For her latest album, Neko Case dropped what she calls her "inner censor."
As a songwriter, her lyrics were typically enigmatic, sheltered or turned entirely outward. But in the years since her 2009 Middle Cyclone album, Case faced the deaths of her parents, allowing the grief into her life, and also her songwriting.
The result is the bold, ambitious, emotionally charged The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It's not only her most personal album; it also has earned Case the most widespread acclaim of her career. Ultimately, The Worse Things Get marks the moment when Case the songwriter caught up with Case the singer.
"I'm thrilled people have gotten behind it since it was such a personal record. I don't remember a lot about the lyric writing of this album. I was going through a really bad time. I let more personal things past my 'inner censor,'" Case writes in an email interview. "The challenge was making them seem like 'songs' at all."
In publicity materials, Case describes the songwriting as an internal journey into a "brain wilderness" more dense and dangerous than she'd thought. "It was an embarrassing and hilarious march, but I now feel like a more streamlined being. It's a good feeling. Four years of my life took 10 years hostage, then gave me back 12."
Questions of family and identity are introduced on the album opener, "Wild Creatures." "When you catch light, you look like your mother," Case sings, but at the end it's a maternal absence that haunts the song: "There's no mother's hands to quiet me."
In "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," Case sings of encountering a little girl in an airport whose mother is screaming at her. The emotional fallout of that moment, of that relationship, reverberates for years, Case imagining the girl as an adult facing a single terrible fact: "My mother did not love me." It's not much of a stretch to imagine Case seeing some of herself in the little girl.
Like much of her previous work, The Worse Things Get came together in Tucson, with recording sessions at WaveLab Studio. Over the years, Case has shaped her sound in Tucson, from more of a straightforward country style to an expansive rock 'n' roll that relies on lively, dynamic and unique arrangements.
Though no longer a Tucson resident (Case moved to Vermont five years ago), she makes her recording home here, having found a common approach with Craig Shumacher, his WaveLab cohorts and local musicians.
"Recording with Craig, Chris Schultz, Nick Luca, Howe (Gelb), Calexico as well as folks they have brought to guest or I have brought, it's fairly relaxed and letting things happen we don't expect," she writes. "Experimenting with analogue/digital combinations of sounds has been a nerd's paradise! Craig has a solid system and knowledge of sounds that is always a great foundation. I can't stress enough how much I like having no control booth. Craig and Chris can be PART of the music, which is so valuable. They are some of the most musical engineers I know."
Case gathered musical contributions from her regular band—Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel, banjo and guitars; Paul Rigby on electric, acoustic and 12-string guitar; Tom V. Ray on bass; and Kelly Hogan on backing vocals—and a host of others. With additional sessions in Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y., Case brought in Joey Burns, John Convertino, Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk of Calexico; Gelb; her New Pornographers bandmates Carl Newman and Kurt Dahle; M. Ward; Steve Turner; Los Lobos' Steve Berlin; My Morning Jacket's Jim James; and Visqueen's Rachel Flotard.
For this tour, Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers takes Rigby's place on guitar, and Dan Hunt joins on drums. "Hogan and I have yoked Eric and Dan to sing also," Case says. "They sing like birds."
Asked to reflect on her 20-year journey from an art-school student drumming in Vancouver, British Columbia, punk bands to The Worse Things Get, Case says she's glad her path was one of slow and steady growth.
"I thought I wanted to 'get signed' at the time, but luckily that didn't happen and I had to learn the business from the ground up. I wouldn't want it any other way," she writes.
On her last two records, Case succeeds in the mainstream, with Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Recording Package (Middle Cyclone) and Best Alternative Album (The Worse Things Get).
"I was thrilled both times. Just getting a tip of the hat for working so hard is really nice," Case writes. "I don't think awards of any kind should be the reason anyone tries to make art, though. They are a nice frosting, but the art itself or the experience of making something REALLY HARD with other humans should be its own reward."
Done with the personally intense The Worse Things Get, Case says her streamlined life is one that embraces books, music, history, art, farming and travel.
"I'm pretty in love with the world," she writes. "I've been really into reading about history. I just finished Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace, about WWI. It's a good way to see a larger picture of our species and our world. History is a great compassion-builder."
Case is also a big fan of Twitter, issuing a steady stream of personable and humorous quips.
"I like engaging with folks about their interests. Also, it's kind of a way to get to 'know,' albeit casually, your fans and what kind of folks they are. It makes me want to do a good job for them even more than I used to."
It's like a slight rewording of her album title: The More I Love You, The Harder I Fight. And after this record, the 43-year-old Case is free for her next project, perhaps a New Pornographers record she says is in the works.