Folk Heroine

Photo: Rahav Segev/Matador Records

Even when she is only speaking, Chan Marshall has an unforgettable voice. There’s a vague southern accent, and the timbre is incredibly soft, even when she’s saying “bullshit,” which she does a lot. Like to express her incredulity over the fact that she has become a serious darling of the fashion world. “When I first started to meet people who liked my music, I was like, Bullshit,” she says, peering shyly from beneath a thick fringe of bangs. “Nicolas Ghesquière? Bullshit. And Marc Jacobs? Bullshit.”

As she tumbles out of the Hudson Hotel one summer morning, it is obvious why such designers – and, despite her protestations, very good friends – as Jacobs and Ghesquière are inviting her to their shows and describing her as a muse. She’s even featured in a new series of ads for the Gap, alongside Joan Allen and Alan Cumming. She looks glamorous, in a louche, Jane Birkin folk-rock way, despite the fact that today her long hair hasn’t been washed and she is wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans. Beside her is Daniel, her lanky 22-year-old runway-model boyfriend, with his T-shirt wrapped on his head like a turban.

Marshall, 29, is known onstage as Cat Power, a name she stumbled on as a teenager in Atlanta. “I started down there with a group of my guy friends,” she explains. “I had a guitar because I liked the way it looked. And then suddenly we had a show.” Charged with coming up with a name for the band on the spot, Marshall lifted the name from a Cat Diesel hat.

She moved to New York nine years ago, not necessarily to become a musician. “I came here to get away from down there,” she says. “The colors are pretty and there’s frogs and things and nature and tobacco fields or whatever, but it’s totally religious and conservative and the whole idea is that if you don’t have money you’re nothing.” And she had a hard time with her family – her mother moved around a lot, and her father threw her out when she failed tenth grade. So it’s not surprising that she liked the anonymity of New York. She started hanging out at ABC No Rio, a punk collective and performance space on the Lower East Side. A friend arranged for Marshall to open for Liz Phair in 1994, and after the show she was deluged with offers. “Steve Shelley was there from Sonic Youth,” she says. “He was like, ’Oh, that was great what’s your name who are you do you have a record?,’ and I said, ‘I can’t do a record with you.’ Mostly because I was intimidated.” Eventually, she relented and signed with Matador Records, home of local indie-rock types like Yo La Tengo and Stephen Malkmus.

Marshall’s voice is deep and soothing and incredibly intimate. Her most recent album, The Covers Record, which came out in 2000, is a lonely, heartbreaking reconstruction of songs like “Satisfaction” and “Sea of Love.” On her four other albums – there’s a fifth on the way in late fall – Marshall is the songwriter. It’s fragile music; Marshall is a famously fragile person. In 1996, she suffered a breakdown following a trip to Africa and the deaths of two friends. She retreated to South Carolina and decided not to make music anymore. But a horrible nightmare woke her up one night, and, to stay awake and keep the demons at bay, she started singing again.

But Marshall is still prone to somewhat erratic behavior. While waiting to be interviewed for a fanzine in France in 1998, she got so frightened that she took off her clothes, stuffed them under the covers of her bed, and sat crying in the corner with the lights off. She’s graduated from singing with her back to the audience to burying her face in her hair, though she is still given to tears onstage and to disappearing in the middle of shows – and even in the middle of songs. But her visible discomfort is, on some levels, one way she relates to her audience: “I saw her live in London,” says designer Hussein Chalayan, a tremendous fan, “and it was as though she was performing and hiding at the same time. She has a unique quality that I can only describe as ‘shy confidence.’ ” After Marshall broke down at a 1999 show, her band took off, furious, but her fans were forgiving. They patted her back and comforted her.

On this summer day, though, Marshall shows a lighter side; she mixes her pathos with a fair dose of irony. She’s on her way to Atlanta, to do her taxes (“When you’re self-employed like me,” she says, rolling her eyes, “it’s a real pain”). “I’ve got my new album in here,” Marshall says, gesturing to her computer. “I’ve got sixteen songs. They graduate. They start with the big thirties radio songs, and it goes through the morning after the sixties are over. I’m thinking about doing a double record – something that goes into rock and is more experimental.” She smiles. “It’s just that I don’t want it to be a total downer.”

Over the last few years, Marshall’s photographer friends on the Lower East Side – Mark Borthwick, Terry Richardson – began snapping her. (Richardson recently shot her alongside Catherine Deneuve for a Purple magazine spread.) And soon stylists and designers were buzzing about her neo-grunge style – those ornate little blazers and torn Levis. Though their looks are quite different, there is a similarity between Marshall and last year’s ubiquitous fashion muse, Chloë Sevigny: As fashion becomes increasingly corporate, the industry is hungry for people with a style that is less conventional.

There is always the chance that Marshall, like Sevigny, will wind up known more for her look than for her body of work. But she has enough of a sense of humor about the fashion world to keep that day at bay, at least for a while. “We were in Paris a couple of weeks ago and we were invited to the Givenchy haute couture show,” she remembers, “and I was like, ’What? I’m not going to buy a $200,000 dress.’ But I got really dressed up. I wore these high heels and pretended I was somebody else. Everyone wanted to know who I was.”

Folk Heroine