Somewhere in a Cabbagetown apartment, Chan Marshall's worldly belongings lie barely unpacked. Though she moved in nearly six months ago -- after escaping New York City's suffocation, and then fleeing the isolation of a South Carolina farm -- Marshall hasn't spent more than five days in her new place. Ever since her band Cat Power (of which she's the only permanent member) started touring and promoting its third album, the widely acclaimed Moon Pix, she's been traveling the country, and then the world, without a break.
When she does come home, though, it'll be to Atlanta. On the phone from Belgium, Chan (pronounced "Shon") explains, "In New York, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't breath, I can't look people in the eye, I can't speak, I'm going insane.' So I moved to South Carolina, but then there's no one to look at, no one to talk to, just grass and trees. The extreme was so huge I decided to go to Atlanta again. Most of Atlanta is a familiar, really good memory."
Coming to Atlanta, Chan returns to the city where she spent a large part of her early life. She's also resuming residence in Cabbagetown, where she lived before she moved to New York in 1992 and began her life as indie rock's most hypnotic, alluring voice. It's the same neighborhood her maternal great-grandfather settled in when he ran away from south Georgia's dirt farms early this century. And it's the same area, on the east side of Atlanta, where she was born nearly 27 years ago.
"That's amazing," Charlie Marshall says when he first hears Chan will be returning this week to play a homecoming gig at East Atlanta's newest hot spot, a club on Flat Shoals called the Echo Lounge. "You won't believe this, but when she was born, we lived on Flat Shoals out by I-20. She might not even remember, she was only six months old when we moved."
Charlie Marshall, a charming middle-aged man with warm eyes and a white beard, is on a 15-minute break, way uptown at Buckhead's Brookwood Grill. Each night he entertains patrons with keyboard and vocal renditions of latter-day standards like "I Believe I Can Fly" and "The Lady In Red." It's an older crowd, less hip than the kids down on Flat Shoals, but folks there enjoy hearing a good song as much as anyone, and a whole lot of them seem to know and love Charlie.
"I've been very blessed," he says, between the steady stream of hellos and so-longs he doles out to passersby. "I have a following in Buckhead, and I've been playing the piano for like 10 years. I was in a rock 'n' roll band like Chan for many years. When I turned 40, I decided to get out of the business, so I bought me a piano. I knew what I wanted to do. I mean, I'm an entertainer. This is my form. I love doing this."
Charlie is a career musician, who moved from Alabama to Atlanta as a teen when his band, Brickwall, signed with Capitol Records in the late '60s. It's not the kind of life he ever imagined for his daughter Charlen-Marie -- whom he describes as "the most gentle person I've ever met" -- a child who was bothered enough by her given name to have changed it in sixth grade to Chan. "I would've never wanted her to get in the business," the elder Marshall says. "Even now that I do what I do, it's very demanding. It can really take big chunks of your personal life."
On the very same nights born-entertainer Charlie keeps the patrons happy on Piedmont Road, Chan -- the daughter who says she never wanted to be a musician, who thinks she'd have been better off going to art school or becoming a nanny, who was so uncomfortable with audiences that until last year she stood sideways while performing on stage, who quit music entirely for most of last year -- is on a European tour to support an album that has been included among the year's best by both Rolling Stone and Spin magazines.
How the younger Marshall's album ended up one of the high points in a music year as dominated by prefab pop-chart pap as any in recent memory, is a story so full of circumstance it couldn't possibly have been a simple matter of luck. Clearly, there's something about Chan.
It happened like this: After moving out of her dad's Atlanta home at 16, Chan worked at Fellini's Pizza and began making up songs on a guitar her friend gave her. She moved to New York at 20 with no plans to pursue music, until an ex-Atlantan drummer friend convinced her to form a band with him -- Cat Power. The drummer was soon out of the picture, but not before he'd introduced Chan to a friend, Gerard Cosloy. Cosloy, on his way to becoming a '90s indie rock guru as co-founder of Matador Records, tapped a now solo Chan/Cat Power to open for up-and-coming Matador artist Liz Phair. At that gig, Chan met Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who was so taken by her he not only began playing drums for Cat Power, he released their first U.S. CD -- 1995's Myra Lee -- on his label, Smells Like Records. By '96, Chan had signed to Matador (now owned by major label Capitol), and released the acclaimed What Would the Community Think?
Whether or not Chan was interested in sharing her music with others, Cat Power's early records didn't sound like she was. Her voice and music -- quiet and spare, full of deer-in-the-headlights lyrics -- were so disarmingly raw and expressive, many who saw or heard her play found themselves in the absurd position of witnessing an amazing performance by someone who couldn't bear performing, whose naked vulnerability was itself a part of the show. The music was haunting and beautiful, however, and managed to retain a sense of innocence and grace amid its darkness.
But unlike many indie rock mopers, Chan remained a very warm and friendly -- at times manically funny -- person. As such, she perceived what escaped many of her devoted fans: Her career was to a large extent a freak show -- instability as voyeuristic entertainment. "I was bumming, and to have to entertain people with my bummingness, that's a drag," Chan says. "So I realized I'm not an entertainer and I was like, 'Fuck, I'm not doing this anymore.'"
Having decided to stop making music entirely, early last year Chan moved to a remote farmhouse in Prosperity, S.C., with then-boyfriend Bill Callahan (head of another one-man band, Smog, whose new album Knock Knock seems to document this period). Chan spent most of 1997 at home -- cooking, taking walks, playing with her cat -- without once picking up her guitar. Then one night alone in the house, music came to
"I had a horrible dream that a voice was telling me my past would be forgotten if I would just meet him -- whoever he was -- in the field," she says, like a Flannery O'Connor-type, Southern gothic figure embodied in a post-punk pop star. "And I woke up screaming, 'No! I won't meet you!' And I knew who it was: the sneaky old serpent. My nightmare was surrounding my house like a tornado. So I just ran and got my guitar because I was trying to distract myself. I had to turn on the lights and sing to God. I got a tape recorder and recorded the next 60 minutes. And I played these long changes, into six different songs. That's where I got the record."
A month later, on a getaway to Australia, Marshall recruited her friends from instrumental group Dirty Three -- guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White -- to record the songs she'd spontaneously composed that night. Made over two days, Moon Pix is Cat Power's most accomplished work yet, an Astral Weeks for the '90s alternative nation. Turner and White perfectly complement Chan's intimate vocals and -- along with some flute and a Beastie Boys loop -- flesh out her quiet piano and guitar work. Songs like "American Flag" and "Colors and the Kids" are her most beautiful, life-affirming yet.
For Marshall, Moon Pix represents nothing less than a rebirth, a transformation from darkness to light. "I feel good when I play these songs," she says. "I look at people in the audience now because I want them to hear the lyrics and I hope they understand what I'm saying. It's all about being good. Before I had no understanding, I had the blues. Now I got some hymns."
Maintaining that level of confidence and stability hasn't been easy for Chan since going on the road to support Moon Pix. The album sold more in its first month than her past releases have sold in a year. In major U.S. and European cities, Cat Power -- currently bolstered with local musicians Mark Moore on guitar and the Rock*A*Teens' Chris Lopez on drums -- have played to packed houses. "It's been a little psychologically stressful," Chan says. "There's been a lot of really great shows, but there's also been some really disastrous ones, because of me not being able to understand or feel comfortable with the attention. It just freaks me out a little. But I still feel pretty good."
As he nears the end of his break at the Brookwood, Charlie Marshall smiles. "You know, Chan opened for Annie Lennox in South Africa? She's been to New Zealand, Africa, Europe, all over," he laughs. "I've been to Smyrna."
"I used to do what she does, and I love that," he continues. "To walk out on stage with a band behind you, it's the most wonderful feeling. Like here, sometimes it seems I'm just background music or whatever, but ..." Charlie trails off, as more friendly faces come over to thank him for an evening of song.
"... We used to have lunch together," he resumes, "and it's amazing how many friends Chan has in the Highland area and Little Five Points. Like in here, everybody knows me. But that's the Buckhead scene ..."
Charlie turns again, and begins to make his way back to his piano bench. "...How y'all doing?" he calls out to fans and friends. "Happy holidays."
When Chan finally does settle back into her old neighborhood, Cabbagetown may prove somewhat dislocating for her, given all the development that has gone on in the six years she's been away. But for sustaining the area's historic character while embracing revitalization, Chan is in many ways a model inhabitant: young and creative, yet with a strong connection to Cabbagetown's past. Upon moving back, Chan met a great aunt she never knew she had, who lives just a few streets away. Still, Chan laments, "Cabbagetown was like a getaway, now it feels more like an idiot-savant Virginia-Highland."
But it's home, and all indications are that she's staying. "In New York, I had this really small closet room, so this is my first real apartment with a kitchen, living room and a porch," she says. "I'm looking forward to spending time making a nest, maybe going to the library, becoming a member of the zoo or something."
But while her tour continues, Chan says, "My energy level's just a maniacal roller coaster. I just gotta get a lobotomy so I can settle down."