Published Aug 12, 2012Back when she was a mess, on stage as Cat Power and off stage as Chan (pronounced Shawn) Marshall, it was almost impossible to predict which version of the singer/songwriter would show up for an interview. For almost two decades, Marshall has reckoned publicly with quasi-sobriety, anxiety, depression, creativity, fame, love, and heartbreak in some combination. Be it after a show she was too drunk to get through, or her breakdown in 2006, or the talk of drugs and suicide, everyone ― including Marshall herself ― feared some kind of tragic end was inevitable. But with her new album, Sun, the first in six years, Marshall might finally be ready for a fresh start.
Over the phone on a hot day in July, Marshall is poolside (in almost every interview, Marshall's love of water and pools comes up) in Brooklyn. Her sincerity seems genuine. She speaks with a warm, Southern lilt and a husky, hushed awed-by-life tone as her emotions swoop between stark recollections and hazy, dreamlike musings: things she'll never forget, things she can't forget, and surprise at how far she's come. And all of that stuff goes into her songs. When she sings ― well, that voice, with its lived-in, smoky worldliness, that's the voice inside all of us that's seen and knows too much, but still wants to finds beauty in the world. There's something very vulnerable about Marshall ― that's a large part of her draw, really, as Cat Power ― that makes her fans, music critics, and journalists root for her. "I can only just try to keep as healthy and responsible as I can," she says. "And as happy as I can. Because it is a choice sometimes." If so, it wasn't her first choice. But you have to admire how far she's come.
1972 to 1988
Charlyn Marie Marshall is born January 21, 1972, in Atlanta, Georgia. She's a toddler when her parents divorce, and she and her sister live with their mother, Myra Lee. Marshall's relationship with her mother is by all accounts complicated, which in her unauthorized biography, Cat Power: A Good Woman, author Elizabeth Goodman attributes in part to Myra Lee's schizophrenia. Through brief mentions in various interviews, the snapshot Marshall creates of her earliest years is a complex one, with long-lasting ramifications. According to Marshall, Myra Lee give her her first tastes of alcohol, putting beer in her bottle when she was a baby.
In 2006, Marshal tells Stop Smiling magazine how Myra Lee introduces her to another lifelong habit. "I started [smoking] when I was in second grade. My mom would come home from work, before we'd go out with her, and she'd light a cigarette ― Kool Kings. We'd sit on her lap and play around for a minute, then she'd go take a shower. She'd always leave her Kool King lit in the ashtray, so that's how I started smoking. I remember first grade and kindergarten, I would beg her, 'Please, please don't smoke. You're going to die.' Then, when I was in second grade ― I'll never forget it ― I thought, 'Fuck. I'm hungry.' All we had was bread, which was kind of old, and the toaster had caught on fire so many times I was scared of it. I used to put mustard on my bread and we didn't have any mustard. That cigarette was sitting there, so I started smoking it. Do I hate smoking? Yeah, because I'm damaging my lungs and I want to be normal. But for me, normal is smoking."
In a 2007 interview with Magnet, Marshall "affectionately" describes Myra Lee, as "wacked out," and who loves Ziggy Stardust enough to dye her hair red and change her name to Ziggy. She also takes her young children to bars and movies including The Exorcist and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
When Myra Lee remarries, Marshall and her sister (and presumably her younger half-brother, who has cerebral palsy, and whom Marshall rarely mentions) are uprooted early and often because of her stepfather's work. Marshall experiments with music when she can, which isn't often, but there's a thrill or escape there she longs for, as she recalls in Spin in 2006. "In fourth grade, I lived by this tobacco field on the edge of a town called McLeansville, North Carolina, and I had this neighbour who had a piano. I'd only seen pianos in church or in my dad's apartment, and I was never allowed to touch instruments. I grew up in a house that had alcoholism problems, and there are different codes of living when you grow up like that. I didn't go to other people's houses much. So one day my neighbour's parents weren't home, and she was watching TV, so I snuck into her den and I played this song that's very similar to a song I have called 'Norma Jean.' Back then I called it 'Windows.' That song ― I felt like I had a secret, like I had made a life for myself."
The family moves around all over the South and Marshall develops an almost pathological shyness, revealing to Index in 1998, "If the teacher ever called on me I would cry... I went to ten different schools growing up... That's why in sixth grade I changed my name... They never got it right, so I changed it to Chan. My mom was like, 'How about Cher?'"
Marshall and her sister receive more structure when they're sent to stay with their grandmother, with whom they spend large chunks of time throughout their youth. These visits will stay tucked inside Marshall's subconscious and eventually help inform her music as Cat Power.
"My earliest roots are in soul music," Chan tells Interview magazine in 2012. "My grandmother would take me to church ― because that's what you do in Georgia ― and when you go to Baptist church, the fun part is that you sing. Those hymns are all so meditative to me ― 'I'm gonna lay my burdens down...' It's all about giving. Not giving up, necessarily, but surrendering. It's so rewarding, that kind of soul music, because it's so... good. It's just good."
Though she isn't allowed to buy any records herself, she listens to her stepfather's collection: Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones. Her biological father, Charlie, is also a rock musician who plays with, among others, Greg Allman. Despite having little interaction with him throughout her childhood, Marshall tells Chickfactor in 1996 how Charlie's influences may be imprinted on her DNA. "He was influenced by gospel, cause he's from Alabama. and his mother, her name's Lena, she still lives in Alabama. He used to go to people's houses and tap-dance and sing for however much money they'd give him, like a nickel or a penny or whatever, when he was like six or seven. He has a picture that I really want of him doing that. He used to wear this little white suit that was too short for him. so he used to go with the kids from the neighbourhood to the neighbourhood black church. And he always said he felt really shy at first going into the church, so he'd listen to them outside the church first, which I think is really sweet. but then he started going in, and he said they were really nice to him. So his influences were blues and gospel. but then when he was 17 he started doing drugs and getting into all that kind of stuff, that whole realm of music that was out then. That's kind of the stuff that he played till after my mom met him; he met my mom when he was 20, my mom was 17, she dropped out of high school, they got married, had two kids."
At 16 years old, Marshall and Myra Lee's relationship dissolves, and Marshall bolts for Atlanta to live with Charlie, showing up on his door, according to a 2001 interview with Spin, with a garbage bag full of clothes. The two don't get along, as she tells the New York magazine in 2006: "When I moved in, he got a baby grand. I wasn't allowed to touch it." She switches to a stern, exaggerated man's voice. "'Chan! The piano is not a toy.' Like I'm a child. I'm fuckin' 16 years old. It would make me so sad, because I loved it. So, he'd leave and I'd beat the shit out of it. Imagine if he'd let me play and taught me? Imagine."
The new living arrangements don't last long. Charlie kicks her out after flunking 10th grade, she tells Spin. "I was kind of shocked, but I was like, 'Who gives a fuck? I'm not gonna be anybody anyway.'" She drops out of high school during her senior year, and cuts off contact with her father, allegedly to this day. She won't speak to Myra Lee again until she's 24.
1989 to 1995
Marshall spends three years working in Fellini's Pizza in Atlanta, where she meets Glen Thrasher (musician, DJ, zine publisher). In her downtime, she's teaching herself guitar and easing into experimental music. Marshall forms a collective with Thrasher on drums and friends Fletcher Liegerot, Damon Moore and Mark Moore. They jam and gain a bit of word-of-mouth hype. In 1991, when a friend's band asks the group to open for them, the first incarnation of Cat Power is borne, after Marshall spots a man walking into Fellini's wearing a Cat Diesel Power cap.
Marshall and Thrasher relocate to New York City's East Village in 1992. She tells New York magazine in 2008 that it was an attempt to outrun Atlanta's burgeoning drug scene where "everyone started doin' heroin and becoming a junkie." Marshall and Thrasher play with a variety of people as part of New York's experimental scene. She tells comedian Fred Armisen in Pitchfork in 2006 about their introduction to the Big Apple and trying to overcome her stage fright. "[Thrasher] started taking me to all these free jazz shows ― Anthony Braxton, different stuff, real experimental improvisational stuff. And that gave me the confidence to actually physically be on stage. I saw that, dude, those people weren't judging. That gave me the courage to be up there and turn my back to the audience, because it wasn't about rock'n'roll projection, so I felt comfortable. Our first show was at this warehouse in Brooklyn, and my second show was with this dude playing saxophone and this naked Japanese girl screaming."
Gerard Cosloy, Matador label co-founder, is at one of these loft parties. In New York magazine, he remembers Marshall as "very tentative about the audience, but she had a presence that said, 'This is a serious thing.'"
Thrasher moves back to Atlanta in 1993, but stays in New York. She waitresses, plays shows and spends time at punk collective/performance space ABC No Rio. In 1994, she's invited to open for Liz Phair. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tim Foljahn from Two Dollar Guitar are in the audience and they encourage her to record an album. She makes her first two Cat Power records with Shelley and Foljahn, 1995's Dear Sir and 1996's Myra Lee. They're both raw, rambling exercises in formlessness and beauty, and Cosloy signs her to Matador in 1996.
1996 to 2002
Marshall releases her third Cat Power album, What Would the Community Think?, on Matador in 1996. The album is more clearly defined, moving between blues, folk, and indie rock, and her fan base swells. That same year she tells Chickfactor that her music business longevity will be short-lived. She anticipates still playing music, but "not for other people. The music business is what makes me hate playing music. Cause you have to be projected on all the time. You have to play in front of people. I don't think that's selfish cause everybody has something that they do with themselves that's special like writing, taking pictures, decorating their bathroom."
Her discontent with the concept of celebrity is directly proportional to the number of people who begin insisting she's a star. In an interview in London in 1997, she predicts that if she became famous "it would be a fucking mess. I mean it's already weird. But it's great the people I meet. I want to work with kids. I want to get out of this. For the next record I'll get a nice lump sum of money, which can be a down payment on a house. I'm going to get out of this and do something else. I'll try and paint, take photographs, build a darkroom, work with kids in some way, read more, maybe go to school."
In the same interview, she reveals the ways her new label infringes on her freedom and how the publicity machine make her feel like a hypocrite. A cover shoot with Fiona Apple for France's Les Inrockuptibles leaves a particularly bad taste in her mouth. "Matador said that it would be good for me to do the interview because Fiona Apple and I are both women and maybe our ideas about being in the rock world as women would coerce. So I told them I'd do it and I did. Now I feel like I've done the wrong thing. I only did it because they supported me and it seemed like everyone thought that's what I should do. Usually I don't do what people think I should do. I did the interview and met Fiona. She was telling me how uncomfortable she is being around people, she just wants to run away and hide. She's very meticulous about her hang ups. She'll change hotels if the room isn't the right colour. Talking about how she wants to kill herself all the time. She's 19. I remember being 19 and feeling like that. She has money, managers, make up people, tour buses. A totally different atmosphere. I was telling her that if she wanted to get away from it, if she thinks they are taking something from her then she should just get on a bus and do shows by herself. I usually tour by myself, I used to tour by bus or train. She was talking about issues like the Spice Girls. She's a beautiful girl and she says that her main hardship is the way that people are always just interested in her physical appearance. She was saying that the Spice Girls send so many mixed messages about sexuality and stuff. The only people in America you can look up to if you're a 14 year old girl are Hole, Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon. Really tough ideas for young girls, they don't know how to be tough. Fiona's point was that the Spice Girls need to be soft. She was saying that they shouldn't be so revealing but for the interview she was wearing a little halter top. So, that's what the interview was like and now I have to try and feel good about it."
More succinctly, Marshall tells Spin in 2001: "She kept saying she had a gift from God, and I kept looking at her, thinking, 'You are fucked-up.'"
Marshall may also recognize a part of herself in Apple ― a part she is loathe to identify with on any conscious level. In an interview with Index in 1998, she admits she never envisioned making it past her 22nd birthday: "I'm brand new, I swear... You know, you think your whole life, 'Oh god, man, I'm not gonna make it to 22 or 24.' When I turned 26, it hit me that I made it, I'm alive. And now I'm like, yeah, 26. It just gets so much better." Only a year earlier she'd been contemplating suicide at her show at New York's famed Knitting Factory. "That show I was deciding, how, how could I kill myself right now? There was no way to do it. Like, I could jump on these people, but they would catch me. I could hit myself on the head with the guitar but they'd take it away from me. There was no way to do it. I could choke myself, maybe. It was like Satan was in the house, it was horrible."
Marshall leaves New York for some solitude in South Carolina, but what she finds is anything but comforting. As she tells Magnet, it's in a fever pitch of insomnia and waking nightmares that she writes Moon Pix, her fourth studio album. "I got woken up by someone in the field behind my house in South Carolina," she says. "The earth started shaking, and dark spirits were smashing up against every window of my house. I woke up and had my kitten next to me, and I had to say, 'No.' And I started praying to god to help me. I had a tape recorder with me so that if they found my body, they'd know my soul was taken. They'd have proof. What was I going to say to people? I didn't know, so I started singing all these songs."
Moon Pix shows off a dreamier, more vulnerable side, and earns her critical raves and larger audiences, exacerbating her ongoing problems with non-stop touring, public performance, fame, and surfacing mental health issues. She's also coping with a broken heart, which is a theme that will echo in her self-destructiveness over the course of the next 15 years. In 2006 she tells Spin that this is the year her drinking begins in earnest. "It was that I was on tour for so long and that I lost the love of my life in 1998 to another woman. He was the first person who loved me who I loved. I never saw or heard from him again until last night. He has a girlfriend now ― his mom told me, she came to my show in Atlanta. That was the second time I checked myself into the hospital, when I found out that he was with somebody else. I mean, he was living with her. We were done and I didn't know about it."
By all accounts, the public meltdowns on stage reach almost operatic proportions at the 1999 Bowery Ballroom show. In a review that makes Marshall infamous overnight, the New York Times calls the concert "staggering for its inversion of standard rock performance ethics. Gone was the idea of exultation, or of showing what one can do; in its place was outrageously passive-aggressive behaviour and non-musicianship."
In a 2006 New York magazine interview, Marshall blames the bizarre onstage antics not just on her daily Xanax and scotch habit, but on something stranger-than-fiction that she stumbled upon when she went to get her guitar before the show. "'This guy was there who I had known for a long time. He was on drugs and telling me crazy stuff. He had a gun and was trying to tease me that he had power.' Eventually, he let Chan go. But the whole time she was onstage, 'I thought he was going to shoot me.' Two months later, she adds, the man shot both of his parents and himself. Only his father survived."
In 1999, Marshall tours with the 1928 silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc, providing musical accompaniment, playing covers and her own songs throughout. In 2000, she releases The Covers Record, and while her reinventions of beloved oldies like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Sea of Love" earn accolades, everybody is ultimately waiting for her next album of new material, You Are Free, which finally arrives in 2003.
2003 to 2006
Her personal life is in shambles again. The newest "love of her life," as she describes him to Magnet, leaves her for another woman and she's drinking heavily. In a 2006 interview with the New York Times she reveals that by now she's "always intoxicated [when performing]."
She's more belligerent and defensive in interviews as well. Her frustration is palpable, visceral, even in this excerpt from a 2003 Pitchfork interview when asked about big-name recording engineer Adam Kasper, a "narrative" she believes is being pushed by her label.
Pitchfork: You laid down the law, huh?
Chan: Yes, I did. I think it was hard. I think he's kinda of used to... he's got some big people, you know? [long pause] But I don't want to talk about Adam Kasper. I mean he's great, but that's the whole... this publicity machine... it makes me sick, cause they need a name, they need a... [makes a really disgusted face] blech! I just wanna get away from that. It just makes me mad.
Pitchfork: I'm sorry, it's not really my intention to dwell on...
Chan: No, 'cause that's what people at labels do. They try and tell [journalists] stuff to make them write things about that stuff, when I don't want those things to be talked about at all. No, it makes me angry. It's fine to get to know someone and be friends with them and work together. But I wonder who... Because [my friend] said [Adam] was a fan and knew the music and things like that, which is why I think he wanted to [engineer] it. And that's great, but don't let [Adam] be the reason for me having a record out. That's kinda ridiculous. That person is another human being. Like it's sort of unrelated in many ways to me. 'Cause then I think about this guy and the other guys that I worked with on the record [referring to Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl], and it's just like... I hate that fucking shit where it's about the labels, the names. It's all so very... It should be about what it is, rather than about namedropping and shit like that. It makes me sick.
Pitchfork: Umm, that's cool. I know what you're saying.
Chan: No, you don't.
Marshall's drinking, drug use, and depression escalates. She poses for photographer Richard Avedon and receives the dubious distinction of becoming the first person to appear in the New Yorker with her pubic hair visible. As she tells Magnet, if she looks trashed in the photo, it's because she is: "That's who I was," says Marshall, who's come to terms with that photo but still feels embarrassed that her grandmother bought the magazine and saw her in such a sorry state. At that point, Marshall explains that her drinking had caused her to have diarrhoea for two months straight, and when she landed in New York for the Avedon shoot, she had to be taken out of the airport in a wheelchair. "The reason why my fly's undone is because it hurt so bad, because I was killing my organs. [Avedon] said, 'Just hold it up,' and he took it, boom. I didn't have time to zip up. I guess he didn't realize my pants were undone because he was 80 years old. And that's the image they chose."
In 2005, she records The Greatest ― arguably the best album of her career ― in just three days. It's a soul record with a phenomenal host of musicians called the Memphis Rhythm Band. The album comes out in January, 2006, and that's when Marshall's personal hell breaks loose and she's hospitalized after a severe psychotic break. About six months later, she doles out pieces of truth to various media outlets.
She tells Spin that for up to a year before her breakdown, she was holed up inside her apartment in Miami and had cut off contact with most of the outside world. "I really wanted to die. When you're that depressed, it's not even 'depressed' anymore. You've just given up."
In Magnet she discloses that the breakdown is the climax following a two-day cocaine and alcohol binge, some disastrous press for The Greatest, and a troubling story about the election outcome in Palestine. She closes the windows and doors and stays inside for 10 days, listening to Miles Davis, drinking, doing cocaine, fasting, and praying. "[By praying], I wanted to try to save the world in some subconscious, universal way. And I started collecting all these special things ― pictures of friends and paintings ― and I realized that I was preparing for when they found my body that there would be a story for each friend who came to go through my stuff. I was preparing that last day, when I prayed all day for god to please send me somebody because I wanted to take all my antidepressants and drink and just die."
She reveals what happens next in a variety of devastatingly intimate first-person accounts, the most comprehensive of which appears in Spin. Her friend Susanna, whom Marshall hasn't spoken to in a year, gets a bad feeling and flies to Miami to check up on her. Immediately Susanna takes her to the hospital.
How did you react when she told you that you were going to the hospital?
I didn't understand why we were going. I thought she wasn't feeling well. She was crying in the cab, holding my hand. And I was thinking, "God, she must be in so much pain."
What happened while you were there?
The doctor said I had a psychotic break because I was suffering severe, massive depression and overwhelming stress. I basically lay in bed for the first three days and refused to talk or eat or open my eyes. If someone came around, I would try to blink really quickly. I wasn't looking at people because I didn't want to take their pills. I was afraid that I would never leave that place. I was afraid that I would be drugged and I would never be able to say, Help! Susanna was holding my hand. She said, "Chan, I have to leave, but I'm thinking about you and I'm literally 20 blocks from you. I'm going to come see you tomorrow and everything's gonna be fine."
On the fourth day, I woke up and I was like, "Shit, Susanna is not coming back. Maybe Susanna is just part of your split personality. Maybe everyone's part of your split personality. Maybe your mom doesn't exist. Maybe you aren't you. Maybe you're really 75 years old and you're homeless with cancer and you're on a respirator, and when you open your eyes, you're going to see that you're dying." So I got out of bed and went right up to the mirror. At this point, I was raw. I hadn't seen myself. I hadn't brushed my hair. I wondered [if I looked in the mirror], would it be me? And I looked. And I looked like me. Like the inside of me. Like a little kid. When I saw my face, all I wanted to do was protect that person. And I realized, "What are you doing here?"
So I was like, "What would a sane person do?" I brushed my teeth and I combed my hair. Susanna had brought a few cosmetics and new fresh clothes, so I put them on and I felt clean. I had not gone outside my room yet. But I went out the door and I went down the hall, where all the people had gathered to watch TV. I had heard everyone outside my door saying their names and asking for their medication. So I acted like everyone else, like I was supposed to act. I went up to the counter and I was like, "I think I'm supposed to ask for medication?" And that was it. That was the day.
On the fifth day, it was easier. And on the sixth day the doctor came in and said, "How are you today Chan?" And I'd say, "I'm fine." So the doctor says, "Chan, are you having any strange thoughts?" And I was like, "On a scale of one to ten, being in here, I'm at a four. But definitely not at a ten, like I was when I first came in here." And he was like, "Okay, are you hearing voices?" And I was like, "No, not at all. Just my voice."
By September, Marshall is back doing press and ready to remount her cancelled tour for The Greatest. She qualifies her sobriety, admitting she has a drink a month, but insists her perspective has changed, telling Spin, "People who drink habitually don't realize they're doing it, because it was part of their upbringing. Everybody from my immediate family to my grandparents to my great-grandparents ― there were always severe alcoholic and psychological problems. If your parents gave you fire to play with when you were two, you'd be standing in fire by the time you were an adult. [Before my most recent hospital stay] I was drinking from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed."
But there's no doubt Marshall is looking forward, full of hope, eager to experience some simple pleasures as she tells the New York Times. "My favourite things in the world are cookin', kids and animals and falling in love, but you don't get to do that all the time."
2007 to 2011
In a nifty bit of manifesting her own destiny, aspects of that life are on Marshall's horizon. Her concert reviews during The Greatest tour are among the most positive she's ever had. She readies a second covers album, 2008's Jukebox, and floats around ideas about auditioning for Saturday Night Live and a role in the film Blueberry Nights (no word on the SNL dreams, but she does appear in Nights).
In 2008, she relocates to Los Angeles to live with her new boyfriend, actor Giovanni Ribisi, and his pre-teen daughter, Lucia. She also starts working on her 2012 album, Sun, in earnest. In fact, she tells Exclaim! over the phone from beside that Brooklyn pool, she was resuming work, having had the concept for Sun in her head for well over a decade.
"It was supposed to come out before The Covers Record," she says. "I was already touring with the Passion of Joan of Arc, and I wanted those songs to be Sun. As far back as 2001, I already knew I wanted to do this record. Then I had more songs and more songs. Then [in 2008], 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. I played what I wrote for someone, and I never had done that before, and that person said, 'These are all corny, sounds like old Cat Power.' I just felt, like, horrible. I didn't write for eight months."
In 2009, she forces herself back into the studio and crafts Sun's skeleton. "The other songs are gone," she says. "They're just not gonna come out. Then this same person, after I made the skeleton, which I didn't play for this person, this time I didn't play nothin', didn't even tell him I was recording. 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."
Marshall cashes in her retirement fund, which she's been saving "in case I'm homeless, when I'm like 50" and rents a house in Malibu, buys a bunch of recording gear, and reassembles her old band. "I was afraid I couldn't do it by myself, that I was a failure," she recalls. "So for nine months I tried off and on, worked by myself with a couple different instruments, or I'd work with the band, trying to get them to do live takes of these skeleton songs."
After nine months, she takes the hard drives to Miami's South Beach Studios, but nothing gels the ways she hopes. Marshall spends months crafting, layering, and mixing the tracks, and finally hooks up with Beastie Boys' Hot Sauce mixer, Phillipe Zdar, in Paris. She works with him and his friend, engineer Jeff Dominguez on and off for a year to get Sun ready, for what will at this point likely be labeled her "comeback" record, since six years will pass between albums of original material.
Despite being entrenched in Sun's sonic mechanics throughout much of 2011, Marshall is still revelling in the delights of family life. Like she did in her early 20s, she contemplates a time in the not-so-distant future when she leaves music behind for something more "rewarding" she tells The Thousands, like motherhood. "It definitely is one of the coolest things I've experienced, without having a child of my own. Because I know it's totally different ― when I met her she was ten. And when your boyfriend has a child the learning curve is a lot bigger. So my life has changed a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about, 'When am I gonna have a baby?' Things that have gone on in the last couple years it's like ― not that I would replace having children with music, but I definitely like this [personal] life that I've been building... It's not about me only anymore. It cuts all the bullshit out. And people have told me, (perky voice) 'Oh, when you have your baby, it's like nothing matters anymore about the world around you.' And I've never bought that. I always felt like, 'Well, I'd always wanna see my friends, and I'd always wanna y'know, go to Paris in the spring.' And now… it's like I could fill up my life having children and not doing music. And that's the truth. Because it is rewarding and there's an everyday security in that. I've never really felt that in my life. So it's a really powerful thing."
Marshall leaves Ribisi and Lucia behind in Los Angeles and flies to New York on March 15 for a few days before heading to Paris for a final three-week intensive to wrap up Sun. She finds out by phone five days later that her relationship is over. It is a devastating blow. "My best friend flew down because I wouldn't get off the couch, 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," Marshall says softly. "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.' It was very difficult, those last few weeks."
She excuses herself for a minute to jump in the pool. She's hurting, but she speaks with clarity. In a weird way, doing press for Sun and getting ready for the tour may be a good distraction for the next few few months as she buries herself in talk about the record.
While music journalists and PR people know what a departure the record is from the rest of Cat Power's discography, the public has only heard the first single, "Ruin," a quirky, Latin-influenced club thumper. Marshall maintains that lyrically it's the same ballgame, it's just that musically it's totally different, and she calls the digitized instrumentation "strangely stimulating."
"When I went back into the studio, after that eight months where I didn't write anything, I brought my guitars, but I made myself not touch them or the piano," she says. "I was trying to challenge myself. Through trial and error, when you learn, when you do something you've never done before, you usually learn something and learning is super inspiring to me. It's the same words as it always has been, I just think musically it's ― you know, I still believe in the same things, I feel... Well, I do feel I'm not teetering over the dark side on a cliff, you know, so much as I was in my 20s."
Marshall says Sun's songs cover a broad range of sounds and subjects, and on many tracks Marshall's stacked layers upon layers of her own voice atop each other to dizzying, hypnotic effect. Among the standouts are "Manhattan" a love letter of sorts to small towns; "Real Life," which Marshall says is about the validity of art and music, without which "we'd have a mess in our head"; and "Nothin' But Time," which she wrote for Ribisi's daughter Lucia ― whom she still speaks about with love ― a few years ago when she was being bullied.
And on that subject, her closure comes swiftly. In June, Ribisi surprises everybody, including Marshall, by announcing his marriage to 26-year-old model Agyness Deyn.
"In retrospect, I have to thank the situation, because he's already married somebody else, so he's happy," she 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?"
She asks politely if she can jump in the pool again, dunk her head to get some relief from the heat. She comes back quickly, thanking me profusely for my patience. She sounds so calm and wise about what's happened that it's almost hard to believe this is the same Chan Marshall whose life spiralled so quickly, in such epic fashion, on the heels of heartbreaks like this in the past. She may not be healed, but she's healing, and this is what she will focus on.
"Oh yeah, there's definitely been some difficulty the last few months," she says. "Finding myself, finding my self esteem, remember what's more important than what I wanted at the time, a few months ago. 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. But I feel much more peaceful than I did a month ago, for sure, in a much more different way. I was scrambling, you know, for a smile. Scrambling to laugh. 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 go and so ready to do what I want to do in my life. I didn't think I'd be so strong or capable."
Essential Cat Power
The Covers Record (Matador, 2000)
Choosing The Covers Record doesn't negate the brilliance of Cat Power's early original material, but it was this record that showed just how fearless and innovative a musician Marshall really is. Spare, haunting arrangements offer listeners the unique experience of hearing something familiar for the first time again. These aren't karaoke-style covers; these are songs that seem to have manifested from Marshall's soul ("Wild is the Wind"), conscience ("I Found a Reason"), and wry sense of humour ("(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction").
The Greatest (Matador, 2006)
It's a polarizing album for fans raised on the raw, raked-over beauty of earlier Cat Power records ― there's a reason it's often referred to as Marshall's first "grown-up" record, and that's either said with a sneer or an air of fawning praise ― but there's no doubt that she hits her stride musically by fully embracing her soul-soaked roots ("Lived in Bars"), and the Memphis Rhythm Band provides a vivid if subtle Southern lustre ("The Moon"). And the aching but stately "Where is My Love" is among the saddest songs in the 21st century.
Sun (Matador, 2012)
This album will either afford Marshall the luxury to continue her wild world of digital exploration and experimentation, or will send her scurrying back to the safety of her strings and keys. (Though the best record would feature a glorious amalgamation of both.) There's plenty of up-tempo, almost dance-happy stuff to be found ("Cherokee," "Ruin"), but the sexy, slow jam "Always on My Own" and the cheery drum-and-keys driven "Manhattan" are two of Sun's brightest.