Neko Case's voice sounds like it originates from the belly of Mother Earth herself. In her music, you can hear the roots of trees, the wisdom of ancient warrior bones, the shift of tectonic plates, molten lava and placid water. "Have mercy on the natural world," she sings on the title track to her latest album Hell-On. It's her connection to and reverence of the natural world that stands out both in the album's lyrics and in the circumstances around making it.
While recording some of the music for Hell-On in Sweden, she found out her house in Vermont was on fire. Since there was nothing she could do about it, she went back to work — and lay down the vocals for a song she had already written called "Bad Luck." When we spoke about it, I was stunned by Neko's total acceptance of such a destructive act — but then, her trusting friendship with nature goes back to when she was a kid growing up in Washington state, where her parents would often leave her to explore the outdoors for hours.
In her World Cafe session, Neko shared those stories and talked about her quest to unearth the question: "When in history did we start hating women?" She also shared poignant words about the power of music in strange times and delivered beautiful, powerful live performances. Listen in the player above.
On her childhood
I remember when I was about 7 or 8, my parents didn't really do a lot of parenting, but they did often live in really remote places. I remember living in eastern Washington on the Colville Reservation, and I would get left alone for really, really long hours. So I just walked around in nature all the time and looked at it and thought about it, and I remember feeling like it was part of a living organism. I didn't feel it was like how, in a lot of old fairy tales, there's evil woods, dark woods. I've felt there are parts that are dying, and there are parts that are very sad, but I've never felt any sort of feeling of fear like that from nature.
Washington state was very different then. Nobody knew about it. Seattle was not an exciting place to move to, Portland [Ore.] much less so. We didn't have Internet and stuff like that to pull the world right over to you. Big companies hadn't taken off there yet. It was kind of end of the line as far as the United States goes. In my memory, it's a very dark place. There are nice moments, but it was a very strange place to grow up.
My parents were big drinkers and drug users and stuff, so I just really needed to get out of there. I didn't have any money. I moved into a friend's parents' basement, and I tried to get a job for a while, but since I was under 16, that was virtually impossible. I tried to go back to school, but I was really hungry all the time, and I just wasn't learning. You need food for your brain to learn and retain the stuff.
On studying women's history
I had a lot of bad experience with stalkers and bad experience with the United States government in that regard, and bad experience with the law. We try to preemptively say things like, "Yeah, the country doesn't care about women. We treat women terribly." And then to go to court and have them treat you really badly and it be in writing is slapping you awake with the same information you already know. It's ugly.
I had to answer the question. I had to find this focus, like, 'When in history did we start hating women?' When did we demote them to the role of passenger, baby machine, slave, child, property? When did we become that?
When I got to a book called The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, I started feeling this hopefulness. What that did to me was, it validated something I knew in my DNA, which is, we did not let this happen to us. Figuring out or just having something proven that I always knew was such a major release and it filled me with joy. I was so excited to learn about these historians and these archaeologists who were bringing back women's history.
On her house burning down
I don't want to waste my time or energy worried about a couch. There are other couches in the world. All my family photos burned up, so I don't really have any of that stuff left, but it's OK. My dogs and cats and everybody made it. And [my partner] Jeff, most importantly. I was in Sweden. I wasn't there for it. I went into the studio, and I'm like, "Hey guys, my house is still burning burning down." I think the Swedes, they're so pragmatic. They're like, "All right, we're here to support you," and I'm like, "Well, I know how to go to work, so let's work on this." I had to laugh about it. I felt like there was nothing else to do. And the guys were so great to me, and would say, like, "Hey Neko, can I borrow your barn? Oh sorry, I can't." It was really helpful because if you don't release that pressure in some way, you're just going to get a little cancer diamond growing out of some charcoal in your organs, so it was a good thing. They were giving me a hard time and making jokes. I needed it bad.
On the song "Bad Luck"
It kind of sounds like I was a grizzly bear at the dump and somebody darted me from the Forest Service, and I'm just kind of waking up. I remember speaking to one of the mix engineers, like, "I don't know if the vocals sound very good," and he said, "Well, maybe that's what a person sounds like when their house burns down. Give yourself a break, man."
I kind of want Mars to just wipe us out. I think the world would be OK without people. I don't think that way all the time, but I feel OK for nature knowing that it'll be fine without us. I'm not a depressed person or a sad person. It's a bad time right now, for sure.
I think maybe I exist in a kind-of self-care realm where people come and see music when they need. There's a thing human beings can do, like a collective consciousness in a room, and music is a really great tangible example. Harmony singing, for example: Two human beings can create a third element. The vibration and the feeling of that, it's crazy powerful. The band and I work really hard so we're all in the place to facilitate that feeling of being together as a group, in a way that people are together when they're falling in love with each other.