I’m a Survivor

Photo: Stefano Giovannini

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.

Many artists with stage fright avoid the stage. So, why does Chan travel the world performing all the time? “That’s something I can’t answer,” she says. “I don’t know what else to do. In a perfect world, I would be in love and have children and have a reason to stay in one place and not do this anymore.”

When I say it seems like she might be running away from something, she gets upset. “Running away from what? What is there? I think about this a lot. I’m just alone.” Maybe stability?

“Well, where do you find that?” Chan asks loudly. “You can’t buy that anywhere!”

Before there was Cat Power or Chan Marshall, there was Charlyn Marie Marshall, born in Georgia in 1972. Her parents divorced and remarried shortly thereafter. She shuffled all around Georgia and Alabama, living with her mother or father or grandmother, and never staying anywhere long enough to make permanent friends.

At 16, Chan became estranged from her mother (she wouldn’t speak to her again until she was 24—they’re still not close) and moved in with her father, who’s also a musician, in Atlanta. “When I moved in,” Chan recalls, “he got a baby grand. I wasn’t allowed to touch it.” She switches to a stern, exaggerated man’s voice. “ ‘Chan! The piano is not a toy.’ Like I’m a child. I’m fuckin’ 16 years old. It would make me so sad, because I loved it. So, he’d leave and I’d beat the shit out of it. Imagine if he’d let me play and taught me? Imagine.” During her senior year, Chan dropped out of school and moved out. Her father’s no longer in her life.

Chan bought a fifties Silvertone guitar when she was 18. She thought it was beautiful, but she didn’t touch it for a year. “It was art in the corner.” Only later, on days off from work, would she play with it.

Atlanta had a vibrant but unheralded rock scene. After joining in some impromptu basement jams, Chan hooked up with a local scenester named Glen Thrasher, a guitarist named Mark Moore, and a couple of other musicians. Another band asked the loose collective to open for them, but they needed a name. Chan was working the register at a pizzeria when Moore called. “There was a line of people,” she recalls. “Mark was yellin’, ‘We need a name!’ This old man came in wearing a ‘Cat Diesel Power’ cap. I was like, ‘Cat Power!’ and hung up the phone.”

One of Cat Power’s early songs was titled “We All Die”—“I thought those songs were triumphant,” she says.

Drugs hit the group’s social circle hard. “Everyone started doin’ heroin,” Chan says, “and becoming a junkie.” Chan never uses the word die; she says “pass away,” and a disproportionate number of her friends have passed away. After one death, “I wanted to escape Atlanta,” so in 1992, Chan and Thrasher moved to the East Village.

New York was a new beginning. “I felt like I survived something,” she says. Thrasher took her to the club ABC No Rio, which was an awakening for Chan, whose eclectic but limited tastes extended from the Jesus Lizard to Hank Williams. “The lights were superbright, and there was a naked girl and some guy beating metal. It was so inspiring.”

She and Thrasher gigged around with an ever-evolving lineup. Gerard Cosloy, co-founder of the label Matador, who first saw them perform at a loft party, recalls that “Chan had extremely short hair, almost shaved in a military style. She was very tentative about the audience, but she had a presence that said, ‘This is a serious thing.’ ”

Chan waitressed and did odd jobs like organizing the apartment of a woman who had obsessive-compulsive disorder. (“She would have twelve bottles of shampoo in the shower, the same damn thing, with a little bit in each one.”) She found a cheap room in a shared East Village apartment for $150. She still has it. The rent is now $199.

In 1993, Thrasher moved back to Atlanta. Cat Power was now officially Chan and whoever else (if anybody) playing with her. For the next few years, she worked with Sonic Youth’s drummer, Steve Shelley, and Tim Foljahn from Two Dollar Guitar. In 1996, after she’d recorded two albums, including Myra Lee (named after Chan’s mother, something they’ve still never discussed), Cat Power was signed by Cosloy to Matador. The first few releases were characterized by often nightmarish and impenetrable lyrics. In “Good Clean Fun,” she sings, “After this there will be nothing / After this there will be heads on different bodies.” One song is titled “We All Die.”

“I felt that those songs were triumphant,” Chan says. “In order to survive, I had to explain reality. Those songs were a way of feeling stuff and seeing stuff, and there was a narrative. There was someone who was able to get through it to tell it.”

Her next two albums—the languid dreamscape Moon Pix (1998), and The Covers Record (2000), a stark, minimal take on artists like the Rolling Stones that often leaves its source material completely unrecognizable—furthered her reputation as an indie-folk visionary. Then came 2003’s You Are Free, a mixture of her quiet solo work pitted against traditional rock, which would be a worldwide hit. She even played the Letterman show, hunched over the piano with her hair covering her entire face in a buttoned-down shirt as big as a muumuu.

Success should have been cause for celebration, but Chan was breaking up with her first and only long-term boyfriend, and she threw her beloved Silvertone across a hotel room and smashed it. “It was either that or jump out the window,” she says. The tour didn’t help her stability. “In the morning I would go to the mini-bar and get Jack Daniel’s and do that all day long. Obviously, I was really unhappy, but I wasn’t goin’ to let myself know that, so I made sure I was drunk for every minute of every fuckin’ day. I was a mess. But again, it was the best time of my life. I don’t remember anything.”

It’s 10 a.m. on an overcast Wednesday, and Chan is by the pool at the Delano Hotel in Miami, wearing Blueblocker sunglasses from Kmart, sweatpants, and a plaid shirt. But when the sun emerges, she takes off all those things to reveal a blue pin-striped Louis Vuitton bikini.

After the You Are Free tour, Chan bought a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the hotel. Around this time, she also turned her cell phone off and ended communication with most everyone in her life (she hasn’t spoken to some friends in almost two years). This self-imposed isolation is extreme but seems to have served its purpose. Yes, she gets lonely sometimes, but solitude is where her songs come from. Chan doesn’t really write songs so much as channel them. “Usually, I just have a guitar,” she says, “and it comes out. The next day, if I remember it, then it’s a song.” No lyrics or chords (not that she reads music) are written down. Instead of realizing that this is an innate talent, a gift akin to her voice, Chan feels embarrassed by it. “It’s like a hobby,” she says.

The exception to her paperless writing method is “Willie,” one of the best tracks on The Greatest. “Willie” began when Chan took a three-hour cab ride to visit her grandmother in Florida. “The driver’s name was Willie,” Chan says. “He was an older gentleman. I was in a really good mood and trying to talk to him.” But he had no interest in conversation. Before their journey began, she went with him to drop something off with his girlfriend. They drove down a gravel road to a trailer that was surrounded by yipping miniature dogs. A woman came out, and “she was beautiful, with bleached-blonde hair and a white T-shirt and cut-off blue-jean shorts and barefoot. When she started coming closer, I could see his face changing and he got real happy.”

They ended up talking for the entire trip, and he told Chan about the ring he was going to give his girlfriend the next week. Chan’s guitar was in the trunk, but she had a pen and paper. “There’d be stretches when we weren’t talking, and I’d be singin’ the melody in my head, writing everything down. We’d stop to get gas and the song would still be playing in my mind.”

Chan’s earlier music was “triumphant” in the sense that it’s about survival, about self-exposure as an exorcism for shyness and upset and anger. On The Greatest, Chan can now show the beauty in love. Whether she has found it for herself, she knows it’s out there and aspires to it.

But there may always be times when, surrounded by the world, she prefers to think of herself in isolation. Next month, she begins a new tour and will be backed by many of the musicians who appear on The Greatest. The New York show will be on Valentine’s Day at Town Hall. With any luck, there won’t be a spotlight on her, so she can forget about all the lovers gathered in the darkness.

I’m a Survivor