By Duncan Strauss
As a guy who, for more than a dozen years, has hosted a radio show called Talking Animals, I’d like to think I can credibly announce I’ve recently conducted a telephone survey of animals, asking them to name their favorite musicians.
Tabulating the results, there were a few names that popped up a lot—Paul McCartney Emmylou Harris, Brian May, Nellie McKay, Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde, among others—but, even allowing for the standard margin of error in such polling, the clear victor was Neko Case.
Respondents offered a variety of reasons for singing the praises of the ginger-haired singer.
In particular, though, there appeared to be three chief reasons the critters cited for selecting Case.
They noted that she is a veteran vocal advocate of animal welfare issues—often amplifying the messages of Best Friends Animal Society, a Utah-based national organization that operates the nation’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals.
They also observed that she has a long track record of adopting a slew of dogs—including retired racing greyhounds—and cats, has consistently encouraged others to do the same, and a few years ago, bought a 100-acre former dairy farm in Vermont, which she shares with assorted rescued canines, felines, some chickens and a horse.
And the third key factor argued in the Case case is that her large and revered body of work is laced with nature and animal themes, including songs that bristle with pointed criticism of keeping wild animals in captivity.
Indeed, this represents the most distinctive trait amidst all the musicians who fared well in this survey: Sure, like many of the other top finishers, Neko Case is an artist who is highly acclaimed for the songs she writes, and the way she sings them.
But none of the others are additionally recognized for writing top-shelf tunes that launch musical smart bombs at zoos, marine theme parks and other facilities that confine such majestic creatures as tigers, elephants and orcas—noting that captivity often results in immense stress on those animals, and they sometimes rebel against those conditions with tragic consequences.
Songs like “The Tigers Have Spoken” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” to name two prominent examples.
In a Talking Animals interview recorded on Sept. 29, I asked Case about these and other songs, suggesting the tone in many is pretty contemptuous.
“Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t deny it in the least,” she responded immediately. “There are some animals that have no business being in captivity.
“If you’ve ever seen an elephant in the zoo, they’re always rocking back and forth. There’s that energy. They are mentally ill. Those animals [normally] walk 70 miles in a stretch.”
“People Got A Lotta Nerve,” a propulsive, ultra-catchy tune riding a ringing Byrds riff, describes that captive elephant behavior. The song also addresses the plight of orcas that are confined in a place like SeaWorld:
You know they call them killer whales
But you seem surprised
When it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank
Where you can’t turn around
It took half your leg and both your lungs
The last three lines could serve as an impressionistic description of the February 2010 horrific incident at SeaWorld Orlando in which an orca named Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, pinning her at the bottom of the tank, and tearing off parts of her body in the vicious attack.
What’s particularly striking about Case’s account of this grim episode is that she released the song 13 months before Brancheau’s death.
So, in “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” Case presaged Tilikum’s attack on Brancheau. I suggest that this feels like a deeply odd, dark premonition.
Neko Case, ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve,’ from the album Middle Cyclone. An eerie premonition of the orca Tilikum’s fatal attack on his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.
“It’s always been around, it’s always been in our face,” she said. “They’re feared predators. They get along with us–I guess our fat doesn’t taste too good. But that’s the only reason. And they know we are where their food comes from in that situation
“Whales are meant to swim long distances in the day. It’s like you’re making a growing teenager live inside an empty refrigerator, and sometimes you open the door and give him a juice box. No wonder they’re mentally ill.
“You know what, when it attacks someone, we can’t act like it’s so surprising. Not that she deserved that—she didn’t. That was terrible. What a terrible thing to happen to a person.
“And I’m sure she didn’t have any bad intentions. But if you can’t pull back and understand the psychology of the species–which they claim to. How can you actually be studying this animal for research when it’s not in its natural environment or anything resembling it? It’s just common sense.
Case is uncharacteristically serious here. She’s otherwise a droll conversationalist, joking frequently and laughing easily. And anyone who’s ever attended a Case concert knows that her between-song patter projects the wit and timing of a gifted comedian.
Last year, she appeared on @Midnight, the Comedy Central game show, ordinarily the province of stand-ups, where quick-witted improvising is the order of the day—and she won.
But her solemn manner in this portion of the interview is wholly consistent with how seriously she takes these matters, reflecting her forceful kinship with animals, which truly is lifelong.
“When I was little, I didn’t really have parents,” she recalled, explaining that as an only child, her parents not being present—in all senses of that word—had a profound impact on her. Clearly, a solitary existence.
“So I had a dog, a cat, a few more cats, then a couple more dogs. Those were the critters who really looked after me.
“And dogs, as you know, are super empathetic, and I was the person around, and they really loved me. They took care of me. They slept in my bed every night, and you know, they did good.
I point out that this just underscores dogs’ keen emotional intelligence, recognizing that Case needed additional attention and TLC, because her parents weren’t around.
Neko Case, ‘I’m An Animal,’ from the album Middle Cyclone
“Well, maybe. Maybe they needed me too, I think. Since they’re pack animals, if there’s someone who needs a little attention, they’ll give it.
“And sleeping in bed with a warm kid probably feels pretty good. When you’re a dog and you once lived in the pound, you’re probably ‘Alright! This is great!’ And I was always very sweet to my animals, and they were sweet to me back. So we had a nice understanding.
Given the adoring way she talks about dogs, and how often any critter photos of Neko Case feature her with one or more dogs, you could easily assume that, when the chips are down, she’s a dog person.
I voiced that very assumption and, boy, did I dial a wrong number.
“No, definitely not,” she said, emphatically. “I definitely think that I’ve been the closest with dogs, ‘cause that’s how it turned out. But I do have a cat that’s particularly fond of everyone and everything.
“He really gets to be a cat, and lives outside when he wants, and live inside when he wants, eat what he wants, go where he wants. It’s all OK with him—he’s the example of great mental balance and a joyful countenance.
“He likes to love on everyone. He has grown up with dogs, so he thinks that’s the way to be. He has a dog kind of attitude about him.
“If I could have anyone’s life ever in the history of the world, it would be my cat’s life. Partly because…he came from the shelter, he just knows how to live. He’s so joyful about everything”
Neko Case’s PSA for Best Friends Animal Society
As ebullient as she sounds about that cat (Marty, by the way), she nearly reaches that same level of enthusiasm when she discusses Best Friends.
“I remember watching the Dogtown show,” she recalled, referring to the 2008-2010 National Geographic documentary series set at the Utah facility, “and thinking ‘They have a different philosophy about rescuing animals than I had seen widely publicized.’
“It was really lovely and made a lot of sense. The main philosophy being ‘You have to let them be dogs and it’s really important to understand the psychology of the species if you’re going to live with them.’
“And dogs really are tying to understand our language, just as we’re trying to understand theirs. I like how they stress that understanding your dog, and making an effort with your dog, will get you the results that you want. That they’re not human beings—they’re dogs.
No question, Neko Case is someone who’s passionate in her love for dogs, and in her love for those who love dogs. And cats. At least cats named Marty.
Of course, there are innumerable musical artists who profess their love of animals, including some who emerged near the top of our survey.
What truly differentiates Case in this realm is that she writes songs about animals. Lots of them. I’m not the first, nor will I likely be the last, to posit that she has created enough critter tunes to populate a whole album of animal songs.
Depending on how elastic one’s definition of animal song, that album could feature: “The Tigers Have Spoken,” “I’m An Animal,” “Magpie To The Morning,” “Red Tide,” “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” “People Got A Lotta Nerve, “Fever,” “Dirty Knife,” “Maybe Sparrow,“ “Marais La Nuit” and “Yon Ferrets Return.”
Neko Case, ‘Maybe Sparrow,’ from the album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
No matter how you slice it, this represents an eclectic assemblage, and a small but mighty body of work that’s a musical microcosm of her much larger, overall body of work. (She’s about to release an eight-album box set, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
The underlying point is that she’s not just a celebrated songbird, but also a celebrated songsmith.
Her most recent record, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You generated a raft of four-star reviews and other raves—Rolling Stone declared “Neko Case has grown into one of America’s best and most ambitious singer-songwriters”—while cementing her reputation as a formidable composer.
Running parallel to that evolution, I’ve grown curiouser and curiouser about how Case approaches writing animal songs.
I wondered if it’s the same process she’d use to write any other song—or does she have a specific intent, because something (animals in captivity, let’s say) is in her craw? How do these songs come together?
“Well, the same things bother me about humans, and how it is to be a human,” she said. “We have a lot of very unnatural environments for ourselves, smashing instincts down into nothing.
“Animals are always with me. And I feel a sense of camaraderie with them, in that we all could have a lot more freedom. Our habitats are important, and they overlap. And we could really do a much better job.
“There are so many ways we govern animals and govern ourselves that don’t make any sense, whatsoever.
So these issues and ideas in your songwriting about animals and about humans are parallel—or they sometimes intersect?
“I think they’re the same,” she said. “I think of us together, really. I am interested in animal welfare, but it’s not like a PETA way, but more like a-let-animals-be-animals way.”
The Anti Records’ trailer for Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, a box set containing Neko Case’s entire catalogue on vinyl, available November 13, 2015
Just around the corner, there’s an ideal opportunity to contemplate her animal-oriented output in the context of the entire Neko Case oeuvre. On Nov. 13, she’s set to release Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, a box set collecting Case’s entire catalog—on vinyl.
This means eight records done up right for vinyl aficionados, remastered from the original analog tape, pressed onto 180 Gram black platters, and most of the selections have been out of print on vinyl for several years.
She explained that Truckdriver was intended to be vinyl-only from its inception. “Yeah, it was. I’m a big fan of vinyl. There are download codes in each box, so you can download the music, as well.
“You paid for it, so you can download it and have it digitally as well. If you’re a nerd who never wants to open the box, there you go! If you want to collect that hardcore and never touch any of that vinyl, you are welcome to because you can download it. I like playing things on the stereo. I miss that. That’s how I grew up.”
How she ”grew up” also figures into her response when I ask her about The New Pornographers. the acclaimed indie rock outfit that Case has been a member of since the band formed in Vancouver in 1999.
My question sought to explore what working with The New Pornographers provides her at this point, especially given that her own career is flourishing and immensely demanding—for example, she’s been on tour almost constantly since The Worse Things Get was released in 2013.
Yet she really seems to relish recording and touring with The New Pornographers—she’s so fully committed to them, if you just looked there and didn’t know any better, you could be excused for thinking there was no Neko Case career, much less an increasingly successful one.
So, what is she getting from that New Pornographers experience?
“It’s kind of variety, challenge and a great release of energy,” she replied, after pausing maybe two seconds. “The New Pornographers is super physical on stage that my band isn’t in a way.
“Mine is a very different kind of physical, like singing really hard while playing guitar at the same time, whereas [in The New Pornographers’ shows] I focus just on the singing. And I haven’t written those songs in The New Pornographers, so I go way outside of my range”—she laughs heartily here—“sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully. But that’s where you get the challenge.
“And also, I grew up with those people. Our bands came up at the same time, and I knew Carl and John and Blaine way before we were in The New Pornographers. We all loved music together, and hung out socially at shows in Vancouver. We just lived for music, all of us.
“So it’s kind of another way to not lose contact with that part of my life, and those people that I am so in love with. They are all close to me, and I don’t live in Vancouver anymore and I haven’t for a very long time. But here we are. And it’s a lovely thing.”
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.