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First Play: Neko Case, Hell-On

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Melody Lau

As Neko Case finishes her time at Toronto’s CBC building on an April afternoon, promoting her upcoming album Hell-On, I approach her with an observation: “How often are we in a room of just women?”

It’s an experience that still feels uncommon when operating around the music industry, but on this day in our studio, everyone involved in the interview is a woman, from Case’s publicist and makeup artist to our camera operator. Case, someone who is unafraid to discuss the importance of inclusion and representation on a daily basis on her social media platforms, replies: “Oh trust me, I noticed.”

Just moments earlier, Case was describing a similarly rare scene. In 2016, electronic duo the Blow’s Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne hosted a summit in Brooklyn under their project name, Woman Producer. The series of events brought together female artists and producers for panel discussions and performances celebrating and acknowledging the (sometimes buried) history of women working behind the scenes in music. Case was invited to speak on a panel with Suzi Analogue, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and Zola Jesus, moderated by Maricich and Dyne.

“I remember walking into the basement and feeling shy,” Case recalls. But that timidness quickly faded away in favour of genuine elation. “We were starving for validation and we were all so excited to see each other’s faces and see how hungry every single person was. I left there feeling so much more confident than I’d ever felt. Like we are real.”

It was in that moment — one that Case has mentioned a lot leading up to the release of Hell-On — that she realized she wanted to make some changes. “I actually wanted to give up more control because I felt confident that I was a singular entity,” she explains. “And what I was doing as a project would benefit from outside help and new ideas.”

Though no stranger to collaboration (“I didn’t get into music to do things alone”), Case is still admittedly a “control freak” at times. But the combination of that Woman Producer panel along with her 2016 collaborative album, case/lang/veirs, with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, inspired her to step out of her comfort zone and into someone else’s creative space: Swedish producer Björn Yttling (Peter Bjorn and John, Lykke Li, Franz Ferdinand).

“I don’t want to make the same record all the time, I want to go forward and make art,” Case says. “I wanted to get into the joy of seeing the spark of someone else’s ideas.”

Beyond Yttling’s work co-producing the album with Case, Hell-On opens its doors to a list of other familiar contributors: New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman co-wrote “Gumball Blue” and “My Uncle’s Navy;” Eric Bachmann jumped on a cover of his own song “Sleep All Summer;” other guests include lang, Veirs, Beth Ditto, Guided by Voices’ Doug Gillard, Calexico’s Joey Burns, Robert Forster and Mark Lanegan.

Perhaps because of this newfound openness to ideas and players, Hell-On is a much more varied experience. Case’s poetic storytelling is still front and centre, as she spins tales of creatures and muses, but her musical palette has expanded in many directions.

On one end there’s a track like “Bad Luck,” one of Case's most pop-driven melodies yet, an ode to things going awry that was eerily written before the singer's Vermont home burned down. (Case was in Sweden when the fire happened and recorded vocals for “Bad Luck” the following day.) But the track is immediately followed on the album by a beautiful, seven-minute duet with Lanegan called “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.” A tender and earnest track, led by acoustic strumming that later swerves into a rocking finale, Case says that she would’ve been averse to something of this length in the past.

“People, myself included, would’ve said that’s a pretty long song that’ll never get played on the radio,” she says. Except now she notes: “I’m not in danger of being played on the radio anyway! So I didn’t let it bother me.”

The album’s results show that no person has to be just one thing, a compliment Case paid Prince while playing a game of CBC Music’s Jam or Not a Jam. But it’s a rule that can be applied to Case, too. Her ability to show a range of styles and roles — writer, producer, performer, collaborator, social media personality — helps put an image out there for future artists or producers, the latter of which she says didn't see much representation in growing up.

“I think that, when you’re a little girl growing up in North America, there’s a lot of yourself you don’t see,” she says, when asked about her Twitter bio, which simply states, in all caps, “PRODUCER.” In the past, Case has been open about the struggles of overcoming a form of imposter syndrome and fully accepting the role of musician. So were there internal or external barriers to calling yourself a producer?

“I realized after working with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs and Tucker Martine on the case/lang/veirs record that, for years, I had been producing,” she continues. “I was always trying to convince myself that I was producing. When you produce with other people and you’re me, a woman, you sometimes go, ‘Did I really contribute to that?’ You’re constantly wondering about your own abilities and it’s weird to walk around with that all the time but you can’t take it for granted because there’s this thing you’ve had to overcome that’s always going to be there, this patriarchal voice.”

While patriarchal structures still stand tall, Case sees hope for young girls of today, including her own step-daughter. “She seems to take for granted a lot of things that I didn’t and it makes me so happy,” Case says with a smile. “Sometimes I have to go into the bathroom and cry because she’ll be talking about something she’s doing and I’m like, oh my God, that’s so awesome.”

With artists like Case continuing to pave the way, there’s hope that rooms filled with women will become more of a regularity for future generations.

More to explore:

Neko Case plays Jam or Not a Jam

Neko Case, Sorrey, Dusted and more: songs you need to hear this week

July Talk set to headline the 2018 CBC Music Festival