“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!
WHAT WOULD THE COMMUNITY THINK MATADOR, 1996
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!
MOON PIX MATADOR, 1998
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!”
THE COVERS RECORD MATADOR, 2000
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”.
YOU ARE FREE MATADOR, 2003
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.
THE GREATEST MATADOR, 2006
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.
JUKEBOX MATADOR, 2008
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.
SUN MATADOR, 2012
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.
WANDERER DOMINO, 2018
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