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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

Capacity to Overcome

Despite absentee parents, singer Neko Case raised herself into a Grammy nominated artist


On more than one occasion, singer Neko Case has claimed, “I should have been an abortion.”

Her quotes typically read as a tad flippant and with a measurable distaste for the two humans who—despite clearly deficient life skills—brought her into the world and subjected her to a whirlwind of dysfunction.

“My dad was mentally ill and my mom just wasn’t a good person. And they were both drug addicts and alcoholics. So they shouldn’t have had a kid,” Case told The Guardian in 2013.

Yet, thanks to her father’s (albiet tepid) religious beliefs rendering abortion a non-option, here she is; 44 years later with three Grammy nominations and more than a dozen studio albums under her belt that span a solo career as well as contributions to The New Pornographers. She now lives on a majestic 100-plus acre farm in Vermont; her once nomadic life—splitting time between parents who did eventually divorce, thus magnifying their neglectful tendencies—firmly in the rear view mirror.

It’s the kind of stability adults with her pedigree rarely forge for themselves.

When Case left her father’s Tacoma, Washington, home at the age of 15 only to alight into the growing Pacific Northwest grunge rock scene—first as a drummer, then as a singer—she forever set the stage for that childhood to find its way into song. Following an abbreviated misspent youth, Case ended up in a Canadian art school and eventually found herself experiencing commercial success as a member of The New Pornographers.

Today, Case has morphed from a rock songstress into a kind of modernday country singer with punk, Americana tendencies. She records more solo albums than collaborative ones, and has never truly stopped dealing with the fallout from that childhood. Her smoky twang is the perfect tone for expressing tightly held emotions in ballads and her sanguine blend of honkytonk and alt rock are capable vehicles for capturing the less distressed themes found in her music, the result of all she’s overcome.

On her latest album—2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You—the, oddly, conventionally tempered daughter of those Ukranian immigrants who created so much chaos, was once again forced to relive her childhood angst when not only did her grandmother pass away, but both of her parents as well.

During the writing process, depression slowly set in and stifled creativity.

“I fought it really hard, which was unproductive,” Case told the New York Post. “I think me trying to fight it made it take longer than me just accepting it. I hadn’t slowed down to take any of that in. Then [grief] just kind of hit me over the head and said, ‘You have to deal with this now.’”

Though Case typically shies away from including much personal specificity in her music, it’s damn near impossible not to imagine songs on The Worse Things Get as anything but intensely intimate.

Whether it’s singing about her brain making drugs to keep her slow on “Night Still Comes”—a likely reference to the paralyzing effects of depression—or the haunting cover the 1970 song “Afraid,” by Warhol Superstar Nico, featuring the lyrics: “Have someone else’s will as your own” and “You are beautiful and you are alone”—which seemingly capture the kind of messages a now-adult Case might want to sing to her child self if she could—it’s clear she was wrestling with some important issues while making this album.

Still, Case is not one to be completely defined by relics of the past. She regularly talks about singing songs to—and about—her dogs, is known for lighthearted banter at her concerts, and devotes much of her time to caring for animals, farming, and in general enjoying the fruits of a well-adjusted adult life.

But as she admitted to Arizona Public Radio last year, there will always be some elements of her past that she just can’t shake, including a desire to feel wanted.

“…I raised myself, so, I’m probably less afraid and less self-conscious in some way,” said Case. “But that desire’s still there, like, love me, I’ll love you back. Look how I’ll love you! Let’s get to the lovin’ everybody!” 

Neko Case
7 pm, Sunday, April 12
Tower Theatre
835 NW Wall St.

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...

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