Cat Power 2000
by Lydia Vanderloo for Addicted to Noise
"Ooh, are you married?" asks Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, her eyes trailing my left hand as I walk into the conference room. I answer yes. "Oh, how nice!" she answers in an easy drawl. Her face is aglow. Like they might've said in high school, Marshall has love on the brain. "I'm so engulfed with my relationship," she confides later in the interview. "I just want to be with him every day." In fact, she spends a good 10 minutes rattling off the tale of how she met Daniel last May (on a street corner in New York City), how she didn't think he was interested at first ("I'm so much older, and I was thinking, 'You're so fucking cute and interesting' "), how he thought the same thing ("when we kissed, he didn't think that I liked him"), how they were born in the same Atlanta hospital (Crawford Lawn), and how they've been "inseparable ever since."
As we sit down to talk about Marshall's fifth recording, The Covers Record, her girlish excitement and burgeoning self-confidence shine like a halo over her oval-shaped, lightly freckled face. Chan (pronounced Sean) wildly gesticulates, not with her arms, but with her fingers, as if each one is making a different supporting point. She's quick to tell a story, sliding her voice up or down a register to mimic her characters' expressions. Her easiness may come as a surprise to some people. Marshall is, after all, known for her morosely bluesy, agonizingly confessional recordings, for having near-breakdowns on stage, and for apologizing for her inadequacies to her audience, to journalists, to anyone who will listen. But today, seven years after releasing her debut single, Marshall seems to be in the driver's seat of her artistic life. She apologizes only twice during our hour-long chat.
Whether due to newfound love or her age and experience (28 and four albums under her belt), Marshall now sounds more comfortable in her own skin than ever before. The vocal confidence that shined through on her last album, Moon Pix (1998), resurfaces on The Covers Record, and the fingerprints she leaves on the songs (all but one are cover versions) in some cases shape the tunes into something entirely new. I'm willing to bet that neither Mick Jagger nor Keith Richards would claim her deconstructed take on "Satisfaction" as their own creation. Backed by only her solitary acoustic picking, Marshall transforms the song from a sexually charged rant into a plodding two-chord blues, omitting the chorus.
Other songs on the spare Covers Record are easier to link to earlier incarnations. Bob Dylan fans likely will recognize the mournfully slow "Kingsport Town" and "Paths of Victory," on which she accompanies herself on piano. Another piano-backed number is "Wild is the Wind," a spooky song popularized by Nina Simone and David Bowie, among others. "You kissed me/ With your kiss my life begins," Marshall intones with aching beauty. Indie-rock fans likely will know the gloomy "Red Apples," a Smog song, and "In This Hole," one of Marshall's own tunes that originally appeared on her 1996 album What Would the Community Think. "It's a cover of my own song," she explains. "The other version is very tense, with guitar. The roundness and richness of the piano resonates" on the new incarnation. Oft-covered traditionals "Salty Dog" and "Sea of Love" (which she turns eerie with only strums on a tinny Autoharp behind her) root the album in a deeper past. " 'Salty Dog' was a mistake," she reveals. "My friend Matt was over and we just started playing. I thought, 'I should just play that old song I sang when I was little.' They're all first takes. I'm not the overdub type."
All these covers might make you think Marshall is just another indie rock record collector eager to flaunt her deep knowledge. In fact, she has her friends to thank. "I don't have the records," Chan confides about the songs she interprets. "Most every song, I just have on tape." Turns out her pals make good tapes. That's how she became acquainted with Son House, Dylan's Bootleg Sessions, and Michael Hurley, a quirky, art-folk type who used to play with the Holy Modal Rounders, and who inspired two songs on The Covers Record ("Troubled Waters" and "Sweedeedee").
"I always sang. Everything. What was on the radio, TV, college radio," Marshall says of how her music collection wound up on her own records. "I remember when I discovered college radio. I was 14. I was in my room and my mom had given me this radio. I always wanted to tape something, so I'd turn on the radio and tape stuff.
"Radio Free Europe," she sings, her hands drumming on the table to the R.E.M. song. "And I was like, that's so cool! Then the next song was like Concrete Blonde, then the Cure, then the Go-Go's, and I had all this music on this one tape. I'd listen to that or I'd listen to the radio and tape more songs. I learned that there was this other music, and it's not like Billy Idol and it's not like 'What's Love Got to Do with It' or all the '80s stuff, like Kajagoogoo or Debbie Gibson. There's more out there."
These early influences are not, however, readily apparent on Marshall's recordings. On her early albums, she sounded like a wreck. Each wail was a beam of pain, each whisper an excruciating secret. She sounded as though her voice was controlling her rather than the other way around. That's what made Marshall's music something of a love it or hate it proposition. On Moon Pix you could hear her getting a grip, and on The Covers Record, her ongoing growth in that area is palpable. "That's what I've been asked [about this record] 'There's something different about your voice ...," Marshall says, restating my question. "I think I'm becoming more comfortable with myself as a woman. I think that has a lot to do with it. Before, part of being crazy and mixed up in my younger years was that I never really felt like a female. I always felt like I was made to feel like one. But I think I'm learning that I'm comfortable with the fact that I'm a woman. I'm not as hostile within myself. I feel like I'm just different, more mature. I believe in these songs, too. I believe there's something good about them."
Marshall recorded Moon Pix in Australia with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, both of the amazing, moody and instrumental band the Dirty Three. It was by far her most confident album and the most pleasurable to listen to. For The Covers Record, Marshall stands alone with her songs, mostly baking herself on guitar or piano. "[Making] Moon Pix was a relaxing experience, but at the same time I had no direction," she notes. With The Covers Record, "because they're not mine, I feel more confident. I respect them and am inspired by different thoughts about them. Being thoughtful about them and what they represent and different images I have about the songs make the album more meaningful to me."
Marshall has always played originals that sound like they might have been drawn from the folk or blues canons, and she's always done covers songs recorded by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits or Bill "Smog" Callahan. But why a whole album? When Marshall toured for Moon Pix, she explains, she often found herself wanting a different setting than what her backup band provided. "Every now and then I'd say, 'Please don't play. I'm going to this one right now.' I needed some grounding, because I felt like rock was so raaargh vroomagh," Marshall says, animatedly roaring to duplicate a raging guitar noise. "I was like, 'Nuh, nuh, nuh, no.' By the end [of the tour], they'd play like four songs and then I'd say, 'Relax.' Because I felt like what I was giving, I wasn't feeling. You know, having to be like [Marshall offers in her best banshee wail] 'Yeeaaahhh.' It was just like,'God damn, shut up!'"
"This record was pretty great because I'd already gone on tour. I'd already played the songs so many times," Marshall explains. "With every other record I've done, I'd only ever played the songs live a handful of times before I actually recorded them and made each song the way it is. But I'd been carrying these ones around for a while I'd been on tour with them twice so I knew how they go in my mind, not because I'd recorded them on tape. So it was really, really easy to record them."
And though the songs might sound gloomy, they represent much more to Marshall than just a dark batch of introspective cover versions. "I just read today something in the bio," she notes, with a touch of irritation in her voice. "Someone pointed out that it said that I'm 'grotesquely melancholy,' that this record is 'grotesquely melancholy.' I said maybe I should change the name of the record to Lovers Record, because when I'm singing these songs, when I think of these songs, I'm thinking of someone I love or something from my past that's desirable to me. I don't think it's grotesquely melancholy. I just didn't agree with that. I'm glad someone pointed that out, so I can maybe change the title of the record. I feel these songs in some ways are just like lullabies."