Interview: Cat Power
In her first interview ahead of new album 'Sun', a searingly honest Chan Marshall talks heartache, responsibility and her burning desire to become a comedian
Words Cian Traynor
Photography Nils Bernstein
CHAN Marshall is counting down from 10. “Nine!” The phone drops with a clatter. “Eight!” She hops out of bed. “Seven!” She runs around her room, yelping numbers until out of earshot.
It’s over two months until Sun — her first album of original material in six years — is finally released and, given this is her first interview in some time, she’s getting fired up… much to the alarm of her pet bulldog, Mona.
“My dog is wondering, ‘Why is she counting backwards from 10?’ She jumped off the bed like, ‘Oh God, is it really happening now?’”
It’s noon at LA’s Chateau Marmont, the hotel where John Belushi died of a drug overdose, where F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack, and where Led Zeppelin rode motorbikes through the lobby. Marshall likens the hotel to “a secret garden, a strange vortex of souls” and so it seems a fitting place to find her reflecting on a backstory that could rival the Chateau for its ups and downs.
In the 17 years she’s been recording as Cat Power, the music of Charlyn (shortened to Chan and pronounced ‘Shawn’) Marshall has continually evolved. There have been bare and brittle songs of emotional fragility, meaty Memphis soul and, now, vibrant pop with a pulsing electronic undercurrent. Along the way, she learned to refine the range of her smoky voice, grab a song by its guts and build up a devotional following. But there was always a sideshow.
It began with Marshall’s unsettled upbringing, growing up in bars through the Southern states as she shuttled between her divorced parents — a pianist father and hippy mother. After dropping out of school, she moved to New York at the age of 20 and grafted away until recording her first two albums, 1995’s Dear Sir and 1996’s Myra Lee, on the same day. Their sparse, hypnotic heartache led to a deal with Matador, a relentless touring schedule and a turbulent ascent to fame.
Marshall would combat stage fright with intoxication, giving tearful performances that ended abruptly. The confessional lyrics portrayed a troubled soul, the interviews suggested an eccentric personality, but fans warmed to her openness. The singer suffered a breakdown in 2006 just as her seventh album, The Greatest, proved a commercial breakthrough. But by then the gaps between releases were lengthening and once recovery yielded a second covers album in 2008’s Jukebox, Cat Power went quiet.
The new album Marshall proclaimed ready in 2006 started to feel too painful and personal to put out. Instead, she settled into a relationship with Giovanni Ribisi, nurturing a life at home with the actor and his teenage daughter in LA. Today, Marshall is still raw from their recent break-up, but Sun feels like the 40-year-old’s strongest work yet. It’s the first time she’s played all the instruments and produced an album herself, having honed the material in stages before recording it in Miami and Paris with Philippe Zdar (better known as one half of Cassius).
The extra preparation shows. It’s a significant break from previous albums and while the depth and darkness remain, Marshall sounds sharper, fresher and defiantly assured. In conversation, she buzzes with childlike giddiness, her stream of consciousness sweeping along so quickly that sentences fragment into tangents and dead ends. There are repeated apologies for incoherence or inarticulacy, and on more sombre subjects her chipper tone fades to a whisper, but throughout Marshall sounds genuinely relieved to be on the on the brink of a long-awaited return.
It must be hard when there’s a lot of expectation on you, but why did the new record take so long?
Oh, man… [sighs] It’s a bag of beans there. I entered a long relationship which I really wanted to be successful. You know that thing we’re all raised to want: a beautiful life with children — that family thing that is tangible? [pauses] Before, I tended to just survive, survive, survive. Gaining a lot of… not knowledge, not life experience… but I had this opportunity of travelling round the world, meeting all these people and having these experiences that have shaped who I am now. Then there’s this other part of me who wants to be a mother; who wants to love so deeply on a level I’ve never known; to have that connection with life I’ve never felt. It’s very different from singing a song and feeling in communion with humanity, so it was hard for me to be a believer in two completely different things. It was difficult creating both and that’s why it took so long. I was trying to grow my personal life in a way I never did before. So now that relationship is over and it’s come full circle, which I don’t want to get too deep into because it hurts me very much. There’s great loss personally in my life right now, but there’s also this gift in that I’m lucky I finished this album.
Were you finishing the album around the time you broke up?
Yeah. There was a cut-off date. The timing couldn’t have been more distracting, to say the least. It was down to the wire and [I was] really suffering, in the end. It hurts. You have a huge responsibility with the things you’re trying to create to do your best. There’s pressure — not from critics or anything like that, but to do something that means something in your heart. And you wanna do it the way you wanna do it. It’s like, ‘I don’t want a producer. Stop talkin’ about producers! I don’t want a manager. Stop talkin’ about managers! I just want to do what I’m doing. Just give me a second. I’m almost done. Just give me a second, please. I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing the best I can.’ So [the break-up] wasn’t really out of leftfield, but it kinda was. I cut my hair off three days later, got on a plane to France and I finished the shit. It’s all good, you know. I love the person very much. I actually love this record very much, too. I’m very proud of it.
Did you feel like you had anything to prove?
To myself. I wanted to prove that I could depend on myself, musically, because I hadn’t been playing guitar or piano in like five years and… it was just this feeling that you’re not growing if you’re not doing something creative.
[As the album wasn't finalised at the time of the interview, there’s a brief conversation about its sequencing — and Marshall’s unsure of what version will be released.]
The thing is I’ve never, ever listened to anybody. I hand the record in and catch a plane and go on tour and I never listen to anybody because I never give them room. I never had time. I was always working. That’s how I made a living — by playing shows. That was my life until I started this relationship. Then the emergency brake went up, I parked it and that’s it. Now it’s like I’m listening to everyone about which song they like, which one should be first, which one should be last, which one should not be on the record. And not only am I listening to everyone’s opinion, I’m listening to everyone saying what everyone else’s opinion is and how they’re thinking about how they’re thinking they’re right about this and that. It’s nuts. It’s not normal. So it’d be interesting if you could email me the sequence you have. Maybe I should just go with your sequence.
You should just listen to your heart and go with your instinct.
Yeah, but in my heart I want every song on the record — there’s not enough space on the CD.
If you listened to all the Cat Power albums in chronological order, what impression would you get?
I couldn’t do it. It’d be too excruciating… I’d see someone trying to find their voice; someone who really wants to be a writer or a painter or something. It’d be like hearing someone who loves singing, who could sing completely comfortably when she was a little kid — any fuckin’ song and have a great time — but when it’s her song, she’s not really singing. At all. And I hear… just fear. A lot of fear.
Fear of what?
Certain death. Immediately. Impending doom at every fuckin’ corner. I think that comes with being younger.
What was it like turning 40, then?
It was no big deal. Once you make it past 21 and 25 and 28, then 30 and 34 — it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I made it. Alright, cool.’ It’s more relaxing. No impending doom. I think once you survive various stages of your life, growing and learning, becoming who you are, certain things are not so fucking important anymore. This record is kind of like an amalgamation of realising, ‘Fuck, I can kinda do what I want.’ And I always could but I didn’t know that. I thought older people who knew about music and knew how to play it and knew how to be in a band, who were cool and popular, who had no shame or whatever… I didn’t know that anybody could fuckin’ ask [for] what they want. Like, [saying] ‘I’m so sorry, I would like to request a new engineer’ instead of just gritting your teeth and struggling while you’re working. If you ask, maybe you’ll get. Try to do whatever the fuck you want. I never knew that was a part of life; never knew you could try to live life exactly the way you want.
How did you figure that out?
Recording was never what I saw as an objective because I never sold records. What I did for a living was work a million jobs. That’s what I did to pay the rent and have food, to have enough money to wash my clothes. Normal shit. Then when I started touring and playing shows I thought, ‘I can play this show and make the same amount of money I would by working two or three jobs.’ I could see the world and still work. Travel, play, try to make enough money for the hotel and the Greyhound bus or whatever I needed to do. I could be free and play whatever I wanted to play. There were no rules. The only time there was a rule was when I actually had to physically put my records in someone else’s hands. ‘And here’s the artwork, okay — bye!’ Then play shows, play shows, play shows – that’s all I did.
With Jukebox, it was like, ‘Ah! It’s a covers record, I can sing whatever song I want to sing. Hey, wait a minute, I’m not playing guitar or piano. Wait a minute, I’m sober and, hey, this is kinda fuckin’ fun. [grows manic] I wanna go record another record real quick. Hey, I’m not playin’ shit, I can just sing and this is really fun! Now I’m tourin’ again and, wait a minute, I’ve got another record comin’ out. Wait a minute, this is fun. Wait a minute, I met this person,’ [slows] …and then it’s like everything changes and becomes the complete opposite of what it was before. I don’t move an inch. But I’m writing songs and recording and I’ve never done that. Usually there’s a maximum of six days recording. Maximum. It’s just an interesting process because everything got full-tilt when I decided I wanted to be a [step]mother. It was a new experience I never had before — being in one place. As a kid, I never had that, so it was very grounding. A lot of push and pull. You’re trying to adapt to a new way of living, of not moving for four years. I didn’t know what that was like. I don’t know how to do that, so it’s intense.
Was there ever a point where you just didn’t want to tour anymore?
Yeah, there were several points like that. But that was usually cured by like six days in New Mexico on a beach, topless with my best friend. That usually cures it really quick.
Are you more comfortable playing on stage now?
I have no clue because I’ve never played these songs. I need a new band and I don’t have one ready. That’s what I’m most scared about. That’s probably the only thing I’m afraid about… [pauses] besides saying goodbye to someone I love very, very deeply and always will. I’m looking forward to [touring], of course. Because I always feel like a little kid, like every time I play is a new chance to meet the universe. Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration. ‘Can I do this right? Can I make a difference? Can I make sense? Can I be positive?’ It feels wonderful, those moments — like a communion.
A lot of careers in music tend to follow a similar pattern. Take Van Morrison: brilliant creative peak early on, then it fades. Why do you think that happens?
Well, I’m a great lover of jazz but you could say this about blues, country, hip hop, soul… When people first get turned on to something they’ve never heard, it changes things at a cultural level — that thing, in that moment, is the purest form of something. As time grows, the beginners, the founders, those people pass away. That’s what time does. People come and go… During this break-up I’ve revisited [Bob Dylan’s] Blood On The Tracks because when I met [my ex], that was what I was listening to a lot and we shared that together. And coincidentally, when I revisited it alone late at night before I went to France, I had forgotten about all that, so all those songs that made me so happy then are killing me now. But after listening to it for two whole months, it’s going further than when I met him, because I loved these songs before.
Blood On The Tracks is a painful break-up album, though.
Well, yeah. But when I met him it was a beautiful album. It started to be a painful break-up album, but then I turned it around. Now it’s a fuckin’ beautiful album to me again after two months of listening to it all night and being an insomniac, biting the inside of my mouth until it’s raw and picking my fingernails, cutting my hair off and dressing like a boy again — all that shit you go through. Now it’s like, ‘Fuck that. That record is so good and it will never be made again.’ Van Morrison made fuckin’ Astral Weeks and you can’t top that. You can’t go backwards to it again, man. Time kills people. You can’t blame anyone for it.
Absolutely. Inspiration comes and goes; you can’t always control it. But how do you summon the muse? Where do you think it comes from?
I think it comes from the same place for everyone, whether it’s Samuel Beckett or a waitress at a truck-stop who’s like, ‘Hmm, I just had a thought.’ It comes to everybody. Something I’m learning is we can all do what we want but we have to be responsible for knowing that. That’s a hard thing, even musically. People tell me all the time, ‘Oh, I can’t sing’ or [in dramatic voice] ‘No, no, no. I couldn’t play guitar. I would love to but…’ You would love to? ‘Oh, I’d be terrible.’ No. We all have those traps in our brains. It’s stupid, thinking like that, but we cling to it because we’ve been told to. If we only test ourselves we might find something different. That’s the challenge.
But it probably took you a while to figure out that you could be a musician.
So what did you want to be, growing up?
A comedian. I still kinda do. I think the best thing in life is seeing people laugh. They lose themselves in that moment. Everything goes away — you’re forgetting and knowing at the same time.
Were you the class clown in high school?
Absolutely not. Well, I was but I never had friends… just a couple. My parents moved around all the time. But yeah, some of my friends will say, ‘Oh my God, you’re funny. You’re beautiful. You’re a good person.’ You know what I mean? When they’re trying to help you. And you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, thanks.’ But those are your friends.
David Lynch said the whole idea of the tortured artist is a myth and that you don’t need to experience great pain to make good art. Would you go along with that?
Absolutely. It’s super painful when someone you love yells at you, like, ‘Oh, you just need to…’ you know, exactly what you’re saying there. It’s so painful to hear somebody say that, ironically, because all art is a reflection or a translation of all colours of the psyche and the emotional experience. Everything from death to life to love to hate. You just need a little peace and quiet here and there. Art is the expression of humanity and humanity is not torture. Unfortunately, the hardest parts of life can be torturous but the greatest joys are love and happiness.
What’s the most important thing another artist has ever said to you?
It’s funny you say that. I was in a van with Patti Smith and she said… [pauses] It makes me feel like crying because at the time, I wanted to talk to her about something else important to me but I didn’t want to take up her time. But what she said was, ‘We’re artists. We have responsibilities.’ And I didn’t want to be told that because at the time I was about 30 and I already knew I had a responsibility to myself. I’ve known that for so long. [I thought,] ‘Don’t tell me I have a responsibility to the world as an artist. Please, please, please… I can’t hold anything more on my shoulders. I’m gonna fuckin’ die, maybe next week. Please don’t tell me that!’ But now when I look back on that… I agree with her, man. Because it’s the only social platform you can fuckin’ say what you want and you’re not allowed to be penalised. You’re not allowed. People have been assassinated, people have had their hands cut off for speaking the truth like a comedian or a poet would. So she’s right. It’s a just thing to say. From art comes contemplation. I totally respect that. It’s the fabric of freedom.
Did you think you’d ever meet people like Patti Smith when you moved to New York? What do you remember of that time?
[giggles] No. That time? I felt like I was in the real world, if that makes sense. In my experience of growing up in the South, you can meet lots of wonderful people but there’s a lot of myths and cloaks and secrets and a lot of structure around secrets and a lot of protection around the structures of secrets. So when I first visited New York, yeah, there was a presence of awareness I noticed instantly.
How did you give up drinking, when you were trying to straighten up?
Well, now I can drink in moderation. But I have to say, the past couple of months I have been bad… not bad. I’ve been revisiting my teens and actually smoking a little marijuana. I’m telling you that because it actually helps my mind calm down a lot and relaxes me when I’m by myself. I haven’t sat down and played records since I was a teenager. That really helped me. But anyway, do you mean how did I know something was wrong?
Well, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know my name. I had been awake for maybe 11 days and I hadn’t eaten. I found myself in this hospital room and I was so terrified. My innate being, like my spirit person, actually believed that I was in hell. I felt like I was serving my time in hell and that was the first day [of it]. For about three days, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t recognise my friends when they came to visit me. I didn’t trust anybody until… okay, so I’m doing an interview and this is going to sound however it sounds, but I don’t care because it’s the truth.
I knew on the day my record [The Greatest] had been released. See, every morning I woke up, my furniture would be moved around. So that was crazy. I know that sounds nuts. [On the fourth day] I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a good day because the furniture’s not moved around and I slept a full night.’ But I saw a magazine there and thought someone had been in my room. So I walked over and it was Rolling Stone. Now, I had a lot of shit growing up with God and Satan because that’s what they teach you. When they baptise you as a little kid, they’re teaching you about demons and all this shit. I’d struggled with that a lot growing up, a lot in my adult life.
Anyway, I see Kanye West on the cover as Jesus with the thorns, right? I was just like, ‘Damn!’ I brought it over to my bed and when I opened it, there was a huge photo of him in a boxing ring going, ‘Bam!’ to the camera with a boxing glove and it says, ‘So you think you’re the greatest?’ And I was like, ‘That’s Jesus.’ So I’m nuts, right? I’m completely nuts. I didn’t know what was going on. And I turn to this little pink Post-It note and there’s this picture of a girl and a review with four stars and words — I don’t know what it says. I don’t know what it means. I thought, ‘Oh, that girl is dead.’
I remember I started crying, closed the book and lay down in bed. [There was] not even a voice that could help me, that could say, ‘Chan, it’s you.’ Not even there. I was on the other side. There was just one voice, going, ‘Get the fuck up and go in the bathroom. You gotta go look in that fuckin’ mirror. You gotta go see yourself now.’ That’s when I had the little voice that said, ‘I’m scared.’ And the stronger voice was like, ‘No. You can’t be scared because you have to go see who you are.’
I was fucking terrified. Terrified. And I went and I raised my head a little bit above the sink and I saw this hair. I saw this fucked-up looking hair. It was messy. Then I saw the skin colour. Then I saw these eyes. The eyes were like a little kid’s eyes. My face was like a six-year-old kid. I was so afraid but I knew it was me. I woke up, in my mind, and I was like, ‘Holy Fuck.’ Like in 28 Weeks Later, when the dude’s on the boat and he’s left his wife in the house and he’s like, ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.’ I touched my face and saw how dirty my fingernails were. I went in the shower and I grabbed the shampoo and the hospital soap.
[Afterwards] I combed my hair and went out and saw my friend had brought clean clothes. I’d been wearing the same filthy fuckin’ underwear. I put on different pyjamas, go outside and there are these beautiful orchids I’d been watching since the second morning. I run to the window where you’re supposed to get medication and say, ‘Hi, I’m here for my medication.’ And she says, ‘Oh, so you’re here, and what is your name?’ I said, ‘Charlyn Marshall.’ And she said, ‘Okay. Welcome. Those flowers are beautiful, aren’t they?’ And I said, ‘Yes, they’re amazing.’ And she said, ‘They’re for you — they’re from Chris Lombardi at Matador Records…’ So the nurse sat with me and I had to take, basically, an anti-depressant, a mood stabiliser and something else for anti-anxiety… The next day was visiting day. Three friends came in and it was just awesome. I told them how sorry I was. I learned right then that I would never put myself in that fucking position again. I will never hurt myself like that again.
How do you make sure you never get into that situation again?
Sadly enough, it’s an homage to having hurt those people who love me so much. I never want to do that again. They were there every day and that taught me, like, ‘Fuck. These people care about you.’ On a deeper level, they taught me to care about myself. And that’s what I needed to learn. I wouldn’t have learned that if I hadn’t gone down there. I don’t think everybody walks around going, ‘I love myself!’ You know what I mean? Everybody has shit.
We all do.
You can’t let it get out of control. [laughs]
But drinking in moderation can be harder than not drinking at all.
I agree a hundred per cent. Can you imagine not having a piece of cake for the rest of your life? Like, cake is what humans eat sometimes. And steaks. Sometimes, yeah, I’d love to be a vegetarian… [pauses] Sorry.
What do you want from the future?
Positive change. Positive growth.
Well, the impression I got from the new material was of someone finding inner strength.
You know what? I was in Morocco at the beginning of the year. There was this market outside a town called Essaouira and you’d see this continuous design in a lot of things, a line going up and down and up and down — like on Charlie Brown’s sweater. I wanna say you’d see it on everything from a thousand-year-old mask to a sword. It was just a constant thing. I don’t remember what it’s called in Arabic but the explanation from different men who told me was the same: ‘Life is up and life is down.’ That’s genius because that’s all you need. You don’t have to get in the explanation of, ‘Well, there was a God who came to Earth…’ No. One day’s good, one day’s bad. Just know the next day is gonna be shitty and enjoy today. That really sticks with me… because it’s so simple. It’s infinite.