For nearly 15 years, Neko Case has been one of the most fiercely authentic women in music, a genre-confounding, prickly renegade. Though she has never been one to let her own narrative distract from her work, Case made the decision with her latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (released last August on Anti-), to open up in a series of candid interviews about a severe depression that hit her leading up to its creation. Over the past year, this bracing honesty—and the stunning new album—connected her with a much wider band of admirers. Now she’s nominated for a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy, the only female artist alongside The National, Tame Impala, Nine Inch Nails and Vampire Weekend.
Despite the attention, Case remains as stoic as ever. The nomination arrived while she was entombed on a “freezing tour bus” wending its way through Europe: “When I heard, I had just woken up next to a bank of trash cans,” she says, via email. Case will probably have to skip the ceremony because she’s playing a show in Houston that night. “It isn’t what people think it is. It’s formal with no hangout time. You go in, you get seated, and you’re there for hours, with no food,” she says. “You have to sneak in the food in your bag—not kidding.” Even the prospect of rubbing shoulders with her idols holds no allure. “I am not the sort of person who orchestrates meetings,” she says. “I’m too shy, and I don’t like to bother people. I mean, it’s their Grammys, too.”
This isn’t the singer-songwriter’s first nod (2009’s Middle Cyclone was up for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Recording Package), but it’s the first time the industry has placed her in a commercially significant category next to bona fide indie rock stars. She belongs here more than anywhere, but The Worse Things Get still resists categorization—as gloriously unwieldy as its title suggests, it’s full of emotions that don’t easily distill into neat couplets, and melodies that whip through your heart like an icy winter draft. She has ascribed her descent into joylessness to the recent deaths of her estranged parents (as well as that of her grandmother, with whom she was close). The album cuts bone deep, offering up lacerating examinations of bad mothers and macho bravado. One of the prettiest songs, “Ragtime,” had its genesis in a raging blizzard in Toronto and, though lilting, still holds the howl of the wind and the creeping chill of snowbound isolation. In 2008, Case moved to a farm in rural Vermont, where she lives with dogs, cats, chickens and a horse for company. Thanks to a peripatetic upbringing, she’s an old hand at being alone, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get lonely. “Solitude is important for sure,” she says, “but I definitely have a surplus, way more than I need. I could easily trade it for some people time and be happy. I like other humans a lot!”
Especially Canadians: Despite the fact that she was born in Virginia and grew up in Washington State, she’s still considered a satellite member of the Vancouver indie scene, thanks to her long-standing affiliation with the New Pornographers. She fell into the super-group, with whom she still performs when the stars (and their schedules) align, after moving to Vancouver in her 20s to study at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. “I wouldn’t trade those times for anything,” Case says. She also refuses to choose a side in the Toronto-versus-Vancouver debate. “I could pick Toronto, but it wouldn’t be fair. I would miss the low ceilings and drizzly rain.”
Though the material for this album emerged from the morass of emotions she was sorting through in her own life, writing it wasn’t exactly cathartic. “I worked those themes with the grace of tenderizing meat with a mallet,” she says. “I just wanted the long-running themes to pound into sand and blow away. No illuminations, no epiphanies, no grace.”
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” which came to her as she was watching a mother swear at her child while wait- ing for a bus, is a startling gut punch, a haunting a cappella track on which a chorus of layered voices sings a sort of lullaby for a neglected little kid. “They won’t believe you,” Case sings. “When you say, ‘My mother, she did not love me/My mother, she did not love me.’”
“I wasn’t feeling so ‘free wheel’ this time around,” she says about the process of working on the new album. “It was more like, ‘How [far can I go from] this spot to where the length of my creativity chain is bolted down?’” That she got so far on the chain, from those depths, is a testament to Case’s ability to compartmentalize and produce, rather than come undone. Her songs, overrun with feverish, vivid details, are rendered with the sly gothic wit of modern-day fairy tales. Case herself embodies the modern fairy-tale happy ending. It isn’t being happily coupled up, or even happy, necessarily (though that’s always nice): It’s being loved for being wonderfully and generously yourself.
Celebrating the music industry’s most accomplished artists, the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards® will air live on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on City. Tune into GRAMMYS.ca for more information!