We got to sit down with Neko Case at Brooklyn, NY's The Honey Jar recording studio to discuss her career so far, as well as her production experiences while tracking and mixing her most recent release, Hell-On. Neko was gracious with her time, and we covered a lot of what she's learned about tracking her own voice and staying creative in the studio.
In one of your bios, you speak about "inventing a new language through [your] music and lyrics in order to express [your] creative vision." How did this evolve over the years, writing-wise and recording-wise, from your earlier projects to Hell-On?
Well, I think there were a lot of years where I didn't realize that that's what I was doing, even though I went to art school. When you go to art school, you have to ask yourself all the time, "What is art? What am I doing?" The really important question I got from art school was, "Does my project say what I'm trying to say to the viewer?" You think about that all the time. It's a really deep question. From that question, you take away a billion answers; but, basically, you're trying to express something inexpressible. You have to invent a new language made of a collage of other languages that will hopefully reach people in a way that they don't expect. You can't reach everyone. You can hit, like, 60 percent of the mark… probably. There are a few people who will get more out of it. It's not because your audience doesn't get it. It's because maybe you haven't pushed the idea far enough. I don't know how it's evolved. [But] I've never stopped thinking about that particular question. I'm a little too close to things to see how it's evolved, per se. I tend to think of songs very cinematically. I think of songs as trailers for movies, in a way. You know how sometimes the [trailer] can be really great, but then the movie isn't so great? I'm always obsessed with getting to the movies before the trailers. There's something about the trailers that I really love, because there's so much possibility. You don't know [what's going to happen]. It generates a feeling of excitement. [With] songs, I always want to have plenty of space. I want the transitions to be interesting. I want every strange part that happens during the recording to be audible later. It doesn't so much affect what mics I use, or specific gear, so much as it makes me spend a shit ton more time editing and making sure that things poke out or get compressed a lot more so that they really are audible.
You mean individual performance parts?
Yeah. If somebody's fingers slipped off a string at some point and it sounds really interesting – a lot of those moments are really valuable. I don't want them to be lost. I love using [the] stereo image to create space, as well as allowing things to move – or placing things in a space where you don't expect them to be. Whether people know it or not, they understand stereo image.
I like to make people excited in that way. Even though I'm not a fan of low-quality MP3s, at least there's still something that somebody can hear that's interesting on headphones. I think a lot about that. It's part of the job, but you've got to make sure that it sounds decent in a crappy pair of headphones, or on a computer. I can't get really excited about a cell phone speaker, though.
But I have to say, your albums sound phenomenal on that cell phone speaker.
Thank you. I have to give a lot of credit for that to Peter J. Moore, who masters my records. He started in the world of vinyl. He's one of those people who can tell what kind of tape he's using by smelling it, but he's also worked in the digital world for just as long. He's really good at finding the middle ground to satisfy both things. He deserves all the credit for that.
Have you always been aware of the stereo spectrum, or has that developed over the years?
I've always known about it. My dad was a stoner with a nice pair of headphones, so I listened to a lot of music that way as a kid. It was an exciting journey – going into another world. I [was always aware of] those things, [but] I made a lot of records before I really started thinking about...