"I never bought records.
I was never into music. I'm still not into music.
I mean, if you play me a song and I like it, I'll remember it forever.
I like songs."
I hate guacamole. There's something abut the consistency and the otherworldly hue of the stuff that turns my stomach. I don't have much of a taste for corn chips either -- the mere sight of a Doritos bag makes me wretch. So why am I sitting across from Chan (pronounced Shawn) Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, happily dipping corn chips in guacamole and wolfing them down?
Well ... I'm not sure.
Marshall, 26, strolled in a while ago looking oddly graceful in a blue T-shirt (turned inside-out), dark blue jeans and a pair of flip-flops. Dozens of plain black rubber bracelets adorn both her wrists, and I can see the traces of yellow polish on her nails that she hasn't yet got around to picking off. As she sat down across from me the interview began as you'd expect most interviews to, with a series of rapid-fire questions: "Where are you from?", "When did you first move to Atlanta?", "How old are you?"
The only thing is, Marshall was the one asking the questions. Quite content to reverse roles, I told Marshall how long I had been writing, what my sign was and how much I was getting paid for writing this article. Soon, apparently content with what she had learned about me she launched, unprompted, into a virtually uninterrupted, 30-minute history of herself, some of which is described below. It's a story that moves as quickly and as often as Marshall did as a child, and like her, the thread of it, seemingly lost, eventually ends up, well, here.
Here being the Cabbagetown Grille in Atlanta. Here being about a week before her third full-length album, Moon Pix, is set to come out on Matador Records. Here is also the day before she sets out on a six-month tour that will take her across the country and to Europe, Japan and Australia. And finally and probably most importantly, here is an interlude of happy stability.
While there has been much talk about Chan Marshall's mental and psychological condition, I'm not qualified to even throw around the terms some have used to describe her state of mind. At the very least, she's a little eccentric. The quirks of her storytelling, her slightly neurotic worries, her off-beat sense of humor, these are all immediately obvious traits that I'm sure she'd admit to. I will say that it's disturbing to hear her say things like, "I feel bad, I feel bad, I feel bad, I always feel bad," and it's troubling to hear her recount tales from a childhood that shuffled her around more times than most folks would even be able to remember.
What I do know is that sitting across from me, munching on a meatloaf sandwich, she seems fairly content. Her story, as she tells it to me, is a pretty convoluted one that started just a few miles away, in the Garden Hills area of Buckhead. From there the moves began, first to Midtown then on to Memphis, then to small towns in North Carolina, eventually landing in Greensboro for a spell. And then back to Atlanta. The moves continued at a dizzying pace, culminating when she was kicked out of her dad's house at the age of 16 and moved to Little Five Points on her own. Her nomadic existence was partially the product of a divorce ("Just changing houses. Mom and dad, mom and dad, mom and dad," she says by way of explanation.), but probably, on some level, also the result of a fractured family background with few roots.
"My grandfather's grandfather was a Cherokee from North Carolina," she says of her hazy ancestry. "That's the only thing we do know. My grandmother thinks that her father's father was an immigrant from Ireland [but] we don't know nothing. It's just a family of illegitimacy and alcoholism." She pauses and looks hard at her meatloaf and then back up at me. "Maybe alcoholism should come first."
Her tale picks up again, much later, in Little Five Points, where Marshall found a job at Fellini's that she'd hold for three years. It was there that a friend of hers, Mark Moore, gave her a guitar.
"I never bought records. I was never into music," Marshall says leaning over table conspiratorially. "I'm still not into music. I mean, if you play me a song and I like it, I'll remember it forever. I like songs. But I'm not into records. A record is just -- it's too overwhelming. It's too much. My attention span is really short."
In the early '90s, fed up with the heroin problem that plagued Atlanta's music scene, Marshall left for New York City. After much prodding, she began playing shows, initially as a duo with her drummer friend Glann Thrasher. Struck by unimaginable stage-fright that has only recently begun to fade, her story derails momentarily as she describes her first gig ever.
"I was completely terrified," she says, her big brown eyes widening as she talks. "We played in an art gallery and everybody was a part of the old No Wave scene in New York. So they're all experienced and intellectual and talented and I'm really dumb. I don't know anything about music. So it was pretty miserable actually. Then [Thrasher] introduced me to his friend named Gerard from Matador [Cosloy, who co-owned the label]. But I didn't know anything so I was just like 'Nice to meet you.'"
Marshall quit playing music shortly thereafter when Thrasher got "all fucked up on drugs." But a small Italian record label called Runt had gotten hold of some recordings she and Thrasher did just after that first show and wanted to put out a full album. Around the same time a friend of hers booked her a solo show in New York without Marshall's knowledge. She decided to play the show; one of the many folks happy to see her back playing that night was Cosloy, who had been keeping an eye on her ever since they met.
"I got home that night [and] there was a message from Gerard saying, 'Hey, Chan, would you like to open up for Liz Phair in two nights? You'll get paid 200 dollars.' And I was thinking, 'Wow. I've never made more than 50 bucks at most.' I didn't know who Liz Phair was. I had never heard her music. I had seen her on the cover of Rolling Stone. I thought, 'She's got to be good if she's on Matador and all these people like her. She's got to be talented, right?' Wrong! I don't like Liz Phair. But that's the night I met [Sonic Youth drummer] Steve Shelley and [Two Dollar Guitar guitarist] Tim Foljahn. And that's the night Steve asked if we could put out a record."
Foljahn and Shelley would join the list of people who took an interest in Marshall and her career as Cat Power. The raw force of her voice and her frightening honesty drew them in and with their help, her quirky little stories became her first two full-length albums, Myra Lee and What Would the Community Think. But after the tour for the second album, the notoriously stage-shy Marshall never wanted to play another show in her life. So she quit again and took a vacation to Africa.
"I went to have fun," she recalls. "But the first two weeks in Cape Town were such a nightmare that I ended up leaving and going to Johannesburg and then going to Durban and then further out into the bush. That's where I saw the stuff that made me not want to make music anymore. I didn't think music was important. You can't feel like, when you're playing your songs and people are asking you questions and you're getting a photo shoot -- you can't feel special or talented. It makes me think of what someone else doesn't have."
Marshall returned from Africa, in her own words, "freaking out." She moved from her home in New York to Prosperity, S.C., where she stayed for a year or so. During that time the decision was made to record her next album in Australia with help from Mick Turner and Jim White of the Australian band Dirty Three, whom she had met through touring. Just before leaving the country, Marshall, who hadn't done any writing since coming back from Africa, had an experience that would yield many of the songs that ended up on Moon Pix.
"I've had nightmares my whole life," she explains, "[but] I hadn't had nightmares for a year. And just before I went to Australia, I had a nightmare. I got up and I thought I was still dreaming. I thought there were people in my house that weren't there. I was afraid. I wanted the sun to come up. So I was playing guitar, writing songs, waiting for the sun to come up. And that's when I wrote the more important songs on the record. I wrote six songs that night.
"Then when the sun came up, I got in my truck, drove up to New York. Told my friends, 'I thought I saw these demons in my house. It was pretty insane. But they were real and I know you think I'm crazy, but I could see them.' And they were like, 'Chan, you're insane, you need some help.' So I went back home the next day. And then when I got home the very next day, two friends of mine both died on the same day. And then that woke me up. And I was like, 'Oh, I'm not crazy'."
In the studio with Turner and White, Marshall says, everything came together very quickly. Yet the finished product sounds anything but rushed. Moon Pix is a delicate album that takes hold very slowly and once it does, never lets go. Simple, sad arrangements with little more than guitar, piano, and maybe a rhythm section, set a slow, steady pace. At first, it's hard to find your way in. But give it a chance, and you'll find yourself never wanting to leave.
And so it goes with Marshall herself. As she picks the tomato seeds out of the tomato ("I don't like tomato eggs. They look like little aliens") that came with her sandwich, it occurs to me she's a self-contained system with a delicate balance that I don't want to upset. But there's something more than that. Not only do I not want to upset her system, I want to be a part of it.
When we first sat down and began talking, the way she spoke, the way her story seemed to drift from one topic to the next, following her own stream-of-consciousness -- she seemed as crazy as some folks might peg her. But soon it was like reading Faulkner or Joyce or listening to Charlie Parker: Impenetrable at first, but the longer you pay attention the more it starts to make sense.
And with Marshall, it's easy to pay attention. There's something strange and enchanting about her voice, both the way she speaks and the way she sings. By the end of our conversation I was not only listening raptly to her winding tales, I was telling some of my own. It's oddly liberating to speak exactly as you are thinking -- without censoring and editing. Soon, my stories began to ebb and flow, get on track and then derail, just like Marshall's. From the outside looking in, somebody would have thought we were both nuts.
So I take another chip and another dab of guacamole and I keep listening to Marshall telling me about the owner of the Cabbagetown Grille and I want to look at my watch because I have to get someplace by 3:00 but I don't want to be rude and I wonder how Marshall survives out on tour and I eat the chip and I like it.