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Music, Etc.: Neko Case, Hell-On

By Jacques Sonyieux. "Hell-On" is Neko Case's first album in five years, which she completed after finishing up projects with The New Pornographers and her female Canadian supergroup case/lang/veirs.

Neko Case has never really fit into a specific genre classification, drawing roots and influence from Canadian folk, alt-country and indie-rock in equal parts. As an artist, she’s always been a bit of a rebel—a songwriter with strong, often lyrically haunting ideas and an extraordinary voice that could draw tears from a stone. Hell-On is her first album in five years, which she completed after finishing up projects with The New Pornographers and her female Canadian supergroup case/lang/veirs. The album delivers the exceptional vocal performances that we have now come to expect from Case, with some fresh sonic flourishes courtesy of a new co-production arrangement with Björn Yttling from Peter, Bjorn and John. Pro Sound News spoke with Case about working in Sweden and getting outside her comfort zone.

On multi-tasking:

This album took a long time because I had the case/lang/veirs project to work with, which involved making a record and touring. Then the New Pornographers record came out and we had a lot of touring for that, too. It is kind of like being in three full-time bands, and if you figure two years per band, I am actually ahead of schedule in a strange way. As far as my production role on this record, I felt really good about ceding some control because I wanted to push myself to new places. And sometimes you can’t do that just thinking about yourself and working the same way that you always do. I always have lots of guests on my albums and that makes things exciting, but I specifically wanted to go outside my comfort zone.

On new directions:

I decided to work with somebody I didn’t know at all, but whose work I admired: Björn Yttling from Peter, Bjorn and John. I had done a lot of research and really like what he does—I like his musicality, and he can do pretty much anything. He’s a multi-talented musician, producer and arranger and had some things going on that I really wanted to be a part of. I think he probably felt good because I didn’t want to go in there and control him; instead, I wanted to go in there and see his reaction to things. Also, Björn had a connection to a lot of great musicians in Sweden, as well as Lasse Mårtén, the mix engineer on this record. There was so much hometown goin’ on that it felt like I was part of this friendly, super-warm musical community that is kind of a worldwide thing now.

Related: Music, Etc.: Blind Pilot – The Face of Courage, by Jacques Sonyieux, Aug. 11, 2016

On breaking the seal:

Looking back over the records I’ve made, I’ll usually have about three songs that are more or less “ready to go”—maybe I will tour them for a bit and break them in so we have three solid things to lay down. These three songs will give you the confidence of “breaking the seal” in the studio. Then I’ll bring in three more songs that are half or three-quarters done and kind of finish those up. Finally, there will be about three or four songs that I have no idea what to do with, and they will become what they are in the studio with experimentation. I like having that variety, and it naturally sets up well for spontaneity. But it’s spontaneity with a safety net, because some things are already done and they sound good, and you get confidence from that.

On studio tools:

Right when I got into the studio with Björn, he started playing Farfisa on things, and I think this elevated things a bit. I love Farfisa, but he played it in a very strange way that created a lot of tension. This kind of instrumentation was helpful in elevating some ideas that I was already married to but which hadn’t hit their stride yet. As far as guitars, I fall more in love with my Jazzmaster every year. I used a lot of severe distortion on this record—I am still in love with the Hotcake distortion pedal. For vocals, the Audio-Technica AT4050 and I are good friends. But I also used a 58 on this record a few times. I am really nasal, so some of these expensive, high-end mics don’t really work for me. I think what I like about the Audio-Technica is that it is the most “invisible mic” on my voice. It can take a lot of volume and is also friendly to my nasal quality.

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On devils in the details:

I touched no knobs on this record, but I was there and would ask for certain things. I am really nitpicky—to the point where people probably want me to go away sometimes. There will be 14 different versions of something in the end before it is narrowed down. I really fight for the little, tiny parts, because if somebody comes in and does this guitar part, and let’s say their thumb slips on the guitar in this one spot, I want to make sure that moment is not forgotten, because of how it made me feel at the time. I want to make sure those little landmines are all over the record, and so the people who played them can find themselves on the record. Things can get lost in a big wall of sound. I like the wall of sound, but I want the details as well.

On taking visual cues:

Since I am not a trained musician, I had to say things differently, and the mix engineer, Lasse Mårtén, always got it. At one point, I actually sent him a photo of a painting and said, ‘Can you just make it sound like this guy is singing it?’ I think it was a drawing for “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia where the devil is on the top. He burst out laughing and said, “That’s all I needed right there, thank you!”

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists who occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at [email protected].