Published Aug 02, 2012The last proper Cat Power studio album came out in 2006. If The Greatest had been Chan Marshall's resignation from the spotlight, or, as many feared, a goodbye gift before the darkness (alcoholism and mental health issues) swallowed her whole, it lived up to its name.
But six years later, Marshall is back with Sun, completely subverting what one expects from a Cat Power record. Mostly.
The lyrics are still a confessional hotbed of personal, private dramas and astute observations, but electronic flourishes and digital ornamentation have taken over from spare guitar and piano arrangements, and her band only appears in full on one track.
"Actually, as far back as 2001, I knew I wanted to do this record," Marshall tells Exclaim! in a recent interview. "Then I had more songs and more songs. Then four years ago when I moved to L.A. to be with -- he's now my ex-love [actor Giovanni Ribisi] -- but I moved to L.A. to be with him and I went in the studio in Silver Lake and I had all these other songs, but I started to write new songs that were becoming Sun."
For the first time ever, Marshall played what she was working on for a friend who told her, "These are all corny. It sounds like old Cat Power." Devastated, Marshall explains that she didn't write for eight months, but returned to the studio in 2009 and crafted Sun's skeleton.
"This same person, this time I didn't play nothin', didn't even tell him I was recording!" she recalls. "I said, 'I don't want a record advance, don't give me any money, I'm gonna do this myself.' All the while repeating in my head what this person said, 'What band you gonna get? What band you gonna get? You need a producer, you need a producer, you need a producer, you need a producer. You need a manager, you need a manager, you need a producer.' That really made me feel like a failure. Again."
Rather than give in, Marshall cashed out her retirement fund, rented a house in Malibu, and got her old band back -- "Because I was afraid that I couldn't do it by myself, that I was a failure" -- and recorded live takes of the skeleton songs. Marshall then took those hard drives and headed to a mixing studio in Miami where she says she tried to blend the "earthy, warm swagger" of the band with the Sun sketch. It didn't work, but she pushed on and ended up in Paris working with Beastie Boys' mixer Philippe Zdar to perfect the sound. Finally, Sun was almost done, and on Marshall's terms.
"I did everything my fuckin' own self without any goddamned producer or manager!" she laughs, the Southern lilt in her voice suddenly much more prominent. "Sorry!"
But the last few weeks of work on Sun were almost up-ended by heartbreak. On March 15, 2012, Marshall travelled from her Los Angeles home to New York to work on the record for a few days before heading back to Paris one last time. On March 20, she received a phone call and found out her relationship with Ribisi was over.
"My best friend flew down because I wouldn't get off the couch," Marshall recalls, quietly. "I wasn't eating and stuff, and she made me go swimming and when we got home that night I cut my hair off and she put me on the plane [to Paris]. I had to go finish three weeks of work. It was difficult to be finishing under this feeling of no home; this feeling of, 'Oh, I don't live in California anymore'; this feeling of -- you know, it was very difficult, those last few weeks."
Marshall sniffs a few times, but it's hard to tell whether she's crying, or if she's suffering from allergies or a cold. She sounds sad, but she's not angry or self-pitying.
"In retrospect, I have to thank the situation, because he's already married somebody else [model Agyness Deyn], you know, a few weeks ago, so he's happy," Marshall says. "There's nothing that says goodbye more than that. So that's really reassuring that I will never look back to that person, you know?"
Marshall is the first to admit that the personal challenges of the last few months could have sent her veering off course. But the important thing is they haven't, and even she's surprised at how good she feels.
"Finding myself, finding my self-esteem, remembering what's more important than what I wanted at the time, a few months ago," she says. "Having been given away or put outside or whatever the word is, being let go, you're kind of floating around. You only want to to go back to where you came from because being let go is so familiarly painful. To make the pain go away, my instinct is to go back or return to the pain, which is, you know, absurd...
"Definitely the past month was really hard. Harder than three months ago. But I'm actually better given the newer circumstances. I feel much more confident than I did a few months ago. Which is strange. I just didn't think I would feel so good and so ready to do what I want to do in my life. I didn't think I'd be so strong or capable."
Sun will arrive on September 4 through Matador Records.