Music Interviews
11:00 pm
Mon September 2, 2013

Neko Case: 'I Couldn't Really Listen To Music'

Originally published on Tue September 3, 2013 4:27 pm

For a year and a half now, Morning Edition has been following the singer-songwriter Neko Case as she worked on an album that would come to be titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It includes "Where Did I Leave That Fire," a song with a haunting question at its heart, and now we know that the singer who asked where she left that fire was feeling depressed. She felt like she was moving through life underwater.

But Case also went through a series of deaths in the family, including her grandmother and both parents, although she says she'd really lost them years ago.

"They've really never been my parents," Case tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I mean, they are my biological parents, but they never wanted a kid. And so I just wasn't really parented, per se. I don't miss them at all. But, you know, you go back and you start to think about why you missed them your whole life but you never knew you were doing because when you're a little kid that's all you know."

There was a real incident that inspired Case to write "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," something that felt a little too real. The lyrics are brutal and the song is sung a cappella, making it beautiful.

"I was waiting for a shuttle to go to the airport and a mother with a little girl who was about 5-ish, I think, and the little girl was singing a song to herself. She's being cute," Case says. "And the mom was screaming at her — 'Just get the F away from me.' Like, 'Don't you ever shut up?!' And I was like, 'That's too close to home.' "

'Weird Diving Bell Suit'

So many of these songs are about Case's experiences or reflect on the way she's feeling or remembering things. And Inskeep has wondered whether Case had lost her creative sense for a little while.

"Yeah, definitely," Case says. "It was always there, but being depressed is a lot like ... wearing this weird diving bell suit made of Ziploc baggies or something. And you're there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can't conduct electricity."

"I was wondering when you felt really depressed, did you have trouble singing?" Inskeep asks.

"No, but I couldn't really listen to music," Case says. "And that's one of the ways I knew something was really wrong with me. I just found lyrics just grating and so I started listening to ragtime and I found that that was really very comforting. It was like a little bubbling engine. It was like a little teapot — the old style like my grandma had. Like the percolator, which was always like the good coffee smell in the morning. Like, 'All right, we're getting going. Everything's going to be great.' So that's kind of how it felt."

'It Happens To Everyone'

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight ... closes on a hopeful note with "Ragtime," which Case is definitely feeling more of these days.

"I definitely feel a lot better," says Case. "Once I stopped fighting it, that's when it really started. It's like a bottleneck broke open, and everything started to flow again and my circulation came back. I stopped trying to overanalyze how sad I was. I stopped trying to say, 'No, I'm not superdepressed.' I mean, I'm sure there's a fear in people — they don't want to admit to being depressed because you're kind of considered broken. It's silly because it happens to everyone.

"I don't think it something that people are going to learn anything from. I'm not trying to say my 'genius' bummer I'm going to lay on you right now is quite momentous. It's more like, 'Hey guys, sucks to feel crappy, doesn't it? Yeah, it does. Sorry, man.' And then you move on."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For a year and a half now, we've been following the songwriter Neko Case as she worked on an album that includes this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID I LEAVE THAT FIRE")

NEKO CASE: (Singing) A chill ran through me and I grabbed on tight.

INSKEEP: The singer/songwriter wrote, rearranged, and added submarine sounds to a song with a haunting question at its heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID I LEAVE THAT FIRE")

CASE: (Singing) Where did I leave that fire?

INSKEEP: Now we know the singer who asked where she left that fire was feeling depressed. She felt like she was moving through life underwater. The album is out but the title's so long that Neko Case predicted she'd be forced to cut it. She was not. It is: "The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You."

And in our final conversation, Neko Case talked of writing songs after a series of deaths in the family. Her grandmother died. And then she lost both of her parents, although she felt as if she had really lost them years ago.

CASE: They've never really been my parents. I mean they are my biological parents, but they never wanted a kid. And so I just wasn't really parented, per se. I don't miss them at all. But, you know, you get to go back and think about why you missed them your whole life, but you never knew that's what you were doing because when you're a little kid that's all you know.

INSKEEP: There is a song here that I think of as you're talking. It's called "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu." Was there a real incident that you are...

CASE: That was a real incident that I witnessed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEARLY MIDNIGHT, HONOLULU")

CASE: (Singing) Hey, little kid that I saw at the bus stop one day. It was nearly midnight in Honolulu...

I was waiting for a shuttle to go to the airplane and a mother and her little girl who was around five-ish, I think, and the little girl was kind of singing a little song to herself. And she's being cute and the mom was screaming at her: Just get the F away from me. Like, don't you ever shut up?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEARLY MIDNIGHT, HONOLULU")

CASE: (Singing) Why don't you ever shut up...

And I was like, OK, that's too close to home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEARLY MIDNIGHT, HONOLULU")

CASE: (Singing) They won't believe you when you tell them. They won't believe you when you say my mother, she did not love me. My mother, she did not love me...

INSKEEP: OK. First, the lyrics are brutal, Neko Case. But at the same time, you decided to do the song a cappella and with harmony. It's beautiful.

CASE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Why approach it that way?

CASE: Well, I wrote the song. I just sang it into my little phone recorder while I was driving. I tried it briefly with some music but I thought it just served the song better to go a cappella.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEARLY MIDNIGHT, HONOLULU")

CASE: (Singing) You'll hear yourself complain. But don't you ever shut up. Please, kid have your say 'cause I still love you even if I don't see you again. Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.

INSKEEP: So, many of the songs are about your experiences or reflect on the way that you were feeling, or things you are remembering.

CASE: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: "Where Did I Leave That Fire" being one that we've discussed in earlier interviews. And we've wondered all along if you were basically asking if you had kind of lost your creative sense for a little while.

CASE: Yeah, definitely. It was always there, it's just being depressed is a lot like you're wearing this weird diving bell suit made out of the Ziploc baggies or something. And you're there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can't conduct electricity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID I LEAVE THAT FIRE")

CASE: (Singing) I wanted so badly not to be me. I saw my shadow looking lost, checking its pockets for some lost receipt...

INSKEEP: I was wondering if when you felt really depressed, did you have trouble singing?

CASE: No, but I couldn't really listen to music which is really weird. And that's one of the ways that I knew that there was something really wrong with me. I just found lyrics grating. And so, I started listening to ragtime and I found that that was really very comforting. It was like a little bubbling engine. It was like a little tea pot, the old style like my grandma had. Like the peculator, which was always like the good coffee smell in the morning like, all right, we're getting going - everything is going to be great - kind of feeling and smell. So that's kind of how it felt.

INSKEEP: Well, you actually put a song on this album called "Ragtime." Let's listen to the beginning of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAGTIME")

CASE: (Singing) Cover the shades and erase the day. This could be any evening in any place. The blizzard blows from left to right, just funny 'cause plays in the summertime. From 1935, sound the alarm, its ragtime...

I definitely feel a lot better. Once I stopped fighting it, that's when it really started. It's like a bottleneck kind of broke open, and everything started to flow again and my circulation came back.

INSKEEP: Oh, now what do you mean you stopped fighting it?

CASE: I stopped trying to over analyze how sad I was. Or I stopped trying to say no, I'm not super depressed. I mean I'm sure there's a fear in people, they don't want to admit to being depressed because, you know, you're kind of considered broken. And it's silly because it happens to everyone.

INSKEEP: So just acknowledging you're hitting bottom here helps you kind of get beyond it.

CASE: Yeah, it sucked.

(LAUGHTER)

CASE: Yeah. And I don't think it's something that people are going to learn anything from. I'm not trying to say it that way like, my genius' bummer I'm going to lay on you right now is quite momentous.

(LAUGHTER)

CASE: It's more just like, hey guys, sucks to feel crappy, doesn't it. Yeah, it does. Sorry, man. Sorry, man. And then you move on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYDNEY SWANS")

CASE: (Singing) Baby, come down. It's been a while now. I've got so many things I could tell you, if my stubborn mouth doesn't let me down...

INSKEEP: The latest album from Neko Case. Her new album, "The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You," is out today.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYDNEY SWANS")

CASE: (Singing) 'Cause I can't look at you straight on. You're made from something different and I know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.