Cat Power: ‘I was never an alcoholic. I was suffering from extreme depression’
After six years away, Power is too vibrant a songwriter, with too many feelings, to stop now
Cat Power: the singer found a whiskey bar in Australia to hire her as a bartender. Photograph: Ryan Pfluger/NYT
When Chan Marshall, the singer and songwriter best known as Cat Power, got pregnant in 2014, she considered drastically changing her life. For nearly a quarter of a century she had made the road her home, fighting the never-ending war of a career as an independent musician, exposing her emotional turmoil, night after night, for supportive but demanding audiences.
Suddenly, she was having a child, and it felt like winning the lottery. “I’ll just go to Australia and I’ll start over,” she thought. “Who doesn’t want a simple life?” She even found a whiskey bar there, more than 15,000km away, that agreed to hire her as a bartender.
That vision of quiet isolation and anonymity mirrored one she’d had as a younger person in the violent throes of depression: moving to a tiny desert town, changing her name to Beth, wearing dresses, having short hair. She had dreamed of eight children – four biological and four adopted – plus animals and a garden. At her lowest, “that was my little switch,” she says, “my fantasy.”
It’s not pretentious that I’m an artist. It’s not corny to sing songs that maybe other people think are depressing. It’s not embarrassing
But it wasn’t to be, then or now. Instead, Marshall, on the verge of becoming a single mother, got back to work. She took her musical equipment out of storage and rented a house in Miami Beach, not far from the condo she has kept here since 2002, and she did what she has always done: she started making another album.
Wanderer, her 10th LP, will be out on October 5th, and it contains, in the abstract poetic fragments of any Cat Power album, the reasons Marshall could not just pack it all in. For one, she is still too vibrant a songwriter, with too extraordinary a voice and too many feelings, to stop now.
An eternally exposed nerve who refuses to present as fully healed or whole, even in the era of self-care and commodified feminism, Marshall has always sounded as if she’d seen some things. Now, at 46, she truly has the life experience to back up her songs, steeped as they are in the soul and blues traditions, a rarity in indie rock. In 11 spare tracks, Marshall seems confident, at last, in her identity as a rootless seeker and storyteller, firm in the instability of her atypical existence.
Her first release in more than six years, Wanderer also represents a career rebirth of sorts for Marshall. After some tumult, it is the first Cat Power album since her 1996 critical breakthrough What Would the Community Think not to be released on the stalwart independent label Matador, and her first with a manager – Andy Slater, the former president of Capitol Records – in her corner.
“He’s taught me that I have a lot to be proud of,” Marshall says, noting that in the past she was just thankful to be working, more concerned with getting from point A to point B than her legacy. “It’s not pretentious that I’m an artist. It’s not corny to sing songs that maybe other people think are depressing. It’s not embarrassing.”
None of which is to say that Marshall has lost her frenzied edge or relentless vulnerability, qualities that have put her in a league with obsessed-over iconoclastic songwriters like PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. In person, Marshall is at turns glamorous, self-effacing, eloquent, self-hating, jittery, effusive, impenetrable, endearing, curious, frustrated and frustrating, a near-constant stream of consciousness and conversational tics – “I’m sorry,” “Are you mad at me?” – that mix southern-US charm and artistic mania.
She can leap from big topic to huge topic – death, spirituality, sexism – without warning, sometimes within the same sentence, and is constantly contradicting and correcting herself. Often, when her brain seems to overheat and her mouth can’t keep up, she will let loose a deep, heaving groan – Auuughhhh – that serves as an exasperated white flag towards whatever idea she was wrestling with. “Sorry” almost always comes next.
At the same time, Marshall has a contagious, youthful exuberance that draws in strangers and service workers alike, and she’s quick to kick off a conversation with bartenders, bar patrons, Uber drivers, valet guys, a studio hand she met once years ago, or a woman with a dress she admires. (She’s just plain funny, too. “Everything’s good except my breath,” she says upon our first meeting; soon after, she is shouting “Kiki, do you love me?” from a bathroom stall.)
Always forthcoming about her struggles with substance abuse, nerves and mental health, Marshall is also adamant that her reputation as a train wreck is overstated, noting that it is “very easy for spectacle to be projected on to me as a female”.
“I was never an alcoholic,” she explains at the Soho Beach House bar as she ordered her first of two tequila drinks for the afternoon. “When I got really sick from drinking so much, I thought I was. But after doing years of therapy and understanding things about myself, I realised I was suffering from extreme depression.”
Marshall said that becoming a mother, as well as her battle with a rare immune disorder that caused swelling in her joints, throat and face, put a lot of things into perspective. “I definitely, definitely fought for my life on several occasions,” she says, but adds that she has since learnt to protect herself and her family.
In the Florida sun, Marshall speaks easily about her son – now three and pictured, tow-headed, on the Wanderer cover – and with purpose when discussing the ugly terms of her breakup with Matador, which she will only call “my ex-label”. But when asked about the straightforwardness of the new album, which Marshall produced, featuring barely any instrumentation beyond guitar, piano and her voice, she folds in on herself, afraid of not doing it justice.
“I saw this – these songs as the kind-of – I know this sounds crazy,” she says. “I saw the songs as, like, a, um –” Long pause. “A protected place of, uh, you know.” Long pause. “I wanted to be very careful. I didn’t want to do a superproduced, um, technologically advanced – I didn’t – whatever.”
“I felt like the songs were most potent being as simplistic as possible – in my opinion,” she continues. “Uh, potent’s not the right word. Direct? Sorry. I guess I answered as best I could. Sorry.”
Her eyes would roll back and she’d just channel and go. You can’t make that happen. Either you’ve got the genie in the bottle, or you’ve just got the bottle
Slater calls Marshall “a trust artist” whose raw edges are part of the package. “We’re not getting any kind of showbiz artifice ever,” he says. Rob Schnapf, a producer for Elliott Smith who mixed Wanderer and engineered some recording sessions, says that Marshall knew “she did not want to make a big record – she absolutely did not”. He recalls moments of inspiration in the studio where the spirit would hit her. “Her eyes would roll back and she’d just channel and go,” he says. “You can’t make that happen. Either you’ve got the genie in the bottle, or you’ve just got the bottle.”
But Matador rejected the album. “They said, do it again, do it over,” Marshall explains. (Slater confirms that Matador told him Wanderer was “not good enough, not strong enough to put out”. The album will be released by Domino.) Marshall says she received the same mandate from Matador during recording as she had for Sun, her previous album, from 2012. “It was like, ‘We need hits!’ ” she says. “And I did it – I got top 10. I did the best I could to give them hits” on Sun, using bright synths and more modern sounds. (Sun has sold 114,000 albums to date, including streams, according to Nielsen.)
But to Marshall, the label had always represented artistic freedom. “Looking back, I know they were using me,” she says, recalling a Matador executive playing her an album by Adele and telling her that that was how a record was supposed to sound. “I understood that I was a product,” she says, “and I always thought I was a person.”
Matador says in a statement: “Chan Marshall is without question one of the most talented, brilliant artists we’ve been fortunate to know,” adding: “Our working relationship with Chan has not been without difficult moments. We’ve had disagreements over matters both artistic and business, but none of that changes our respect for her as a person or performer.”
Marshall says she did not alter the music after the label change but did add a track, Woman, featuring Lana Del Rey, which in many ways became the defiant, upbeat centrepiece of an understated album, beginning with a folky, pointed lament:
If I had a dime for every time
You tell me I’m not what you need
If I had a quarter I would pull it together
And I would take it to the bank and then leave.
Asked if the track, which has received almost two million YouTube views in six weeks, was a middle finger to her ex-label, Marshall demurs. “Thank you for asking, but no comment.” She does, however, compare some indie-rock circles to a fraternity, with little space for a lone woman without a band or a manager. “I had to fight a lot for little stupid things, but I just thought, That’s what I do,” she says. “Pavement’s going to the Bahamas or something with the label, Interpol is going to St Lucia or wherever with the label. I remember yelling: ‘Can you take me out to dinner? I’d love to go to a fancy place!’ ”
“Sorry,” she adds. “I can’t believe I said all that.” Auuughhhh. In New York the next month for Fashion Week, Marshall seems more centred in the rent-controlled downtown apartment where she has kept a room since 1992. These days, along with guitars, vintage clothes and travel books, the space is littered with little boy’s shoes and action figures; a makeshift children’s bed is set up in the corner.
Marshall’s anxiety about the album is temporarily displaced by anxiety about her outfit for the Rodarte show, and she takes a sparkly, poofy-shouldered jacket on and off, fretting over her “mommy body” and giggling about her days as a fashion darling, when she served as the face of Chanel’s jewellery. (Her Karl Lagerfeld impression is priceless.)
An old lover, he was picking me up, and ‘Stay’ was on the radio. He said, ‘Oh, there’s my girl,’ and I thought he was talking about me. But he was talking about Rihanna
She has heard that I asked her manager about the constant apologising and “Are you mad at me?” habit, and laughs it off, adding that she has tried to stop but felt better once she realised that her half-sister does it, too. I tell her I think that society expects even sensitive individuals to harden over time, to grow out of being a walking, tender wound, but that it is probably best for her music that she has refused, or has just been incapable of doing so.
“I don’t think I could ever be calloused to the world,” she says, and I remembered a story she told me earlier, about the one cover on Wanderer, of Rihanna and Mikky Ekko’s hit ballad Stay. Marshall has long made covers a part of her repertoire, releasing two albums of them, but tends to stick with vintage classics: Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan.
But Stay has stuck with her since she heard it, years ago, in someone’s car, she says. “An old lover, he was picking me up, and he opened the door and that song was on the radio,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, there’s my girl,’ and I thought he was talking about me, you know? Then the song ended and he turned off the radio, and I realised he was talking about Rihanna.”
A few years later, not long after the birth of her son, she heard it again in a taxi and cried the whole ride. That night, she had plans to meet a friend at a karaoke bar, and decided Stay would be the only song she performed. She sang it 16 times. – New York Times