Cat Power: Undefeated

Music Features Cat Power

The centerpiece of Cat Power’s new album Sun, is the epic, 11-minute anthem “Nothin’ but Time.” It begins with the buzzing sustain of a synthesizer chord before adding a clanging, glam-rock piano figure; the drum machine does a quick stutter-step, and suddenly there it is: Chan Marshall’s warm, whispery alto, a voice that seems to be coming from the edge of the world, a voice that manages to sound wounded but undefeated. That seductive sound makes us forgive her long absences, her tabloid break-ups and breakdowns, her willful eccentricities. We’ll forgive anything if we can once again hear that voice sounding so lost it will never find its way back home—though it seems determined to do just that.

Most of what’s written about Marshall—the celebrity friends and boyfriends, the hospital stay, the drinking, the erratic live shows, the non-sequitur lyrics—wouldn’t matter at all if she didn’t possess one of her generation’s most mesmerizing voices. It’s not important what her singing tells us about her personal life—which is no different, really, than the personal lives of thousands of troubled Americans, no matter what journalists imply. What’s important is the light her life story sheds on that sound she makes when she opens her mouth.

In “Nothin’ but Time,” she’s dispensing the kind of advice, “It’s up to you to be a superhero; it’s up to you to be like nobody,” that nobody listens to, because we’ve heard the same platitudes from family members, school friends and work colleagues a million times before. But for some reason we listen to Marshall. Maybe it’s because the piano figure and slo-mo drum loop are so hypnotic; maybe it’s because the melody rises and falls like the lapping waves that lull you into a receptive state.

Mostly we listen because there’s none of the superiority that we detect in most advice-givers, none of the smugness that this problem could only happen to us and never to the person dispensing counsel. There’s an undercurrent of terror in Marshall’s voice that lets us know this problem has happened to her—and could very well happen again.

Marshall wrote this song for the 14-year-old daughter of “my ex-boyfriend,” which is the only way she refers to actor Giovanni Ribisi over the course of a three-hour phone conversation from Miami. From 2009 through early 2012, Marshall lived in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with the successful actor and his daughter Lucia, who was the victim of cyber-bullying during that time.

“It took us about six months to figure out why she was green, had lost 10 pounds and had rings under her eyes,” Marshall recalls. “Bullying is a crime, and it should be a crime. I told her over and over that she was beautiful and talented, an artist, but I wasn’t the parent, so I couldn’t get through to her. The only way I could communicate to her was through a song because she loves music more than me. She was in love with Ziggy Stardust, so I invited David Bowie to sing on it, but he wouldn’t do it. So I got Iggy Pop.”

We’re willing to listen to the advice in this song because it’s clear that Marshall is singing to herself even more than she’s singing to us. She’s desperately trying to convince her nervous, doubtful self that she’s “got nothin’ but time, and it ain’t got nothin’ on” her. As the eavesdropping listeners, we’re so anxious for her to believe it that we end up believing it ourselves.

“I had the music first,” she says. “That always comes first. When you push down on the ivory, what comes out are a pitch and a tempo—natural things like when John Lee Hooker plays the guitar or wolves howl. When I have those two parts of the triangle, the third part, the words, just come out when I start singing. When I hear the drum beat, my mind relaxes and the words just flow out. I started singing, ‘I see you alone in your room,’ because she wouldn’t come out of her room.”

As she sang, Marshall realized that the song wasn’t limited to a particular 14-year-old girl in a particular Silverlake bedroom. “It could be anybody in any fucking room,” she adds. “It could an inmate in jail, a person in an asylum, a college student in a dorm. It could be me. I used think I was doomed, that I couldn’t be happy. Yeah, a lot of times when I’m singing, I’m speaking to myself.”

When Marshall was a grade-schooler, she didn’t live in a movie star’s mansion; she lived in a series of apartments in the sketchier sections of Atlanta with her single mom and two sisters. Back then, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she was known as Charlyn Marshall, and because the family moved so often, she had to introduce herself time and time again to a new group of classmates. “What’s your name?” they would ask, “Charlene?” “No,” she would reply; “it’s Charlyn, like dahlin’.” She shortened her name to Chan but still had to explain that it’s pronounced like “Shawn,” not like “Charlie Chan.”

“My mom, a high school dropout, was working three jobs in the ’70s,” Marshall remembers, “and a lot of times we were alone at home with nothing to eat but bread and mustard. We didn’t know it was wrong, so we’d go to the Dixie Dumpster. I would hold my sister by the leg and lower her into the dumpster; she’d sort through the garbage and find great shit to eat. We would break into houses on our street to find food—Nabisco treats, deli meats—then we’d run away. We felt bad, but we had to eat. It’s funny if you think about it—that shit goes on all around the world, while people drive around in luxury cars.”

At one of those apartments, Marshall’s family lived near the members of the funk-rock band Mother’s Finest, who introduced the young sisters to records that didn’t get played on the radio. In another building, the apartment across the hall belonged to Patrick Kelly, a gay, African-American fashion designer—and, says Marshall, the biggest male presence in her life between the ages of four and seven. She and her sister would spend hours in his apartment, listening to R&B and gossip, breathing in marijuana smoke and admiring all the skinny models who came by to try on clothes. Sometimes Kelly would design something for the two young sisters “so we could look like models and feel so beautiful.”

Before he left for New York, Kelly took the young girls for a ride to McDonald’s in his rented limo. That was the last Marshall heard of him till she was 12 and getting a haircut at a North Carolina salon. She had never heard of Vogue magazine before, but someone handed her a copy, and there was Kelly holding the hand of disco star Grace Jones. Many years later, after her career had taken her to Paris, she was eating dinner at David’s, a Chinese restaurant there, and looked up to see a photo of Kelly eating in the very same booth. He had died of AIDS in 1990, but David, the restaurant’s owner, gushed with memories of the famous fashion designer.

So when Marshall became a magazine model in 2001 and beyond, she was reliving a childhood memory. And when she overhauled her sound in 2006 to anchor it in deep soul grooves on the album The Greatest, she wasn’t venturing into new territory; she was returning to her roots. Her first six albums had been emblematic of indie-rock in New York, where she was living at the time. The unpredictability of her voice—which always seemed perched on the edge of a nervous collapse—was reflected in the shambolic, ramshackle rhythms behind her.

A lot of fans liked that match of singing and backing tracks, but when she attached the same vocal approach to tightly disciplined, danceable tracks, her music gained a new power. By contrasting her unstable voice against a stable groove, a dramatic tension was added. One could suddenly hear the contrast between the squishy messiness of our internal feelings and the implacable clock of the external world, which goes on with or without us. Marshall sounded much more at home in that Southern soulfulness than she ever had in New York bohemia.

The impact of The Greatest was diluted because the tour planned for right after its release was cancelled when Marshall checked herself into Miami’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, for what she described to Spin as “a reaction to drinking.” When she checked back out, the album was re-released and the tour rescheduled, but it wasn’t the same.

At the beginning of 2008, she declared that she had written a batch of songs for an album she would call Sun. She even performed some of them on a tour where she provided the live music for screenings of Carl Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

But then she changed her mind and decided to record a collection of covers that she released as Jukebox that same year. For that project she assembled a band of indie-rock all-stars (Jon Spencer’s guitarist Judah Bauer, the Dirty Three’s drummer Jim White, Lizard Music’s bassist Erik Paparazzi and Delta 72’s keyboardist Gregg Foreman) and then asked them to play like the Memphis soul band that made The Greatest. Having rediscovered the sound of her childhood, she wasn’t going to let it go.

The new song, “Nothin’ but Time,” sounds a whole lot like Bowie’s “Heroes,” right down to an imitation of Brian Eno’s disco thump underneath. It’s a different groove than the Memphis grease of The Greatest, but it’s still a take on African-American dance music, and it still sparks that delicious tension between a wavering voice and a relentless beat. The disco, hip-hop and house rhythms that run through the new album continue down the same path Marshall turned onto for The Greatest.

When she tells Ribisi’s daughter, “I see you’re just trying to get by, but your world is just beginning,” Marshall is also singing to herself. For she approached the making of Sun as if time were an inexhaustible commodity. She didn’t finish it till four years after the release of Jukebox and six years after the release of her last collection of original songs, The Greatest.

Bauer, her guitarist, called Sun Marshall’s Moby Dick, an elusive white whale that she chased all over the world. The chase began near Ribisi’s house, at the Boat, a studio owned by the Dust Brothers. She went in with the songs she had planned to record before tackling Jukebox instead. Once she got into the studio, though, more than a dozen new songs poured out of her. Now she had two albums worth of material.

“I never let anyone listen to my songs before they’re finished,” she declares, “but this friend, like my big brother, kept saying, ‘Let me hear, let me hear.’ So I brought a mix and he fast-forwarded through the first song, saying, ‘That’s so depressing; that’s like old Cat Power.’ Then he fast-forwarded through the next song, saying, ‘That’s so depressing; that’s like the old Cat Power.’ He kept doing that again and again. I was devastated and didn’t work on the album for eight months.

“After eight months I went back in. You know how sometimes you’ve got shit in your head that you need to clear up? Well, those voices were knocking on my head. But when I walked back into the studio, I made a point to not open my guitar case or touch the keyboards. There were all these machines and I asked the studio assistant to turn them on. I press a button and, whoa, this great sound comes out. I say, ‘Can you roll that?’ I sat down at the drum set and added some live drums. Then I added some acoustic guitar and that was ‘Sun.’”

It was a breakthrough. She realized she could make music without a producer or a band. She didn’t fully understand what the machines did—she couldn’t even remember their names—but she kept pushing buttons till she got a sound she liked. For the first time in her career she was having fun in the studio. She had never understood why some musicians liked to hole up in the studio for months at a time, but now she got it. Nonetheless, there was resistance from outside.

“The emails were pouring in,” she recounts. “They all said, ‘You really need a producer.’ Every email included a list of possible producers. It was breaking my heart. I wrote back, ‘I told you I never wanted a band; I never wanted a producer. I want to produce myself.’ Because I don’t have a manager, all these people were coming directly to me. So I unplugged the phone and turned off the computer. When I did that, everyone I work with was very scared. ‘What’s she doing?’ they all said.”

She got a mansion in Malibu and filled it with a truckload of newly bought machines. She tested the equipment by improvising a song that became “Always on My Own” on the new album. She thought it was a demo, but when she brought in the Jukebox musicians, who were still in her road band, to tackle the song, she wasn’t satisfied. Then it hit her: The song was already finished; that was why all the revisions seemed superfluous. But she kept trying to use her band on the new songs, and she wound up with dozens of versions of the songs from different studios.

“I realized that none of the single takes was what I wanted,” Marshall says. “I took my hard drive to L.A. to mix it, but I couldn’t make all the pieces fit together. I was so depressed. My ex-boyfriend said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I’m not mad at you; it’s this record.’ He said, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’ As we were driving to the restaurant, he put on the Beastie Boys’ new record, Hot Sauce. I sat right up and said, ‘That’s it.’ As soon as I got home I got on the internet and looked up who mixed the Beastie Boys record. It was Philippe Zdar.

“He’s French, and I was going to Paris the next week, so I made arrangements to meet him. He said, ‘Do you want some coffee?’ I said, ‘No, just listen to this; I can get my own coffee.’ I didn’t want to be too nice to him, because I didn’t want him to feel obligated to do it if he didn’t like it. He listened to several songs until he said, ‘What’s this song?’ ‘Nothin’ but Time,’ I said, and he said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Finally the record was coming together. Marshall was flitting back and forth between L.A., Miami, Paris and Brooklyn, trying to supervise the mix and to prepare the album’s release. Then on March 20 came the bombshell; Ribisi called her in Miami to say that the relationship was over. In June he would marry British model Agyness Deyn. Marshall claims the call was unexpected on her end, and because the songs on Sun were written and recorded before March, the notion that it’s a break-up album makes no sense.

“There’s nothing about my ex in these songs,” Marshall claims. “I got the phone call; it was over, and I had to go back to work in three days. I cut off all my hair, and I was crying. At the same time I was listening to tracks, because I had to fly to Paris to finish the mix.” She pauses uneasily. “I apologize for sounding so crazy; I’m not crazy. I’m working through my feelings about this relationship. I had something I had always wanted—love and family—and then it was gone.”

Not only did she lose the most famous bangs in indie-rock, she momentarily lost the confidence she had gained when she hired Zdar. She began to doubt the value of the mixes they were coming up with. Once again, it seemed the white whale was going to swim out of her grasp. Then she ran into Mike D, who told her to have faith in Zdar. “When we listened to his mixes,” the Beastie Boy explained, “the things we didn’t like at first turned out to be our favorite things on the record.” Meanwhile, Marshall’s longtime friends rallied around her.

“One friend came down from New York,” she recalls. “She told me, ‘Get off the couch; get out in the ocean; go back to work.’ I went upstairs and she had laid out this rug that my ex-boyfriend and I had got in Morocco for our new house that he’s now living in with his new wife. My friend had put out all these terra cotta planters with bougainvillea, candles and rugs. A pedicurist was there with hot water. I had a glass of wine. She put me on the plane to Paris, and in four weeks the record was done. If I didn’t have friends; I didn’t know what I’d do.”

Nonetheless, the new disc contains some obvious relationship songs—sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic, sometimes both at the same time. The lead-off track and first video, “Cherokee,” for example, is a romantic number that proclaims she “never knew love like this.” Over the chiming guitar and trashy drum loop, she acknowledges that she’s still haunted by pain and shame but she finds redemption in “the sun, the sea, you and I.” She multi-tracks her voice till a choir of Chan Marshalls are harmonizing about the battle between destructive demons and healing love, asking her lover to “marry me to the sky.” That mood is extended on the next track, the album’s title song, which declares, “If you could lend your hand, this is the day people like me been waiting for.”

The track “3, 6, 9,” though, sounds like a song about a crumbling relationship. Over a pounding hip-hop rhythm, Marshall refers to a “stranger in bed” and sings with steely determination, “I feel alone; I want out; I want on my own.” The sing-song title has the hypnotic quality of a jump-rope rhyme bolstered by booming beats and the accusation, “You drink wine—monkey on your back; you feel just fine.” Sometimes it sounds like Marshall singing to a lover; sometimes it sounds like the lover singing to Marshall, who contends that her version of sobriety can include the occasional glass of wine.

Other tracks look beyond her personal problems to issues in the world outside her window. “Ruin,” for example, is built around a descending piano figure and insistent bass ’n’ drum loop. In the same rhythm Marshall rattles off a long list of cities and countries she’s visited, “from the bush in the wilderness to every known city,” and concludes that it’s the same everywhere: There are always well-off people “bitchin’ and complainin’” about their petty problems when all around them “people ain’t got shit to eat.” It’s not an original idea, but there’s a tone in her voice that sounds unfamiliar—a mix of panicked urgency and sighing despair that implies a vision of the American empire’s impending collapse in the song’s final lines: “What are we doin’? We’re sittin’ on a ruin.”

“‘Ruin,’” she says, “is basically a reality snapshot about how every so-called great civilization falls. I believe music can still wake people up, because it’s still legal. You know how Dylan cracked an egg over everybody’s head when Civil Rights were so fucked up? People walked around with egg on their face, proudly. They said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got egg on my face; I’m going to go down to Selma and Kent State.’”

But the album’s most powerful tracks are the two songs of advice for a young woman—whether it’s Lucia Ribisi, some unknown high-school student listening on her iPod or the younger Chan Marshall who seems to still reside within the older Marshall—and not that far from the surface.

“Human Being” opens with the echoing bells and ghostly reverb of a dream, but when the bottom stiffens into an R&B groove, the song seems to awaken. “You’re a human being,” Marshall sings, as if simultaneously giving and receiving reassurance. “You got your own voice, so sing.” Like someone newly awake herself, she adds, “We all got rules we have to break; we all have to make those mistakes.”

“Nothin’ but Time” offers similar encouragement, but the self-doubt that makes Marshall’s voice so compelling also undermines the advice. After five minutes of this, however, Iggy Pop’s brash baritone enters with the shout, “You want to live!” There’s no trace of doubt in his grizzly growl, and you can hear Marshall’s own voice gain in confidence each time she and her duet partner repeat the phrase, “You’ve got nothin’ but time, and it ain’t got nothin’ on you.” You can actually hear her start to believe her own advice.

“Now that I’m 40,” she says, “I want to be happy like I was when I was a kid flipping on the trampoline listening to Van Halen’s ‘Jump.’ I want to remember how to be happy like I was when I was able to roller-skate backwards. I want to be happy like all these architects and mommies, sisters and brothers, I see driving around. When I walked out of the mental ward at Mount Sinai, I realized that my life was in my hands, not in the hands of God, however you want to define him. I realized it was my responsibility to live my life. I realized that if I go, ‘Fuck, I just spilt milk,’ I shouldn’t freak out. I should tell myself, ‘Okay, go get a wash cloth.’”

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