Few artists in the music world have been so defined — or misguidedly damned — by their public struggles like Chan Marshall. Through the success of her band-turned-alias Cat Power, listeners found an artist with a voice so emotive and untreated that it could feel like an intrusion just listening to her. But that matter was complicated by a decade’s worth of notoriously erratic live performances, along with multiple bouts of feeling completely disconnected from the music-making process, that threatened to overshadow her work with the dreaded Tormented Artist reputation that turns musicians from human beings into unwilling avatars of struggle-equals-greatness cliché.
The reasons for Marshall’s setbacks were deeply personal, and overcoming them could spur the sort of grotesque demands made by people who connected on that same deeply personal level: I liked your music better when you were miserable.
But her music means far more than that: Just as a performer, where she’s developed from an amateurish, punk-style immediacy to a more omnidirectional pop-without-compromise approach, her greatest constant is the idea that her singing voice is the counterpoint to any self-consciousness or doubt she might be expressing otherwise. And it’s in her covers — of which she’s done two full albums’ worth, and included at least one of in every album of hers save the reinvention efforts The Greatest and Sun — that she finds another way to inhabit her own expressiveness, using familiar folk standards and pop songs as the basis with which she can elaborate on the personal experiences her songs recollect.
With the release of Wanderer last week, and the sprawling negative space of her Rihanna cover “Stay” — nothing but voice and piano wafting off into a distance farther than sound can carry — let’s look back at another eight cover versions she’s transformed throughout the years.
“Yesterday Is Here” (from Dear Sir, 1995)
Cat Power’s first album doesn’t reveal much of what her future held, aside from the fact that there’s a certain sense of walls-closing-in tension. Dear Sir is a lo-fi indie rock record like almost any other lo-fi indie rock record of the mid ’90s, except a notch or two better — drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist Tim Foljahn amplify the nervous energy that Marshall’s songwriting holds, and you can already tell that voice she has is capable of expressing the kind of resonant emotion-over-virtuosity weariness of which artists typically nail the balance when they’re twice the age she is here.
The Tom Waits song “Yesterday Is Here,” cowritten by Kathleen Brennan and originally from Franks Wild Years, is Marshall’s first great recognizable cover. While the arrangement doesn’t start out too far from the original’s staggering minimalist junk shop blues, it’s a brief but intense and unexpected turn into a monomaniacal motorik beat (if that motor threw a rod). This rendition shows off the way Marshall’s voice can turn her surroundings into shaky ground.
“Johnny’s Got A Gun” (from Undercover, 1996)
This track, from a brief session in Portland, has a funny story behind it (at least if the YouTube comments are to be believed). Apparently, as Marshall was on her way to the studio to record Undercover, she changed her mind about one of the songs she wanted to record, and scrapped something she had planned in favor of Dead Moon’s “Johnny’s Got A Gun.” As a result, she spent her drive to the studio studying a copy of Dead Moon’s Defiance LP to memorize the song’s lyrics.
That’s how Marshall took one of the most underrated garage-punk protest songs of the ’90s and found a way to make her quiet intensity sound as capable of busting through walls as Toody Cole’s amplified snarl did. It’s a kind of sloppy-spontaneous performance — she omits the first verse and forgets the words to the last — but damn, it works.
“Still In Love” (from Myra Lee, 1996)
Hank Williams dealt with pain his entire life from spina bifida, and when a fall made it worse in 1951 — a few months after “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” hit #2 on the Billboard country singles chart — he started to self-medicate the only way a traveling musician in the early ’50s could find, namely alcohol and a cocktail of painkillers, up to and including morphine.
Whether or not that’s the Hank Williams that Marshall had in mind when she recorded her version, it’s the one that might come to mind thinking about the chronic illness and depression-related alcohol abuse she had to fight through over the years to get to where is is today. But think of the artist foremost, here — the country love song deftly reimagined as the cream of ’90s indie rock, concealing a deep wistfulness in what half-listens might disguise as amateurishly played affectless calm. Instead, it’s an actual manifestation of feeling so completely defeated by heartbreak that you can’t even get the focus to play it tight.
“Fate Of The Human Carbine” (from What Would The Community Think, 1996)
This isn’t the first time Cat Power paid tribute to Peter Jefferies — there was a cover of “Sleepwalker,” by his post-punk band This Kind Of Punishment, on Dear Sir — but this cover from her breakthrough first album on Matador is bound to be a lot of people’s introduction to the New Zealand musician, mine included.
It’s clear from the original version of “Fate Of The Human Carbine” why Marshall might have considered Jefferies something of a kindred artist. The restrained anxiety in this performance, paired with the lyrics’ implication of a panopticon that needs to be hidden from (“They all come and peep through a hole in the wall/ Keep the bastards guessing”), is the sort of feeling that permeates Cat Power’s best early work. Paring back Jefferies’ intricate guitar technique into a serrated-edge acoustic churn adds some panic to the melancholy.
“Moonshiner” (from Moon Pix, 1998)
Moon Pix is where Cat Power’s strengths as a musician and an idea-generator saw her established (dis)comfort zone of indie/folk/punk expand into a more sure-footed place, with lusher arrangements and a rhythm section with more breathing room (via Mick Turner and Jim White of the Dirty Three). On this album, Marshall traded claustrophobia for wide-open vistas. It’s an immersive, even welcoming record, which is pretty noteworthy considering half the original songs were written to stave off the harrowing aftereffects of a hallucinatory nightmare. Recounting to The Telegraph: “I felt as if something was coming fast, straight from under the earth, these dark spirits … then they came, thousands of them, all up against the kitchen window. They were clear, black as night, trying to get into my soul. That’s when I grabbed my acoustic guitar. I thought that if people found my body, I needed to leave a tape. So I just played the songs that became Moon Pix. It was horrifying.”
The one cover on Moon Pix is a traditional folk song, “Moonshiner,” but the liner notes state that it was “inspired by The Bob Dylan.” Marshall revealed in a recent interview, that she remembered hearing his version around age 25: “I was so in love with this person who was so abusive. I just came to terms with it recently. He was a good man, he just had a lot of demons. He put this on, and it validated my pain, and listening somehow took the pain away. ‘Moonshiner’ was the softest bed I could ever lie on. I felt validated, realized.” But then you hear how weary and lost she sounds in this version, and look into what she adds to the lyrics: “You’re already in hell, you’re already in hell/ I wish we could go to hell.”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (from The Covers Record, 2000)
The first of two covers albums Marshall recorded in the ’00s, The Covers Record is right about where dramatic re-interpretations of other people’s songs went from an occasional fascinating diversion into a distinct corner of Marshall’s career. Her version of the Rolling Stones’ most iconic song is a gutsy way to open a record otherwise marked by folkier offerings, and looks out of place on a tracklist otherwise devoted to traditional songs and deep cuts from Smog and Moby Grape.
Looks, maybe, but not sounds: If you’re going to cover one of the most famous songs in rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s already been famously covered by DEVO, why not do the inverse of what they went for and go for ennui in place of monomania? No rhythm section, no chorus, not even That Riff — just a meditation on what happens when the initial youthful energy that accompanies that burst of frustration eventually disintegrates and you’re just left with the lingering downer effects of all these outside influences battering your sense of self.
“Werewolf” (from You Are Free, 2003)
By the time Cat Power got to this song by Greenwich Village vet-folkie Michael Hurley, he’d already recorded studio versions of it in four different decades: in 1964 for First Songs; 1971 for Armchair Boogie; 1984 for Blue Navigator; and 1994 for Wolfways.
Each version feels a little different, but they all share that sense of empathy for a misunderstood monster, and Cat Power’s version adds another layer of pathos. There’s the way those strings — arranged by David Campbell, who did the same for Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, and (his son) Beck — tremble into existence, bristling and swaying and taking an air of perilous tightrope balance that simultaneously invokes horror movie tension and romantic tragedy. There’s also the fact that Marshall’s habit of stripping out any lyrics that don’t fit the mood she’s putting across leaves “Werewolf” without any of the violence implied by the original: All the pain’s in the love itself.
“I Feel” (from Jukebox, 2008)
Oh no, an indie cover of a rap song. This never ends well. And yet here we are. Hot Boys’ “I Feel” needs to be gutted of most of its lyrics to even make sense in anyone else’s hands, especially when those hands are playing a hauntingly reverbed solo piano. But post-The Greatest Marshall was in the process of reinventing herself yet again as someone who didn’t have to (or want to) be defined by a voice that spoke of introversion, catalyzing instead around a background of the funk and R&B she grew up listening to at dance parties and roller rinks in Atlanta. In her words: “I heard a lot of funky shit growing up.”
Marshall singled out Hot Boys’ ’99 album Guerilla Warfare as a revelation: “At that time there was so much music that my friends were making that had no groove in it, so I just wanted something I could fuckin’ move to.” But you can’t move to this version of Guerilla Warfare cut “I Feel” unless you’re rocking in place, which is just as well. Stripping out most of the specificity of the original’s references while keeping the emotional core of its pacing-in-a-tiny-room stress, it treats its source material not as an excuse to slum it in gangsta exoticism but to zero in on what it is in those lyrics that she can connect to directly: defiance in the face of people who refuse to even comprehend you.