In her musical life, Neko Case doesn't like to work alone.
In her musical life, Neko Case doesn’t like to work alone.
For more than a decade, the singer has maintained a dual-track career that thrives on teamwork as it taxes her organizational skills. She leads a band of her own, including vocal partner Kelly Hogan, and has a new disc out this week. She also tours and records as a member of Carl Newman’s pop collective, the New Pornographers.
Her new album, with the mouthful title “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You,” continues a progression beyond the alt-country sound of her early career into something deeper and more eclectic.
Case sounds like she’s paying tribute to a longtime lover on one of her new songs, “Calling Cards,” when she sings: “Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heart break, I love you more.”
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Case says she’s singing to her band.
“I know there are people who are really good at performing solo,” she said. “Me, I just feel lonely. I hate it. I don’t like to practice alone, either. It’s about community for me. I think it’s about not having a family as a kid. I just spent a lot of time being really, really, really alone. I just don’t want to do that anymore.”
After a troubled childhood, Case left home at age 15. That’s usually a recipe for disaster, but Case is eternally grateful for the rockers and drag queens of Tacoma, Wash., who looked after a girl hanging out in places she shouldn’t.
“It’s another reason I get so upset at the idea that the gay community is some disgusting underbelly,” she said. “What? I would have died without a strong gay community and I’m not even gay. I don’t know what I would have done without those guys.”
Case, 42, and her powerful pipes were already attracting attention when she met Hogan in New York in the late 1990s. Hogan was an aspiring singer herself working part-time at a record company and the two hit it off. They’re a powerful force working in tandem, their reverb-drenched voices soaring as if they could fill a cathedral with sound.
At the time, Case covered up her shyness with aggressive and obnoxious behavior. Hogan smoothed out the edges.
“I would watch how she would handle a situation, with such eloquence and still say what she wanted to say,” Case said. “I was so moved that she wanted to hang out with a kid like me. She didn’t know it at the time, but I really appreciated her grace.”
Hogan said Case taught her to be more assertive, “and I taught her to maybe not say the first thing that comes to your mind. Maybe say the third thing. I learned just as much from her about sticking up for myself.”
Both women appreciate their comfortable musical fit.
“I learn from her all the time,” Hogan said. “She’s my idol. She’s totally brass balls. She’s one of the bravest people I know as far as running her own freak flag up the flagpole. Every time she makes a new record, the flag gets bigger with more freaky things on it. It’s more compelling.”
That’s an apt description for the new disc, her first in four years and the follow up to her best-selling album. There’s more power to the music, as well as more experimentation. Case comes up with some phrases – “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” – that will make you shake your head in wonder and bafflement.
Case worked through depression the past few years, with deaths of people close to her and a broken relationship. She took some time off the professional treadmill to sort through things emotionally.
“I don’t want to sound like it was some incredible transformative experience,” she said. “It was that, but every single person goes through the same thing. It was my time to do it.”
One of the things that helped pull her back up again was her manager’s suggestion that she become active on Twitter.
“I found I really loved interacting with my fans,” she said. “I really loved talking to them. I always thought they were kind of great, but now I know they are really great.”
While several songs on “The Worse Things Get…” – “I tried to shorten it, but it just didn’t have the same feeling,” she said of the album title – leave much to a listener’s imagination, the song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is brutally specific.
It describes an incident she witnessed while waiting for an airport shuttle bus in Hawaii. A mother swore at her child, telling her to get away. “Why don’t you ever shut up?” the mother said.
Case seethed. She resisted the temptation to get involved, but wrote a song that loses none of the incident’s immediacy. “Please, kid, have your say,” she sings, “`cause I’ll still love you, even if I don’t see you again.”
After her mother shouted at her, the little girl turned away and started singing to herself, Case said.
“I don’t think she was processing,” she said. “She was just surviving. She’ll pay for it later. I had a very similar upbringing so I totally felt for that kid.”