FOREWORD: Both times I caught Cat Power’s solo act, she appeared just a touch psychotic and overwhelmed. But she never freaked out and left the stage (as she’d done in a few well-documented incidents). It turns out Cat Power suffered from a nasty drinking problem. Yet no one could take away the fact that when she truly gets lost inside her dark abstract music, Cat Power’s 100% irresistible.
After opening for Liz Phair in ’94, a fortuitous meeting with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley led to a musical partnership that produced ‘95s under-acknowledged Dear Sir and ‘96s starkly endearing Myra Lee. ‘96s What Would The Community Think kept the ball rolling for ‘98s Moon Pix, which I promoted with the following piece.
Temporarily controlling her alcohol plight, Cat Power felt empowered to make ’03 inspirational reflection, You Are Free. Then she partnered with Al Green guitarist Teenie Hodges for ‘06s monumental The Greatest, reaching a larger conventional audience. But she slipped into depression and suffered from mental exhaustion and that left her weakened. However, after she snapped out of it, another decent ‘covers’ album, Jukebox, arrived in ’08. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Over the course of four albums, shadowy singer-guitarist Chan Marshall (a.k.a Cat Power) has sculpted desolate, abstract, minor key trinkets that linger in the still air with the restive allure formless post-prog minimalists Slint, Rodan, and to a lesser extent, the Spinanes, also embraced.
Marshall’s voice has a delicate, cracked charm, giving the mysterious laments on Moon Pix, her latest offering, a hazy vulnerability and dry sadness. It’s also her first recording with Dirty Three’s Mick Turner (guitar) and Jim White (drums), whose neo-Classical ethereality adds a deeper emotional resonance.
Hiding under the Cat Power guise, Marshall sculpts beautifully somber textural designs for her depressive articulations. Backward guitar loops reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced hover over Marshall’s flailing sentiments on the faded “American Flag.” Drifting flute cuts through her grief-stricken moans on the dire contemplation, “He Turns Down.” Lumbering acoustic lullaby, “No Sense,” and guitar-etched dirge, “You May Know Him,” reek of hopeless destitution. Ominous thundewr, gentle acoustics, and hypnotic lyrics give say a transcendental feel.
When speaking to the inquisitive Marshall about her intense muse, cutting to the chase sometimes becomes a difficult task. I think she’s more interested in talking about my kids, my softball team, and our mutual love of dogs rather than her latest album. But she does have a self-effacing charm and sly sense of humor that is completely endearing. As she waits for a train to pick her up in Germany, she’s confronted with a bottle of apple juice she purchased which has a pubic hair hanging off it. Such is life for her irony-teased Cat Power persona as well.
When I saw you play the Cooler in ’95, you barley looked out at the audience. Have you worked on stage presence and become more comfortable?
CAT POWER: I’m not much of an entertainer. The pretentiousness of being on stage and having people look at me is tough. But in my personal life, I feel more comfortable.
Does the longing and despair projected in your songs come from pain experienced in everyday life?
CAT POWER: Yeah. Many of my songs are observations of society or memories I have, but not always. “No Sense” is about being friends with a guy and playing music together. We enjoyed the fact we didn’t have to have sex to be friends.
Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Two Dollars’ Tim Foljahn played on past albums. How do Australian musicians Jim White and Mick Turner differ as studio partners?
CAT POWER: The difference is they play differently and make different sounds work. I admire the way Jim and Mick interact with each other in their own band. And I care about them as people. They’re interested in what I do musically. There’s a looseness they provide.
How’d you hook up with them?
CAT POWER: I met them in Boston a couple years ago.
Are most of your songs improvised or firmly constructed?
CAT POWER: In the past, they were only known to me. I haven’t ever had band practice or trained skills. The songs are only in my little world, and when I go on tour, the band plays every night and the songs get a rounder sound. When I was in Australia, I was running around for two months. Then we sat around for an hour-and-a-half and put the songs down.
Who were some of your early influences?
CAT POWER: John Coltrane. Saturday Night Live. Redd Foxx. I don’t know. (laughter)
Are you into free Jazz? Your best arrangements seem unstructured at times.
CAT POWER: That’s sweet. That’s a compliment. I don’t feel closely related to it at all because of my lack of technology. Jazz artists know their instruments completely. I like the freedom of Jazz, but feel sad about the over-intellectualism it resonates because it seems exclusive. Jazz and blues are better understood by the pulse of those strict listeners. The problem with Jazz is there are no hymns to it. The difference between blues and Jazz is that there aren’t any role models making hymns. But the hippie revolution of the ‘60s seemed hymn-oriented.
Your song, “Metal Heart,” has a hymn-like quality. Its lyrics ‘once was lost but now am found’ touch on spirituality.
CAT POWER: That came to me 5:30 in the morning and I had a nightmare about the devil calling me to meet in the fields behind my South Carolina house. So that’s when I woke up and wrote that song.
Your father was a musician. What common traits do you share with him?
CAT POWER: We both write our own songs and were born in the winter. And we’re always single. We’re both playboys, I guess. But I have no skills at playing the guitar, so I just do what is elementary. Oh, I gotta go, my train is arriving.