A few years back when I last caught up with the brilliantly "touched" Southern chanteuse in Knoxville, Tennessee, Chan Marshall was touring for stage persona Cat Power's third record, What Would The Community Think? Her first for Matador, it rocked out on the title cut and the provocative, wailing "Nude As the News." Pushing the envelope of comfort within the repetitive drum and guitar patterns of Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) and Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar), Marshall had a tough road to hoe in sustaining that tension solo. Worn out with the business and a string of shows in which she dishearteningly fell apart on stage, she said that she was ready to retire, to hang out in the garden, and maybe write songs for other people. Marshall moved back to the south from New York for a time, had a harrowing spooked out night of the soul and laid her burden down with Moon Pix, astonishing for its deep baptismal blues and frangible beauty. It only follows that on The Covers Record, she's now paying homage to some of her favorite songmakers including Bob Dylan, Bill Callahan (Smog), and the Rolling Stones. Chan spoke with Mean by telephone from a Los Angeles hotel room.
Cat Power: It's very weird here. There's a lot of hair gel and cell phones. I swear to God, we went to two bars and a restaurant and the lobby of the hotel and everyone is talking about movies and scripts and actors. It's bizarre. "I think we can do that. If we can pull him in we can get her, and if we get her, we've got it. We've got it in the bag. We can definitely get $2 million for her." People just brown-nosing each other. It's not like they're actually like, taking time and courting them like a real relationship. They have a meeting, and they're up their butt. It's just different I think, from being in Australia cause they were all very direct. Here there's kind of a mystery. Maybe it's just the country thing. I'm just feelin' weird about bein' back in America.
How did the Pippi shoot go yesterday?
Suprisingly, really fun. It was weird because I've never done anything jokey or campy like that. But it was kinda irresistible. I wanted to do it. I remember growing up thinking, wow, my mom likes (Pippi)? How can my mom be this cool? Because the other things she grew up on were like Dorothy and Mary Popins. But Pippi was so cool. I just identified more with her than like, Barbie or something.
So listen, this new record...
Oooooh, boy. You know I feel really scared, because as soon as I say it's just guitar and vocals and piano and vocals, I know that expectations are like the last record, then the new record! On Moon Pix, I had a sample in it and stuff, more experimenting.
And you used a lot of vocal gating.
Yeah. And this is just like, I'm going "There it is."
How did you choose what you covered?
For "Satisfaction" I was at home in Atlanta for a few weeks and I was just playin' around with this acoustic guitar my dad had given me. A friend of mine had given me this old cassette. I can't remember the actual record the Stones did that song on. And my tape player wasn't working. And my truck was in the shop, so I just started playing it exactly the way it's on the thing. Cause I never knew how to cover songs, literally, technically. Nina Simone ("Wild is the Wind"), the same thing. I was in the studio last summer, recording some other songs. And the piano was there, and I know the song, and I didn't bring the tape with me or anything, so I just sat down and was figuring out, like, OK, just make it up. This is how I want it. Never did I think, I have a list, premeditated. It's just at certain times, they'll happen to come along. Like on stage, I started playing the Michael Hurley song "The Werewolf." I don't think I put it on the record. Though "The Devil's Daughter" (is on there).
I love the Velvet Underground song. And then there's that one Chan Marshall cover.
Yeah. That's kind of funny? Right? (laughter)
Yeah, it's hilarious actually.
Yeah. I like that "I do believe" thing. When I got back to Atlanta last year from Australia I bought a piano. I didn't have that Velvet Underground record, but that song had been in my fuckin' head, like, all day. So I got home and just was playin' it. I couldn't remember any of the other lyrics; that's the one that kept clicking in my mind, that verse.
So where did you make the record, and with whom?
I mad it, at this place. I kept saying, Yeah, I'm gonna do a record. And just Chan Marshall style, I procrastinate 'till the last fuckin' minute. I ended up in the studio recording with this young man at this place called Night Owl Studios across from Penn Station. I did most of the songs there just very very very very quickly, and there's like four songs that are from different recording sessions.
Hey, have you ever thought about doing a record of standards with a big Van Dyke Parks type string section? Old Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday kind of songs.
I would love to do Billie Holiday. She strikes a chord in me forever. I would wonder if it'd work. That would call for a producer, which I'm always skeptical of. If I could get Van Dyke Parks or Serge Gainsbourg or somebody that knows what they're doing. That sounds interesting.
I picture you with your guitar, singing these really great sort of bluesy nightclubby songs. But more raw, and with these really awesome yummy swelling strings coming in.
You're giving me this idea! Won't it cost like a million dollars?
What are you reading these days?
The Bible. No, I'm not reading anything, to be honest. I feel bad. That's what I've been wanting to read in the hotels. The last couple hotels haven't had it. I wanted to steal one in Australia, you know, placed by the Gideons. It's true, I shouldn't do that. So I didn't. (laughter) But that's what I would be reading.
They don't have one there?
(whispering) No. This is L.A. (laughing) They're all out on the street you know, being sold to people with Xs on their foreheads.
What Bible stories are your favorites?
Of course, the mystical ones (where Jesus) goes into the desert. Or when the firshermen just drop their whole lives and follow him because they believe this person is so good. They just believe him without even thinking about it. They realize, this is Him. Just things like that make the belief exist from somewhere. And Revelations, the end, like it's the end of a prayer. All children of God go out with the grace of God. It's final. You can either have the grace, or not.