Cat Power

“It’s ele­men­tary mu­sic”: the in­side story be­hind a Mar­shall stack of great songs


Al­bum By Al­bum

“HE’S a cool lit­tle dude, huh?” says Chan Mar­shall, glee­fully show­ing Un­cut pic­tures of her young son. “He plays gui­tar and piano and drums. It’s just a nor­mal thing in his life.”

Mar­shall seems to have a lot to be thank­ful for at the mo­ment: as well as moth­er­hood, she has a new la­bel, Domino, and a new al­bum, Wan­derer, to cel­e­brate.

We meet in a Maryle­bone bar to dis­cuss all of Mar­shall’s recorded work to date, in­clud­ing 1995’s Dear Sir, 2006’s so­phis­ti­cated The Great­est and the new Wan­derer. Her first LP in six years, it finds Mar­shall con­fi­dent and fully in con­trol in the stu­dio – al­though the act of record­ing hasn’t al­ways been so plea­sur­able for the Ge­or­gia-born singer…

“It was very tense at first,” she ex­plains. “These were my se­crets. Maybe be­cause of my Chero­kee her­itage, where I’ve been in­structed through fa­ble that to be recorded is to have your soul, not stolen, but… I didn’t feel safe be­ing recorded.”

DEAR SIR RunT/PlAin, 1995; MYRA LEE sMElls liKE, 1996 Mar­shall’s skele­tal early work, recorded in one day and then split into what the singer con­sid­ers a “long-play­ing EP” and a de­but al­bum

How long had I had these songs? Oh gosh, they were con­tem­po­rary, from around that time. I was young. I was play­ing with my men­tor/ fa­ther fig­ure, Glen Thrasher, in At­lanta, and then we moved to New York at the same time, co­in­ci­den­tally. When I got asked to do the Ital­ian record [by the Runt la­bel], my re­sponse was, “No, sorry, I’m not a band,” be­cause my friend had got­ten in trou­ble at law school, be­come an ad­dict and done some junkie stuff, so he was gone, back to At­lanta, so the cops wouldn’t get him. I was done, be­cause I as­so­ci­ated play­ing mu­sic with him. Then in ’94, a su­per-sweet woman, Sharon, left a mes­sage on my an­swer ma­chine say­ing, “Sorry, I hope you won’t be mad, but I booked you a solo show at CBGB gallery…” I was fuck­ing pissed off, so I never called her back. When the day came, I was watch­ing The Simp­sons. A com­mer­cial came on and I looked in The Vil­lage Voice and I saw ‘Cat Power solo, $2’. “Fuck!” I thought of three peo­ple who I knew would be there, who’d pay to go [so I played]. When I got home, I had a mes­sage ask­ing if I wanted to open for Liz Phair the next week. That’s where I met Steve Shel­ley and Tim Fol­jahn. We recorded in a prac­tice space used by the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, on an eight-track or 16-track, play­ing live. That was that, bam, bam, bam. We never re­hearsed, never prac­tised, it was all im­pro­vised. We cut the records in half, gave the Ital­ian la­bel half and gave Steve the other half [ for his la­bel Smells Like Records]. I don’t re­mem­ber how we de­cided what went on each!


The singer heads to Easley McCain Stu­dios in Mem­phis for her last al­bum with Shel­ley and Fol­jahn The stu­dio burnt down a few years later. It was all ana­logue, it was beau­ti­ful, but I was much more in­ter­ested in doing what I was doing be­fore, lay­ing down the songs and get­ting the fuck out of the stu­dio. It was Steve and Tim again on this – Tim and I drove down from New York and I got the flu, so for the whole record­ing I was stuffed up. We bashed through the songs. I re­mem­ber say­ing to Tim, “You’re a gui­tar player, you know how to do feed­back, I need this cer­tain feed­back… No, no, no, not like that. Not like that. Can I go in there? I need it like this. Can we just record this?” Did it work? Oh yeah! We went to Mem­phis a lot when I was a kid, so it used just to be ‘the way it was’ – you know, blues mu­sic, soul mu­sic – but re­turn­ing that time with Steve and Tim, I didn’t un­der­stand the fa­nati­cism about it, the nov­elty of it [to them]. “Yeah, it’s bar­be­cue, y’know… Yeah, that’s church mu­sic…” There was so much neg­a­tiv­ity about the South in New York, so I didn’t un­der­stand why they were ap­pre­ci­at­ing it all so much. Am I happy with these first few records now? Yeah!


A frostier record with a deep emo­tional core, much of it writ­ten by Mar­shall in one fevered night We recorded this in the Aus­tralian sum­mer. I just heard it again re­cently, for the first time in 20 years, and I felt for my younger self. Re­turn­ing back to it and re­hears­ing – be­cause the record­ing was all im­pro­vi­sa­tion on the whole – with a string sec­tion and be­ing back in Mel­bourne with Jim [White] and Mick [Turner] to­gether again, sing­ing while they were play­ing, was so spe­cial and so warm. Very spe­cial. And then play­ing the songs for peo­ple in a re­garded way, at the Sydney Opera House [in June 2018]… I took it to mean that I was award­ing my­self, that young girl, dig­nity and a pure sat­is­fac­tion at hav­ing ar­rived at this stage in her life, pure joy in get­ting through strug­gles, as we do. It felt great to step in­side the songs again, and feel the feel­ings. It was in­tense!

“We never re­hearsed. It was all im­pro­vised… Am I happy with these first records now? Yeah!”


A spec­tral set of rad­i­cal solo in­ter­pre­ta­tions, in­clud­ing the Stones’ “Sat­is­fac­tion” and the Vel­vets’ “I Found A Rea­son” Maybe the in­ten­sity of the songs on Moon Pix was why I de­cided to do these cov­ers. There were some tu­mul­tuous times, tu­mul­tuous emotions, and I needed to move on. How did I pick these songs? Oh God. I knew I wanted to play these songs rather than Moon Pix songs. And that’s how The Cov­ers Record came about – I chose these songs be­cause that’s what I was play­ing on tour. About six months ear­lier Jim White had played me a cas­sette – “You don’t know this song? Oh my fuck­ing God, you’re fuck­ing shit­ting me…” So ‘click’, and [Nina Si­mone’s] “Wild Is The Wind”. Peo­ple talk about tak­ing heroin, like, “Oh, it’s eu­pho­ria…” But no, you have so much pain, you do heroin and you might be de­lud­ing your­self that you’re in eu­pho­ria, but you are in pain… Lis­ten­ing to that Nina Si­mone song was like that. She was giv­ing me eu­pho­ria for the pain her voice was re­mind­ing me that I shared. And it was the great­est gift ever – I’d never heard her be­fore. Greg Weeks asked if I’d do an in­ter­view and a record­ing in a stu­dio in New York, so when the en­gi­neer was set­ting up the mics I was play­ing around on the piano. I didn’t play piano, but at that record­ing I found a note that reg­is­tered, and I got some blue gaffer tape and I put it on the keys where my fingers sounded good. I was brain-sing­ing the song to my­self, then I go to the pink tape… “Could you please put the mi­cro­phone here, at the piano?” And that is “Wild Is The Wind”.


A more ro­bust al­bum, fea­tur­ing strings, drums from Dave Grohl and vo­cals from Ed­die Ved­der I did a shit­load of record­ings that I don’t know where they are. I recorded things like “Willie Dead­wilder” for this; it’s 18 min­utes or some­thing, but it wasn’t on this al­bum. I had Ed­die Ved­der and Dave Grohl on this, but I didn’t want to re­lease their names on the sleeve – I think the record la­bel did that, but they knew I didn’t want them men­tioned be­cause I didn’t want to bring at­ten­tion to it. I know that sounds strange. With Dave, I was like, “I’m sorry, can you go like this

[snare roll] for three and a half min­utes?” And he was like, “Fuck! Fuck!” while he was try­ing to do it! It was dif­fi­cult. There was im­pro­vi­sa­tion, too. With Ed­die, I must have ex­plained that that was how to sing the part on “Good Woman”. I reached out to Adam Kasper be­cause I needed an en­gi­neer, but he was a sweet man; he had a lot of knowl­edge, a lot of gear. He had ac­cess to a lot of record­ing stu­dios that I didn’t know about, so he’d be like, “What about this place?” So I was work­ing around his en­gi­neer­ing sched­ule. Good guy; hard-work­ing guy.


Full-on soul so­phis­ti­ca­tion with the Mem­phis Rhythm Band, led by gui­tarist Tee­nie Hodges I thought they’d just play along with me, like I’d al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced – but be­fore we recorded this al­bum, Tee­nie sat me down and said, “OK, I need you to play the song for me, and I’ve got a notepad. I’m gonna do the Nashville num­bers.” If I messed up, I had to start over! The drum­mer Steve Potts told me, “What you do is so sim­ple, it’s so dif­fi­cult.” I was like, “No, no, no, it’s not dif­fi­cult. Watch, I’ll do it again.” It’s fuck­ing el­e­men­tary mu­sic… From that, we did ac­tual re­hearsals, try­ing to con­vey to [en­gi­neer] Stu­art Sikes, “No, the sax and the trum­pet have to play at the same time, but they have to play cross­over notes” – be­cause I’m not a mu­si­cian, I don’t know keys and I don’t know notes and I don’t know chords, so I’m talk­ing to the mu­si­cians [sing­ing it], “I don’t know how to de­scribe it…” Be­cause I can’t speak mu­sic lan­guage. And then they did it – “See how easy that was?” Then we all flew to Tuc­son and re­hearsed in the the­atre the day be­fore the show. Ev­ery mu­si­cian who played on the record was

there. Re­hears­ing was fun, but then it came to the show, the first show of The Great­est al­bum, and the mo­ment when I re­alised I was look­ing at the au­di­ence for the first time in my life. I’d al­ways been look­ing at my gui­tar or my piano, so it was the first time I’d ever seen their faces look­ing at me, and I was sober. The song wasn’t in­ter­nalised any more, so that changed the ca­pac­ity at which I per­formed.


One of Mar­shall’s favourites, a cov­ers set recorded with her new Dirty Delta Blues Band This is the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been as a per­former. I’d never felt so much joy sing­ing songs be­fore. I was tour­ing The Great­est and Tee­nie be­came un­well, and I wasn’t go­ing to get a stand-in gui­tarist for Tee­nie Hodges, so the Mem­phis Rhythm Band had to end. So I asked Jim White and Ju­dah Bauer if they would be in­ter­ested in go­ing on tour and play­ing my Great­est songs. We had to re­hearse – but all we played was cover songs. That’s all we had. It was the funnest time I’ve ever had per­form­ing in my en­tire life, be­sides be­ing a kid and sing­ing alone or for my grandma. Per­for­mance-wise it had al­ways been, [an­grily] ‘The song, the song, the song’, but here I was so happy sing­ing these [other] songs, so I de­cided to record an­other cov­ers record with them. We recorded a lot in Mi­ami at this place called the Hit Fac­tory, where [Aretha Franklin’s] “Rock Steady” was recorded. They told me that Bob Dy­lan had worked in that room, so of course I asked one bil­lion ques­tions – he smokes Marl­boros, he wears a black hoodie… That’s why I chose to record in that room, all live. It was a re­ally great time in my life mu­si­cally. I’m in Mi­ami pri­mar­ily now. It is re­laxed, that’s why I chose it – it re­minds me of Man­hat­tan af­ter a nu­clear war. A min­imised de­gree of civil­i­sa­tion, but it has cos­mopoli­tan as­pects and dif­fer­ent de­mo­graph­ics, and a global gen­eral pub­lic. And the na­ture, which is five min­utes from my door. It’s re­ally im­por­tant when you travel to take care of your­self and find your space in na­ture.


Pushed to make a hit record, Mar­shall em­braces synths, drum ma­chines and se­ri­ous stress It’s a great record, I love it. I put so much work into it – if I needed to make a hit record, it had to be un­ortho­dox. I had to refuse my grav­i­ta­tion; I had to in­stinc­tu­ally move for­ward with some­thing else. Who­ever starts a song with the drums? A lot of fuck­ing peo­ple who make hits. So I started with drums, then I’d open a closet, “What’s in here?” Filled with dif­fer­ent syn­the­sis­ers. And I’d just pull them out, set them all up. “I’ve never heard this sound be­fore, let’s use this one.” Not hav­ing any fuck­ing idea what I was doing, but know­ing I had this in­tense pres­sure to de­liver. And I did it. But no­body re­ally knows this record – it did well in the charts, Top 10, but I never heard a damn word about it af­ter that. It was so un­ex­pected, I guess. But the synths were just a dif­fer­ent tool for me. I knew I had a shit­load of work to do to make a hit record – are you kid­ding me? I won­der if a math­e­ma­ti­cian has night­mares or dreams about all these num­bers that swirl like moun­tains around them – that’s how it felt to me, find­ing mo­ments that worked, and build­ing on them and con­tin­u­ing to build. I had made a hit record for Mata­dor with Sun, I did it my­self and it was Top 10, but my im­mune sys­tem was shat­tered. I was re­ally sick for a long time from all that stress and pres­sure.


Mar­shall re­turns to a folkier, more soul­ful style, col­lab­o­rat­ing with Lana Del Rey and Jim White and cov­er­ing Ri­hanna I moved to New York for five months with my lover, a short ro­mance, then we broke up. Then I found out I was preg­nant, and I had to fig­ure out if I was ready. It’s a lot to ask of a small crea­ture, to be born. So I chose to meet this lit­tle crea­ture and try my best. I started record­ing at this 1923 Span­ish house I was rent­ing in Mi­ami. When my son was born, it was ready to go. The in­tro to “Woman” was the first thing I wrote: “If I had a dime for ev­ery time you tell me I’m not what you need…” That’s how I was feel­ing at the time – but not with my son or my dogs or my gen­uine friends. Then my ex-la­bel said they needed the record, so I took the ma­te­rial to LA, to Rob Sch­napf. I asked for the fat­test woman’s vo­cal mic he had, turned off the lights, got some in­cense and can­dles and did a vo­cal and piano test, and that was “Stay”. That’s the per­for­mance you hear. The week be­fore, I’d been in a taxi and that song had come on – I know Ri­hanna, but when I heard this song I un­der­stood why a bil­lion peo­ple love her. I just started bawl­ing. Then we tried a vo­cal test a cap­pella, and that’s “Wan­derer”. When some­one passes, you’re here to deal with it in the best way that you can, for the rest of your life. That’s what that song is about. My ex-la­bel said, “This isn’t good, we need a hit record.” They wanted me to change it, but I didn’t want to, so that led me to Domino. They told me that they re­ally loved it. I had asked Susie Cave for a Vam­pire’s Wife dress to wear to a close friend’s memo­rial, and I was try­ing to take a pic­ture of the dress to see if it fit me cor­rectly, but my lit­tle boy crawled up to the mir­ror to play with me and grabbed the gui­tar next to it! Then Domino asked for the cover art – “Oh, there’s this pic­ture…” So I cropped it on the iPhone, chose the colour red and wrote ‘Wan­derer’ with my fin­ger. Wan­derer is out on Oc­to­ber 5 on Domino

“I made a hit record with Sun, but my im­mune sys­tem was shat­tered. I was re­ally sick for a long time”

“There were some tu­mul­tuous times”:Moon Pix era, 1998

The wan­derer re­turns: Power in 2018

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