It's 11 a.m. in Hollywood, California, and Chan Marshall awakens to the ringing of her hotel room's phone. "I'm sorry, but could you call back in five minutes?" Her voice is husky, a fragile, honeyed rasp. "I have to go the bathroom."
Five minutes later, she picks up the phone again and apologizes. "I'm totally dehydrated from drinking too many beers at the concerto last night," she says, laughing. She sounds surprisingly cheerful for a hung-over woman who's just been jolted into consciousness by a total stranger.
And surprisingly cheerful for a woman who, as indie bum-out queen Cat Power, is famous -- or infamous -- for her relentlessly morose songs and her frequent onstage meltdowns. After eight years and six albums, is she finding it any easier to be a performer? "Yes, definitely," she says. "Now that I'm 31, a little older and bolder, I kind of don't care anymore." She giggles softly.
She might be exaggerating a tad, or maybe it's wishful thinking. Her new album, You Are Free (Matador), is her first set of original material since 1998's critical fave Moon Pix. In 2000 she put out The Covers Record, which was supposed to immediately precede her next CD, and then she didn't release anything for nearly three years. "It's because I'm a procrastinator," Marshall admits. "I'm, like, with my boyfriend or with my friends, or I'm in Paris, or I'm going to Mexico, or I'm hanging out with my sister. I know records are a good thing, just like swimming in the ocean is a good thing, but I don't think it's the most important thing in the world. I don't think swimming in the ocean is the most important thing in the world, and I don't think buying or making CDs is the most important thing in the world, so I don't push for it at all, you know?"
Marshall (whose first name is pronounced "Shawn" and is short for Charlyn) speaks in a stream-of-consciousness torrent, stumbling and starting again, backing up, trailing off, editing herself. She makes up words -- "fortunacy" -- and ends most of her sentences with a question. It's both flattering and disconcerting, how much trouble she takes to say exactly what she means, and even though she has a dreary morning of twenty-minute phone interviews ahead of her, she doesn't sound as if she's reciting a litany of snappy, article-ready blurbs. Somehow she comes off as both shy and candid, both guarded and personable. Is she putting you on, distracting you with her childlike charm? Is she really guileless, as her friend and fan the writer Richard Meltzer maintains, or is she slipping into a persona, the way Dylan inhabited a self-made myth? You'll never know for sure, but, try as you might, you just can't convince yourself that she's not for real.
Her music has the same effect. Like its predecessors, You Are Free traffics in uneasy juxtapositions, the tension between private and public expression, between self-protection and self-revelation. On the opening track, "I Don't Blame You," Marshall could be singing to Kurt Cobain, as some have speculated, or she could be singing to herself: "You were swinging your guitar around/Cuz they wanted to hear that sound/That you didn't want to play/I don't blame you." The song ends with the lines "What a sad trick you thought/That you had to play/...They never owned it/And you never owed it to them anyway." Marshall's voice, a tremulous tomboy scrape, sounds naked against the bare accompaniment.
With sporadic backing support from Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder and other sympathetic friends, Marshall invests these lucid, minimalist hymns with a haunting force. The fourteen songs reverberate against one another, refracting the theme of escape from every angle -- as loss, as transcendence, as death, as release -- and refusing to console or concede. These aren't so much compositions as incantations, and you get the sense, listening to them, that you're eavesdropping on someone's soul.
It's no surprise that Cat Power records are so long in the making. Marshall, who readily admits that she knows only one formal guitar chord, doesn't believe in the adage about inspiration being nine-tenths perspiration; she waits until the songs possess her somehow. "I never practice," she says. "If I'm feeling a mood, like a sexy mood or a doubtful mood or a worried mood or a happy mood or an angry mood, any strong-feeling mood, and I'm on my own or it's raining outside or I don't have any money or something's going on, I'll be like, 'Oh, I have to play guitar.' Just reach over, you don't have to plug it in, it's just right there -- instant, instant. It's not a distraction, but it's an instant motion, it's like a craze -- I don't know what it is. It's like an instant action, and it inspires colors and images and memories and relaxation meditatively or something. All the songs I have are written that way.
"There's no formula," she continues. "I just don't want to mess up the song. I might be, like, 'Can I go into your living room and play your piano?' I'll go in there and play piano, and that moment in time is where I write the song. And I'll play it maybe ten times and kind of train it into my memory, and the perfectionism comes from not wanting to change the initial melody, the initial words, everything that came out of that moment in time."
Once the moment's passed, it's over. She doesn't like to listen to her back catalog, and it's difficult for her to perform a song if she's not in the right frame of mind. "I feel, I guess, embarrassed," she says after a long pause. "Different things in my life were really difficult, as they are for everybody in those ages. The drug thing, the sexuality thing, men, boys. I don't know: Society. Feeling like a complete outsider. But then going to shows, seeing all these people at a Jesus Lizard show and not knowing any of them, and then going to another show, like the Peter Jefferies show at the old Knitting Factory, and seeing the same people there, and realizing that there's just this whole communion of people, not only in New York City but all over the fucking world who have this connection through similar music.
"But no," she concludes thoughtfully. "I don't listen to my old music because I've either regressed or grown; I've either gotten stupider or much more stupider, I don't know."
Asked whether Cat Power is a pseudonym or an alter-ego, Marshall seems indecisive. "Let me think. An alter-ego is like Clark Kent and Superman, right? No, I don't think so. I do like to have that sort of -- I know it sounds insane -- but I like to keep Cat Power because it creates not an alter-ego, because I feel like I'm the same person, but for me, for my mental, whatever, problem, it makes me feel like I have some anonymity within."
She hesitates for a few seconds. "It's almost like a joke, kind of."
For Marshall, making music isn't a joke, strictly speaking, but it's far from the most important part of her life. On the highlight of Moon Pix, a delicate dirge called "Colors and the Kids," she sings, "Must be the colors and the kids/That keep me alive/Because the music is boring me to death." Tellingly, it's when she talks about children that she sounds most engaged and passionate. "I've always loved kids," she says. "I think the way I grew up was really harsh -- not harsh, but like I didn't feel like I could be a little kid. My parents were kind of rough people. I'd love to be a mother and knit sweaters and pack school lunches and talk about fairy tales, but I don't know. I think it's just my woman-nature to be... I don't know.
"Michael Jackson is completely insane, but one thing he said that makes perfect sense to me is, 'If all the children were dead tomorrow, I'd jump out the window.' Sometimes I get really depressed -- say something happens in my life and I feel like everything around me is falling apart. Then I think of my niece and nephew, and I feel like such a fucking asshole for feeling so doomed and letting it spiral me down and wanting to jump out of a window or something. I'm Aunt Channy, and I know that if I gave up on myself, if I became a drug addict or committed suicide or whatever, I know that would be just one more thing in their life that would fuck up any kind of proof that you can survive."