Hell’s belle: Neko Case continues to burn bright

The cover for Neko Case’s latest studio album, Hell-On, is a striking one. It features the singer/songwriter adorned in a crown of lit cigarettes, seemingly unaware that her shoulder is erupting in a thick plume of flames.

The combination of an inside joke about Game of Thrones and the musician’s own fascination with fake Hollywood smokes, the cover art was never supposed to represent anything all that personal.

But as Case was in Sweden putting the finishing touches on her June-released seventh album, she was informed that her Vermont farmhouse had burned to the ground.

Devastated, but bolstered by the fact that no one was injured and her animals were safe, Case recorded Hell-On’s poppiest and most upbeat song, Bad Luck, the very next day.

That kind of resilience has served Case well in her 25-year career, tackling multiple genres from alt country and indie pop, to folk and more.

It’s also been a big help in the last few months, as she continues to balance a nearly constant touring schedule with the laborious task of sifting through the remnants of her former home.  

And, as the singer heads to the West Coast for a new leg of the Hell-On tour, the recent California wildfires are weighing on her mind.

“I feel so heavily for everyone out there,” said Case while waiting for a flight in a Vermont airport. “I know how that feels. It’s a long process. And it’s so hard.”

While it’s likely that Hell-On will forever be associated with the farmhouse fire that took place after the record was near completion, it was a handful of prior collaborative experiences that truly informed her latest LP.

The first was case/lang/veirs, the 2016 album she made as a trio with fellow songwriters k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs. Invited by Lang to join the supergroup shorty after the release of her Grammy-nominated 2013 sixth album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, Case was motivated by the shared creativity of the threesome.

She also found inspiration when she was asked to be a part of the WOMANPRODUCER panel in New York City alongside Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, Zola Jesus, and other women artists who also produce their own music.

It was then that Case decided that she was going to take the helm on her next project — something she hadn’t done since 2009. But she also knew that she wanted someone to co-produce and she wanted to try something different.

Enter Björn Yttling of Swedish indie pop trio Peter Bjorn and John. 

“I wanted some new sounds,” said Case. “And I’ve been a fan of his band for a long time. I thought letting go of some control would be really beneficial. And I thought it’d be cool to give up some of that control to someone I didn’t know, but admired instead. We met up before we did the record together and it seemed like a good fit. And it was. It was wonderful.”

Case also surrounded herself with an all-star cast of collaborators, including Lang, Viers, Beth Ditto, Mark Lanegan, Calexico’s Joey Burns, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, and others for Hell-On.

The album has earned raves from the likes of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and the New York Times, not only for its songwriting and musicianship, but for Hell-On’s not-so-subtle targeting of institutional patriarchy.

Case isn’t quite sure if she’s ready to make the leap into full “Neko Against The Machine” mode, but she isn’t exactly shying away from it either.

“Everything is political now,” she said. “You can’t not be, whether you like it or not. But it’s all about the moment of the day. Sometimes you post a picture of your cat. Sometimes you’re pissed off about something. And sometimes you have to stand up and point out something that’s obviously wrong. I’ve been boiling for so long now. I don’t know any other way. What other choice do any of us have? I’m just not a very quiet person. I never really have been.”

Case has no plans to stop being loud any time soon — whether it’s on her own or with longtime collective The New Pornographers. And on top of that, she heads toward whatever the future holds with a renewed sense of urgency and confidence.

“I’m a working musician. There’s been no downtime where I’ve stopped to do some acting or something (laughs). I’m a full-on musician all the time. And I’m a music producer. It’s a lot of work and it’s all over the map. But it’s awesome work. And I trust it.”

Neko Case 

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 8

Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave, North Park

Cost: $41

Online: observatorysd.com

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