When k.d. lang sent contemporaries Neko Case and Laura Veirs an email several years ago saying, “I think we should make a record together,” Case didn’t waste a second replying.
"I didn’t even think about the question," she says over the phone from Portland, the day before the three start rehearsals for their album tour. "There was this prehistoric lizard brain sort of recognition of what the question was, and I basically said yes before even finishing reading the question, for fear the question should slip away."
The supergroup that formed over the next two-and-a-half years is a mind meld of songwriters: Edmontonian k.d. lang, four-time Grammy winner, creator of "Constant Craving" and singer of everyone’s all-time favourite cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah;" Virginian (and honorary Canadian) Neko Case, oft collaborator with the New Pornographers and prolific solo artist who released one hell of a boxset retrospective last year; Oregonian Laura Veirs, former Nonesuch signee, current owner of label Raven Marching Band, where she releases her solo work, and who worked on Sufjan Stevens’ last album, Carrie and Lowell, with husband and producer Tucker Martine, whom Case calls the fourth member of their supergroup (he produced the trio's album).
Lang and Veirs both live in Portland, Ore., which made writing and recording two-thirds easier than it could’ve been, but Case was on a full tour when this started — and doesn’t live in the same state — so the trio of uber busy solo artists sometimes had to plan things a year in advance to get anything done. But they were dedicated.
"They’re a couple super driven scorpios, which is something I normally wouldn’t bring up except for it’s been kind of a big thing," says Case, laughing. "They’re the scorpios and I’m the soft little marshmallowy virgo in the middle of the scorpio sandwich, which we joke about a lot. They really are driven individuals."
Case continues, saying that watching lang take the role as bandleader and Veirs institute her daily work rituals has "put a fire under my ass to become a much better musician. And it feels good. It doesn’t feel competitive, it feels inspirational."
The result of all this time together is case/lang/veirs, a collaboration that feels invigorating in its lyricism, as well as a natural progression for each artist individually. The harmonies on tracks like "Song for Judee" and "Behind the Armory" unspool voices that sound comfortable intertwined, as well as in making space for each other. Lang’s spotlight on "Blue Fires" is breathtaking, while Case’s turn on "Delirium" feels like a track that would fit perfectly in that boxset retrospective. case/lang/veirs is a rotating cast of harmonies and spotlights, of supportive voices that push each other to be their best selves — a musical embodiment of shine theory if there ever was one.
In lang’s keynote speech at this year’s EMP Pop conference, she said case/lang/veirs was a "brutal shedding of egos," though as the resident virgo, Case saw it differently.
"I don’t think I find it as brutal as she does, I kind of expected it to happen," Case explains. "It’s been difficult a couple times, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I still think we all did the right things. Even if at certain points we didn’t each get something specifically that we wanted in one little place or another, the end result was the best example of what we could do for the record. Or, as my friend Kelly Hogan likes to say, I think she summed it up perfectly: the goal at the end of the day is to serve the song; not to serve your ego…. In this case, serve the song was first on the list."
case/lang/veirs comes out June 17 via Epitaph Canada and Anti-, and you can listen to it a week in advance above. Read a track-by-track from Veirs (with a few asides from Case), below.
Laura Veirs: This is the one song on the album where we trade lines back and forth. It’s a great opening to the album for that reason. The listener gets to get a glimpse of each artist at the outset. I like that I don’t really know what the chorus means. This song at some level is about purity.
'Honey and Smoke'
Veirs: k.d. brought this song in early on and it morphed quite a bit in the recording process. I love how sultry her vocals are, and I can't wait to sing the backup parts with Neko when we go out on tour.
'Song for Judee'
Veirs: We weren’t sure we were going to track this one because not everyone in the band loved it. We recorded it on a whim and all fell in love with it. It’s about a tragic songwriter from the ’70s named Judee Sill. I love how the bouncy chorus offsets the darkness of her story.
Neko Case: I liked that song from day one. The chorus is maybe one of the more fun songs to sing a harmony to. That easy, immediate, open harmony that it just feels so good to lock in with. And the song is upbeat enough, yet it’s really super sad, and that combination is something that Roger Miller does and Ray Davies from the Kinks does. Where something is really sad and when you put it in a major key and there’s little details, that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Where it seems like this light, beautiful thing but then there’s this little thing that just gets in and pokes into you and it breaks your heart. It’s extra moving for that reason.
Veirs: My physics professor dad told me once that the hottest part of a flame is the blue part. I mulled that idea over for years and it finally found its place in this song about unrequited love. k.d. is the best singer in the world for this one.
Veirs: k.d and I were struggling with a song and went for a walk one day in July of 2013. We came upon a fireworks stand and looked at the names of all the different fireworks. One of them was called “Delirium.” We said, “That’s a cool title for a song.” We went back to my house and wrote the bones of the song. Then about a year later Neko got her claws into it, wrote another amazing bridge, and made the song her own.
Case: I did a lot of woodshedding on it and sticking different words in there, and we all just stuck different words in there. And sometimes we just have to leave it alone for a while. It’s hard to walk away from a song unfinished but we all had to kinda use that inner discipline to go, “OK, I have to put it down right now. It doesn’t get finished today, and I have to live with that. And it’s going to be OK.” And I think k.d. and Laura have a harder time with that because the scorpio element comes in. They’re efficient, working people and they want stuff to be done and ready to go. And sometimes you have to step away.
And they know that. But sometimes it sucks to have to do it. Luckily there were 11 other songs that required our assistance, so it was a little easier to go, “Well let’s look at that one over there,” or “OK, OK, it’s not done yet but it’s gonna get done. It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fine.”
'Greens of June'
Veirs: I recorded the demo of this with my kids’ drum set in their play room. It was June of 2015 and Portland trees and greenery were in full bloom at the time. It was almost like I could see the green of the trees blowing on the breeze into the room. It’s a song about the redemptive power of love – it’s not a song about salad!
'Behind the Armory'
Veirs: Neko wrote the bridge to this song in a flash of brilliance. It was awesome to see her just pull it out of the air.
'Best Kept Secret'
Veirs: I wrote this about my friend, the L.A.-based guitarist Tim Young. He’s the guitar player on the song (and on all the album tracks) so it was sweet to record it together in the studio. He’s an unsung gem of a musician and a dear friend of mine.
Veirs: This is a song about the vast distance that can span between people standing right next to each other. k.d.’s beautiful vocal warms up an icy tale.
Veirs: Neko wrote new lyrics for this song I’d offered to the group. At first they rubbed my fur the wrong way, but then I realized how brilliant the new lyrics were and I embraced the new version of the song.
Case: I wasn’t trying to replace [Laura’s] song or destroy her song or didn’t like her song, I was just compelled by what she was doing, for different reasons. And luckily for me she put up with it and went along with it, but her song, I believe, was kind of about her little son Oz, and mine was about venture capitalism. So they’re two different things and you know I would be kind of like, "dude, that’s about one of my favourite people on Earth who’s dearest to me and you want to write a song about venture capitalism over it?" I mean that’s not really a choice that you’re like, “Oh, sure, come on in.” [Laughs] It definitely took a little inner deliberation, so I’m very grateful to her for letting me latch onto that.
The lyrics “ride it like a painted carousel” and the parts about the smile, those parts are so powerful to me, and those are her context and her lyrics there. So, you know, she wrote the parts that I find most powerful and yet they have a completely different meaning to me. That’s kind of what you do with your songs anyway when you release them … so we kind of had a version of that, that was like a meta, in-your-lap version of that event.
'I Want to Be Here'
Veirs: A song about the underdog, the artist, the unsung. Though it appears quite simple there are many instruments at play on this song. I especially enjoy the distorted auto-harp. It keeps the three-part harmonies from being too sweet.
Veirs: This is our connection song: the song about the highway that connects the places in the Pacific Northwest where Neko, k.d. and I have all lived (Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver). It borrows a line that I love from a William Blake poem. The drumbeat by Glenn Kotche and Neko’s powerful vocals make this song surprising and alive.
'Why Do We Fight'
Veirs: k.d. couldn’t find her way into this song in the studio at first. She changed it over the weeks and the trick was taking away a lyric that was bugging her. That trick unlocked the beauty and the mystery of the song. She really sells this one — her singing sounds effortless.
Veirs: Sung from the perspective of a ghost in a grave. I vowed not to write more songs about stars, but I have to admit I like the line about “the stars going blue.” I enjoy the Sonic Youth feel of the pulsing root-note bass on this track, and the weird Icelandic-sounding dissonant vocals at the end.