Chan Marshall, who has been turning out dark, bluesy folk records and touring as Cat Power since the early 1990s, has been known to cancel a live performance (or entire tour) to take care of herself.
“I’m one of those people that wakes up like I got … struck by lightning,” she laughs, her raspy, Georgia drawl cracking warmly. “But I didn’t really get to sleep, I was up late trying to teach my manager about Instagram.”
Marshall’s back on the road behind her tenth studio album Wanderer. Released in October, the album has been included in many ‘Best Of’ year-end lists, with fans and critics applauding her for coming out swinging after a few years of battles – both personal and professional.
Calling from a designated “phone room” in an airport lounge in New York, Marshall sounded jovial, centred and present despite her voice’s signature “worn-in” quality. She’s doing just fine, thanks for asking.
“I’m so grateful and thankful to be OK; to have made it through the system, you know?” she says, recounting different parts of her life since the release of her last album, 2012’s Sun.
“People were saying ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ ‘You need anti-depressants.’ We all do, we all have our struggles in this lifetime. But I’m healthy, I’m happy, I’m working. I care about people. I’m happy I’m not jaded or bitter.”
Upon that record’s release, Marshall – whose previous history of substance abuse has been hashed, and rehashed over her nearly 30-year career – was hospitalised multiple times; eventually diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder angioedema.
Her impending European tour was cancelled so she could recuperate from what she considers the fight for her life, but eight months later she found herself out on the road and the weight of keeping up appearances began to exhaust her again. It was at the same time, while in Africa, she found out she was pregnant.
“When I got home and started my journey of deciding whether or not to bring another soul onto this playing field, I took a few weeks seeing doctors to figure out the right answer,” Marshall recalls.
“After I decided to be a mum, go forward and have a child – there weren’t any more questions. I needed to prepare. I needed to set up a home base. That’s instinctual, that’s what we do as primal beings.”
Her instinct led her from Brooklyn to a Spanish-style home on Miami Beach with all of her gear, three dogs and an engineer pal from France.
Three months after giving birth to her now three-year old son, she wrote the intro to Woman, the second single off Wanderer.
“If I had a dime for every time / Tell me I’m not what you need,” she sings through the phone. “If I had a quarter I would pull it together / And I would take it to the bank and then leave.”
“That’s where some sort of map gets created,” she continues. “I don’t know if it’s psycho-spiritual or what, but a map sort of gets laid out involving song writing or some type of vibration that shows me where I’m going musically.”
As a whole, Marshall describes Wanderer as a work about what’s worth letting go and what’s worth holding onto, though her experiences have shown her time and time again that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Apart from lovers and friends, for her that included leaving her musical home of 20 years – Matador Records.
“They said the album was no good,” she explains, still sounding slightly stung by the dissolution of the relationship. “So for about a year of time, I didn’t have a home for it – I didn’t have a label. I wasn’t sure if this work that I had recorded was gonna ever come out.
“But my job – it’s an incredible job, and I’m so grateful to have it – is to sing my songs for people. So for that year, I was touring with my child and just enjoying my life being a mum and trying not to get upset over ‘ …What am I gonna do with my life?’ I thought, maybe I’ll write a book. I’d love to write a book.”
It was then that Marshall was encouraged by a fellow female artiste making a name for herself by singing her blues – Lana del Rey (who provides vocals on Woman).
In the liner notes of her 2017 release Lust For Life, del Rey thanked Cat Power “for continuing to inspire me through your music and the work you do.” Upon meeting, Marshall says the pop singer “shook” her.
“(Lana del Rey) was like ‘Chan, you’re part of the musical landscape right now. It’s not before, it’s now,’” she remembers. “As a woman, as a friend, it’s like … your friends who aren’t singer-songwriters or musicians can tell you great, kind things: ‘You’re a great mum’ or ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing fine. The universe will bring you what you need.’ But for another female artiste to sort of shake me a little bit and say ‘Are you crazy? You’re great, do what you do, don’t think twice’ made me feel less alone.”
After that, Marshall struck a deal with Domino and linked up with engineer Rob Schnapf to finish mixing the record she produced entirely on her own. Apart from the ten original songs that make up the album’s unadorned essence – and bear testimony to her own confidence and resilience – Wanderer includes a hauntingly lingering cover of Rihanna’s 2013 single Stay.
Set to Marshall’s own piano accompaniment, she explains that the song fully encompassed how she was feeling during the album’s entire creative process.
“I didn’t even know he was recording,” she says. “He had the tape rolling and I’m blessed that he captured that. I can never play it again, I don’t know where to put my fingers to find it again – just making (stuff) up like that. The luck of the draw, and the magic of first takes. There are plenty of first takes that no one will ever hear.”
First, second and third takes aside, Marshall says part of her feels like she’s finally figured something out. Well, she says she’s at least been able to make good on something she told herself two decades ago.
“It was the 20th anniversary of my album Moon Pix so I went to Sydney, Australia to play one show. I played the entire record. I stopped playing that album in 1999, so I hadn’t played these songs in … forever. But when I arrived to the stage, I felt a message that I had always knew. Like a wrinkle in time,” Marshall explains.
“I felt very clear, and I knew – this sounds crazy – but I knew that I had told myself 20 years ago ‘You’re gonna be okay, just hang in there. You’ve got this, don’t worry. Keep your chin up.’ I was singing these songs from a really hard time in my life and I realised that if I’ve learned anything it’s that I knew I wouldn’t let myself down.
“Right now, it’s such an emotionally abrasive time for everybody, it’s very brutal. All the media – it’s a lot to digest. But that’s why I won’t stop what I do. We all need connection in this dominant disparity. You turn on the TV and it’s just – I don’t know. Anyway, I won’t get started. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I can’t let myself down. I knew I’d be okay, I don’t know how I knew that, but I did. If you choose life like that every day, life gets better.” – Tribune News Service