AUSTIN, Texas — The song from Neko Case’s new album that most people can’t seem to shake happens to be the most bare-bones one. Sung mostly a cappella, it’s based on an experience we’ve all had, which doesn’t make it any less jarring.
At a bus stop, Case witnessed a mother so agitated with her child, who was probably around 5 or 6 years old, that she exploded in public: “Get the [expletive] away from me!/ Why don’t you ever shut up?”
Case sings those words in a full, fervent chorus of voices, before turning the song into a motherly hymn to the young girl who was so brutally scolded.
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” comes from Case’s acclaimed new album, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.” Untamed and majestic, it is the most singular achievement in Case’s career.
“It’s a little on the weird side, but I went with it,” she says of the new album. “I was like, what have I got to lose? You’ve got to trust your audience with what you do and give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Case says this a few weeks ago on the patio connected to her room at the Hotel San Jose in this Texas town. She’s here for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, but today’s performances have been canceled because of rain.
Case headlines the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, marking a return to the region she calls home. She lives full-time on a farm in northern Vermont with four dogs, two cats, and a horse named Norman. She’s hesitant to mention the exact location, but it’s been previously reported that she’s near St. Johnsbury.
Back at her hotel, she swats at swarming mosquitoes, hellbent on killing them with her hands. She looks the way she appears in concert, which is to say like she doesn’t give a [expletive]: not a stitch of makeup, sweatpants, flip-flops. Her nest of hair is graying and piled high, more the color of embers than the fiery flames she sports in her publicity photos.
This is how Case presents not only herself, but also her music: warts and all. At 43, Case has assumed her own mantle in American music, not exactly country and folk and not quite a straight-ahead rocker, either. She’s rooted in Greil Marcus’s idea of the old weird America, where songs can be beautiful and savage, serene and unsettling.
“The Worse Things Get. . .” is a powerful indication of the kind of artist Case has become. Since debuting in the mid-1990s as an alt-country siren with a voice as vast as the prairies, she has moved into more slippery territory over the past decade. Alt-country no longer encapsulates the scope of her music; it’s a mash of brawny indie-rock and tender torch and twang. She’s also become more known to rock audiences as a member of the band the New Pornographers.
She admits the new album, her sixth studio recording as a solo artist, is her most personal to date. She didn’t necessarily want to write songs explicitly about herself, but they just happened.
“I was going through a crappy time. My parents died, my grandma died, and I was just mourning the dead. Everybody goes through it,” she says. “That kind of depression is super mundane, and it’s the longevity of it that really gets you. When is this going to be over?”
The album marked the first time Case has worked with Tucker Martine, the noted producer whose credits include the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket. Martine, too, considers Case to be in a league of her own.
“I really do see her as one of the great musical voices of my generation. I think she has transformed herself into an artist that can’t be pinned down simply with a word like Americana,” Martine writes in an e-mail. “Like all great artists, she seeks to find territory that feels new to her each time out. Sometimes that can be disorienting to fans that are hoping for somebody to make the [same] record again, but in the long run, I think it makes for longer lasting, more interesting work.”
Kelly Hogan, who has been performing with Case since 1999 and is a longtime member of her band as a backup singer, remains awestruck by Case’s talent. Their relationship, as detailed in their amusing exchanges over Twitter, is one of sisterly compassion and mutual respect.
“They’re their own entity,” Hogan says of Case’s quixotic tales. “With every record, she hews more toward her inner voice. She always has. Sometimes I [understand the words], like, ‘Oh, that guy.’ I like her whole thing where her songs can mean anything: I’ve done my part, and now you take it the rest of the way.”
“People will ask me, ‘Who do you play with?’ Sometimes they’ll know who [Neko] is, but usually they don’t,” Hogan adds. ‘Well, what does she sound like?’ ”
“Our sound man, Phil, is like, ‘I always say, imagine Roy Orbison as a hot, redheaded chick without glasses.’ It is kind of like that, but she’s a masterclass on her own,” Hogan says. “I’m sure agents or marketing people will say that has been to her detriment, but she just is, and I think that’s to her credit.”
Case concedes it has been a blessing and a burden not to take the most direct path. Her eye has been fixed more on the journey than the destination.
“The most important thing I learned in school was, when you get an idea, it’s not going to be a great idea until you push it,” she says. “You’ve got to push it until it’s uncomfortable. And then you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Does my project say to my audience what I want it to say?’ ”
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.