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Alexander Bisley interviews Neko Case

Neko Case (Hell-On) is one of today's great live singer-songwriters, and a highlight of the Auckland Arts Festival. Her oeuvre ranges from ruminations like ‘Afraid’ (“You are beautiful, and you are alone”) to barnstormers like ‘Man’ (“I am the man on the fucking moon”). Alexander Bisley asked Neko about her performance philosophy, depression and Mark Twain's influence.

Alexander Bisley: What do you think about people romanticising suffering as causal for great art?

Neko Case: Yeah, that’s kind of some bullshit. I mean, it’s not necessary and nor is it fun. It’s no good. Nobody likes to feel like that. I think at some point somebody decided that they would make their bad situation like a club that only they got to be in, which is always really confusing to me. Like, why would you want that? It’s so odd. And when people say you have to suffer for your art it’s almost condescending. Pushing an idea is a good thing, but I don’t know that that’s so much about suffering.

AB: I appreciate your range. What are you hoping audiences take away from listening to a song like ‘Man’ or ‘Hell-On’ live?

NC: They just have to come and see, really. We do have a lot of different dynamics going on. We do very quiet things and then very loud things. We have definitely put a lot of effort into figuring out how to make it seem three-dimensional; not just us running through the songs.

AB: You give fiery, passionate performances. Could you talk a bit more about your performance philosophy?

NC: Well, I don’t have a philosophy about it other than it’s not about me, it’s about trying to do the best job you can and hit the notes as best you can. I don’t know, just physically get from one place to the next. It’s kind of like you have to shut your brain off to do it. It’s very, very physical.

AB: During The Worse Things Get period where you were so depressed, you read “like a fiend.”

NC: I did. You’d do anything to get out of your own life. Reading is definitely very cathartic; not cathartic, I hate that word. It’s just a really nice pressure reliever.

AB: You’re a fan of Annie Dillard's Writing Life?

NC: The thing I really remember from that book is her saying, “It’s always the sentences that you think are the best that you work the hardest on. They are the ones that you ultimately have to sacrifice.” And it’s the most painful thing I’ve heard that, but she’s totally right. Less romantically, it would be you’ve got to become a really good editor. Slash it! When in doubt, slash it.

AB: What do you rate about Mark Twain’s autobiography?

NC: I love his random rambles he goes into; his whole spiral of rambles. I like hearing his general thoughts about when General Grant, President Grant, was over at the house. Ulysses Grant used to just come over. No big deal. What a strange time to live. Crazy, crazy things. I really loved his reminiscences about heading out west on the stagecoach and sitting on the roof of the stagecoach and eating bacon while watching the sun come up on his way to Carson City. I really loved that.

AB: Twain even came down to New Zealand.

NC: I know! He was all over the place. I think about that a lot. I think about how people are, we do a lot of nothing with our time, but we’re thoroughly stingy about it, whereas he would be like, “Yes, I’m getting on a steamer for six months and I’m going to Europe and Australia, then I’ll be back.” It’s like, wow, I want to get on a steamer. I want to get on a luxury liner and go somewhere and write my great American novel and go dancing and for teatime with Eleanor Roosevelt or something. That’d be awesome.

AB: “Let’s not hash it out and make it Fire Woman or Fire Person. Is a lioness not a lion mother fucker?” you said. Could you elaborate?

NC: I just mean, why do we always have to justify? We don’t, because it doesn’t really matter. There’s an immediacy to leaving it out. Don’t qualify everything.

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