HQ Magazine #99 – September/October 2003

The Year of the Cat
By Simon Wooldridge

"I do not want to write about last night's Cat Power show at the Mousonturm. Just two or three sentences. It was the most pitiful, disgraceful and abominable concert I have ever seen in my life. Not really a concert, more a performance gone terribly wrong. Chan Marshall was totally drunk and certainly on other drugs as well. Her band left her alone on stage after maybe 30 minutes of very badly performed songs by her. Then she was talking drunkard's gibberish mixed with many insults to the audience and didn't manage to play one song on her own. I regretted not having taken a video camera to film her and give her the tape as a present to show her face this night."
As singer/songwriter Chan Marshall toured Europe in June, the online comments boxes and chat rooms – these the natural nocturnal home of the Cat Power fan – were abuzz with news of the New York-based artist's show. It should have been a triumphant return, considering that after a decade under the mainstream radar, the constant chatter of these obsessives, the similarly consistent adulation of critics, and the slow burn of constant controversy have combined to push Chan Marshall's sixth album You Are Free beyond her staunchly 'indie' constituency and to unexpected heights. But, as this fan review of Cat Power's Frankfurt show attests, something was going wrong. The 31-year-old new folk artist has redefined parameters of both waywardness in performances, and ecstatic adulation amongst 'serious' music lovers.
At this stage Cat Power articles take a predictable form. They'll always make mention of Marshall's glamour connections (Marshall has posed for a series of Gap ads, has modelled in fashion spreads for New York magazine, been photographed alongside Catherine Deneuve, and acted as muse for designers like Nicolas Gesquière of Balanciaga, and Marc Jacobs); the fact that she turned down an offer to join Madonna's Maverick label; and the cred cache which inspires artists like Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam) and Dave Grohl (ex-of Nirvana, now leader of the Foo Fighters) to join her on record, willing to have their input almost entirely obscured in the mix.
Similarly, online or in print, the reviews will always mention one of two elements: her voice, an emotive moan, peerless at this time in popular music – described variously as a conduit to some spiritual otherworld, or as tour mate, Dirty Three bandleader and Australian underground Renaissance man Warren Ellis puts it: "the bow-scrape on the violin… the antithesis of the power ballad"; and what seems to be the flipside of that voice, what can only be described as Marshall's stage anti-presence.
The guitarist/pianist/singer is known for shows in which she appears beset by demons – impossibly shy and fundamentally unable to perform. Hiding behind a wall created by long bangs that obscure her eyes, she blends her songs together without pause to disallow applause, insists on lights being so low she's practically invisible, and despite her singing seems by all other definitions hoping to disappear. Movement is made in what looks like slow motion – the gape of her mouth as she sings and her indolent 'dance', which looks like she's pedalling backwards, her barefoot toes striking the floor on each bass note.
Not so, on this tour. Marshall has been in great spirits. Reports from the road have described her antics onstage, which have including long rambling monologues, occasional outbursts of profanity interspersed with burping, repeatedly struggling only30 seconds into songs before changing her trajectory, lying on the stage floor singing a song by hip hop performance artist Peaches called "Fuck The Pain Away", waking and performing among the crowd, and repeatedly apologising and offering refunds. In some cases Marshall's band abandoned her to her indulgences, one website quoting guitarist Coleman Lewis' onstage censure: "You're not part of the solution. You are part of the problem. And that is our problem."
In combination with her voice, this performance ethic makes Marshall an emotional highwire act – audiences accustomed to shows which are rehearsed and staged into blandness can't help but rubberneck at this confronting car-wreck performance style. The undercurrent appeal may be an insanity sexualised to the point it would make even the producers of Girl, Interrupted blush. And critics may point to audience numbers – boosted by sightseers drinking in the dramatic tension – as a motive for Marshall to maintain an 'anti-concert' pose. But for each detractor there is a fan proclaiming the show to be the Greatest of the Life. "The secret of Mashall's charm lies between her insecurity and her intimidating strength of character," said the Guardian when covering the shows. This is duality (some would say the bi-polarity) of Cat Power.
Marshall describes her recent jaunt across the US and UK with the Dirty Three as "a great time". "I probably drank a bit too much, I put eyeliner on everybody," she says. "[On] the last night I was so excited, I was sitting side of stage Indian style, watching and banging my hands on my thighs, you know. In the morning I woke up and had like 28, 29 bruises, all over my legs. It was so great." Marshall's connection with the Dirty Three is a link to her deeper ties to Australia. Originally from Melbourne, the instrumental trio is one of few Australian outfits to make a successful and international transition as independent artists. Now based around the world – in Paris, London and Chicago, all three members work on myriad projects – film soundtracks, theatre and dance works, ambient experimental organic electronica. Stepping aside from the Dirty Three's stock in trade – a shamanistic combination of punk performance ethics and gypsy abandon – drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner formed the instrumental backbone of Cat Power's breakthrough 1998 album Moon Pix, which was recorded in Melbourne. And along with Vedder, Grohl and two anonymous schoolchildren who sing backing vocals, violinist Ellis is one of a handful of gusts on You Are Free.
When Marshall explains her musical connection to the Dirty Three, she gets as close as ever to articulating what it is that she tries to achieve as an artist. "I really appreciated what they do," she says. "It's not the same [as Cat Power], but it's the same thing that we're trying to find, or define, or explore, or create. Or get away from.
"Maybe it's not the same exact thing, but I think they look similar, or they feel similar," she says when pressed. "It's the mystery of our… the mystery of… it's the universe."
Ellis also sees the connection, but has the same trouble describing the bond. "I don't know, I guess it's what we're all searching for," he says. "And occasionally you get there, and some people always get there, and some people never get there. It's some sort of spot where the only thing that matters is what's going on between you and what you're making.
"I can't really describe it," he says. "Then it wouldn't be magic would it? And some bastard would try and manufacture it and sell it, and then there'd be one less secret in the world. And we could do with some more secrets these days."
"When she's in the moment," he responds when asked what he most likes about her work, "she's really in the moment."
This shroud of ambiguity may be crucial to Cat Power's muse. But while Marshall is known best as an enigma, she seems more interested in adhering to The Moment than keeping those secrets. At a time when artist interviews are most often based on stage-managed junkets where an original quote is a rarity, and a glimpse of truth rarer still, Marshall is consistently disarming. In this case, on the phone from London on a mid-week morning after the show before, she conducts the entire conversation in a strange staged whisper, a low croak that occasionally rises to a hiss as she extends the sibilants for effect. "We're all the same human beings," she says when asked about the prospect of meeting her idols – Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. "I am fearless." Later, she sings, cooing an impromptu lullaby about her roommate: "Well, we all need friends, and we really need good ones."
"My friend's here and um… she's sleeping," Marshall explains in a hush. "We played last night in Leicester," she continues. "It was okay, I was hopped up on coffee and scotch, and actin' weird [the weirdness included walking around the audience handing out strawberries – boy, girl, boy, girl]. And tonight's the last show with the band for a couple of weeks. It's kinda sad."
She paints her toenails as we speak, her ideas occasionally wandering. "I'm pretty tired," she says at one point. "I've been doing this a long time my body's kinda like 'bleeuuugh'."
However candid, Marshall's also a perplexing interviewee. Even though countless interviews are available online, each question answered with surprising frankness (interviewers have been surprised to be informed that the Moon Pix album was inspired by a visit from ghosts, and anecdotes about friends' attempts to have Marshall committed are recounted with tossed-off candour) no-one seems any closer to understanding the artist. And Marshall doesn't feel she's been asked at all. "There's more to everybody than a one dimensional question and answer," she says.
The conversation is a charming mix of childlike idealism, and everyday chat. She dreams of giving up touring one day and studying psychology. "Once I have mutual love with a man, and it's for real, and we decide to have a child, and have a family in our world, then I'll stop," she says. "And I'll finally be a painter and a gardener and cook and a mommy and all that crap." Asked if that's something she has trouble searching for, leading a rootless touring existence, she's dismissive. "It's not a search, you don't search for it. It's just something that… you know, that's the way I wanna go out. I wanna live the last 20 years of my life when someone I love and enjoy watching our child grow…
"I can't see my future," she croaks in conclusion. "I can only create it." "Meanwhile, she's interested in promoting the band she'll bring to Australia in September, French outfit Women And Children, describing them as "Baroque Velvet Underground… 15th century Nico with 2020 awareness"; she's reading German poet Rainer Maria Rilke ("He feels like children are really enlightened," she says); she wants to know how the weather will be in Sydney and Byron Bay in October ("Will it be bikini time or just kinda sweater-y?"). Asked if she's now feeling the band she's bringing here can create the sound of You Are Free, she's shocked. "Recreate what's on the record?" she asks. "No, no, no, no, no never. That's the problem with recording, it's just a moment in time what's being played live, over and over and over, you suspend that moment… But in real life you grow, you change, your voice changes, your abilities change, your perception, your interests. So songs always change."
And change they have. Until now Marshall has been lumped with noted new American Gothic 'anti-folk' artists like Wil Oldham and Bill Callahan, sharing a literary and pure art ethic rare in what's an increasingly commercialised and dumbed-down medium. But even her first works were more modern in approach than Oldham's travels through the grotesque annals of Appalachian folk history (his work like a distillation of the celebrated American Folk Anthology).
With the release of 2000's Covers album, in which Marshall re-interpreted songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones (a complete reworking of "Satisfaction", sans chorus, no less), Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Nina Simone and various other obscurities and traditional tunes, Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval became a common point of reference. On the face of it, that's an apt description. Both play subtle and spacious roots-inflected music, and both have voices that work best when hushed and reverb-drenched. But in terms of poetic ambition and artistic range, Cat Power's work makes that of Sandoval look a shallow, cabaret construct – all mood and pose. New album You Are Free pushes the form toward higher realms. It's an album informed by Marshall's long love of independent art rock, and restrained by her defining minimalist ethic. Her piano style is still almost childlike, her guitar playing that of a either a novice, or a staunch self-editor. But with its studio sound, skewed pop arrangements, and Marshall's particular vocal recording style – in which vocals are multi-tracked, not with exact replicate 'doubled vocals' as in traditional production, but with twin lead parts that constantly intersect and diverge to create unlikely and characteristic harmonies – it's a borderline commercial release by Cat Power standards. It's also, surprisingly, occasionally on the up-beat.
The deeper sound has its foundation in Marshall's upbringing. She recalls singin gospel hymns with her travelling musician father, and moving around often in her home state of Georgia with her hippy mother, before she settled in Atlanta in the mid-'80s. thanks to this Southern American childhood, she has roots music at here heart – folk, country, blues, soul. Asked to name her most influential artist, she nominated a man who never actually performed – Alan Lomax – the legendary field recordist who used a mobile studio to document the sounds of the Deep South which have, along with the output of Chess Recording Studios, become the best archive of early blues and folk. Add to this her time spent in the '80s underground Atlanta, which at the time was a rival to Austin, Texas as a Southern hub of underground musical experimentation, and Marshall's affection for the more idiosyncratic and edgy experimental sounds – from What Is Music-style noise art and lo-fidelity recording styles, is explained. Perhaps more important from that period, however, was the attitude she inherited, which she describes simply as "music for music's sake."
After moving to New York in 1991, Marshall didn't have greatness so much as indelible underground cool thrust upon her when friends booked her a first show, without her knowledge, in 1994. Marshall had already recorded and released a vinyl single on an indie imprint when she was noticed by Matador records head Gerald Cosloy. While she'd been playing composing since age 17, she'd never performed live. Cosloy set her up with a show with the moment's most lauded female indie-singer/songwriter, Liz Phair. Going out to dinner with her fellow performers, she froze when she realised that she was sitting with Steve Shelley, the Sonic Youth member and all round NYC punk art figurehead who would become Marshall's fist and most famous bandmate and advocate. From there attention was assured, even if only on an undercurrent level. But progress came slowly, and, especially as she's far from prolific, Marshall's personal style has always stood against her becoming a crossover success story.
You get the impression she likes it that way. Even now, it seems she's more interested in personal conversation than self-promotion. By interview's end we're plotting together, planning to play a prank on her next interviewer, who is an acquaintance of mine. "Are y'all intimate?" she asks. "You're not romantically linked…?" After a second's though she has a plan. "Think of something that's really embarrassing to her…" she says. "Don't tell me, but give me a key word that I can say… 'Oh, he told me ALL about the chicken sandwich.' And then she'll think that I know everything."
When asked what goes through her mind when she performs by indie e-zine Pitchfork, Marshall evoked a stream of consciouslness. "'Did I write that down? Did my mom really do that that day? Oh I remember that song, that bird. I feel kinda sick. Oh, that person, that's a beautiful woman. My fingers are sweating.' I mean like it never ends. There's no way that there could be a set formula for [sarcastically] 'a great show every time!'… You'd have to either be really directed and produced, or completely brain-dead…"
While one review described her live show as "a one-sided codependence trip that keeps Marshall sane", for her the performance style is intrinsically linked to the music's essential purity. Without freedom onstage, the celebrated freedom of voice would be lost. The first song on You Are Free, "I Don't Blame You", tells the story of a performer wracked by the spotlight, and an unempathetic audience's harsh reactions. "They never owned it/ And you never owed it to them anyway… it never made sense to them anyway… when they turned their backs they were only scratching their heads," she sings.
Online, Cat Power obsessives are split over the song's subject. Is Marshall writing about herself, or long dead Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, who alluded to the pressures of performance, and the commercial debasement of music's purity in his suicide note? "It's not about [Cobain]," says Marshall. "That's all I can say… I'm not gonna say who it's about."
They can't help but make the connection. A post from alex63 summed up the accompanying fears. "I have the feeling she is going to join Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain not too far in the future."