“I’ve always dressed like a dude,” Chan Marshall says. Wearing a bulky, hooded sweatshirt, Chan is chain-smoking in one of the few places left in the city where you can do so legally, a Soho cigar bar called Circa Tabac. Her large eyes are darkened by heavy mascara, and her bangs practically cover them, causing her to blink rapidly, almost as if she had a tic. Her mood is playful, easygoing, but once she starts discussing music, Chan gets as intense as her work.
On her albums, Chan (pronounced Shawn) uses the moniker Cat Power, and over the past ten years, she has built up a substantial cult following of people addicted to her gorgeous melancholia (including Ethan Hawke, who’s asked her to sing on the soundtrack to the new film he’s directing). For her fans, Chan is this generation’s Nick Drake or Nina Simone—with just as much eccentricity and tragic-romantic mystique.
An untrained guitarist and pianist, Chan plays music that has strains of most homegrown American genres: folk, rock, gospel, blues, and country, all sung in a soulful voice that’s usually described as smoky (the Parliaments may help). Listening to Cat Power’s albums, people with a predisposition toward sadness might think, This woman has not only felt the way I’ve felt before, but far worse. But though she’s one of those singers you might assume are damaged, she also telegraphs a kind of resilience. Her music may be sad, but it’s not depressing.
And this month, Chan’s emotional palette will be expanded with the release of her seventh album, The Greatest. Backing her are legendary musicians like Teenie and Flick Hodges, who played with Al Green and helped create the Memphis Soul sound in the seventies. It is, in many ways, the soundtrack to her southern childhood. Punctuated by brass and strings, The Greatest sounds as if it had been found in a musty crate of vinyl, yet is entirely modern at the same time. Lyrically, it is Chan’s most uplifting work, a celebration of all aspects of love. But fans who’ve found company in the sadness needn’t worry too much. The darkness is still there—the album is, above all else, a beautiful document of longing.
Chan must be proud of her accomplishment. “Proud?” she asks in her still-strong Georgia accent. “I wouldn’t use that word. But I feel protective about it, and I’ve never felt that way before.”
I first met Chan at a party in 1999, but these days we rarely see each other because she’s always on tour. This is unusual for any artist, but especially for Chan, who has such a complicated relationship with the stage. She hates spotlights, preferring to play in light as dim as possible. “It’s a battle every time,” Chan says about club owners’ insistence on illuminating her. “Maybe I should wear a Mexican wrestling mask.”
Cat Power shows can be incredible. Trancelike, she will sometimes go through more than twenty songs, often doing drastic reworkings of them. She never stops between numbers, the space filled with her plinking on the piano or guitar. This is to stop the audience from showing appreciation. Clapping is even worse than spotlights.
“Sometimes going from one song to the other,” Chan says, “I remember that the audience is there and go into a panic. And I think, Come on, Chan, what song? What song? and I can’t sing and I can’t concentrate and I think, I hate myself.”. When this happens, the result can be awkwardly somnolent, with Chan nervously tuning her guitar forever. “I’m not a professional entertainer. I’m not Neil Diamond.”
But her bad concerts can be worse than just awkward. They can be public meltdowns akin to bizarre performance art. These occasions are extremely rare, but of course they are what people remember. The most infamous show (and Chan’s personal worst) was in 1999 at the Bowery Ballroom. In a New York Times review (which Chan says is her favorite article on her because of its honesty) the concert was called “staggering for its inversion of standard rock performance ethics. Gone was the idea of exultation, or of showing what one can do; in its place was outrageously passive-aggressive behavior and non-musicianship.” Chan made it through only a few songs, and the night culminated in her asking what it would be like to be hit with a machete, and lying face down in tears. The band stormed offstage. Some audience members came up and patted her on the back.
This show changed her reputation, unfairly, from eccentric to full-on crazy. But Chan says there’s a reason for what happened that night. Before the show, when she ran upstairs to get her guitar, “this guy was there who I had known for a long time. He was on drugs and telling me crazy stuff. He had a gun and was trying to tease me that he had power.” Eventually, he let Chan go. But the whole time she was onstage, “I thought he was going to shoot me.” Two months later, she adds, the man shot both of his parents and himself. Only his father survived.