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hit and run
by tracey barry for NYLON magazine april

Chan Marshall sings hauntingly spare, melancholy songs, and one would expect her to be intensely emotional, maybe even fragile - an indie eccentric like Daniel Johnston.  Chan is disarmingly sensitive, thought-provoking, decidedly unboring, and yes, a little eccentric.  Performing under the name Cat Power for the last four years, and traveling the world playing with the likes of Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and the Dirty Three, at 28, Chan - pronounced "Shawn" - has a lot of stories to tell.
Upon meeting at her friend's tiny apartment in Manhattan's East Village, Chan greets me warmly, and within minutes I'm sitting on her bed, trying to make the flash of her new camera work.  She's just flown in from her home in Atlanta that afternoon with her sweet, lanky boyfriend, Daniel,  and they want to take pictures pronto.  While fiddling with the camera, I absentmindedly place my hat on the bed, and Chan cries in a soft, Southern accent, "Oh no!  The hat's on the bed!  Damn, how are we gonna get rid of the bad luck in here now?"  In an effort to salvage the situation, I place the hat under the bed and agree not to wear it anymore.  (There is no way to know if this is an effective measure against bad luck, but it appeases Chan.)
Earlier, she'd thrown out the idea of roller skating in the Bronx, but it's freezing, so we leave her boyfriend at the apartment (with many assurances of meeting up later) and walk over to Lucien, a neighborhood French bistro, to have dinner.  Wearing only a small tweed blazer over a sleeveless argyle sweater - with many fashionable gold chains draped around her neck - Chan looks great, but I worry she might get cold.
Over a bottle of red wine, Chan talks about everything from etymology (of the word happiness) to psychology.  I'm charmed that she uses her knife to check her teeth throughout dinner.  She's endearing, even if I sense I may have caught her on an off night - she seems distracted.  Chan recalls a random encounter with a rude Liza Minelli, which prompts a philosophical discussion into the nature of celebrity.  "I was at a Fluxus party awhile ago and I had to stand next to Gwyneth Paltrow and it was so weird,"  she says.  "I could see her working to keep her chin held up just so.  I mean, how could anybody identify with someone so unreal?  Is this someone who should be a role model for young girls?"  It's a Holden Caufield-like observation of phoniness - and suddenly I feel weird talking to Chan in this trendy little boite.  
I ask Chan how she would handle tremendous fame.  "Probably like Kurt Cobain," she replies.  "It would be a big struggle for me."  Tears well in Chan's eyes as she recounts where she was when she found out about Kurt's death.  Maybe it's the wine talking, but the conversation grows heavy when the subject of family comes up.  "I don't really see my mom or my dad,"  Chan says.  "Last time I saw my mom, I just bought her a whole bunch of clothes.  We don't really talk, and I guess it's better that way."  I try to probe further, but on the subject of her family, that's all she'll say.
Chan's latest album, The Covers Record, reinterprets familiar songs from The Rolling Stones to Moby Grape, turning them into poetry.  "I wove these songs into my live sets because they comforted me while I performed," she tells me.  (She's been known to get so emotional on stage that she's had to walk off.)  "I feel like I could play them just for me during a show."  Tackling the Stones is daunting, but Chan's version of "(I Can't Get No)Satisfaction" is a revelation - almost unrecognizable (she doesn't even sing the chorus)- turning the sex-me-up rock anthem into an aching tale of yearning.  Her voice sound like her soul laid bare:  arresting, beautiful, and evocative.  Leonard Cohen should definitely get a copy of this album.
After dinner, we head over to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, a dive bar with a great jukebox.  Chan harmonizes with the drunk, Ukrainian bartender, and we're having fun until a woman next to us accuses Chan of ordering a drink out of turn.  Chan, visibly upset, takes the offense to heart and tells the woman that she's rude.  The situation escalates, and the woman apologizes to Chan, but now the woman's boyfriend is involved.  (It's starting to feel like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.) He tells Chan she was crazy and charges her with being on drugs, yelling sarcastically, "I didn't know I was sitting next to the Queen of England!"
Chan's clearly shaken, and we quickly leave, walking a couple blocks to Cherry Tavern to meet Daniel.  I sit with a beer at the bar as Chan huddles in a corner with him.  Half an hour later, I deduce that the night is over, so I try to catch Chan's eye to let her know I'm leaving.  She's so preoccupied she doesn't say good-bye and I'm disappointed, but not really surprised.  It's hard to penetrate Chan's insular world - her confessions are for songwriting, not conversations with interviewers.  While I'm resigned to the bullshit of real life - the rudeness, pushiness, insincerity, and all - Chan can't do that.  Bubbled in her own world, she idealistically, maybe even naively, goes her own way by writing songs and singing her music because that's the only thing she can do.  
Looking at Chan and her boyfriend huddled together, very much in love, I think of Chan's ethereal version of "Sea of Love."  I wish I could hear the strains of it on the jukebox as I walk out into the snow, leaving them to hold each other in the glow of the red beer sign.