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On her most recent album, the shadowy “Middle Cyclone,” Neko Case imprinted the style she has been honing over the previous two albums.

As she did on the live “Tigers Have Spoken” and then “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” Case again manages to compose songs that are large, lavish, filled with unexpected twists and turns. Yet all the while, they maintain a sense of formality and familiarity: The unconventional shifts and progressions are navigable, employed in the service of each song and the album as a whole, not as a means of showing off clever songwriting chops.

cover art

Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

(Anti-; US: 3 Mar 2009; UK: Available as import)

Review [2.Mar.2009]

Case recently spoke about songwriting and other matters, including hauling six pianos into a barn to give Harry Nilsson the proper respect.

Q. How has the process of writing songs changed for you over the past several albums?

A. I don’t know if it has changed. I still do things really sporadically, and I don’t really plan anything. I generally start with ideas — like if I feel like there’s an idea that won’t leave me alone, I’ll write it down and then I’ll get together with Paul (Rigby) at a certain point and show him what I’ve come up with. He’ll sometimes help me finish it, sometimes help me find chords.

I’ve realized I don’t really like to do it by myself. It’s kind of lonely. I can do it by myself, but I hang out with myself plenty. It’s nice to have another perspective.

Q. What’s the most difficult part of the process?

A. It’s the finishing a batch of songs you have lying around. The getting down to the nitty-gritty and going, “OK, we need to get this done. We need to commit to parts and get it together.” That gets even more difficult during the mixing process. But it’s a labor of love.

It only seems like a chore when you’ve become sleep-deprived. There are times when Paul and I are like, “Oh, my God, I just want this to end because we haven’t slept in two days and we’re totally strung out on not sleeping and this one idea is just so hard to solve.” You really have to push yourself with any kind of art or discipline but once you break through that problem, you always feel great, so it’s worth it.

Q. How do your older songs fit in these days?

A. Some of my songs, you know, I still feel good about them but I don’t listen to them. I’m hoping that I have somehow improved. And so sometimes listening to old things makes you go, “I can’t believe I didn’t realize I shouldn’t do that.” It’s a little embarrassing, in retrospect. But fans are nice about it and don’t really feel that way. So you don’t want to talk bad about your songs, because even though they’re your songs, it might insult somebody who likes them.

Q. Not a lot of singer/songwriters have a voice like yours. Do you ever write melodies with that in mind — knowing what your voice is capable of?

A. It’s more that I end up writing songs that are too hard for me to sing, but without realizing I’m doing it until it’s too late. You’ve sung something in F-sharp and falsetto while making the demo the whole time, then you go to sing it full-on and you realize, “What have I done to myself?” But you have to commit to it and have to work through it. It’s very humbling.

Q. A lot of guests helped out on this album. Do people ever ask to help you record?

A. Generally people don’t ask to be on a record. It’s kind of an unspoken thing where you don’t ever want to assume anything. I did ask a lot of people, and lucky for me they all made it.

The only person I’ve asked to be on their record is Carl (Newman). I was like, “Come on! Let me play on your solo record!” And he was like, “No,” which made total sense because he didn’t want it to sound completely like another New Pornographers album. But I hounded him about it. Then I was like, “This is why people don’t ask to be on records because you have plans and no one can know what they are.” Sometimes you don’t even know. But lucky for me, everybody made it on this record.

Q. Does it make things any more complicated, bringing in people you may not be all that acquainted with?

A. No. I’ve done enough experimenting with that that I know it’s going to be OK. I’ve had really good experiences — knock on wood. I got really lucky with Garth Hudson. He’s such a lovely, lovely human being and so much fun to hang out with. He really appreciates everything. He’s a real musician, not a star. He could totally take the star angle or “I’m a living legend and institution” but the guy just really wants to play piano and serve the song. That’s what he’s driven to do. At the end of the day, when you’re done working on that, he feels great, and he will tell you some of the greatest stories ever

The first record went so well that we worked with him on, which was “Fox Confessor,” that we asked him to come back. It was so great. We didn’t have to wonder about what was going to happen. I said, “Garth is going to be on ‘Don’t Forget Me,’ so it’s going to sound great. We don’t have to worry. It’s Garth Hudson.”

Q. Why did you choose to cover that song?

A. I’d wanted to do that song for a while. But it’s a Harry Nilsson song, obviously, so there’s no way you’re going to sing something better than Harry Nilsson or with more feeling or play better piano, so I had to think of a way to do it that didn’t seem like I was trying to one-up Harry Nilsson. That never works.

So I kind of went from the ground up. Or backward, in a way. I thought, “Well, six used pianos in the barn could be good, all played at once, like 21 tracks of pianos in a barn.” It all sounds very decadent, like something the Stones would do in the Caribbean. But it was all based on Craigslist, so it was like a poor-person’s version of something really decadent.

Luckily for us, the band and I, we knew Garth Hudson and we got him to come in and be the ringer, something we figured Harry Nilsson would appreciate. I actually got an e-mail from Harry Nilsson’s son. He was super nice. He was like, “That was a really great version. My dad really would have liked that.”

Q. You have a deep catalog of material to choose from. How do you decide on a set list these days?

A. We have firm set lists and we have sections of it that we change every night, depending on what city we’re playing or how we’re feeling or if a certain person’s not there we don’t do certain things. For example, people ask for “Thrice All-American” all the time but we only play that song in Tacoma. There are weird rules and necessities. Maybe something breaks that night so a certain song wouldn’t be the same. We’re going to do a couple cities again on this next tour and they’ll get different songs.

Tagged as: neko case
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