In between onstage breakdowns, Chan Marshall, otherwise known as Cat Power, has become indie rock’s most unlikely heroine. She’s also really big in France.
Chan Marshall still doesn’t know exactly why the wave engulfed her that night a few years back. Something didn’t feel right. Or maybe it felt too right: She was onstage at the Knitting Factory, in her adopted hometown of New York City, and among friends, backed by guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. But that wave-she’d felt it before in nightmares. And what is a Cat Power show if not a sleepwalk through a dream that sometimes becomes a nightmare?
She looked down mid-song at the audience watching her, holding on to her every note. The wave hit, and suddenly she found herself screaming. And screaming-for so long that Foljahn and Shelley looked warily at each other, at a loss for what to do. She turned mid-scream and made a slightly apologetic face that said, “This is just part of the song.”
But the show didn’t end-far from it. Marshall, who was the opening act, kept segueing song into song without break, until the soundman eventually pulled the plug.
“When things go wrong,” she later explains, “I usually play for a long time.” Because you want to make things right? “Exactly.”
A few years later and a few blocks away, autumn is fighting a losing battle with summer in Manhattan’s Little Italy. The families of Scorsese’s Mean Streets are mostly long gone, displaced by overvalued lofts and boutiques. It’s midday inside a dark bar-one of the area’s rare holdovers, the walls covered with photos of Italian celebrities and the floors covered with sawdust-and Marshall, 29, has decided to have a breakfast of vodka on the rocks.
“Good morning!” she chirps, beaming and relaxed, to the amusement of the few old men at the bar. Dressed in faded jeans, ragged brown boots, and a leather jacket, brown hair falling around her enormous brown eyes, she fully looks the part of the Lower Manhattan artiste. Like the city outside, Marshall (whose first name is pronounced “Shawn,” short for Charlyn) is a hazy combination of the authentic and the invented. Since arriving in 1992, she’s shared the same low-rent East Village apartment with a roommate while running with such gilded-gutter elite as Kim Gordon and Gummo director Harmony Korine, who asked her to score his next film. She swears she rarely listens to music, yet last year’s The Covers Record unearths gems from artists as diverse as Moby Grape and legendary folk singer Michael Hurley. She claims to know exactly one formal guitar chord. “I’m not an artist,” she insists. “I’m a simple person. I’m so basic.” Yet somehow her anti-artistry has put her somewhere between the basement and the stars: She fills auditoriums from San Francisco to Paris, and she’s sold nearly 200,000 copies of her last two albums alone. Her celebrity fanbase includes Dave Grohl and, reportedly, Sir Elton John.
Her minor celebrity is remarkable, considering that early releases like Dear Sir and What Would the Community Think sound like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music if it were curated 100 years from now-fitting for someone who credits Hank Williams, Patti Smith, and Sonic Youth as primary influences. Her whispered caterwauling is shockingly intimate, as if the singer were discovering her singing voice for the very first time. And her recordings keep getting better. On 1998′s Moon Pix, with its cover of the Dylan-identified “Moonshiner,” Marshall began to reconcile her sound with traditional roots music. On The Covers Record, perhaps the best showcase of her fragile alchemy, she takes the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and strips away its swaggering sense of entitlement, leaving a thin and trembling blues.
Like a modern-day Leonard Cohen, Cat Power attracts the type of devotees who feel they know Marshall personally. Fan letters credit her with forestalling suicides, and she has at least one stalker in France, where she’s appeared on national television and on the cover of a major music magazine alongside Fiona Apple. (“She kept saying she had a gift from God, and I kept looking at her, thinking, ‘You are fucked-up,’” Marshall says.)
But for all the kudos, this East Village changeling is best known as a live performer prone to crippling attacks of self-doubt. She often hides behind her long hair for the entire show. She obsesses over the sound system, apologizes profusely, abruptly ends songs, or, alternately, doesn’t stop playing for the entire show. More often than not, these outbursts don’t register as star tantrums; her candor makes them resonate with most anyone who’s ever felt uncomfortable in his or her own skin, and they seem to increase fan devotion in direct proportion to how much they disable the performer.
A partial list of things that go through the mind of Chan Marshall onstage: “Are the people in the front row laughing at me? What does this lyric mean anymore? This sounds like shit on my guitar. I wish I could have more reverb, but if I ask for more, they’ll think I’m a nerd because it sounds ugly. All these people are looking at me, and I feel so uncomfortable physically. I wish the lights were down so I could concentrate. What am I doing this for? I should be like my sister; I should have children and work with other people.”
She may claim to not think much about music, but it’s always been in Chan Marshall’s life. Along with an older sister and a younger brother with cerebral palsy, she drifted around the South with her divorced mother, a creative type who favored alternative lifestyles. At one point in the late ’70s, they shared a house with a band called Mother’s Finest, a sort of poor man’s Sly and the Family Stone who scored a few minor hits. “It was like those movies where the stereo is playing, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and people are on motorcycles and smoking mad dope, and little kids are running around,” Marshall recalls.
As she got older, Marshall and her mom stopped getting along, and one day she showed up on her dad’s Atlanta doorstep with a garbage bag full of clothes. After she flunked tenth grade, he kicked her out, too. (“I was kind of shocked, but I was like, Who gives a fuck? I’m not gonna be anybody anyway,” she says.) She moved in with her sister and eventually wound up working at a pizza joint owned by Clay Harper of the Coolies, Atlanta smart-asses who gained brief notoriety in the late ’80s with Dig?, an album of all-Paul (Simon and Anka) covers. Atlanta’s postpunk scene was thriving then, and everyone Marshall knew was in a band. A friend convinced her to pick up the Silvertone guitar she kept in her room “like a vase or a plant,” and in 1992, the 20-year-old Marshall formed a band called Cat Power on a whim with a few moonlighting pals. But after the deaths of two friends in close succession, Marshall, who’d never been north of Washington, D.C., abruptly told her bandmates she was leaving town. “I don’t know anything about the world,” she said. “I want to see Europe. I want to see Canada.”
Marshall hit the East Village and started hanging out at ABC No Rio, a punk collective and performance space that had recently hosted shows by an L.A. transplant named Beck Hansen. After a few solo gigs, she had an offer from Sonic Youth associate Wharton Tiers to record some tracks at his studio. Not surprisingly, the sessions were an ordeal for Marshall, who couldn’t stand to hear the songs played back.
“I thought they were taking something from me, the way Indians feel when you take a picture of them,” she says. “I didn’t trust anybody. I just walked away.” Yet the songs were eventually released as her first two records, and an anti-star was born.
Marshall is walking down Seventh Avenue in New York’s fashion ghetto with her boyfriend of more than a year, a shy, fledgling model five years her junior. Another Cat Power tour starts in a few days, and she’s in high spirits. She detours into Co-op, a trendy offshoot of the department store Barneys, and heads for the cosmetics counter. “I really like the unpredictability of touring,” she says, pausing to try a brown shade of eye shadow called Lola Lola. “But I usually don’t want to go onstage until just before I do.” Of course, once she does, all bets are off.
Not everyone is enamored of the unpredictability of Cat Power shows. At another infamous concert two years ago in New York, Marshall shook noticeably, apologized profusely, executed so many false starts that her band left the stage in frustration, and sat down in the crowd and sang as fans patted her back and consoled her. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times slammed Marshall’s “outrageously passive-aggressive behavior and nonmusicianship” and called her performance “staggering for its inversion of standard rock performance ethics.” (Marshall says she liked the review because it didn’t get personal.) But even a fan might feel that, at times, Marshall’s live sets are less about music than performance art.
Marshall bristles at the suggestion that this sort of behavior is calculated or that fans want or expect it, though clearly some do. “She’s completely guileless,” maintains writer/rock critic Richard Meltzer, who is both a fan and a friend. “Performing for her can be traumatic, but she does it because she has certain things that must be released.”
They are definitely released, in ways that evidently make fans feel them as acutely as Marshall does. A few years ago, she was in a Paris hotel room, feeling increasingly lonely and alienated, waiting to receive a worshipful French zine writer. The thought of an interview seemed unbearable, so she took off her clothes, stuffed them in bed to look like a sleeping body, and turned off the lights. The writer, a girl of 17 with her boyfriend in tow, showed up in the doorway and tentatively peeked inside. “Chan?” she said, addressing the lump under the covers. “Are you okay?” Crouched in the corner, Marshall stopped crying and grinned in the dark. “I felt like Linda Blair in The Exorcist,” she says. “I wanted to laugh, but I still didn’t want them to find me. And then I heard them laughing. I had almost gotten away with it: not being alive.” Marshall got dressed, and the girl shyly asked why she was hiding. “Because I don’t care about this interview,” replied Marshall, not meeting the girl’s eyes. “I feel like I’m losing my mind, like I want to jump off a cliff.” The girl’s eyes welled up. She and her boyfriend began to cry. “If you die,” the girl said to Marshall, “I die, too.”