In the months ahead, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep will check in from time to time as singer-songwriter Neko Case creates the follow-up to her 2009 album Middle Cyclone. In the first installment, we listen in to a song that's not quite finished, not quite recorded, not even quite written. First, Case has to learn what the song is.
"That song is kind of just an ambient thought process," Case says. "I don't really know what the song's gonna do yet, so that's kind of the best description I have of it, I think."
There are people who go into the studio and know exactly what they want to hear. To that, Case says, "I'm always in awe of those people." Along with her band mates, she's wrestled with the song in rehearsals in Georgia, and then as part of an 18-day recording session at a studio in Tucson, Ariz.
'There's A Lot Of Inner Conflict Going On'
One phrase lingers in the not-quite-finished song: "Where did I leave that fire?" Case says it's about "just not feeling yourself, in a not-so-good way.
"I'm kind of just figuring out the themes now of the record," Case says. "So there's a lot of — I feel like every word I say is gonna sound super-cliche, but there's a lot of inner conflict going on."
"Is that always the case when you're writing?" Inskeep asks.
"No, I've never worked on a record where I couldn't recognize the songs when I went to rehearse them," Case says. "I didn't know really who the person was who wrote them, and it's been interesting, for sure — terrifying sometimes, but interesting, to say the least."
Case still doesn't know what the song is by the end of the day.
"But that's OK — I'm all right with that," she says. "Because when they're not done, the songs, they're like little nuclear reactors that are throbbing in your suitcase. And you're like, 'When's that thing gonna go off? Is it just gonna die out? Is it just gonna poison the groundwater? What is that thing doing in there?'"
Maybe it's just a matter of getting something out.
"I have a real dog-like mentality, in that it's like, 'Where is my next meal coming from? Am I ever gonna eat again? Will I ever write another song again? Will anyone show up for tour?'" Case says. "I think it comes from being really poor as a kid, where you're like, 'OK, gotta figure out how to get some cases of stew in the basement, because clearly there's gonna be a long winter ahead and I'll never get a job.' I don't know. It's my survivalist mentality. Or dog mentality."
By the end of the 18 days in Tucson, perhaps there was a little bit of stew left in the basement.
"There was stew in the bunker," Case says. "I felt like, 'OK, I can breathe a little bit easy. There'll be something to eat come winter.'"
Neko Case says she's not yet done with that song: She needs to add some guitar, and she'll re-record the vocals. We'll listen to the creative process in the coming months on Morning Edition as that, and other songs, come alive.