The enigmatic songstress and masterful storyteller opens up about Hell-On—her most daring album yet—her love of tenor guitars, and how collaboration opened her creative gates.
Although these days Neko Case is well known as an indie-minded chanteuse, those who trace her career back to its mid-'90s roots may find a few surprises. For instance, during her time in the Pacific Northwest she was a member of various punk bands, but then her 1997 solo debut, Virginian, ended up knee-deep in conventional country and western trappings (there's even a tune called “Honky Tonk Hiccups").
Today, Case has found something of an adopted home in the alt-country scene, yet she continues to defy the industry's affinity for lazy labeling. While it's been five years since her last solo statement (2013's The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You), Case—who also fronts Canadian indie-rock outfit the New Pornographers—has actually been on a rather monastically dedicated bent as a musician.
True to form, the tenor-guitar-loving singer-songwriter's latest solo outing (and seventh overall), Hell-On, showcases an artist at the pinnacle of her craft collaborating with a rotating cast of similarly independent-minded artists, including Lang, Veirs, Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices, Nada Surf), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), and Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf). Case's music has long been a complex stew of disparate influences simmered into something uniquely her own—an ideal vehicle for her charming lilt and storytelling prowess—and Hell-On puts those gifts on full display. Dressed up with plenty of '60s girl-group vocal harmonies, clever guitar work that's both atmospheric and unexpected, and prog-informed song structures, Hell-On's songs constitute a concentrated, disarming dose of her best attributes.
As a guitarist, Case came to the instrument somewhat late in life, and she soon discovered that the 4-string tenor suited her best—so much so that she developed her signature percussive playing technique around it. (She's also amassed quite a collection, including an incredibly rare '50s Gretsch Duo Jet tenor formerly owned by Ry Cooder.) In addition, like most other revered songwriters, Case has surrounded herself with musicians equal to the task. She and her longtime tandem of stringed swingmen, Paul Rigby (lead guitar) and Jon Rauhouse (pedal steel/rhythm guitar/banjo), artfully walk the line between nuanced supporting roles, athletic intrigue, and weaving parts together as one. The guitar work on Hell-Onis admittedly biased towards the former, but stands tall as a masterful display of layered atmospherics.
Premier Guitarrecently spoke with Case, as well as trusted multitasker Rauhouse (see sidebar “Jon Rauhouse: On the Road with Neko"), about making the new record, performing it live, and the respective delights and challenges of tenor and pedal-steel guitars.
You came to guitar after years of success and experience as a singer. Can you tell us a little about that journey?
I didn't get started playing properly until I was, like, 30, and if it weren't for the tenor guitar, I don't know that I would've gotten started at all. I didn't really start successfully playing guitar until I got a tenor, because I've got really tiny hands. I play 6- and 7-string, too—I'm open to anything. That's one of the great things about learning an instrument a bit later in life. If you teach yourself to play something and you're not a kid, you're really not worried about learning scales or doing things “correctly," so it's a bit of a free-for-all. I find that to be much more creative. Granted, I can't just show up at a jam and play, but I'm not interested in that kind of thing anyway. I don't play the guitar like most people do—I'm kind of like a percussionist more than a traditional guitar player.
What can you tell us about the 7-string—and did it make any major appearances onHell-On?
Yeah, it makes a lot of appearances. It's a Roger McGuinn signature model Martin [HD-7], and it's been the greatest thing in my life for quite a while. It serves an important purpose because I play the guitar so percussively and I want it to jangle and have a more dulcimer-like resonance, but playing a 12-string is really out of the question because I have a reallyhard time making chords on a 12-string.
TIDBIT: Neko Case was finishing Hell-Onin Stockholm, Sweden, when she learned that her Vermont home had burnt to the ground. Rather appropriately, the next day she tracked the first single, “Bad Luck."
With the Martin, the 7th string doubles the G string, which gives you a lot of the resonance and jangle of a 12-string without having to tune it all the time—it stays in tune remarkably well. It gives me the sound I'm looking for in a 12-string without any of the problems. It totally makes sense that Roger McGuinn came up with that concept, considering the amount of time he's probably spent tuning 12-string guitars over the course of his career. I hope Martin makes them again, because they're such a great idea.
With the tiny-hands thing, I just needed something that sounded like music pretty much immediately to feel like I was making any progress. When I was trying to learn to play a 6-string in my 20s, I had a really cheap guitar with a really wide neck, which didn't help me. I never felt like I was making any progress and it just didn't sound musical to me. With the tenor, it sounded musical right away and I was able to start writing songs with it quickly, which was how I gauged whether or not I was making any progress. Guitar wasn't fun for me when I wasn't able to make music with it. That said, playing the tenor for so long has stretched my hands out and helped me build up the muscle to play regular 6- and 7-string guitars without a problem—in fact, I actually didn't play any tenor guitar on the record this time! I can't make really complicated chords with big fret stretches or anything, but I'm not really worried about it. One of my favorite guitarists was Pops Staples, and he would just use the sound of the instrument to do his thing. Pops left huge spaces between the notes and let the electronics and sound of his Jazzmaster ring out and carry things, and that sound and idea is sobeautiful to me!