Prior to the arrival of this year's polished and sweetly upbeat "The Greatest," listening to any one of Chan Marshall's six previous records required bracing yourself to get seriously bummed out -- though, if you were depressed already, well, you weren't likely to find more soulful solace anywhere.
Marshall, the itinerant chanteuse who performs under the name Cat Power, chalks up her Southern gothic sensibility to an unusual and unstable Southern childhood in the '70s. "Did I grow up eating government cheese? Yes," she said during a recent interview with Salon. "Did I go dumpster diving while my parents were at Charlie Daniels Band concerts? Yes. And did I grow up in the tobacco fields of North Carolina and in youth groups singing Christian hymns? Yes."
Marshall, 34, got her start as a singer touring and collaborating with giants of the indie rock genre. After moving to New York from Atlanta, she opened a few shows for Liz Phair in 1994, signed to Matador Records soon thereafter, made a bona fide indie classic when she paired up with Dirty Three's Jim White and Mick Turner in 1998 for "Moon Pix," and later recorded with Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl on 2003's more bombastic "You are Free." She became a critical favorite based on the strength of her recordings, and cultivated a cult following in spite of her legendarily unpredictable performances. In a 2004 New Yorker profile, the accompanying Richard Avedon photo revealed her for the helpless eccentric she is -- topless but hiding behind a Bob Dylan T-shirt, her jeans unbuttoned revealingly as if to say, There are still some taboos worth breaking here.
Her music inspires an intense, brooding intimacy, but listening to it at home is one thing and seeing her perform is another -- her notoriously spotty live shows have driven many fans to swear off seeing Cat Power altogether: "She's great. I love her. I can't ever see her again."
So when Marshall put on two sold-out, back-to-back knockout performances at New York's Irving Square Plaza in mid-September, it felt like a historic event, the triumphant turnaround that had long been hoped for. Finally, the Queen of Sadness seemed happy to be onstage and capable of delivering a performance that matched the nuance and depth of her recordings.
Predictably, some longtime Cat Power fans argued that the full-band production of "The Greatest" has taken away from her signature sound -- the album was recorded in Memphis with some of the original architects of the city's R&B sound -- but talking to Salon two days before the New York shows, Marshall largely credited her collaborators for her newfound confidence.
"They've been around the block quite a few times, have played with all these amazing people -- James Brown, Aretha Franklin -- and they have all these amazing stories," she said. "One of my favorite musicians of all time is Otis Redding, and to actually have somebody like Teenie [Hodges, the guitarist] who knew the guy -- all I can say is, good, good, good. Just to know that they survived that lifestyle, and that they're still, like, youthful in their hearts, and in their love for playing, just keeps me ... you know, it just opens a whole new idea of a life for me."
Marshall's made no secret of the fact that sobriety is a big part of this "whole new idea of a life, " though when she appeared onstage at the first of the Irving Plaza shows -- a verse late, lighted cigarette and coffee in hand -- it seemed for a moment like the old Cat Power had returned, and the audience's apprehension was palpable. But when the band launched into the title song from "The Greatest," an amazing thing happened -- the backup vocalist went ahead and sang the harmony line without her, and it was as though with that simple gesture she had given Marshall just the boost she needed to come out of herself. Marshall started out affecting cockiness -- gesticulating erratically, prancing and self-mockingly fluffing her breasts before she finally made her way to the microphone for a tentative finish. But by the time the band moved into "Living Proof," a song well suited to the lush instrumental accompaniment, Marshall's confidence was real, and she took a moment afterward to greet the audience with a broad smile and a Southern drawl that was not self-mocking at all: "Heyyyyy Y'all!"
Watching her newly discovered self-assurance onstage, it was hard to believe that just a few months ago, her label, Matador, was forced to cancel her scheduled tour due to her long-running battle with alcoholism. She says she quit drinking early this year, though, and has been mostly sober since (she admitted to having seven drinks in as many months in a recent New York Times interview). By talking about her alcoholism, it does seem as though Marshall is offering, if not an apology, at least an explanation to loyal fans.
And there was certainly a lot to explain. She often performed wasted, and yet she was still capable of captivating an audience. At one Knitting Factory show in 1999, she genuinely seemed to want the audience to know the full schedule for some great roller skating rink in the Bronx, telling them all the details: "Thursdays are Old Soul night -- that's the best night -- although they have a Friday night hip-hop night, and that's pretty fabulous, too..." It was partly nerves masquerading as stage patter, but it was almost maniacal, and like many other Cat Power shows of the pre-"Greatest" era, not a single song was sung in its entirety at the show.
At a show in New Orleans in 2004, Marshall at one point came down from the stage and curled up into a ball on the floor -- still singing something, not a song exactly, more like the dregs of a dirge -- and several fans gently reached their arms around her in a futile attempt to be consoling. "Oh, I remember that show," she says now. "God, was I depressed. I was having a really rough time at that time in my life. Things are a lot better now. I'm sober since February."
There are still some ghosts to exorcise, of course -- her recent show in Chicago did not, and perhaps could not, live up to the recent hype surrounding the new Cat Power. And when asked what her favorite song to perform is, she answers without hesitation, "I Don't Blame You."
"I'll never tell you what that song is about," she says, and then immediately starts to. "That feeling of not being understood, but supposedly being understood by everyone ... being inside of a spectacle, it's like being a prisoner of war. I don't know if that makes sense. It would be like being in an insane asylum, where you are who you are, and the only person you've ever been is yourself, but then they want you to be someone else.
"What it's about is very simple," she continues. "It's about someone who plays the guitar, but to me it signifies sort of Everyman's feeling. I just like it, because I can feel like that, like 'I didn't want to play this fucking song tonight,' and it can translate to the audience. There's a lyric in it, 'You never owed it to them, they never owned you anyway.' I like saying that to the audience.
"I like that I can look at them and say that to them. It makes me feel good about being a musician. Because maybe I didn't sound good that night, or maybe I didn't [sighs heavily] give a good performance. But at least I was able to look at the 14-year-old kid and maybe somewhere it resonated -- maybe that kid got the words, that nobody owns me.
"A lot of people think my music is sad. It's not sad, it's triumphant. I'm triumphant," Marshall says. "If people can be open enough with themselves to be creative and let things like that come out, you know, allow themselves to feel things enough to be that honest with themselves -- I feel like that's really positive. Even though that might sound sad."
Marshall has a tomboy's troubled attitude toward being beautiful. When during the Irving Plaza show she did another mock fluffing of her cleavage, she excused her antics by saying, "We all try, right?" When the audience laughed appreciatively, it was the cue she was hoping for: "Guys don't have to try, and it pisses me off. But we all have to wear perfume and makeup, because we stink and we're ugly, right?" It was an effective device, comic relief from the gravitas that would immediately follow as she sat down at the piano to play a heartbreakingly beautiful solo, Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind."
Asked about whether all of her songs are about love, she offers some insights into her writing process.
"All creativity comes from a place in everyone where we don't have love," says Marshall. "The people that love to receive that creativity -- listen to it, feel it, interpret it -- it comes from the same place. I've felt that for about 15 years, that the space where love is, that's where creativity comes in. It's creating -- creating is from love. People say that sex isn't love, but it sure as hell feels like it, right?"
In the song "Good Woman" from "You Are Free," Marshall expresses all of the humility of heartbreak without a trace of hardness:
I will miss your heart so tender
And I will love this love forever.
This is why I am lying when I say
That I don't love you no more.
As if no adult could possibly project such innocence, she's backed up by two little girls on vocals.
"I had just been with someone I'd known since I was 18, and I was deeply in love with him for a long time, and I was just sad, you know, and I couldn't do it anymore," Marshall says, explaining the song's origin. "I was sad. I was all the way across the world, calling him -- two friends of ours had just passed away in Atlanta, and I was just really sad. He was an alcoholic -- he's now since sober, has a family -- but he couldn't love me in that state. I don't know. He was a drunk. He loved me, but he couldn't find the responsibility to respect me the way I needed to be respected -- I mean, it was just half-steps and backslides all the time. It wasn't like he was mean or hurtful. He was a really big part of my life. I couldn't be angry with him, but I needed to move on, you know what I mean? I just had to move on."
She's moved on in other ways, too. During the best moments of the Irving Plaza show, it sounded less like Marshall was carrying a tune than riding one, at times getting tugged away by subtle melodic nuances as though at any moment she might be swept away onto another song entirely. Her guitar solo of "Love and Communication," for instance, sounded at one point like it might become Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." She can also take a song you've heard literally a thousand times before and make it sound totally new -- a feat she pulled off with a heart-wrenching cover of "Rising Sun," another version of which was released on a four-song live EP. She made it her own by switching up the lyrics slightly to more closely match recent history:
My mother was no tailor
She stole my everything
My father was a music man
Do you really know what that really means?
There are many houses in New Orleans
We call the rising sun
It's been a life of sin and misery
Oh god, I am done
She took off a pair of pumps she'd put on during an earlier song and played air drums with them before bowling them off the stage while moving into an encore of "Satisfaction." On the recorded version of "Satisfaction," in a voice that sounds certain of failure, Marshall trails off while repeating the refrain "I'm trying, I'm trying..." During the Irving Plaza show, the words became the chant of someone who was actually enjoying the work, a cheerleader on a chain gang. That night, Marshall actually sang the refrain, "I can't get no satisfaction," which was funny both for being so raucous, and because it seemed so obvious that she finally has.