Neko Case Talks New Supergroup Album With kd lang & Laura Veirs
Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs are a trio that’s nothing like Destiny’s Child, but they might just need to borrow Beyonce’s mom this summer. Since the three of them are taking their joint album, case/lang/veirs on tour, and Case is tempted to sew all their costumes—Tina Knowles-style. The albums is out this Friday, 6/17 via ANTI, and they’ll begin their tour a couple days later.
“I was like, how about ‘Survivor’-era Destiny’s Child?” Case told me over the phone last week, giving up the scoop about tour rehearsals. “I don’t know if I could pull off the camo bikini top though.”
Case has sewn her own stuff before (when she played Northside in 2015, she proudly paraded her handmade leggings), but her bandmates are a tad skeptical. Either way, they’re still figuring out the details of their live shows.
Although they’ll be spending a lot of time together in the next few months, three years ago, the musical forces were just “ships passing in the night,” as Case put it, or, more accurately, ships passing in the Northwest, where they’ve all lived at one point in their lives. But it wasn’t until lang sent a fateful email to Case and Veirs saying something like ‘Hey, we should work together’ that they’d become linked forever. “We replied without even reading the entire email,” Case said. “Yes yes yes yes! How may times can I hit yes yes yes yes yes.”
So they had their first meeting in Portland–“over delicious dessert treats and coffee, which is how every great idea is born,” Case said–knowing only that they wanted to make an original record together. What they ended up with was something of a folksy, soulful, organic splash of beauty, tenderness, exuberance and healthy cynicism. There’s the smoothness of the cradling “Honey and Smoke,” the icy echoes and imagery of “Greens of June” and the bouncy orchestral party of “Best Kept Secret.”
There’s a menagerie of keyboard, guitar, clarinets and strings, strengthened by the vocal harmonies of all three: lang’s round-toned croons, Veirs’ playful top notes, Case’s explorative howls. There’s a lot of artistry presented in the 14 songs, with a different element of production presenting itself with each listen. For that, Case gives “a shit-ton of credit” to Veirs’ husband, Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine, whose name is on the work of The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Case’s most recent album The Worse Things Get…, and much more.
“Tucker was kind of the frosting on the whole thing that made it super cohesive,” she said. “He’s the fourth member of our band for sure.”
During the making of the album, Case was on a tight schedule, touring in support of her box set (released last November) and playing shows with her other project, The New Pornographers. So getting studio time was a bit of a struggle–so much so that other artists who had booked time with Tucker graciously moved their schedule around for the supergroup.
“Even though Laura’s married to him, we were still lucky to get him. He’s a sought-after individual,” Case said.
At first, they had tossed around the idea of a covers record, but quickly decided against it: “We really wanted to push ourselves and go through the challenge of actually contributing ideas and actually being a democratic community,” Case said. “‘Yes, no, maybe, that works.’ So you have to kind of check your ego at the door.” The ego thing is important because here and there, they’d disagree on lyric or a chord change, but they’d have to learn how to let go. “It’s funny because there are things you really feel attached to at the time and then when it doesn’t happen your way after a little bit, you’re like, ‘You know, that actually sounds fine that way.’ You don’t really obsess with what isn’t there anymore.”
They started with what they had in common, which was the Northwest, the Cascade Mountains and the I-5, which runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The result? “Down I-5,” a song with chugging snare, urgent hi-hat and the type of pure piano that would soundtrack the quickly passing landscape you’d see from the highway. It’s a track that embodies the haunting vibes of the road, along with the romanticism of the scenic route. “It’s kind of like cursed and ominous,” Case said. “And to Laura and kd, it kind of means different stuff. To me, it means, oh, this road. I think it’s just cursed.” Case takes charge of the lead vocals on this one–“Driving down I-5 / I don’t ever want to die / ‘Cause I’d no more get to see / All this beauty passing by me”–but you can hear them as a trio harmonizing as the lost souls who might’ve met their fate on the mysterious road.
The harmonies on the album are classic, recalling folk groups of the past, like their voices were meant to be joined together for decades. They take turns with the lead–Veirs on “Georgia Stars,” lang on “Honey and Smoke,” Case on “Delirium”–but on a song like “Atomic Number,” the LP’s opener, they swap introductions like they swap phrases. “I’m not the freckled maid / I’m not the fair-haired girl / I’m not a pail of milk for you to spoil,” they sing. It’s a song about exploitation, Case said, “Just people not seeing the beauty that already exists, they just have to take it and crush it, and make it something else.”
“Atomic Number” blossomed from part of a song that she had started writing years ago, unearthed from her journals and a part of her brain that had reserved the lyrics for a future home. “It’s funny; if I go back in those journals, there’s things I have no recollection of and you feel like a weird plagiarist using your own material because you feel like you’re cheating.”
Case said she spins her ideas into songs more spontaneously that her cohorts, but that way of working rubbed off on them and she admitted that it was “beautiful” for them to realize that drifting down an unexplored songwriting path wouldn’t be treacherous. When it comes to writing, Case spends a “dangerous” amount of time wandering down rabbit holes, but in the end, “ideas are like rabbits and they just breed other ideas.”
By the time they finished the album in December, she learned from them too, absorbing the intense work ethic of Veirs, who writes music every day: “I have been utterly chastened by watching she and kd work. I’m like, I need to step it up here.”
She’ll be guided by lang when it comes to touring (their tour runs from June 22 to August 17): “kd is a really amazing bandleader,” she said, adding that when it comes to feeling out a vibe onstage, lang will be able to set the tone, choosing either a laidback, blissful chill sesh or all-out jam party.
Of course, if they do end up donning the classic Destiny’s Child garb, they’ve still got all the choreography to work on. So we’ll just have to see what happens.
Photos by Jason Quigley.
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