On Neko Case’s last album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, there’s a song called Man, in which the object of Case’s lyrical raid becomes utterly devitalized. “A woman’s heart is the watermark by which I measure everything,” Case sings, brilliantly mocking masculinity.
That was back in 2013, before the resurgence of the #MeToo movement. But Case’s ire and exasperation had long been lit. “Everybody wants to remind you that you’re a girl,” she told Rolling Stone. “And I’m like, not if I don’t want to be.”
This time around, on Case’s new album Hell-On (her seventh solo release, eighth if you count 2016’s collaboration with Laura Veirs and k.d. lang), the singer hollows things out with a happier spade. The album bursts into jubilance with odes to alliances formed through suffering – women who found each other through disparity and made warriors out of themselves. “God is not a contract or a guy,” go the lyrics to the album’s title track. On Winnie, Case sings about a “girl who changed everything.”
“Winnie is about how much I love women in general. All of them. My love for them that is brimming over to the point of being upsetting,” she says, recalling the 2016 WomanProducer conference in Brooklyn, New York, at which she appeared on a panel organized by Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne of electro-pop duo The Blow. “The second we all got in that room we exploded. It was like we were starving and it was like we were the food. The nourishment. There was so much joy. I walked away from there feeling like a fully formed human being.”
Case glows when she talks about the women in her orbit, both spiritually and in real life – the new guard of music journalists she’s spoken to on this media leg; Beth Ditto, who appears on the album; her publicist; producers and collaborators; Poison Ivy from the Cramps; the Bulgarian folk singers from whom she inherited a voice.
“I didn’t know where my voice belonged,” she says of her beginnings. “It’s really nasal. It’s really loud. I can’t do what the women I know can do, or even the men I know. I have no vibrato. Now and again maybe, but not on purpose. I always wondered why I couldn’t sing like that. Then I started listening to Bulgarian harmony singing, which is all about the drone. It’s like six women forming a laser. I’m often trying to do that when I’m singing. That’s not something I noticed in the beginning. But it’s a feeling that creates joy and this weird physical power, like you’re levitating. I’m Eastern European, so that made me feel better, like there was a place where my voice would have been useful. I want to sing beautifully and I want to sing tough but I’m in a weird area. I’m like the crust on bread. But I accept that.”
On the subject of acceptance, Case has been open about the grief and despair that her last album was built from, and the journey back up. “Making the last record was really hard,” she says. “I had to deal with a stalker. Going through the court, I realized what a piece of shit my country thinks I am. You can know these things logically – you can know your country hates you and you can say it out loud and you can be punk rock, you can know it’s true, but when you’re faced with it and you see it on paper, it’s all new,” she says, detailing an unsympathetic female judge she encountered while navigating the legal process.
“I was at the lowest point of being super manic, hyper-vigilant, just a nasty piece of work,” she says. “I was not cool to be around. I was so enraged. I needed to get out of there so bad. And so I decided to research the question that was killing me, which was: At what point in human history did we decide women are going to be slaves, breeders, children… When did that happen? I started reading a lot of books about ancient history.”
Her research led to books such as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade and Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons, which commenced a validating anthropological fixation on the role of women in warrior societies. (On Winnie, Case sings “We were warriors, we clothed ourselves in the guts of our enemies.”)
“I had a focus and I just kept researching and researching,” she says. “I don’t think anybody believes that women in the past only existed in the capacity of passengers… I know we were there.”
It is tempting to justify what a musician has endured if the end result is fabulous. But the joy we hear on Hell-On was only harvested after hell. The attrition of Case’s personal security, having weathered a stalker, and the phase of rebuilding that followed a spell of deep depression were exacerbated by the loss of her Vermont home, which recently burned down.
“How long did it take you to feel grounded after that?” she asks me when I tell her that my family also lost our home to a fire. “Did it take years to feel at home again?” We talk about home as a location versus home as an idea, home as a concept composed by the people around you. Our conversation returns to the subject of warrior women, those of current times leading the war against misogyny, then to mutual disclosures of being driven mad by dangerous men, how exhaustion and rage are used to disarm women by calling them crazy.
“That’s the trope!” she exclaims, lifting her hands like a pastor for emphasis. “That is the trope that is so reliable for people in power. If we’re not allowed to protect ourselves, and no one is going to protect us, of course your body and your mind and your spirit are not going to be okay with that. And that’s where they can push the crazy thing.”
To borrow a line from Case herself – a warrior if ever there was one – the worse things get the harder she fights. And the harder she fights the more unstoppable she – and her voice – become.