Chan Marshall, the singer-songwriter who performs and records under the name Cat Power, feels your pain. I'm not sure she wants to, but she can't help it. Whether you're a crying fan who wants nothing more than a one-on-one with her after the show or a hungry kid whose parents can't put food on the table, your suffering is sending agonizing quivers up and down Marshall's ultra-sensitive antennae. That much became clear during my hour-plus conversation with Marshall, whose excellent new album, "Sun" (Matador Records), is out today. I planned to talk to her about our mutual musical obsession -- Bob Dylan -- and her recent breakup with the actor Giovanni Ribisi. (He ended their relationship in March and married the model Agyness Deyn two months later.) But Marshall, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972 and had a childhood marked by poverty and serial relocations, steered the conversation again and again to the suffering of others: Katrina victims, teenage girls who are raped by their stepfathers, fans who feel cheated when their heroes can't be bothered to sign autographs.
"Everybody tends to think I'm crazy, which is the biggest problem in my life," she told me, and she wasn't just spouting rock-star hyperbole. She was once infamous for abruptly ending concerts because of real or perceived problems, and she has spoken candidly about the in-patient care she received after suffering a breakdown in 2006. After that scare, she quit drinking and discovered a new on-stage persona -- instead of strumming a guitar and looking like she'd rather be getting a root canal, she strutted around the stage making love to the microphone, Mick Jagger-style. But there's still something that sets her apart from you and me. It may sound cliché to say she cares too much -- and if there's one thing Marshall hates, it's clichés -- but it explains a lot: why she feels so low after seemingly successful shows; why she quit music for eight months and started again from scratch after a friend pooh-poohed the first batch of songs she'd written for "Sun"; why she has nothing for admiration for Kanye West's decision to call out George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. These days, Marshall is feeling independent and strong -- capable of handling any personal challenges that come her way -- and her music, consequently, is moving away from confessional laments and toward a spirited social critique, especially on the first single, "Ruin," which was released on June 18.
All of which sounds terribly serious, but the truth is that Chan (it's pronounced like "Sean") Marshall was a delight to speak to -- playful, engaged and uncommonly open. Read on for an edited account of our conversation.
Michael Hogan: We met briefly at Matador Records' 21st-anniversary party in Las Vegas two years ago. I'd just seen you play and told you you were great, and you said, "Oh, God, for me it's just like washing the dishes." Do you always feel that way about performing?
Chan Marshall: That's a terrible thing for me to say, but probably I said that because I had a bad time. You ever wash dishes for a job?
I've waited tables. I never did wash dishes.
So sometimes you really wish you could be doing what you really wish you were doing, but when you don't do a good job -- when you do a shitty job -- you're aware of it, you know? I mean, everybody kinda knows that.
So some shows are great and some are not so great?
I wouldn't say some shows are great. I'd say on a scale of 1 to 10, there's like a couple shows that make it worth all the struggles, all the other fuckin' shows. It's like, Oh, I see, the universe is like completely relaxed for these 22 minutes. And that makes everything seem worthwhile, to keep looking for that journey again.
That night, you played one of my favorite songs of yours, "Song for Bobby," about Bob Dylan. What does he mean to you as an artist?
Who, you mean God Dylan? I'm not sure how to put it in words. But I kinda just did.
One thing I think that's interesting about Bob Dylan is that he doesn't play an oldies set. He plays the songs differently every time. He's always chasing that magic. Do you feel like you try to do that too?
Well, I think with someone who -- I don't want to say something stupid like "believes in what they're saying." That sounds really stupid. Someone who means what they say? He's been doing this how many years? Forty? Or more? So he always plays a lot of the oldies completely different. I believe in that as well. And I try to explain that and talk about it with friends. I haven't actually met anybody, besides actually witnessing him do it, that has the same vibe about the song. About how, yeah, you record it, but if you stay alive and you keep playing it, the song is always alive too. And with a life, a life always changes, or goes through changes, and the person singing the song also goes through changes and stuff. I wish I'd said that more interestingly.
No, I know what you mean. And I feel like in the covers that you've done, you've been able to transform those songs --
Well, here's the thing about that: even with classical music hundreds of years ago, people always played covers. From folk to tribal to Cab Calloway, Cole Porter, Gershwin to the Rolling Stones, whose first record was all covers, to country-western, bebop, blues, and even the referencing in classic hip hop to clichéd love ballads of the 80s or whatever -- that is kinda gone, and that's just terrifying to me. My last album was [the 2008 covers collection] "Jukebox," and I don't understand why everyone's like, "Your last album ["The Greatest," which featured all original songs] was six years ago, and what took you so long?" It's like, Well, I busted my ass recording and touring a record called "Jukebox," and I've never been happier recording a record or playing a record before. But it's an inexcusable thing these days.
Did Frank Sinatra ever write a song himself?
He didn't write "It Was a Very Good Year"? I thought he wrote that. That's my favorite Sinatra song.
I'm going to Google that right now.
Google it. Google it and let me know.
Nope, "song composed by Ervin Drake, 1962."
See? Thank you. I appreciate that. My next cover record is going to be "Blood on the Tracks." I'm hoping that I can get the rights through Bob Dylan so I can just sing over the top of his recording and re-release the album with my voice on it.
You should do it as a mixtape.
Oh, you mean like "The Grey Album"?
I'll do it tonight. But I gave away my laptop, because I fuckin' hate those fuckin' things. I'll do "Blood on the Tracks" soon. Oh, and the other one I want to do is "The Harder They Come." But I'd have to get other people to sing it with me.
That would be a real rights nightmare.
What do you think of Kanye's new song, "New God Flow"? "I believe there's a god above me. I'm just the god of everything else." So good!
You're a Kanye West fan, aren't you?
I think he's incredibly brave. And I think we all go through shit, and maybe he was partying a little too hard when Taylor Swift won that award or whatever, and we all make mistakes. But I think that New Orleans Katrina thing -- I was watching that live, and I still feel the same way that I felt when I saw him say that. Proud that somebody had the mic on TV to say something. Because the whole world was watching and waiting for seven days. And there's so much shame -- I think so many Americans are ashamed of themselves because of the government's reaction, and I think Kanye was just emotionally bound in that moment. We all were, I think.
He is incredibly brave, it's true. He puts it all out there. Sometimes I think, God, this guy really hates himself.
You think? I'm actually worried about him. He can be incredibly dark.
But it makes me like him more. I feel like he's so much more interesting on [his 2011 album with Jay-Z] "Watch the Throne." Jay-Z's just too happy now. He's not saying anything interesting anymore.
It's too easy to say shit like that about somebody like that. I think Jay-Z's ballgame is very different from Kanye's. Kanye is a producer going to a vocalist, and I think Jay is a vocalist going to a head of black music, going to straight-up business man, and one of the few responsible for the basically the renovation of Brooklyn. I just think that it's not even interesting to say something like that about Jay-Z.
Is there a Jay-Z song that you would ever cover?
Yeah, it's called "My First Song." It's the fourteenth song on "The Black Album."
Have you ever done it live?
No, I haven't covered it yet. I was covering "Things Done Changed" by Biggie Smalls and then I edited it down into a loop, and then I wrote my lyrics over it, sang my lyrics over it. It's called "Back in the Days" and it's a seven-inch [as well as an iTunes-only bonus track for the new album].
Well, let me ask you this, because I feel like maybe I struck a nerve with my Jay-Z remark. Do you get annoyed when people want you to be sad? NPR called you "indie rock's standard bearer for melancholy navel gazing." Does that piss you off?
I mean, that sounds kind of angry or … "pity pity." Pity isn't love. So if someone's appointing me the head of pity -- I'm sure that isn't what they meant, because I respect NPR incredibly.
Well, they went on to say that this is your best album and praise it through the roof. They were saying that some people think of you as this icon of melancholy, and that this album is really a departure and different from earlier stuff. Do you think it's different from earlier stuff?
Well, I think I'm different than earlier stuff. I think, as a 40-year-old woman, I'm finally -- not finally, but I'm looking forward to 42, 49, 55, 68. I'm actually looking forward to not just surviving anymore. Yeah, there's bad news and things, you know. There's a lot of bad news in reality, but I'm me and I have my life and if I can talk about the news when I have the chance, to help or do something in the moment I have a microphone or something ... Like Pussy Riot -- I wish that I was as rich as Oprah so I could fly 5 million women from all over the world [to Russia]. If I were Oprah, I'd be like, "We're gonna do a show. I'm gonna fly 5 million people to [Russia] and we're gonna go to jail. We're gonna go on a trip. We're gonna go to jail!" To show solidarity.
So as you get older, do you feel like you're more in control? Like you have more power?
No, no, no, it's not about being in control or having power. It's about realizing that I have a choice in what I feel. Like today, I was feeling really, like, What's going on? And then I realized it's the moon. There's a full moon tonight. And so in my heart I was like, No, it's because there's something wrong! And then I was like, No, I'm gonna choose to think, "It's the full moon, dummy." So am I different from that person [who recorded the earlier albums]? I just feel like I've learned that when a challenge presents itself, it may be difficult or look like a piece of shit or whatever, but I have to figure out a way to remember that I'm a determined -- I'm just a human. I'm just determined. We all go through the same shit. OK, so let's go through the shit a little bit. And then you'll be done with the shit, OK? Not to let it hold me down or overwhelm, not to pile on top of other shit or the memories. I can't do anything about the past or a lot of times the present, but that's that.
I know you've been through a breakup recently. And Nils [Bernstein, head of publicity for Matador Records] told me strictly that this is not a breakup album, but do you think the album is reflecting things that were happening in your life?
This breakup has been real liberating, and I'm thankful. "Liberating" is so cliché, but feeling like a failure -- you know, "Oh, fuck, I thought I was gonna be a mother," because I don't know how many chances of real love I will have, to get that picture-portrait Disney wonderful family, beautiful children. That failure is physical as well as psychological, mental, but the thing about the spiritual thing is I am still the same spirit or whatever, and what I have noticed recently is I have been finding a lot of parts of me that have been like memories and sort of similar feelings to when I was like six and five and four. You know, just completely on my own. It's almost put me closer to who I organically originally was. You know, when you feel that level of failure, it hurts, you know, and there's just like a death that occurs there.
It's mourning. It's grief.
Yeah. So this time, it did something different to me. It's almost like a dream -- a real beautiful dream that had nothing to do with that previous picture. I felt something I've never felt before which was independence, and I've never felt that feeling since I was like, you know, two, three, four, five, six.
You feel independent now for the first time since you were a kid?
Yeah, it reminds me of this place in me that is still innocent. It reminds me of a place in me that's just happy and that's it, you know? I'm not gonna carry somebody else's fucking bullshit and protect them through it so they don't have a temper, so I don't have to see the ugly parts of them. I'm not gonna protect myself from my own anger when someone hurts me or betrays me. I'm gonna not put myself in a position like that again. And I think because my dad wasn't around a lot when I was growing up, as a woman I have been drawn to a certain type of relationship with men. Unavailable men. So when you talk about the record, does it reflect your relationship na na na? No. Because when I was recording the record, there was no death in my relationship. There was fortitude and the possibility of all kinds of things that could happen and do happen in the world all the time that we can't help but wonder about or process or work through on our own time, no matter who we're married to, dating, got our heart broken by or pining for. There's a deeper part of me that is involved with this world and universe that I'm related to, and I don't think the relationship will ever kill or fill that space.
Did you just say "Duuuuuude"?
I thought you just said, "Duuuuuude." And I would have loved it if you had.
I wish I had. Can I go back and say, "Duuuuuude"?
I think I was born on an acid trip.
So the new album, was it important to you to do it all yourself?
Yeah, because I'd been on tour for a long time with the Dirty Delta Blues Band [her backing band on "Jukebox"] and not playing an instrument. I didn't like that I wasn't playing music anymore, and I really wanted to. And a lot of times I have these little things that I do over and over and over, these little musical tricks or whatever, that I just play to calm down. And I realized that I'd been playing the same little tricks and things for way too long. That I hadn't made any new ones. And then I knew that something was wrong, that I hadn't really challenged myself.
So that's when you started playing with synthesizers?
Well, that happened because I had gone into the studio in Silver Lake at The Boat and I wrote all these songs and then I let my friend hear them four years ago and he said they were really depressing, and that made me really depressed, and so I didn't work for about eight months. And then I went back and I made a promise not to touch a guitar or a piano, and the only other things at The Boat were the synthesizers, keyboards and drum sets. And that's where "Sun" came from. That's where the sound came from.
How do you write lyrics? Do you write them with a melody in mind?
Usually, I'll just sit down at a piano or with a guitar, and I'll just be relaxed and playing music. Because that's what relaxes your subconscious. That's why everyone from animals to humans love music. They also say that if you play classical music for your plants, it helps or some shit. It relaxes my frontal lobe and kind of opens my subconscious, and the melody's in my head and the words come out of my mouth.
So you improvise the lyrics in the studio?
That's right. Absolutely. That's the thing people misconceive about all art, in my opinion, from writing to photography to everything. I find that everything is gut-related and instinctual. Like, maybe [Jackson] Pollock, maybe he never spilled paint before. Maybe he walked across the floor, and when he walked he drug some paint onto his floor. Maybe he had been painting for a long time on the wall these little paintings of eggplants and posturing portraits, and then maybe he looked down one day for some reason -- maybe he fell down, broke his nose, and he saw that this beautiful thing on the ground, which was all this fuckin' mess, somehow was more beautiful than any contrived articulation or whatever. I firmly believe that the first step is the best step. Because it's all we do in life. As we get older, we've been trained and reined in, so we don't go forward on an individual level, and I think that our first creative physical action, in my opinion, is the one we should pay attention to. For instance, this album, everything I did was what they call "rough tracks," in the lingo of recording people. They call them "rough" or "scratch tracks." Rough mixes, scratch vocals, scratch guitar, whatever. And every single thing I did on this record is a scratch rough.
The final cuts are all rough tracks?
That's right. And that's the way I've always worked.
Wow. Just like Bob Dylan.
Well, that's what I always thought, until Judah Bauer [of The Dirty Delta Blues Band and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion] told me, "You didn't read that fuckin' book, man? He did 43 fucking takes on that song."
On the song "Ruin," there's a very strong line where you sing, "Bitching, complaining, when some people ain't got shit to eat.... What are we doing? We're sitting on a ruin." I know you were living in L.A. when you recorded the album. Is that a reaction to the Hollywood scene?
No, it's a reaction to understanding, feeling, seeing, knowing, hearing, dreaming, reading, watching, waiting, witnessing the reality of the harm that humans have implemented on civilization after civilization. And the lack of memory and responsibility that the nation's leaders have. I'm not trying to be an asshole, and I'm not trying to sound self-righteous. "Well, you go fix the problem." OK, make me the president of the United States, give me $100 billion and fuckin' 10 armies and I'll be the president of the United States and bust my ass and protect all the people who need protection and rights and food and shelter and dignity and what the fuck ever. Yeah, so that song is basically about the lack of responsbility that the world's leaders have, but closer to your front door is the lack of responsibility that maybe parents have with their children. Selling your kid so you can get high or fucking your step-daughter so you can not work out your sexual problems. And you'd think that with all that psychology and all that religion and all those politics and [puts on an exaggerated Southern accent] technological age, [politicians] would figure out how to actually speak without lying when they're standing up in front of the TV and getting votes from people. That they'd actually know how to speak directly, no fuckin' cue card, and say, Well, how about this? And actually keep their word.
Unfortunately, it breaks my heart that I can't keep my word. I am human and I make mistakes. And after a show, I know that the four girls who drove all the way from fuckin' 700 miles away and are crying on stage are like, "Please, we just want to meet you." But what they don't understand is that I haven't slept in four days, and I haven't eaten and I've beeen trying to do this and I've been trying to do that. And it's hard to walk away from those four girls, and ignore them or to just smile at them, like, "Oof, let me just do this and let it be enough." And it's not. So I make mistakes all the time and I know that I'm making them --
You really feel guilty about that?
Are you crazy?
It would be nice if they could meet you, but they got to see a show. [Meeting them is] not an obligation of yours.
That's what my friends say. My friends always say, "Chan, you gave them a show." But you know how in life you have, like, Frida Kahlo paintings? And imagine, like, with a time machine -- "Here's a time machine, $100,000." So you save up your money, save up your money, and you buy a ticket for the time machine. "Where do you want to go?" I want to go to 1938. I want to go to Mexico City. I want to go to Frida Kahlo's house. And there you are in front of Frida Kahlo's house and you're waiting and you're waiting and you're waiting, and you only have like three hours, and then you finally get your chance. There she is! She comes out to get her mail. There she is: Frida! And she just looks at you and bunches her eyebrows together and she slams the door and you hear the door lock.
OK, but these people aren't paying $100,000 and taking a time machine to see you. They just took a drive.
Dude, have you ever been 14 years old and have you ever tried -- you don't get an allowance. How are you going to get money?
Well, I think it's nice that you are --
It would kill me. It would kill me. I would be banging on that door. All my material parts would disintegrate because I wouldn't make it in time.
Let me ask you this: Have you met Bob Dylan?
Yes, a week before I wrote "Song to Bobby." That's why I wrote the song. Closed my laptop when I got the email. Judah Bauer was sitting there playing "Buckets of Rain" and I was responding to an email about meeting Bob Dylan in Paris seven days later at a show. [We were in] Miami during the recording of Jukebox. And I closed my computer and I said, "I'm meeting Bob in a fuckin' week." And that's when I said to Stuart [Sikes, Marshall's engineer], "Give me that mic and can you start rolling?"
And you started singing the song?
Yeah, I had a notebook in front of me, because I was just riffing. And we did, I guess, two takes. And then I got to meet him.
And what happened when you met him?
I'm not going to tell you the story. I'm only gonna tell you one thing, because it's my special -- it's my special, you know? So I've been trying to go on tour with him for 16, 17 years. And my booking agent would call his manager and be like, "You know, I see that Bob is playing here in Connecticut and he's playing Iceland and Australia and Nevada." And every year: "Can Chan get on that bill? Can Chan get on that bill?" And by the end of it, I'd be like, "Can you book me in the grocery store parking lot across from the venue where he's playing?" Everybody tends to think I'm crazy, which is the biggest problem in my life, and that has always been the most painful part of growing up, and being a young woman and working really hard and being such a fuckin' hard worker. And nobody knows that about me. Even when I was a little kid, everyone just thought I was crazy. Because I loved making people laugh, so everyone would just be like, "You're crazy."
But anyway, I met him at a big arena in Paris in April, a week later, and I"m not going to tell you the first thing he said. I'm not going to tell you who I was with. And the second thing he said was, "I've got all your calls."
Do you remember the first story I told you about him?
That you were calling, trying to get to play with him.
Right. I wasn't, my booking agent was.
Ha. "I've got all your calls." And then he didn't say anything beyond that?
No, he said something before that, after that and for a while after that.
Oh, OK. You really talked to him. You had a real talk.
Are you crazy? You think I'm gonna shut down around Bob Dylan? Crazy.
Matador Records released "Sun" by Cat Power today.