||Cat Class, Cat Style
Cat Power's Chan Marshall Calms Down and Covers the Rolling Stones
By John Chandler
The first time I talked to Chan Marshall (who is all things Cat Power), she happily gave me a recipe for stuffed mushrooms. She even wrote it down! The second time I talked to Chan Marshall, she was sitting on my lawn (she lived in Portland for a few months in 1996), delicately removing a label from a plastic bottle of water. She then began tearing the label into little strips and stacking the strips into an odd, geometric pile. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, "Making a bag of soup." I didn't know what to say.
The Cat Power story originates through the power of peer pressure. After moving to New York from Atlanta in the early '90s in the company of some itinerant musicians Marshall began tentatively playing out and eventually caught the attention of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who put out her first few releases on his Smells Like label. "I didn't really want to do it," Marshall says of her early experiences as a singer in the public eye. "But all my friends were doing it, so I did." There are some who argue that she's never gotten over this initial performing ambivalence. More on that later.
I recently stumbled upon an old review of a Cat Power album in which the esteemed critic beefed about the music of Chan Marshall being "personality-driven." Apparently this well-meaning scribe has a problem with other members of the journalistic fraternity endlessly prattling on about some of the more "off-beat" aspects of Ms. Marshall's psychological make-up (e.g., her once-in-a-while scary, train-wreck live shows), as well as her staking out lyrical territory that bears some resemblance to other Southern gothic eccentrics like Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner. The disgruntled reviewer's eventual opinion was that it is Marshall's endearing quirkiness that makes her a noteworthy cultural figure, as opposed to the quality of her music. In other words, let the person and the artist stand as separate objects of praise and criticism. Pardon me while I clear my throat -- WHAT A LOAD OF CRAP! This fellow undoubtedly read a few too many adoring press clippings and decided to adopt the ever-popular "hipper-than-thou" contrary stance.
Usually the argument for evaluating the art and the creator separately pertains to people with unpopular hobbies like Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl or frustrated pop songsmith Charles Manson. But Cat Power? Puh-leez! I guess what sticks in my craw over this is that Marshall's occasionally shaky world view, insecurities, desires, dreams and nightmares are quite obviously the kindling that stoke her creative blaze. A song like "Color and the Kids" from her Moon Pix album (1998, Matador) would not rend and tear properly if she weren't painfully and inextricably wrapped into its living fiber. Chan Marshall (now on her third full-length release along with a pair of EPs) is not a lunatic with a guitar (like Wesley Willis), a perpetually nervous primitive (like Daniel Johnston) or a damaged-goods cult figure (like Syd Barrett or Roky Erickson); she is a fully functional and always intriguing artist -- a blowtorch-voiced singer as well as a powerfully elemental songwriter.
While Marshall's live performances can often be trying affairs (aimless strumming, fractured songs, a seeming indifference to the audience), as her attention wanders and she's unable to assemble her music in a coherent fashion, they reveal much about an artist struggling with the veracity of the situation. Concerts are an often dubious attempt to recreate the divine "fire-from-heaven-strike-point" of inspiration that led to the creation of a song. Sometimes it just ain't happening, and there's not much Chan Marshall can do about it. You'll not hear her tossing out any glib showbiz patter, or wasting time introducing her band (if she even has one). I can think of very few singers who are perhaps less equipped to be performers, but Marshall continues to persevere. It's not always easy or comforting listening to a genuine soul in conflict, but it can result in a blinding bolt of artistic purity that cuts through the superficial and the calculating like a white-hot scalpel. What happened? Where am I?
When Marshall chooses to interpret another artist's material -- as she does on her latest album, descriptively titled The Covers Album (Matador) -- it is no less compelling; the blood that pours out of the sung words is still very much her own. In concert, she'll run through some covers, and even her studio recordings show up with a cover or two, everything from Hank Williams ("Still in Love") to Dead Moon ("Johnny's Got a Gun"). For the career-minded musician, an album comprised of cover songs is a stop-gap move until the real record arrives. For Chan Marshall, it's a necessary measure, the thing that she's feeling most strongly about at the moment. "When I was on tour with Moon Pix, I changed a lot of the chords to make them more rockin'," Marshall says over a crackling cell phone from Chicago, reflecting on the origins of her current project. "When I got done with the tour I started playing covers to calm me down. You know, mellow covers? Then I bought a piano and started playing and singing.
"I played all these songs because they made me feel good," she continues. "I wanted to go out and play them live, but my booking agent was saying, 'But Chan, you just went out and did the Moon Pix tour,' but I wasn't happy doing that and I thought I would be happy doing these.... I never thought I would make an album, but it felt alright."
The Covers Album jumps out of the gate with a radically subdued version of what was recently voted "The Top Rock Song of All Time" by some thoughtful celebrities on VH-1, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." The Cat Power treatment liquidates Jagger's surly snarl and pours the steaming gruel into a hypnotic, dirgey mold. Instead of a celebration of a randy man on the move, Marshall equates Bohemian restlessness with having no place to go. In fact, during the course of the song she never gets around to singing the famous chorus. "For 'Satisfaction,' I was just playing my flamenco guitar and just being in it," Marshall says, being quick to clarify that she wasn't consciously trying to update or modernize her material. "It's just how I would do it, not how I would do it, but how I did it. It's hard for me to think why I did it that way.
"When I was singing ['Satisfaction'] the first time it never occurred to me to sing the chorus," she adds. "It just seemed like it had been done before. There was no reason to do it again. What's that word?"
"Derivative?" I offer.
"Yeah, it's cliché almost. I know it's there. It's present without me even saying it."
The remainder of the album soaks up tunes by the Velvet Underground ("I Found A Reason"), Moby Grape ("Naked if I Want To," which she stretches out considerably from its original 55-second length), Bob Dylan ("Paths of Glory"), Michael Hurley ("Sweedeedee") and Smog ("Red Apples," the second song penned by her close friend Bill Callahan that she's recorded, the first being the eerie "Bathysphere" on her 1996 record, What Would the Community Think?"). Marshall indicates John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider" and another Michael Hurley song, "Werewolf," were two songs that she played but that didn't make the final cut.
Her version of Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind" is probably the tastiest, most fully realized cut on the album. Here at the piano is Chan Marshall the torch singer at her sultriest, aching and cracking with smoldering cool, like a dangerous dame signing the sexy theme for a Ross MacDonald novel-turned-film. Her voice on this number is light years more sophisticated than her early records that had her pouring out her voice in a singular wail, with little thought given to inflection or nuance. "I couldn't really hear [my voice] before," she says of her newfound control and confidence. "Or maybe I could and I just didn't care.
"My early stuff is kind of about the age I was at the time. I just wanted to get it out, but I didn't trust that it would be OK. I just kept [singing] that way because I didn't know another way to do it. I think my age calmed me down a lot. When I turned 26, I think I calmed down."
"If you could be in a tribute band, who would you want to cover exclusively?" I ask whimsically, with the subject of cover songs still on the front burner.
"Take a wild guess," she replies.
"I give up."
"Mary J. Blige!"
I can never tell when she's yanking my chain.
Looking ahead past her latest record, Marshall seems pensive at the idea of returning to the original material she has at hand. "I've recorded a new album of songs, but I'm not...sure about it yet," she says. "Some day I'd like to make a real album."
"What's a real album?" I naively ask.
"I've never really had the time to work on an album," she explains. "The longest I've ever spent crafting one song was one single day for 'American Flag' [off Moon Pix]. I'd like to make a record that's actually important instead of just hasty."
The last time I talked to Chan Marshall she was very animated on the subject of what part she could play in order to save the planet (check out her song "Cross Bones Style" on Moon Pix for a clearer picture). She talked at length about her dreams coming true, traveling to Africa, radical environmental political parties, the possibility of going back to school and even entering politics herself. "I think I was pretty manic at that time," she laughs. "Now I'm back at being in-between. When I'm manic, I think I can do a lot of things."
As for myself, I don't care if Chan Marshall makes an important Cat Power album, as long as she continues to be intensely present in the songs she does release. Still, if what Marshall has done up until now is merely hasty product, then we'd best start preparing ourselves for the Big One now. Canned food and bottled water, anyone?
No. 324, April 26-May 12, © Rocket Magazine, 2000.