Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) plays Perth Festival on Valentine’s Day having released her critically acclaimed 10th album Wanderer in October last year. Wanderer (with her 3 year old son on the cover) returned her to the stripped back sounds and gothic landscapes of The Covers Record (2000), and away from previous album Sun (2002) with its tilt towards a more studio-enhanced sound and pop outlook. PAUL DOUGHTY caught up with Chan (pronounced “Shawn”) while she was en route to the airport, dealing with a flu after a short stay at home between travel and not having bathed in four days (she admitted unselfconsciously). Rapid, yet flowing and/or halting, stream-of-consciousness speech was intermittently peppered with “you know”s, “um”s, “sorrys” as well as enthusiastic interruptions and well-considered pauses, and included parking her car at the airport and tipping the attendant. Cat Power, supported by Carla Geneve, plays Chevron Gardens on February 14.
Your most recent visit to Australia last year was to play (1998’s) Moon Pix album at the Sydney Opera House. What was it like, and how was it playing with Jim (White) and Mick (Turner) again?
The rehearsals were different. They were also super emotional but in a different… You know I hadn’t played those songs I think since 1999. The friends that Mick and Jim and I have…we’re fucking not kids anymore. Everybody on the planet has lost friends and loved ones, the stage that we’re at. Right? So I think a lot of just even rehearsals, knowing that we were alive and kicking, you know? So I felt really giddy, like I had been granted a special glimpse into my future by being present. I don’t know how to describe it. I felt like I was looking into the future, that’s how I felt. Rather than the opposite. I mean, like, looking into the future like there I was today, or that night that I was there, or rehearsing those days. I felt like it was 20 years ago looking into the future. That I always knew deep down in my soul that I was gonna be ok. And I realised that for the first time in my life that when I was there singing with the audience… But – next question! (laughs). Sorry! (whispers) Sorry.
I think that most of Wanderer would have been already in the can by the time you did the Moon Pix show…
Do you know what wasn’t in the can? The first song I started recording for the album and the last song that I finished was a song called Woman. It was never attached to the album. Not with my previous record label who rejected my album, after being with them for 20-something fucking years. And then my new record label, and there were other record labels that didn’t like it, didn’t want to put it out. The song called Woman was never part of the album. I just knew what I didn’t know, which was that it didn’t belong on the record. I didn’t need that song to be sad. And I couldn’t figure out why it was sad to me until you-know-who – L.D.R. (Lana Del Rey, who guests on the song) – she reached out to me at the time where I didn’t have a record label. Remember in the old days, different bands and musicians and indie rock and things, we’d like slept on each other’s floors on tour, and we’d find each other’s records in record stores and we’d hear each other on college radio and things like this and all of that is kinda gone and shifted away. People aren’t in those bands, you know what I mean? So that formula for camaraderie or community has been gone for a while. Everyone knows that.
So when she reached out to me during the time of the year when I did not have a label and really was not sure… You know I’d love to write a book, that’s what I’d love to do. But I wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to do. But luckily I was able to continue working by touring. To support my child, my family, my life. And then she reached out to me a few times and… we hung out a few times, she came to Miami where I live, and she blatantly was explaining that no matter my circumstances, no matter my situation currently, you know – at that time, she demanded that I recognised that I was relevant. At that moment when I didn’t… I felt very frightened. It was a very difficult time and she basically helped me lift up my chin up a little bit and move forward.
She invited me to go on tour with her. Now, when I went on tour with her, I had to go right from that tour to L.A. to finish the record to master it. So that’s when I pulled the cat out of the bag. I pulled Woman out and asked Lana: “Would you sing on this?” Because I realised… no one wants to hear a sad triumphant song. I wanted to feel strong. I wanted to be unapologetic in the message and the content. And I knew if she chose whatever words she wanted to sing, on her own terms – “You want to sing on that song with those words? Great. Whatever.” Then it would present to the consciousness of humanity that people – that women – are multidimensional. That this isn’t just a sad Cat Power perspective of being a woman. There are millions of perspectives that we have, and we’ve been made to shut up for a long time, you know? In more ways than a thousand. You know religiously, socially… I won’t get into all of this but, sorry, I just thought you’d wanna know about that.
I like the new “wanderer” theme of the album, and it’s good to see it showing up in a lot of best of lists this time of year, so congratulations…
I know I’m so happy! It hasn’t even hit me yet. I don’t know how to process it, I wasn’t sure it was going to come out. I was told it was shit, you know. I was told it wasn’t worth anything because it wasn’t a hit record, you know. I’ve been told that before. But moving on…
Well, your fans don’t necessarily want hits either. But my question was – growing up in Georgia, I suspected you never imagined that you would embark on this life of travel.
I got the feeling because of your experience as a troubadour you felt a kind of obligation to communicate to people the lessons learned. And was that part of the vibe of Wanderer?
You know I think that’s always been the vibe of my songwriting. Whether anybody ever hears the song, whether it ever gets recorded. I have a lot of songs that have never been recorded, I have a lot of songs that I’ll never release that have been recorded. My point is that I’m never releasing a song for a reason. Writing a song, I’m not sitting down with a typewriter to make up an idea. I’m not trying to get away from what you were just asking me, but the point is I’m not analysing it yet. It’s something that, like with the Woman song – not wanting to release that, analysing it. But when I’m writing something, when something’s coming out, when I’m making something up it’s… What was your fucking question again? (laughs)
It was more the sort of wisdom…
You know the thing is that all my records – I don’t know what I’m doing and I produce pretty much all my records. I had to fight for that one. What was it that you said? Something about a troubadour?
I was wondering if you had a different take on things because of this travelling life, were you trying to get some messages out through the lyrics?
Oh, right. That was me trying to summarize a fucking bio (laughs). You know, how can I possibly explain that every song I’ve ever written is me going through some fucking process up to this point. Everything is a process. I’ve been travelling since I was a little girl. I lived with tons of different people, different bands and strangers and families. I travel a lot so I think I have the psychological backbone for adapting really well to new people and new environments and things like this.
I think songwriting came normal because of my dad and stepdad, all these people that were in bands that I grew up with. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do, I wanted to write fucking stories and paint paintings. But because I sang all the time, with my friends I started Cat Power with in Atlanta. I just loved to sing all the time. But I didn’t even discover my fucking voice until the Jukebox record, which was with the Dirty Delta Blues. That was the first time I’ve ever sang in public and actually enjoyed my fucking time on stage. Like it was brutal – the posturing, the pretension, you know, the ego manifestation of the fucking stage? I fucking hated it. It was all about poetry. But then when I remembered how to sing like I was fucking 6 years old again it was very liberating.
It took me so many years to figure that out about myself, even as a storyteller. Because all the greats that I grew up loving since I was fucking 10 years old – from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan – all these storytellers, they could sing the same fucking song, every one of these people – Johnny Cash, Nina Simone – they could all sing the same song written by the same person, but everybody tells their own story the way they sing. You know they describe an unspoken nuance that educates us about human behaviour, human spirituality and all that stuff.
So that’s what was important to me. And it still is. That’s the most important thing to me, because that’s the story. The blood of it is that I’m just trying to find the beauty in this chaotic life. And so I think that that’s what all my records kinda try to do. Because life can be really ugly. And that’s what I think all my songs have always tried to do which is… get it off of me.
(after pause) Yeah, ok. That’s a damn good answer (laughs) I’ll cut it up into something…
Awww! (laughs) You’ll cut it up into hip hop?
Well actually that was one of my questions, because when you did that 5-10-15 Pitchfork thing, you mentioned your love of some hip hop albums, and I’ve always like your I’ve Been Thinking with Handsome Boy Modelling School.
I mean being a kid in the 70s you know, which influenced… Hip hop had all those great records, you know. Funk, everything, you know? Everything you can think of, from Sly to Sister Sledge to whatever. Parliament, everything you can think of. I used to listen to a funk band called Mother’s Finest from Atlanta as a kid. Like – anybody who grew up in the 70s in America, knows all about Stevie Wonder, knows all about funk. So me loving hip hop isn’t so strange. I’m a kid of the 70s from Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not strange.
You know the first fucking video that MTV aired was – I already heard Sugar Hill gang from rollerskating – but the first video that MTV ever aired was The Message by Grandmaster Flash. So – of course I love hip hop. I’m a little girl, and listening to these fucking dudes from the Bronx. The world doesn’t look like that – I live on a tobacco field. So yeah, of course I love hip hop, it’s part of my upbringing. It’s part of the American life story, you know?
But then, maybe I’m wrong, because I’m learning that most people haven’t been raised like me.