adds: “They knew what I was going through. It shows. It’s hard to say… I was just so happy to be with them, I wasn’t consciously thinking about it at the time.”
Neko Case plays with opening act the Dodos at the Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame W.) on Thursday, May 8, 8 p.m., $34.50/$37