Singer, songwriter and producer Neko Case is returning to New Zealand to play as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. She talks to Elliott Childs about the creation of her latest album Hell-On, learning to write for her voice and finding comfort after the devastation of a house fire.
After her Vermont farmhouse burned down in 2017, Neko Case walked through the ruins and found beauty: "I really did find some of the damage that nature does, which isn't personal towards people at all, really beautiful.”
The solo musician and member of the New Pornographers has an enduring respect for nature. Her songs often marvel at its beauty and power, whilst decrying the damage wrought on it by people.
So in the wake of the devastating fire that destroyed her home, did her understanding of nature’s indifference help her come to terms with what had happened?
“Yeah. If someone had burned my house down I’m sure I’d feel much differently ... I’ve seen a lot of that in my life. Nature coming in and wiping something off the map. It’s not unusual. Only people make it a tragedy.”
Case even decided to incorporate the fire into the artwork for her latest album Hell-On, which features her ablaze, wearing a wig made of cigarettes.
She says she came to that decision after comparing her loss to that of the people suffering through flooding in Puerto Rico and wildfires in California.
“I kinda wanted to have a little badge of solidarity with everyone out there. And so many people lost much more than I did. They lost their loved ones and I didn't lose anyone. No one died in my fire and I got really lucky.”
Hell-On finds Case tackling injustices she sees in the modern world, whether it’s the reduced role of women in the arts on ‘Hall’s of Sarah’ or colonialism on ‘Last Lion of Albion’. But whilst her songs have a message, they’re written with a story teller’s language.
“I try to write stories. I enjoy making things up. Especially in a fairytale way. We tend to think of fairy tales in western culture as something that has already happened before.
"It’s not something we make up now. But it’s absolutely appropriate and OK to make up fairy tales about the time we live in. It kind of gives you a nice connection to the time you live in.”
A lot of the praise Case receives is reserved for her powerful and unique voice. On Hell-On, Case’s music seems less focused on her voice than before.
Over the course of seven solo albums as well as numerous others with band such as The New Pornographers, has her approach to recording and writing for her voice changed?
“It’s more just about trying to get dynamic really. To be able to tell a more detailed story…. And stories are the first and foremost parts that I’m there for. And probably then the singing I’d say.”
Neko Case plays Spiegeltent, Aotea Square on March 18 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.