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Cat Power

Cat Power

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Wednesday 22nd January, 2014 10:34AM

Cat Power A.K.A Chan Marshall's life has never been particularly easy. The prodigious singer-songwriter spent her formative years nomadically travelling between 'homes'; never spending more than a few years in one place. She was crippled by alcoholism for a large part of early career, and briefly attended rehab in 2006 after her substance abuse and exhaustion peaked, following the release of her critically acclaim album, The Greatest. She subsequently moved to L.A and entered a period of stability in her life during which time she lived with her partner, actor Giovanni Ribisi and his teenage daughter, a situation she describes as such: "I made a decision that I was going to be a good female role model, because I had never had that growing up. Someone supposedly cared for me and I cared about him so I thought I’d try to make that work". She began writing her most recent album, Sun, in this environment; an important cocoon of support while she dealt with label pressure to deliver a commercially successful record. But this cocoon began to rot when Giovanni Ribisi (after having a profound - and critical - effect on the material included on Sun: "I played him the songs [I had written for Sun] and I had 25 holes in my heart from everything he said was wrong with them) abruptly left Marshall to marry supermodel Agyness Deyn. This, coupled with label pressure and a lack of support for the release of her forthcoming album, manifested physically in Marshall as a life-threatening throat condition called angiodema, and she was hospitalised for most of 2012 for treatment.

Marshall describes Sun as as "manifesto for personal power and fulfillment" and there is light at the end of her tale of woe. Sun was a commercial success, reaching the Billboard Top Ten (the first Matador album to do so in the label's history). This gave Marshall the confidence to begin touring solo again, something she hadn't done since 2006 (when critics described her performances as erratic and unpredictable) and, having already played in New Zealand last year she will return to headline Laneway Festival next week as part of her current Australasian tour. Chatting to Marshall down the phone, one does begin to understand the impact of her experiences. She discusses all of the aspects of her troubled past with surprising honesty and her lengthy, emotional monologues are broken only by her lighting of another cigarette or by her changing the path of our conversation entirely (in her own words: "my memory is fucked and it's getting worse and worse"). It seems like Marshal is constantly trying to replace a stock-standard answer with something more profound, which makes for a more interesting conversation and gives a little insight into how she has written simultaneously intimate and universally profound songs for over twenty years, throughout it all.

Hey, how are you Chan?

Good morning, how are you? Would you mind if I just grabbed a cigarette real quick, one second...awesome, good morning!

Good morning! You're back in Australia and you start your tour in the next few days yeah?

Yeah it’s great. I’m currently relaxing and getting over a little bit of jet lag and eating some passion fruit and drinking tea.

You were here about a year ago. What have you been up to between then and now?

I've been touring the whole time. I try to come here every year but sometimes people don’t really want me back - I still try and come back! I’ve been touring since June and I let my band go because that was kind of over, so I’ve been solo since the summer. I did this art-train-station-thing that Doug Aitken organised (he got a bunch visual artists and different people to get on a train and tour together) and that was the first time I’ve played solo since 2005.

Are you enjoying playing solo again?

You know, when I started out it was more improvisational melodic noise; that was in Atlanta before I moved to New York. I started playing by myself in '93 so I’ve got a lot of songs that I can’t remember because I’m almost 42...anyway, my memory is fucked and it’s getting worse and worse, but I think because I am older and have had different life experiences it feels different. Sorry I don't really know what I'm’s still depressing.

You still find playing live a depressing experience?

Well, I think that people kind of like to turn off their brain from meaningful thoughts at all times and I'm not like that; I like music that...well I don’t find it depressing anyway. But people have judged me and said that my music is depressing forever, and that doesn’t mean that they’re right but their understanding is that I write depressing music.

You've obviously used music as this personal outlet throughout the years, but you must also get people describing your music as something that is cathartic for them, rather than depressing, right? Like, they can find a way out of their experiences as you did?

Yeah. The norm for most people is that they need to be sure of everything so because of that Ive been defined as this depressing songwriter. But people who respect me or care about me either personally or as a songwriter would never call me depressing - and those are the people who I’m singing to. Those are the people who validate me doing what I do, and by validating me it makes me feel normal.

Do you think over the years you’ve been able to switch off the mainstream media or the people who have to put things into those aforementioned black and white terms? Has it become easier to ignore the criticism around you and your music?

Yeah I think my attitude is in a moment of shift right now, too. There are a few different pieces of a puzzle that are pushing me in a new direction.

In 2012 I had a Billboard Top Ten record. I had produced it myself and I had to fight with my record label to not have a producer; one person in the label specifically needed me to have a hit record and said I needed a producer and needed a famous band and blah blah blah. To feel safe and then to discover you’re not safe makes you - and I don’t want to use the clichéd word “stronger” here - work a lot harder than you would normally work. But when I came out with a Top Ten record on my own my sister was in jail and other things were happening to me personally - basically I was under a lot of pressure. I got really stressed out and my adrenal glands shut down and I was very sick for most of 2012. I got better last summer but by then I was bankrupt again because I had been sick [and had cancelled tours]. I wanted my record label to do press release for me to explain the situation and they wouldn’t, so I had to do it on Twitter and Facebook myself. I basically felt like I was in this terrible corporate cycle where I had written a hit record but couldn't get any support for it. But then I got offered a lot of different options. For example, this dude asked a whole lot of different artist to go on this art train experience called 'Station to Station'. I got on that train in the desert and I played solo for the first time since 2005 and that gave me this feeling like, “fuck I can do this”.

Critics certainly haven't described your latest album, Sun, as depressing. It has been received as a relatively uplifting record, right?

I played all the songs [I had written for Sun] to this dude, and I had like 25 holes in my heart from everything he said that was wrong with the songs. I’d never shared a fucking song I’d written in my life with anybody else, but I shared them with this “friend” and I got taken down by him, and then sold up the river. But I ended up buying myself back.

I just had to make sure that I covered all of my bases [on Sun]. That if it’s not good enough for me and my terms it doesn’t matter if it’s a Top Ten record. When it made the Top Ten I actually had a tube down my throat and they were going to put me in a coma because I wasn't getting oxygen to my brain and so having a Top Ten record didn't really mean shit to me. When I got out of hospital I just wanted to keep working really hard to support the record that no-one else was helping me to support. All of that work made me really physically ill, so now I’m just going to float around the world and do whatever I want to do; I love Australia and I love New Zealand and I love visiting.

In an interview around the time that Sun was released you described the record as a “manifesto for personal power and fulfilment” -

- Wow I said that? What did I say?

That the record was a "manifesto for personal power and fulfillment" -

- Wow that’s awesome.

Haha, it is! What were you going through at the time to imbue Sun with such strength?

As a kid I’d never been in one place for very long. The longest time I’ve ever spent in the same place was when I lived with my grandmother between when I was six months and four-and-a-half years old. Then I moved to L.A have a relationship with someone for four years and I had never lived in one place in that long in my entire life. As a female – because that’s the only perspective I can relate to, which is being a female in that relationship and being in a city that I’m not from - I made roots. He has a daughter and I wasn't travelling like I normally would because I had made the decision that I was going to be the good female role model because I hadn’t had that growing up and I didn’t know what that was like. Someone supposedly cared for me and I cared about him so I thought I’d try to make that work.

Anyway, usually when I write songs they are always a moment in time; like a thought or a feeling or a hunger or a craving. With this album I was doing the same thing I’ve always done: written about the human struggle. Human struggle exists even in the representation of the perfect life in films; everyone has human struggle. So I think I was writing in the same way but the recorded material is audibly different because the dude didn’t like my fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen songs, so I made a commitment not to touch the piano or guitar when I was recording them, which are the only instruments I really know. So I started with drums and synthesizers because I wanted machines that made different kinds of noises so I could be inspired or could learn. Miles Davis once said "mistakes are never wrong", and I’ve always felt that.

I'm the proudest of Sun that I have ever been of any record in my life because I never really gave a shit about my life growing up; I was always just surviving. During The Greatest I was totally drunk every single day but this time I truly fought to protect myself, particularly as far as translating those original songs onto record that the dude didn’t like and found too depressing / too down tempo / too old Cat Power or whatever the fuck he said. That’s why these songs sound different - because I got rejected so I made sure that if they were going to sound different, I was going to do it myself.

It sounds like you had to imbue the record with quite a lot of power and aggression?

When I’m sitting around laying on the ground with incense and the last thing I want to do is be creative because I’m just exhausted from my personal and domestic life and different thing sin the world; Monday through Friday maybe there’s one day you just don’t want to fucking do what you have to do. There were days when I definitely just wanted to be with my dogs in the studio and make the engineers feel comfortable and didn’t want to have to be fucking constantly protecting my shit. But, after almost dying a couple of times in the past year and a half I don’t want to die because I'm getting sick from protecting my art; I’d rather die for a more meaningful reason and not kill myself from the stress of this world.

Speaking of imbuing your music with meaning, it seems like you are really affected by politics and society, and particularly what goes on around you –

- I’m not affected, I’m a bystander. What a bystander is affected by is by all the horrible shit that the country I’m born in and different countries do to great masses of people, and to our earth. I’m affected by how I see these gas companies and these logging companies going into the Amazon and passing laws (last year) that all of the Amazonian tribes are going to be exterminated. That sort of shit is actually going on! I just try to meet as many people around the world as I can and try to introduce as many people with the same interests to each other but I have yet to meet somebody that it means the same to. People today all still have their apartment and their responsibilities and they don't travel, and if they do travel they’re trying to break through borders and do things that get them arrested and possibly shot and killed. I understand that and that’s what they feel they have to do but there’s got to be a real solution to all of these atrocities. The international movement I feel most confident about is the Occupy movement, but even they're not going into hard politics.

It seems like you can’t turn off being affected by the horror in the world whereas a lot of people can, by distracting themselves with other things.

Oh dude! I have all kinds of different friends around the world. There are some friends I can stay up with with for 24 hours straight trying to organise shit and put people together. But the people you’re talking about call me crazy; they close their door at night; get the kids inside; don’t read the paper; don’t watch the news; don’t want to know. I’m the one talking to their kids about fracking, and saying “hey, all of that cheese you eat is related to cancerous tumours” and the kids are right with me, asking questions, and there is tonnes of information on the internet - and they are internet superheroes!

I do know how to turn it off. It's like I'm doing an interview right now and I have 15 minutes to talk about things and you’re going to ask me questions about myself, and I’m going to tell you the truth, and then people's reaction is like “oh poor you, you’re sick” but I just don’t care what people think. Maybe it’s better just to stand alone and just fucking travel around and do the best I can. I just wish there was a place where we could get the world out; I’m very curious as to why there isn’t a fucking world congress.

Well, there’s the United Nations…

Yeah it’s hard for a bunch of people in Iowa or a bunch of people in Bangalore in Haiti to get together and joint he UN; it’s very difficult for most people on the planet to have any effect on the UN. Russia, Great Britain, America, China – the traditional super powers – control the UN. I believe that an inclusive organisation is completely achievable and so that’s why I talk about it. But I can shut up in five minutes and start talking about sex jokes if I can see that my friends are uncomfortable, too. I can hear them thinking: “I don’t want to know anything else about the dolphins being slaughtered and their meat being fed to public schools”.

I think we're going to have to wrap up because we've gone way over time! Good luck with your Australian tour.

Thank you. Growing up my Dad was a musician and he would go to work every night and he would tell me from a young age to say "break a leg" instead of good luck. So I always have to say that to people when they say "good luck" to me. In the performing arts where there's no competition unless you're on a dancing TV show, it's break a leg because the only person that matters in that room besides yourself is the audience. And it is the audience who decides whether the performance was good or not. It's not a journalist, like this bitch in Chicago who works for the Chicago Tribune and is a fucking cunt and did a review and said I was annoying - personal shot downs and the like. She was shitting on me because of my personal attributes; the way I look; the way I talk; what I talk about in-between songs. But it's not her opinion that matters, it's what the audience says, and that's all I care about.