"Did you just say, 'Who's that crazy woman?'" Chan Marshall asks as she opens the door to a ragged old apartment in New York City.
I did not. But Marshall is sure of it.
"C'mon, tell me," she says. "What did you say through the buzzer?"
Marshall has just buzzed me into the low-rent housing complex ("a squat," as she puts it the night before) that she's lived in, on and off, for the past 13 years. By the standards of, say, the people who buy her records, Marshall is a relatively rich woman now. The last six albums she's released under the name Cat Power have sold a combined half-million copies worldwide. But whenever Marshall is in New York, she comes here: a dilapidating community house in the East Village with a cramped, closet-of-a-bathroom and graffiti etched into the walls. (When Marshall opens the door to her room later on, someone has written a random phone number across it.) Originally, Marshall's rent here was $120. It's now $190, which she pays monthly, despite staying here, at best, a few months out of the year. "So what did you say to me?" Marshall presses. The answer ("Who is that, Chan?") is one that I never get to deliver, but that doesn't seem to matter: By now most people have figured out who Chan Marshall is on their own terms. As a young, spiky-haired counterwoman will put it to her coworker when Marshall leaves a neighborhood wine shop the next day, "Hey, she's kind of famous!"
And, to a certain segment of the population, she's right. Since first emerging in the early '90s, Cat Power has slowly developed a cult following that remains unrivaled by nearly any of the musicians Marshall came up alongside of in the East Village avant-rock scene. It would be hard to imagine a group of avid Chavez fans feverishly logging on to What Would the Community Think?, an online hub where Marshall's faithful author deeply personal threads while arguing about inconsequential matters (like whether or not she's vegan). Marshall's last album, 2003's stunning You Are Free, further increased her profile among celebrity devotees (both Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder appeared on the album) but it's Cat Power's just-finished The Greatest that her label believes will make her a legitimate star. "I think she's going to have a much wider appeal now," says Matador cofounder Chris Lombardi. "Those fans, those diehard fans, may be upset as the loser neighbor across the street becomes a Cat Power fan."
Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn., over the course of a week, The Greatest is certainly a fuller, more sumptuous version of Cat Power's melodic fragility. Joined by longtime Al Green guitarist Teenie Hodges and a collection of 60-something musicians who originally made their names developing the smoky, soulful sound of Stax Records in the late 1960s, nearly all of The Greatest's songs were completed in one take. It just doesn't sound that way. When an early MP3 of the album's title track leaked on the Internet this past October, posts quickly went up on Cat Power message boards dismissing it for vaguely resembling Norah Jones. (The album, according to Lombardi, cost seven times as much as any Cat Power record.) Before Marshall began writing, it turns out, some friends pulled her aside ("more, like, who you'd consider jazz musicians," she says) and insisted that she hadn't reached her full potential. "It was, 'Oh Chan, you could really be learning your instrument,'" she says rolling her eyes. "That's the whole thing about when I was first playing guitar, I never wanted to [learn how to play]."
From the outside, the idea of an even more famous and proficient Cat Power seems to threaten a few of Marshall's main tenets. (Here's a hint: Her guitar playing is probably the least crucial among them). Simply put, Chan Marshall has always seemed too breakable to ever really breakthrough, but that's precisely what The Greatest seems capable of doing for her. "To me, she's already the biggest rock star I know who's not a rock star," says producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, a friend of Marshall's who she collaborated with on White People, the joke-y second record from his all-star rap collective Handsome Boy Modeling School. "In a sense, she's lucky. There's this level [of fame] you reach when people start bugging you on the street that I don't know that any of us would enjoy. I don't know if she would, either."
Marshall will also talk about (or maybe around) the idea of fame today, but more often than not she'll merely retrace her life-changing move to New York, after years of living around the South, at the age of 19. Marshall's room in the East Village, incidentally, still looks like a 19-year-old's: bags from lunch lay scattered across her bed and it appears as if a suitcase has just exploded. Marshall isn't dressed yet (it's four o'clock in the afternoon) and is walking around in a faded orange tank top, an oversized denim shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. The interview Marshall will grant over the next three hours will be both positively bizarre and average given that it's an interview with Chan Marshall. Curled in a ball on the floor, she'll start by ordering in three bottles of wine and, by the time she's through, they'll nearly all be emptied and the sun will have set through her window, leaving Marshall to talk in long, messy paragraphs while we sit in the dark.
For those who have been instrumental in making Cat Power such a huge cult phenomenon over the years, none of this should seem even remotely odd. People want Marshall to appear unstable at her shows just as much as they do at prescheduled interviews--she's here to constantly be on edge. But what if things weren't actually this way? What if Marshall was, in fact, a hyper-articulate woman who could lecture you about fixed interest rates and second loves? What if instead of appearing to be constantly homeless or on the verge of falling apart, she could actually out-negotiate the president of her record label and hold down leases in three different states. When Marshall mistakenly thought that I asked, "Who's that crazy woman?" when I showed up in her building's foyer, it's probably because she expected me to say that. But if you were to ask that question of Marshall today, well, the answer just might surprise you.
Chan Marshall is 33 now. The version of Cat Power that she navigates today is considerably different from the one she formed back in 1992. Then Marshall was a high-school dropout who'd spent the previous three years living in a house in Atlanta with a bunch of junkies. Nearly everyone she knew then was either in a band or on drugs. But Marshall, quietly, was plotting a way out. She made plans to move to Manhattan with her friend, Glen Thrasher, whom she had already started playing with under the name Cat Power. The two arrived in New York penniless. Marshall eventually got a job unloading trucks in the Meat Packing District for $25 a day and when that proved insufficient she applied at a strip club in Times Square. "The way that I had been living," Marshall says, "was potatoes and rice." She smiles. "Or stealing cans of tuna from Key Foods." These days, Marshall is a well-fed (and, frankly, well-paid) professional who occasionally works out and has yogurt and herbal tea for breakfast.
But when Marshall talks about her history in New York it's in obvious reverie. Most of the places that shaped Marshall's existence here in the early '90s have disappeared. In fact, if you were to take a walking tour through lower Manhattan with her it could be made up solely of places that no longer exist. You could start at the shoebox-scale rock club Brownies, where Marshall often played. Brownies is now a gaudy hipster bar where, on any given night, you'll find the members of just about every mainstream emo band in the Tri-State area. From there it's a decent walk to the old ABC No Rio, where Marshall was often dragged by Thrasher to noisy Sunday matinees. Just across the Bowery from ABC No Rio is the building that held Mott St. Space, a practice and recording spot that Marshall, along with bowl-cut-coifed Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, recorded her first two albums, 1995's Myra Lee and 1996's Dear Sir, in a single day. Today, however, all of these places are mere memories.
"When I was first playing there was this sort of energy," Marshall says, rubbing together the palms of her hands. "I don't want to say something corny, like, freedom of expression. [But] it was this interaction between these different places like ABC No Rio--these weird music places where people would play weird things. It wasn't like going to see Jesus Lizard at CBGB. It was something I had never seen before."
Although Marshall became notorious for her erratic live shows around the time of 1998's Moon Pix, her earliest performances were even more inconsistent and strange. At one show, opening for indie surf rockers Man or Astroman?, Marshall played a two-string guitar yelling "no" for 15 minutes straight. (She finally stopped when a group of skinheads started swearing at her.) But even as Marshall found refuge in such awkward public displays, she remained conflicted about her role as a performer. By early 1993, six months after Marshall began playing out as Cat Power, Thrasher headed back to Atlanta and Marshall began telling people that the band had "broken up," Yet after being unknowingly booked by the art-punk group God Is My Co-Pilot to play solo at CBGB, Cat Power was reborn. A few days later, she was asked to open for Liz Phair, and Marshall, to a lesser degree, became a name within the bohemian art movement that was occurring in New York--between 1994 and 1996, no musician seemed to better exemplify its lifestyle than her.
"It was kind of amazing," says Lombardi, who signed her to Matador shortly thereafter. "Chan was gallivanting around the city doing these shows. She would, without a case, be walking down Avenue A with a guitar and this friend she just met on the street. She was like this great people catcher."
Marshall may have captured the spirit of downtown New York at the time, but she would eventually move out of the city following the release of her Matador debut, What Would the Community Think, temporarily relocating to more picturesque environs like Portland, Ore., (where she worked as a babysitter) and Prosperity, S.C., (where she wrote Moon Pix). Though she always kept her room in the East Village, since 1997 Marshall hasn't lived in New York for any more than a couple of months at a time. When I talk to her friends, tellingly, they'll all end up asking me where she currently is. The last time Nakamura saw Marshall was in Spain while he was working on some later-discarded tracks for the last Franz Ferdinand album. He spotted her running through the airport. "I can't live anywhere," Marshall says of her admittedly wandering ways. "All of my friends, they don't move around."
"It's true," Nakamura attests. "I actually live a block away from Chan [in New York] but that doesn't mean I ever see her."
Marshall's living situation for the past two years has allowed her to alternate between New York, Miami and Atlanta, where "home" includes everything from a rickety old house in Georgia to a borrowed one-bedroom apartment off the Florida coast. (Marshall, not surprisingly, will preempt our first interview to explain to me the nuances of fixed interest rates and the value of good credit.) When Marshall began writing The Greatest in 2004, she was living in a downtown Manhattan high-rise with her friend, world-renowned 59-year-old photographer Hans Gissinger. Together they shared an apartment infrequently ("I was never in that fucking place," Marshall complains) that's just four blocks north of her room in the East Village. What that means, essentially, is that over the course of a year, Marshall rented not only two places in the same city, but in the same neighborhood, at the same time. When I ask why someone, who already has another two pieces of real estate dotted across the country, would do such a seemingly costly and confusing thing, Marshall's face softens.
"Because," she says, "I wanted to have dinner parties."
Right about now you might be wondering how much money Chan Marshall could possibly make as an underground folk singer. So far there's been some talk of dinner parties and houses in separate states and, understandably, that seems like a long ways away from stealing cans of StarKist from the local grocery store. Unfortunately, there are two problems with trying to provide an answer to this: 1) Marshall doesn't really want to talk about it and 2) While she might not have always been rich enough to afford such a lifestyle, she's always seemed responsible enough to those who were around her. "Not to be pedantic about it," says Dirty Three drummer Jim White, who toured with Marshall in the late '90s and was eventually asked to record Moon Pix with her, "but she was pretty together even back then. She was always traveling around, always looking after herself."
When White originally met Marshall in 1997 they had no plans of recording an album together--in fact, Marshall had no plans of recording an album again, ever. But, of course, she did, and the record that they'd later track in Australia would change her life significantly. Among many of Cat Power's more serious fans the Moon Pix story has become legendary. "It's this weird thing I've talked about in interviews," Marshall says, quickly slipping into the accent of a German reporter. "People asked, 'What is zees inspiration from zees record Moon Pix?' So I told them." The abbreviated version goes something like this: Exhausted with New York in 1997, Marshall moved to a two-stoplight town called Prosperity with her then-boyfriend, Smog's Bill Callahan. Together they lived there undisturbed for months until one night Marshall became convinced that she was being visited by spirits of iniquity. Panicking, she started playing guitar and, within hours, the skeletal version of Cat Power's fifth record was born.
The way Marshall currently describes the incident in Prosperity is intentionally brief--but it's also kind of funny. ("I woke up and I was like, 'Oh, hey, Matador? How are y'all doing?'" she says with a nervous laugh, "'Ummm, would y'all pay for my ticket to Australia so I can get the fuck out of where I'm at?'") Shortly after whatever actually happened in Prosperity, Marshall flew to Melbourne and, over the course of 11 days, recorded Moon Pix with White and his Dirty Three bandmate, guitarist Mick Turner. From there she began touring constantly and breaking down onstage occasionally, all while (you'd think) unintentionally cultivating an image for herself as a fragile, nervous wreck. "I'm certainly not going to get involved in any of that crap that people talk about her," White says before I even get the opportunity to bring it up. "It's all bullshit, really."
Marshall doesn't have a lot to say about the subject, either--even more so than her days in New York, that era seems like a long time ago. But she does have some surprisingly nice things to say about Callahan who, last year, began furtively dating 23-year-old "folk-harpist" Joanna Newsom. Marshall's relationship with Callahan has never been a secret: When she later tried out Smog's "Red Apples" on Cat Power's The Covers Record, it seemed like an understanding nod to a love that had passed. And in ways, it was. "That was my first," Marshall says plainly--and what she means is that, at 25, dating Callahan marked the first time that she had ever been in love.
"I never had a boyfriend," she insists. "I had someone that I recognized as my boyfriend when I was 18, I guess, but he didn't respect me at all. Yeah, that was the first one. I thought it was real. I don't know." Marshall begins to grin. "He was a great, wonderful person."
Her relationship with Callahan ended not long after they left Prosperity. (Smog's 1999 album Knock Knock begins with Callahan singing, "Let's move to the country" and ends with him insisting, "I hope you find your husband.") Marshall, by her count, has only been in love one other time since--but it was major. Shortly after returning to New York, Marshall began dating Daniel Cury, a gangly runway model seven years her junior. The two were involved romantically for the next four years, during which time they seemed inseparable. Cury often toured with Marshall--chances are if you saw Cat Power between 1999 and 2002, he probably sold you a T-shirt. "It wasn't complex," she says of her time with him. "It's like when someone is with you in it and it's a reciprocated love. I'd never felt that before. That was the happiest time of my life."
A few months before the release of You Are Free in early 2003, Marshall shot a video for the album's first single, "He War." In the clip Marshall chases a handsomely thin man through Miami, first on foot and then, strangely, in a speedboat. By that point, Marshall knew her relationship with Cury was ending and that the "He War" video was art imitating life: The person she's chasing throughout the clip is literally him. "That time," Marshall says, referring to the two years that she spent on the road following their breakup, "was the worst part of my life." Sometimes when talking to Marshall about her relationship with Cury, the wounds don't seem like they've scarred. She's begun dating again, but nothing serious. At one point, I ask Marshall if she thought she'd marry him.
"Saying 'we're getting married' is kind of an explanation for your idea of the future," Marshall contests. "But did we want to marry each other? Yes, we did."
Unless you were dating Chan Marshall over the summer of 1999 or your name is Chris Lombardi, there's an entire Cat Power record out there that you will probably never hear. Recorded in mere days just before she tracked The Covers Record (and scrapped almost as quickly) the album remains one of Marshall's tiny secrets--a lost session that even her most obsessive fans have never heard a note of.
And, just like her time in Prosperity, the story behind the "lost" Cat Power record has also become rather legendary. It involves a Post-It note contract and a strange meeting between Lombardi and Marshall, who he calls "a great negotiator." Shortly after handing in the record, Marshall called Lombardi (something she never does) and asked for a meeting. "I remember talking to her about this other record," Lombardi says, "and she was just like, 'Oh, I don't want to do that. But I want to put these covers out.'" He laughs. "'OK?'" Lombardi quickly drafted a new contract between them on a scrap of paper; when Marshall looked over the advance that he'd allotted, she immediately told him to double it. "Chan is hard to pin down, she's all over the place," he says. "But she knows what she's doing."
For six albums now, Marshall and her label have operated on the basis of this understanding. Up and to this point, every seemingly odd decision that Marshall has made (The Covers Record, for instance, eventually became one of her catalog's biggest sellers) has ended up a success. But as she slowly began talking about her next record, there suddenly felt a need to do something different. The Greatest was set to be Cat Power's seventh album. Really, who wouldn't want a change?
Well, for one, Chan Marshall. Over time, Marshall has become accustomed to doing things in a very idiosyncratic way. She's one of the only artists at her level that doesn't have a manager, and when you want to get her on the phone, for the most part, you call her direct. (Much of the scheduling for this article, incidentally, was set up with her through text messages.) When the ideas about Marshall's next record began to surface (more studio time, maybe a name producer) she cringed. "Everyone wanted a band," she says. "That was the sad reality. It was, 'Where's the rock 'n' roll? Where's the band?'" By that point, Marshall had already begun tracking The Greatest around various studios in Europe. It's hard to say if her label knew then--or now--that this was occurring. When I ask Marshall for names, she hesitates "Jordi Corchs," she says, who's an engineer in Barcelona. "I'll give you that one. He needs work."
Eventually, the plan to apply a deliberately Southern texture to her songs came to Marshall while combing through some of her favorite records of the past 40 years. Marshall's initial feeling was that any musician that had been around long enough to play on Let's Stay Together would now either be retired or too expensive for an independent budget. To Marshall's shock, however, Lombardi was able to lock her dream band down in under an hour.
The resulting album they made is one that Marshall still clearly loves--"It's the first record of mine that breaks my heart," she says--but sometimes you sense that it's somewhat begrudgingly so. What could possibly sting the most about The Greatest's success (if and when it reaches the point that so many think it will) is that it marks the first time in Marshall's 13 years with Cat Power that she relinquished her art to someone else's idea. Of all the things that don't agree with this image of Marshall being a mentally unsound wanderer, the fact that she's managed to guide her own career for longer than anyone she came up alongside is at the very top of the list. "I have to," Marshall says of the insatiable drive to do things her way. "No one is going to tell me what to do."
Through a pattern of behavior that, over the years, has been alternately bizarre, charming and calculated, Marshall has been able to create a life for herself that just about any of us might envy--one where the crazy ideas you think up as a dirt-poor kid can turn into a reality worth protecting. At one point while interviewing Marshall at her place in New York, it will become apparent she's grown weary. By then, we'll have been at it for hours--talking about records that no one has ever heard and loves that she'll never forget--and she'll need to go somewhere else emotionally where's she's not so tired and defensive. So she calls me a car. When I drive away a few minutes later, I'll peer back at Marshall through the large glass window in her building's front entrance. She'll still be there when I do, just on the other side, in a world where she'll always feel safe.
First printed in Jan/Feb 2006