Considering the connections one can make between the work and careers of K.D. Lang and Neko Case, it's amazing the two had, until last fall, never met in person. Both work in that murky and melodic world that connects pop and country. Both are closely associated with Canada (Lang was born and raised in Alberta; Case spent her formative years in Vancouver BC). And both are known for their show-stopping vocal abilities.
Last October, when it came to light these two women were going to be in Portland at the same time—Lang is now a resident of the Rose City, and Case was working on her upcoming album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, at Tucker Martine's studio—it seemed like a great opportunity to get them together. Both met for a long lunch at Blossoming Lotus to discuss their careers, their admiration for each other's work, and the sometimes-difficult aspects of the artistic life.
Willamette Week: You two have never met before, is that right?
Lang: Nope, never met. Although I imagine we're sort of relatives by musical blood.
When did you become aware of the other's music?
Neko Case: I've known about [Lang's] music forever.
Lang: That's because I've been around forever!
You both came to the attention of the world through your interpretation of country music. What attracted each of you to that genre?
Case: It was always in the background at my grandma's house. I remember people would talk about country music like it was this sexist, lame thing. Well, no, because Dolly Parton is writing songs and playing her guitar and producing. She's doing it all and she's got hits on the radio.
Lang: I grew up listening to singer-songwriters and I was involved with a performance artist group in Edmonton, but I wasn't comfortable with either. Then I started to study country music and absolutely fell in love. It's real and emotional and a great showcase for the voice. There was a self-deprecation to it, too. They didn't take themselves so seriously as jazz or rock musicians. They had a sense of humor.
Neko, do you feel like K.D. has gotten her just due as an influence on people in the alt-country world?
Lang: Well, you'd better say yes, 'cause I'm sitting right here!
Case: I just don't want to embarrass you with my two-hour dialogue on how that's true.
Lang: I don't think you need to. Can we skip that question?
Neko, I know you've gotten some work done on the new album before you came here to town. How much do you have left to do?
Case: I was supposed to have all the vocals done by now but I have a couple of songs left. I'm catching up. I've just been working on it for months and months and months so I'm super burned out.
Lang: It's really hard when you're working on original material to know exactly how to approach it. And if you've haven't toured it, there's an umbilical cord that's really, really hard to remove yourself from, to become the observer of the song.
Case: I don't think I ever become the observer of the song. I'm always [cringing noises]. There's always that moment when you get to the point in the set list where it's a cover song. Even if you've been doing it for a while, there's always that [sigh of relief].
How do you approach covering other people's songs?
Case: It's almost better to pick songs nobody's ever heard before. I don't think I'm a great interpreter. [Lang] and Kelly Hogan are really great at that. I'm more wont to sing it exactly the way the person sang it, and obviously you can't do that.
Lang: I think I stopped worrying about it. I stopped trying to make it original, trying to recreate it. I just let my body and my emotion and my life absorb it and then let it come back out of me and not really worry about recreating it or doing it better. It enhances my songwriting, and my songwriting enhances my interpretation. [To Case] Do you read a lot?
Case: I do.
Lang: I can tell that from your lyrics. I think you're one of the most incredible lyricists alive. Your lyrics just astonish me. I'm incredibly jealous of that.
Case: Lyrics are the hardest thing to do. Most of your time is spent editing it down. Is there an easier way to say this? All the really powerful writers used simple language. Especially Loretta Lynn. She'd rhyme a word with the same word! You just blew my mind with the same word because you're that awesome!
Lang: When I recorded Shadowland, I did a song with Loretta. She showed up to the session with a loaf of white bread, a jar of mustard and literally a log of bologna with a serrated steak knife. How beautiful is that?
How are you handling things now that the music industry is in such a state of turmoil right now?
Case: You have to tour.
Lang: It's about the live show. That's the only thing that's going to save the music business.
Does this mean having to tour more?
Case: I never really stop so I'm not sure that it's possible. I could probably tour less. People still come, so as long as they're still coming.
Lang: My touring business is the best it's ever been. Physically, I know I can't keep up the pace that I have been. Singing is so physical. People have no idea.
And you really work the stage when you perform.
Lang: I show off, is what happens.
Case: Showing off is good. I'm always thinking, "These people are fucking bored. I'm just standing here." I couldn't fake it because I would look silly.
Lang: I can't help myself. I think to myself, "You are just being completely ridiculous right now." And then I completely embrace it. Why take yourself so seriously?
Case: For me, it took years to figure out how one little thing won't ruin the entire show.
Lang: I've learned to do the opposite. If I go out there and I'm completely uninspired, I'll do something extraordinarily silly to wake me up. A really stupid dance move, or I'll sing opera when I'm not supposed to sing opera. It just shifts me back into the music and wakes me up emotionally.
Case: People ask me all the time why I don't do solo gigs, and I'm like, "I'm not going anywhere without my gang." I don't know what I would do without Kelly Hogan to crack me up sometimes.
Lang: I love my band. They call it a band for a really good reason.
Tickets and official site: musicfestnw.com
SEE IT: Neko Case plays Sunday, September 8 at Pioneer Courthouse Square. 8 pm.