Chan Marshall’s a spectral beauty, haunted and ethereal as the songs she crafts. What makes her even more extraordinary is how selfless she is, insisting that she’s merely lucky to be in the right place at the right time. While that’s hardly the whole story, it’s exactly how Chanel head Karl Lagerfeld decided on making her the new “Face of Chanel,” after he spotted the winsome singer smoking a cigarette outside New York’s Mercer Hotel. According to Marshall, it was no big thing, but if you’ve listened to any of her seven albums and numerous collaborations you know that she’s the queen of understatement. Not recently. After slowly spiraling out of control after a bad breakup over four years ago, Marshall finally faced her demons and checked herself into a rehab clinic, which to her, was the seventh circle of hell. She survived—that’s something she always prides herself on—and has managed, of late, to avoid the onstage freakouts she’d become notorious for. She talks to Harp about love, loss and Louis Vuitton.
HARP: You’re now the Face of Chanel.
HARP: That’s amazing. How do you feel about that?
I know. Well, I haven’t signed the contract yet. As soon as I sign the contract I’m going to feel kind of free. I’m going to be moving back to New York because I can afford to live there.
HARP: How did it happen?
I was sitting on a pile of Louis Vuitton luggage, drinking water, with an apple and a cigarette in my hand, my cell phone, oh, and two guitars, and out comes Karl Lagerfeld. He walks up, looks at me and says, “Only a woman can look glamorous when smoking.” And I lowered my glasses and pointed to my eyes and said, ‘With these?”
HARP: What do you mean “with these?”
The bags under my eyes.
HARP: I’m thinking that you must have broken your run of bad luck because your shows have been so extraordinary, and this Chanel thing happened.
Dude, I dig it. It’s a way back to me. A way back to being myself again. A way back to New York—if I get the campaign, if they sign the contract.
HARP: So you’re living in Miami now?
HARP: Well, why don’t you marry Iggy Pop? He lives in Miami. You’d be so striking with him.
He doesn’t like me. He’s not attracted to me. Bob Dylan’s the only guy that I really love. I love Iggy, don’t get me wrong, but as far as like having children and playing house, I think I could play girlfriend with Iggy, but I couldn’t play wife.
HARP: Have you ever met Dylan?
Are you high? Hell, no, I’ve never met him. His son Sam comes to see me play in L.A., and I actually asked him to help me get on his dad’s tour. I don’t think anyone talks to Sam about his dad. You know what I mean; it’s like case-closed subjects. But I decided to bring it up. It’s a long story. So I saw him and I was like, first thing I said was like, “Dude, can you help me get on your dad’s tour?” He was just; he was shocked, you know. But I didn’t care because it’s like I’m 34. His dad isn’t getting any younger. It’s not because I want to make money and it’s not because I want to say I met Bob Dylan. It’s because I want to get on that tour and play my songs. And get the chance to like possibly have a conversation with him, or letting him know that I have his back. I gave Sam some of my DVDs and records to send to his dad.
HARP: And have you heard anything?
No, he chose the Raconteurs and the Kings of Leon. And I was pushing. I was like “Please, you know, because there’s one more two-week slot. I said what about Cat Power?” And I think it’s because I’m a girl, you know, because he loves sausage parties.
HARP: I heard you went through a hell of a breakup…
Yeah, that’s why I got so depressed these past four years. That’s what did me in. He [ex-boyfriend Daniel] felt rejected by me for so long, because of the touring, interviews and all of that, that he started drinking. I don’t blame him. I understand. I didn’t understand then. These four years when I was pretending I was fine by getting drunk every day. When we broke up, that’s when I started going downhill.
HARP: I guess there’s no more noble reason to drink than to trying to wash away a broken heart.
Yeah, but for four years? Like enough is enough. Because that whole time, I was pretending nothing was wrong with me, being that shit-faced all the time. We didn’t even break up, dude. We didn’t break up. We just, it was just as insane as it gets. Sometimes you just can’t disengage your heart.
HARP: So your heart is still with him.
Oh, a hundred percent. I knew it especially after I saw him at the coffee shop where he works just about two weeks ago. I went in to see him. This past four years it was as if he was dead. Over the past few years I’ve had so many friends pass away, whatever. It was as if Daniel was dead those four years and that’s why I was mourning, and the nightmares about him and everything. When I saw him, and I walked away and I got in the cab, it was as if I had been given a gift by God, like seeing a friend back on earth alive. That’s how it felt. Like I was so happy that he was alive.
HARP: Despite what you said before, you can’t deny that this has been a big year for you.
Yes. I feel a great happiness. I feel like—I was telling this to someone yesterday because my friend’s trying to quit drinking. And you know, alcoholism runs in my immediate family. And I never thought I had a problem. Anyway, I feel like if this were the Olympics, I didn’t even make the trials, but I won. That’s how I’d feel right now, and that’s worth more than an ad campaign that could, you know, buy me an apartment in New York.
HARP: When you hate yourself, you keep the positive things at bay, but when you’re happy with yourself then everything else falls into place.
Yeah. Keeps you funny, too.
HARP: Well, you’re really funny. I remember you telling me that you wanted to be a stand-up comedian when I first met you.
I said that? That’s funny, dude. Because I’m Aquarian.
HARP: Do you still feel that you’re at war with yourself?
No, not at all. That all changed after I was in the hospital. That was like being at the bottom of the pit of where I thought I was in hell when I was in the hospital. I actually believed that I was in hell and that the doctors were like, I don’t know if they were Satan. Like in a bad movie. I said to myself every single day, “This is hell.”
(To manicurist) Are you mad at me?
HARP: You still ask people if they’re mad at you. Why is that?
I guess I do that because it’s the way I grew up. When you’re raised by a bipolar mother you have to be afraid, because if you turn the knob on the door when you come home from school too loudly, you’re in fucking trouble, you know? I got the shit kicked out of me, too. I think I was always afraid because of that.
HARP: But you’re clearly not afraid anymore. Now that you’ve stopped drinking, are you not afraid to be onstage?
Well, it’s not about the drinking. It’s about surviving. Remember that pit of hell I was telling you about? I just didn’t stop praying the whole time I was in the hospital, “Please, God, give me one more chance. I’m sorry I’m in here.” And when the doctors saw me—because they were supposed to keep me there for a month—they said you’re going to be here a long time. They said she’s not leaving here for a while.
Because I was out of it, dude. And then on the sixth day—it was so biblical. Too bad it didn’t happen on the seventh day. But on the sixth day, the doctor, who was from Columbia, he’s like, “How are you feeling today, Charlene?” And I said I’m feeling fine, I’m just, you know, a little scared because the people keep screaming at night and stuff. And he said, “That’s understandable. I understand it’s not easy. And so are you having any strange thoughts this morning?” I was like, no. “Can you tell me exactly what you think, why you’re here, what your main problem is in your life?” And I couldn’t think of anything. The only thing I could think of was, I have a drinking problem. And that was it. And he’s like, “Okay. We are starting on the right foot. I think I’m going to let you go tomorrow.” Because I reacted so well to the medication.
And thank God I did. I was literally scared shitless every day I was there. I was next door to this Cuban guy who was terribly, horribly, physically violent, and the doors don’t have locks on them. At breakfast, no one sat near him, because he was scary and big and violent. I was always scared of the people, so I would always tend to be last, and I’d always have to sit in front of him. So I learned. I learned to be early so I would pick where I wanted to sit, and then he would start sitting with me, so it was like playing checkers in there. But he would say things like, “I’m going to make you suck my dick and da-da-da, you fucking bitch, you’re gonna suck my dick, da-da-da-da-da.” And so I learned really quickly that, okay, I’m in hell. But then I said to myself, “Chan, you’re not crazy. You know you have to remember that.” I just snapped out of it then. Probably thanks to that crazy Cuban guy.
So when you talk about when people had asked me, “Oh, so you’re not drinking, so you’re comfortable onstage,” it’s because, dude, getting out of that place and realizing all the wonderful things I have in my life, the wonderful friends, and the wonderful memories and the joy and luck and the fans. Things that I never looked at or recognized, or even appreciated. When I played Town Hall [in New York] I never even realized they [the fans] were there to see me. I never knew that before. I feel thankful and grateful for their support and belief in me when I was so messed up. Because I didn’t know I was messed up.
HARP: Has anything changed in the way you feel onstage?
Yes. Like, for instance, the mood is set at sound check, when my backup singer or my bass player or somebody in the band starts humming a song like “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” and then the whole band just starts playing and then I start singing. And I’m reminded, dude, this is fun and shit. And that’s what’s changed, they’re my peers and they’ve been around the block and they’re older.
HARP: Do you think it’s because they’re all from the south, too?
Exactly. We understand each other.
HARP: What changed most after you got out of the hospital?
I don’t e-mail anymore. I gave it up. When I got out of the hospital I quit talking on the phone. I’m talking to you now, but I quit e-mail and then I quit talking. One of my best friends flew to New York, [because] they had a bad feeling about me [and] banged on my door until I opened it. She gave me her phone, and her secondary phone number. And this is her phone number you’re calling me on.
HARP: What inspires you?
What inspires me now? I like walking now. Because I used to have to, in New York, walk to work from Avenue B all the way over to Washington in the West Village, in the snow, you know? So I think I hated walking for that reason alone. Now I love to walk and I have really great thoughts.
HARP: Are you writing stuff right now?
I am. I wrote this song that my friend Susanna [the one who saved my life] loves. She always cries whenever I play it and I cry too now, since she told me she cried. It’s called “Oh, Time.” And the chorus is, “A ticket to Atlanta/Family knows another now/A ticket from Atlanta/Family knows a mother’s shot down, but you win/I give in/Oh, time, great healer.” That’s the new song.
HARP: What’s holy for you?
Holy? Oh, man, sex.
HARP: Is your beauty a weapon or a curse?
Neither, it’s a blessing and a toy. And it’s not a weapon; I don’t feel either way about my individualism. I feel like my beauty is my individualism. I feel like a commercial.
HARP: Well, you will be.
I know, that’s true. Shit. My beauty is a toy. My beauty is a Chanel bag, dude.
First printed in December 2006