Cat Power Has Returned, But For Chan Marshall Everything Is New

Chan Marshall is trying to remember how her three-year-old son likes his bed made. Having failed to get it right the first time, she strips a set of white sheets and a quilt off of a small futon in the corner of her East Village bedroom while I look on. She starts over, tucking the linens in just so, peeling back the top layer the way they do in hotels. Once everything is in its proper place, she grabs a few pillows and shoves them into the crack between the bed and the wall so her son won’t roll up against the cool, hard surface in the night.

As she’s making the bed, Marshall apologizes for not having done it before I arrived, compulsively saying “sorry.” This is one of her conversational tics — she also asks, “Are you mad at me?” frequently, and she groans loudly when she says something she maybe shouldn’t. Marshall explains that her son travels almost everywhere with her. Right now he’s out with a babysitter who keeps him on an air-tight schedule when Marshall’s work gets hectic. His routine is regimented: he goes for walks, he eats snacks, he naps, he has dinner and a bath, and then in the morning, “We do it all over again,” Marshall says.

“He’s so young that he has fun wherever we are. Maybe too much fun, but I just try to keep encouraging the fun, you know? Because this is the best time to have it.”

It’s important that her son’s bed be made right because this isn’t really home. Usually, he ends the day at their condo in Miami’s South Beach, which they share with their two dogs, but for the past week he’s been snuggled up in the corner of this bedroom on this little futon. Marshall has inhabited this rent-controlled apartment, in some capacity, for over 20 years. She started out in the neighboring room in 1992, when she moved up to New York City from her hometown of Atlanta, and eventually traded with her roommate when she started touring extensively under the moniker Cat Power. She’s paid rent on this space ever since, crashing here whenever work brings her back to New York.

This time around, Marshall is in Manhattan for Fashion Week and to promote her new album, Wanderer, her first in six years and her 10th as Cat Power. It is an album that finds Marshall in a deeply reflective moment in her life. She is now 46 years old, a single mom of a toddler, and steeped in the unique challenges that come with being both a professional musician and a parent. She also severed ties with her longtime label, Matador, with both parties citing creative differences. “They wanted a hit record, which they wanted for Sun, which I [already] gave them,” Marshall will tell me later, referring to her acclaimed 2012 album that was more “pop” than anything she’d done before.

To contrast, Wanderer finds Marshall returning to folk songs and the blues, stripping away some of her bolder production tendencies in favor of songs that are spare and warm. Wanderer is a quiet, searching album, made primarily with guitar and piano “with reverence to the people who did this generations before me.” Marshall has always honored vintage sounds, she admires great American songwriters and is known to love covering other artists. (Wanderer includes a piano rendition of Rihanna and Mykki Ekko’s “Stay.”) Over two decades into her career, she’s only now realizing that Cat Power might also be considered a part of that lineage.

“I chose the image on the cover because that’s my state of consciousness now in my life,” Marshall says slowly, deliberately as she looks down at her bare feet and fiddles with a Juul e-cig between inhalations. “There are two things I know for certain and that is my words — my songs — and my son. I am a reflection of those two things.”

Marshall’s bedroom windows face a wall and through the sheer, lace curtains you can see into the apartments of neighbors. There is a mounted elk taxidermy hanging in the room along with an assortment of what one might assume to be thrifted finds: a portrait of Jesus Christ, a small photograph of Frida Kahlo, a couple of miscellaneous paintings. There is a Murakami book on the nightstand (a repurposed step ladder) and Sister Chan Khong’s Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism In A Time Of War is on the coffee table.

Now that it’s made, we sit cross-legged on the futon. On the floor next to us are a couple of pairs of toddler sneakers. Marshall has a frantic energy, and throughout the course of the afternoon, she gets up to fidget with something, particularly when conversation becomes sensitive. She turns on the A/C and then turns it off. She worries that the overhead fan is too loud for my recording device. She fixes her bangs in the mirror. She looks for her phone charger, which she can’t seem to find anywhere. When I notice it’s plugged into an outlet in the corner she praises me as if I am a small child: “You are so smart! You saw it like a rattlesnake! A rattlesnake.”

Marshall is like this; instantly familiar and funny. She is at once silly and world-weary, the kind of person who has seen a lot and manages to maintain a wide-eyed sense of wonder in spite of it. There’s a spark of eccentricity in her, too. Before I leave her apartment she clasps my hand and earnestly says, “You have a good soul. I can tell.” In profiles from the Sun era, she brings journalists out to Miami bars to take shots of tequila, then to karaoke with friends, then back to her condo in South Beach to watch the sunrise and talk about this crazy life. She has had a reputation for being a wild one, and she has it because she rarely censors herself. The only time we go off record during the interview, she almost immediately turns back on her decision, “You could print that.”

It is extremely rare that an artist lends so much of themselves to writers, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Marshall to be untrusting, to perform. “I’d be an excellent journalist ’cause I can put people at ease really quickly,” Marshall muses. “‘Cause I’m Southern, I guess.” When she gets momentarily self-conscious for talking too much and not asking me enough questions, she laughs and reminds herself, “This is an interview about me, that’s why I’m running my mouth.”

Marshall speaks in the Georgian lilt of her childhood; she tells long, elliptical stories that always loop back around but meander and get lost somewhere in the middle. Like memory wormholes. Sometimes she’s a bit hard to follow, regularly stopping midway through a tale, wondering how she got there, saying, “Sorry, sorry.”

An example: She starts to tell me about this babysitter she had back in Miami, an Argentinian woman who happened to be a big fan of Cat Power’s “The Greatest.” When the babysitter realized that Marshall wrote it, she was so excited that she had to pull out her phone and play the song back, as if Marshall had never heard it before. Marshall’s son started bawling.

“He’s done that several times,” Marshall says, laughing. “Sometimes my song will come on [in the car] when I plug in my phone. [And he says] ‘No mom. No I don’t like that song. Not at all. It’s very sad mom. No, no, no.'”

Her son articulated one of Marshall’s fears about Wanderer: she worried she made an album that was too sad, that she was always making albums that were too sad. When Matador rejected the first version of the album, Marshall’s confidence plummeted, but she didn’t want to back down, she still believed in the work.

“I learned the hard way that it’s just another business transaction. Even though they said I’m their family, for countless years. I learned the hard way that you know they’re not family. They actually went to business school and they’re a business. And indie rock means nothing,” Marshall says of her split with the label. “Artistic integrity actually means nothing. It’s about hit music, it’s a commodity, a product for sale.”

A label spokesperson points out Matador’s owners did not attend business school. They provided Stereogum with the following statement regarding Wanderer:

“Chan Marshall is without question one of the most talented, brilliant artists we’ve been fortunate to know.  Cat Power is a huge part of Matador’s history. Our working relationship with Chan has not been without difficult moments. We’ve had disagreements over matters both artistic and business, but none of that changes our respect for her as a person or performer. We hope the new album is an unqualified success and remain very grateful for the opportunity to work with someone this special.”

***

Marshall’s last album, Sun, was made in the aftermath of a breakup. She wrote it after separating from her then-partner, the actor Giovanni Ribisi, who went on to marry British model Agyness Deyn just a few months later. Marshall — who had lived in Los Angeles with Ribisi and his teenage daughter, taking on the role of a parent for the first time — decamped to Malibu and started recording Sun with the idea that she would make it a more pop-leaning album. She cut her hair short and bleached it blonde, the album cover depicted her as a young adult with a similar hairstyle as if to suggest a rebirth. Sun debuted on the Billboard charts at #10, Cat Power’s highest to date.

Marshall has always had a complicated relationship with fame, specifically when it comes to the stage. Early in her career she became known for her erratic live performances, and her mental-health and substance-abuse struggles have been well-documented. After she released her eighth album, 2006’s Memphis soul-inspired The Greatest, Marshall suffered a psychotic break and was hospitalized. Her tour was postponed, some of the shows were cancelled, leaving her finances precarious. Marshall’s performance anxiety dissipated a bit when she got back on the road, in part because she stopped drinking as heavily as she was accustomed to. She attributed the alcohol dependency to depression, self-hatred, and extreme nerves, not alcoholism.

But touring woes surfaced again after Sun. Marshall was fighting an immune disorder and was seeing neurologists, cardiologists, allergy doctors, and her symptoms wouldn’t dissipate. She thought she would have to cancel her tour, she told her followers on Twitter and Instagram that she was nearly bankrupt after spending the bulk of her savings on the Sun production.

“It made me sick, all the stress and pressure. My immune system collapsed and my lymphatic system started attacking my body,” Marshall says, attributing some of her health problems to trauma she suffered as a child. “Since I was a little kid I was allergic to everything all the time. Stress in the womb when I was born, you know? When I was born I was left at the hospital [by my mom]. They found my grandmother and she had to come get me.”

Eventually, Marshall saw a homeopathic specialist and started experimenting with alternative medicine. She began to heal.

CREDIT: Eliot Lee Hazel

In 2014, when she started feeling sick again on tour in Cape Town, South Africa, she feared that the illness had returned, or something new had developed in its place.

Marshall wasn’t sick, she was pregnant.

“I told, of course, the father, of course, that very minute, the very second that I read the results or whatever. And I told two of my best friends and just kind of sat with it alone. Kind of talked to them but I wasn’t listening to what they were saying to me, I was just on my own here. You know, my family and I aren’t very close. It was a difficult decision and I’m so happy that I made the decision,” Marshall pauses. “I don’t know if this makes sense, but [I made the decision] to personally search for that higher power, to align with that spirit that was inside me, in my belly.”

Marshall refers to the father of her child simply as a former lover, a “great guy” and “great artist.” They’d split after only a few months.

“I found out I was pregnant and things changed very quickly in my life. I had already been on a slow course of understanding who really was in my path. When you get really sick like that and your health fails, you’re pretty alone, and there’s only a few people that come around. You kind of figure out who really cares about you, at a real level. Not a business level,” Marshall says, referring to both the illness she suffered on the Sun tour as well as some of the mental-health challenges she faced in years prior.

“I made the decision to carry the child, to meet this spirit person, to take responsibility for having this person in its future, in its life on this planet. When I made that decision …” Marshall trails off and gesticulates with her left arm, waving it in circles next to her. “This huge force field — it’s always on this side when I think about it — [appeared] on my left. I had this shield. And I still have it in my mind that no bullshit, no bullshit shall pass. There’s already a few people on my path I know are down. That’s all, that’s fine. I’m ready. Let me do this.”

***

The “This” Marshall refers to is her new album. The “Path” she refers to is the future.

During her pregnancy, Marshall started writing music again. She tapped into her past selves and started writing about some of the characters that shaped her life, drawing inspiration from American folk tradition and oral history. The song “Black” reflects back on a time when Marshall lost a number of friends to addiction. She tells the story of their lives through the narrations of a divine spirit. It has the haunting quality of a murder ballad, a tale told from beyond the veil.

I still have it in my mind that no bullshit, no bullshit shall pass.

In the interim years between Sun and Wanderer, Cat Power hasn’t exactly been off the map. She’s recorded vocals on other musicians’ records, she sang in an Apple commercial, she went on tour with Lana Del Rey, and celebrated the 20th anniversary of her seminal album Moon Pix with a performance in Australia.

“Time, time, time is money when you’re a mommy and you’ve got a mortgage,” Marshall says. Earlier, when I arrived at her apartment she alluded to the financial stresses of bringing a kid into the world, wondering what she’ll do once her son is ready for school. “I don’t have enough money to get, like, a whatever you call it,” she pauses, searching for the right word. “You know, those people who like tutor, homeschooling. But that’s my goal.”

“So he can tour with you?” I ask.

“Unless I get like, a book deal and I can take off work and write a book for a year. That would be a dream to do that and then he could go to whatever school wherever I thought was a cool place to live.”

Marshall has often thought about starting over. “In a perfect world, I would be in love and have children and have a reason to stay in one place and not do this anymore,” she once said in a 2006 New York Magazine profile. She recently told the New York Times that after she learned she was pregnant, she considered moving back to Australia, where she lived for part of her early career. She planned to get a job as a bartender. But she didn’t do that.

Instead, Marshall hired her first-ever manager — Andy Slater, the former president of Capitol Records — and she got to work. She credits Slater with helping restore her self-confidence after being out of the spotlight for years.

“Andy recognized something in me … that I’ve always been the lone witness of,” Marshall says when she tries to put words to how at ease she feels around Slater. When they met, Marshall says he marveled at her voice, which he referred to as “that sick tone,” comparing it to other inimitable singers like Billie Holiday and Neil Young. He encouraged her to produce the album herself, as she did with Sun, and helped Marshall negotiate a label contract.

The version of Wanderer that Marshall turned in to her new label Domino had an additional song on it, one that she was too nervous to include on the original tracklist. It’s a song that her son actually likes a lot. It’s called “Woman” and it features Lana Del Rey. For reasons she has a hard time articulating, Marshall was worried that record labels might deride the song for being too vulnerable.

Oh, sad Cat Power’s got this song about being a woman,” Marshall says in a pouty voice, mimicking what a detractor might think. “It was the first song I started recording after my son was three months old. And it was the last song I finished.”

***

Lana Del Rey thanked Cat Power “for continuing to inspire me through your music and the work you do” in the liner notes for her most recent album Lust For Life. A friend sent Marshall a photo of the note, which surprised her, since the two hadn’t collaborated yet.

“It felt good to be acknowledged like that, like I’m [part of someone’s] musical landscape,” Marshall said, explaining the sense of pride she got reading that note, thinking back on being a young artist and thanking an assortment of friends and idols in the liner notes of her albums. “Reminded me of the old days.”

She met Del Rey backstage at Eddie Vedder’s Ohana Fest in 2016, where they both performed. Marshall then joined Del Rey on tour and something about Del Rey’s energy got her thinking about “Woman” again. She refers to Del Rey as an “angel” and “ally,” saying that her music exposes “dark truths with unapologetic femininity.” Marshall wanted that dark undercurrent on “Woman,” which she considers an effort to upend “the boys club of indie rock, the boys club of fucking society in general.”

Marshall gets especially animated discussing “Woman.” She describes hanging out with Del Rey and talking about how pervasive sexism is in their lives, a cross-generational conversation that feels both eternal and so very of this moment. Marshall and Del Rey discussed the relationship they’ve had with their fathers, the relationships they’ve had with romantic partners, the men they’ve dealt with in the music business and continue to deal with. The way it’s easy to feel dependent because we’re taught to be.

“Women do need to combine our [talents] and start creating our own terms,” she says, getting tongue-tied and sighing loudly when she has trouble articulating her thoughts. “I don’t even know how to talk about it.”

She settles on this idea: “Woman” is a declaration of independence. It’s not a coincidence that it is the loudest song on the album.

I’m a woman of my word
Or haven’t you heard
My word’s the only thing I’ve ever needed
I’m a woman of my word
Now you have heard my word’s the only thing I truly need

***

Marshall shows me a video of her son on his scooter chatting away about a bad dream he had. She marvels at the blue of his eyes, liquid sky. The light outside of the bedroom windows has darkened and gone hazy. It’s evening. When Marshall checks her phone to see what time it is, she gasps and exclaims: “Oh shitty balls! Shitty balls, shit, shit, shitty balls!”

We’ve run over by 20 minutes and she has a phone call with a journalist in England that she’s already late for. When a PR rep calls, Marshall puts on a British accent to answer, “Sorry, sorry.”

After all these years, she hasn’t tired of the press cycle.

“I’m happy to be back. I’ve never known where I would end up or be, so I’m always feeling grateful for the opportunity to be doing what I do because it’s granted me a lot of freedom to meet other people and get other perspectives and learn different cultures and different things that I know as a little kid I could never imagine,” Marshall says before I leave. “That’s because of music, because of being able to play some songs, I’ve been able to experience all these things that have continued to inspire me to create all my life in a joyous manner, and now a much more protective manner. A fearless manner.”

“You’ve got your shield, your force field,” I say.

She smiles wide. “Yeah, we all do.”

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