We’ve Got A File On You: Cat Power

Mario Sorrenti

We’ve Got A File On You: Cat Power

Mario Sorrenti

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

“Did you want to eat, babe? You want peanut butter and apple?”

Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, is speaking to her six-year-old son, Boaz. It’s such an ordinary mom moment, one that makes it easy to forget I’m on the phone with an indie/alternative icon who recently toured with Alanis Morissette and Garbage. Right now, Marshall is just another person juggling work and life as a pandemic rages and the holidays approach.

“No gum, I told you,” she says gently. “You had too much sweets yesterday, remember? You’re not pouting, right? Hey, are you pouting? OK, you want apple and peanut butter? Yes or no will do.”

Turning her attention back to our call, she says, “I had all my teeth drilled out of my head. The first time I went to the dentist, I had 18 cavities, so I don’t want him to have to deal with that.”

Marshall’s own childhood was famously turbulent. Born in Atlanta, she spent her earliest years moving between various family members’ homes in Georgia and Alabama before dropping out of high school and decamping to New York City with a few other local musicians in the early ’90s. While working odd jobs, Marshall became enmeshed in the local free jazz and experimental scenes, frequenting shows at places like the Knitting Factory. Marshall, herself an anxious live performer, drew inspiration from the scene’s improvisational ethos and seemed to find freedom in its unpolished presentation. To this day, that never-the-same-way-twice song evolution has a lot to do with why Marshall finds joy in reimagining others’ work.

This month, Marshall will release her eleventh album, Covers, which houses reinterpretations of songs by Frank Ocean (“Bad Religion”), Lana Del Rey (“White Mustang”), Iggy Pop (“Endless Sea”), Nick Cave (“I Had A Dream Joe”), the Replacements (“Here Comes A Regular”), and even a new take on Cat Power’s own “Hate,” now titled “Unhate.” It’s hardly the first time Marshall has released a covers album — she put out The Covers Record in 2000 and Jukebox followed in 2008. Many of her best-known singles are covers, such as her take on Phil Phillips’ “Sea Of Love.” But the new one is her first covers collection since leaving her longtime label home, Matador, in 2018, and switching over to Domino, who put out Wanderer that fall.

To Marshall, it all comes down to there being little distinction between an album of originals versus covers. She explains that it’s something “all the greats” have done, particularly in live settings, reinterpreting their own work (or others’ work) according to how they’re feeling in the moment. “
Every song that you’ve loved your whole life, it’s part of your story,” she says.

Ahead of her Covers release, Marshall spent our call looking back at a few key moments from her 30-year career, one that has seen her star rise from a painfully anxious — and at times erratic — live performer to a bona fide fashion muse and indie movie star.

Covers (2022)

When you go to record covers albums, how do you typically settle on a new crop of songs?

CHAN MARSHALL: Well, the “Bad Religion” one came about because I was on tour for the Wanderer record, which is my last record. I had the song called “In Your Face,” which was basically a ballad to the white 1% male, and when I was on tour singing that song, I started feeling more and more angry inside.

Every time I sang that song live, it didn’t matter if I was calm or relaxed or whatever. I kept getting more and more angry with the reality of what it made me think about, and so just one night switched the lyrics to “Bad Religion” and I felt so much better. I composed with the band, I was like, “All right, we’re going to do this,” so that was that song.

“Here Comes A Regular,” I’ve always wanted to sing, but I never knew how to play it on piano and I never took the time. There’s a lot of songs I’d love to sing and play like [the Pogues’] “A Pair Of Brown Eyes.” I never thought that that would be on this record. The band were with me for four days, the rest of the week I was on my own and kind of filling into recording different instruments and stuff and mixing different things together.

When I leave the studio, I like to have the work I did that day, so when I go home at night in the rental car, in LA at the time, I can just hear what I’ve done and see if there’s anything that informed me, anything that maybe I don’t want it to go on the record. Maybe I don’t want to work on it anymore. This one night “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” kept coming on and coming on and coming on and coming on in the car on my smartphone. The next morning, the same thing. It just was coming through the veins. And so I was like, “OK, well, I guess I’m going to record that this year of my life.” I just ran in and asked for Mellotron and a mic and just tried to find the notes.

A lot of the songs I wasn’t sure about. I knew the ones that I was going to do, “Pa Pa Power,” “Bad Religion.” Usually when I’m recording an album of my own stuff, it just all kind of happens in the studio. Yeah, I always don’t know what I’m doing and sometimes I do know exactly what I’m doing.

What’s your thought process like when you decide to re-record one of your older songs — “Hate” into “Unhate,” for example?

MARSHALL: I learned early on that all the greats — Eartha Kitt and Billie Holiday and everybody — would do these covers. They’d always have a straight cover, but the production was always different, the singer was always different, the sound of the singer, the emotion was always different.

When I saw Dylan, I noticed he was always singing his own songs, but he was composing a whole different music through the songs. It made sense to me a long time ago, because I’d hear all these different renditions from all these different performances. Covers used to be super normalized in the world of music, history of music. Nothing’s set in stone unless no one ever played live, and it’s just one recording or one piece of music with the tempo and the timing. I learned that it’s normal to go through life and the record stays the same forever.

The amount of live shows that I’ve played, I won’t play a song for 20 years or something, and then I’ll come back around and there’ll be something in my life present time, later in life, that will make me want to play something that I wrote before, but there’s a whole ‘nother set of life experiences why I want to play it again. That informs the music and the change of lyrics at times. If the Beatles had played shows instead of just releasing records, I think that that narrative of covering your own songs later… Like what Bob Dylan did, I think it wouldn’t be so odd.

Right, there’s a longstanding historical precedent surrounding covers.

MARSHALL: Classical students, they learn covers of Beethoven, Chopin, and everybody. And every dude that takes a classical guitar lesson, predominantly… I’d say 35 million alive on planet earth right now. When they step out of the class, the first thing they’re going to play is Guns N’ Roses, “Stairway To Heaven.” You know what I mean? AC/DC. Such songs belong to us because people come and go, versions come and go, but it’s the actual song that belongs to us because all different people have done all these different songs and they become part of our story individually.

It’s all those songs — covers or not, they make up a lot of the same thread that lives in all human experience of loving music. From tribal, Aboriginal, folk, traditional, blues, jazz, country, everything. I feel like the only genre that has continued to maintain this sort of cover — sounds stupid to say, but in hip-hop and rap music, that’s the only lasting genre that continues to thrive on older, pre-recorded music samples and things like this. All rap and hip-hop records have a sample from the ’60s, ’70s, ’50s.

Touring With Alanis Morissette And Garbage (2021)

Earlier in the year, it was announced that you’d be stepping in for Liz Phair on tour with Garbage and Alanis Morissette. Outside of performing, did you get to spend much quality time with Alanis and the members of Garbage? I mean, just thinking of you in a room with Shirley Manson and Alanis… what a group of badass women.

MARSHALL: Yeah, absolutely. On the tour, there were only seven women and three of us were the musical acts. The band were all men, I was solo. When you’re around that many dudes, but essentially the boss, Alanis, is a woman — I felt like it was different than other tours I’ve been on. A. because it was an arena tour and B. because the bosses were women. I’ve only ever done something like that with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. We did a tour and I did the Lilith Fair once, maybe 15 years ago. It’s a whole ‘nother vibe. Once we were together, us three, it was just cracking up.

It was unusual. It’s the kind of thing that takes a long time with [male] peers. I think because we’re older and we all came out in the ‘90s… There’s sort of an association with us being individualist or something, I don’t know. Coming from three different backgrounds, it was cool. I think we’re very mischievous as women in a fun, loving way. And that was really refreshing because we were super, super open with each other. I was solo, so I had 30 minutes and I didn’t have the pressure of it being my own show. These were on Alanis. Almost everyone had no idea who the fuck I was, which presents another path of I could just do my thing. It was great to be able to do my thing solo because I haven’t done that in so long, since 2014.

Performing Around New York’s Lower East Side (1992-1994)

You’ve evolved so much as a performer over the course of your career. When you think back to your earliest performances around New York as Cat Power, what stands out to you?

MARSHALL: Well, ’91 is when I started jamming with my friends and we created Cat Power. We were only in a band for six months. I moved to New York City in ’92, so my affiliation with performing was with my drummer friend from Atlanta. He had moved up there. He was a mentor, father figure. He is older and he was taking me to the Knitting Factory. He was taking me to free jazz stuff. I didn’t know about free jazz, so after so many times seeing this what I thought was, I was learning something. I didn’t know what the hell I was learning, but what it was just that improvisational spirit, which kind of keyed me into pretty much how I work today. When I’m recording and when I’m performing, sometimes I’ll switch or I’ll make up lyrics.

We started playing in those kind of environments, on those kind of bills, just he and I as a duo in ’92, ’93. And then I quit for a year and started back up in ’94. It was never the physicality of being on stage, it was the song for some reason. I still don’t have a very big vocabulary of how to articulate myself, but it still is the same. The song is what’s important. It’s the only reason I’m there. Back then, I didn’t have a lot of friends, I hadn’t traveled. I’d just been to New York and that’s it. [I was the] first person in my family to leave the South.

I knew about music and how people acted on stage and stuff, but I felt I was more bearing some kind of witness to the song. I felt uncomfortable being around people because it was so personal, what this witness was talking about. It wasn’t enjoyable, I didn’t sing. I was coming from such an internalized, mentally unstable, strange place of my life that I wasn’t singing. When I was a little kid, I sang up and down, backwards, inside out. I learned to sing really little and I didn’t start singing — really singing — until the Jukebox record on tour.

When I started playing with Jim White and Judah Bauer and Erik Paparazzi and Gregg Foreman, our first rehearsal, it was the finishing up The Greatest album. I had gotten sober and when we met up to do the rehearsals, we just did covers. That’s all we did. We did James Brown, Billie Holiday, Tina Turner, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. It was the first time I had sang since I was a little kid. That’s where I am now since all that time has passed. I think it had to do with therapy, getting sober, being with my brothers, Jim and Judah, and singing songs that I’ve loved since I was a little kid. The songs I was singing that you’re mentioning about ’92, ’93, ’94 — all those years — basically it was like I wasn’t singing, I was opening a very small window from my soul and letting shit out.

Starring Opposite Jude Law In My Blueberry Nights (2007)

What made you want try acting? And why My Blueberry Nights in particular?

MARSHALL: Because [director] Kar-Wai Wong is the coolest motherfucker ever. He was just teaching me how to act, but there’s a whole hour of work that we did improv stuff where he was just telling me seven different things and per beat I had to change body language and different things. We worked on that for an hour before I ever did this stuff with Jude. The seventh time, we did it over and over and over. The sixth time, he was like, “OK, now cry.” And so I did it. A tear rolled down in the seventh time. He was like, “OK, let’s try it again, but no tear, but that same feeling.” He never used it in the film.

But then we did the Jude Law [scene], and so I had all these words that I had memorized where I was Russian, etc. I found being in film much easier than doing a fucking video because videos are… There couldn’t be anything more bizarre than that. It just doesn’t make sense. There’s nowhere in the world do you… If you think about it on your own time and just think about how bizarre it is to lip sync to a song, it just is bizarre. It’s really strange. It doesn’t feel right.

With Jude, I had all lines that had to be in Russian. He said, “OK, rolling,” and then he said, “Cut.” He said, “OK, Chan, you’re not Russian.” And then they gave me new lines all of a sudden, and I had to go over my lines and he’s like, “No, you read it once and let’s go.” I read it once and I had no fucking idea what I was doing, but that’s fun. It’s fun to not know what you’re doing. I’m not good at acting, but Kar-wai was like, “Hey,” took my face… “I want you to kiss Jude.” I’m like, “What kind of kiss? Am I his lover? Am I sad? Do I want him? Am I saying goodbye?”

“I don’t care, just do it.” And he was not going to be expecting it, so I did that and it was fun. It was fun to play character for sure, but lip syncing in a video where I’m the person who recorded the song, where I’m not thinking about what I look like, my face, it’s truly highly… I’m not a dancer like Madonna. She got a scholarship to Martha Graham in New York, that’s why she came to New York City. She’s a dancer, that’s why she’s humping all over the place, but it’s not… I find videos to be excruciating and acting as kind of fun to play a role. I thought it was fun anyway.

Playing Live At A Chanel Couture Fashion Show (2007)

What has your reaction been when people have called you a style icon?

MARSHALL: It’s hilarious, but the thing about it is, back in New York in the early days, I had friends who were all kinds of artists, painters, photographers, designers, sculptors, writers, stylists. I traveled the world a lot when I turned 24, so I was meeting people all around the world that I’d meet at my shows or I’d meet at a bar. It was really different back then because the affiliation wasn’t… You had to get to know somebody back then, really get to know them. It wasn’t like how it is now with liking someone’s pictures if you think they’re a cool painter.

Around 2006, when I had this new record come out [The Greatest], I gotten sober, super happy, and some of my friends from the late ‘90s, they had gotten jobs at different fashion houses, at different magazines. They were doing different things in different cities. It was more, “Let me get my friend a job,” or “No, my friend’s cool. Chan, she’s funny.” From journalists and all kinds of shit. It’s just a community sort of thing, it wasn’t like bumping into Karl [Lagerfeld] in New York City on a corner in Soho one afternoon. That did something else.

Karl was just… I saw him coming and it was like, “Holy shit, that’s Karl Lagerfeld,” but he’s walking over to me. “Oh, shit. Oh, god, he’s talking to me.” He says a joke and then he walks away and he says another joke, and that’s how I met him. I was doing press in New York, every day at this hotel in New York City, and every morning I go to do press at nine in the morning alone with different journalists all day. And he, at nine in the morning, was at the opposite end of the 16-place table that’s cut in half. Him and his team were there every morning, so all fucking day, we’d be fucking with each other and joking.

And that’s how I became friends with Karl Lagerfeld. We were… I don’t know how to say it, but at opposite ends of the table. We just liked telling jokes to each other and that’s how we became friends. When that happened, the spectacle of fashion, that enterprise… Because before it was just friends. It was like, “Oh, I’m going to do a campaign with my company,” and sure, cool, whatever. But then it became like, “Do you want to be on the cover [of a magazine]?”

Covering “Space Oddity” In A Lincoln Commercial (2008)

MARSHALL: I got a call from Lincoln a long time ago. They called and said they wanted “Major Tom” or “Ground Control”…

They wanted you to cover Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” right?

MARSHALL: Yes, and so my ex-record label [Matador] was super pissed because I was like, “This is awesome.” I’m not going to make a single of this song. I already got this gift. I’m doing this for [Lincoln], I’m not doing this for you, so I never made a single of that recording.

Matador wanted you to record it as a single instead?

MARSHALL: No, no, no. I think that’s how the music industry works. If you do something good, where’s the rest of it? Because I was under contract, they would own whatever I would record. I just did the allotted amount of time. It was only I think a 22-second spot for something like this, so that’s what I did, that’s what I built. I felt like I was already… I got a nice check and I felt I was responsible for that, and that’s what I did for that, you know what I mean?

Covering “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” In An Apple Commercial (2013)

Hopefully you didn’t face any similar tension when deciding to cover a holiday classic for Apple?

MARSHALL: Well, that was actually a really nice time in my life. I was really close with [late Cassius member] Philippe Zdar, I was in Paris. I always used to joke seriously that I’d love to do a Christmas record of different languages. This time of year is not necessarily based around Christmas everywhere in the world. I would always joke that I’d love to do a holiday record with all these different languages and these different nods to the turning of the year. I was in Paris with Philippe and it was just super special. It was the winter time and I love that song. I didn’t get a bunch of money for that, but I thought it was nice because I know that everybody with their computers and their televisions, I know that they would hear the sound, and it just felt like something positive.

Soundtracking Juno (2007)

Well, I got a similar feeling from one of your most famous cover song placements in film — “Sea Of Love” in Juno. Is it fair to say that that raised your profile to a more mainstream level?

MARSHALL: That’s where most of my fans… If I have a fan base, I’d say 75% of them come from that scene.

I love Elliot [Page]. I think he’s super brave. I loved how both of them, Michael Cera… I thought it was great. I thought it was great, I loved it. And that again wasn’t a cover that I thought that I was ever going to do, it was just a last thought. I’d gotten an autoharp from my uncle, who used to live in the Appalachian Mountains, and he has a flea market. I went to visit him, and I found that and he helped me tune it. I just had it in the studio in Brooklyn when I was recording this whole record that never came out at this place called Rare Book Room, and the tapes have been “lost.”

But anyway, that was just the last thought because I don’t know chords. I know where to put my hands. I know where to put them, but it’s there on the [autoharp]. You just press the button, and a chord, you just trim it. It’s like chord, chord, chord. I just did that really quickly and it wasn’t something I planned to do. Just played this note and it reminded me of that song, so I did it. It’s nice, I like it.

(Almost) Collaborating With Major Lazer (2014)

Did you ever end up collaborating with Major Lazer on that animated show soundtrack? The one about a Rasta superhero? Stereogum’s editor-in-chief was wondering.

MARSHALL: How does he know about that though? Nobody knows about that.

Billboard mentioned it was in the works at the time. The article itself was centered on Diplo though, who was tapped to produce.

MARSHALL: Well, Diplo recently stopped following me on Instagram, which I know he’s busy and I do it too. I have to erase people because the algorithm won’t let me follow certain activists and just certain things, so I always have to constantly erase and continue to try to follow people I’m not allowed to. But he texts me a couple times a year and asks for the vocal. I always promised that I’m going to send it. I sent him a little something during the pandemic and he was laughing because it was just super tiny. One day, one day.

[Diplo] was a friend a long time ago. I had this song called “I Don’t Blame You,” and he did a remix of it and put it on a mixtape. And that’s how I met him.

Starring As Herself In A Funny Or Die Video (2012)

You mentioned before that you don’t enjoy filming music videos where you have to essentially play yourself. Does that feeling come back even in less serious circumstances? Like in your Funny Or Die sketch from a few years ago?

MARSHALL: Oh god. Well, that’s the whole thing. I was playing Cat Power. It was so unnatural, lip sync is so unnatural. You either sing, and that’s that, or… I love impersonations and comedy, everybody does, so it’s just… I don’t know. It just didn’t feel funny.

Playing a character is much more enthralling than it is playing yourself. I didn’t like playing myself. They had different choices, different scenarios, different storylines. They asked me which one I wanted and I chose that one, but I really just wanted to be a character of someone else. So trying to be the character of myself, it didn’t work. I didn’t like it.

Making Sweet Potato Rounds With Audrey Bernstein (2008)

Does that tend to happen with on-camera interviews too? Even if you’re talking about something unrelated to music, like when you appeared on a local cooking segment?

MARSHALL: Audrey Bernstein was on the cover of that record Evol by Sonic Youth. You know the Richard Kern setting and it’s the girl who’s laying on the floor? Yeah, she was starting this cooking show and she asked if I’d be on it, so I did. I’m very uncomfortable being interviewed on camera, super uncomfortable, but I wanted to support her.

Honestly, I give artists a lot of credit, having to be “on” pretty much all the time. I can barely get out a full, coherent sentence when I know a camera’s on me. That’s why I don’t make TikToks.

MARSHALL: Oh, it’s horrible. It’s very difficult. You know when you’re a little kid and you do funny things, it’s funny and fun. Playing a character in a comical sense would be fun. Wouldn’t it be for everybody? Doesn’t everybody think it would be fun? But I’ve never had that opportunity to do that, so the Kar-Wai Wong thing was kind of serious, but I was trying to make it light. Because it was supposed to be super heavy.

Covers is out 1/14 via Domino.

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