In the current issue of Dazed & Confused, Chan Marshall talks new sounds, breakdowns and being saved from suicide by Mary J Blige
In between yaps from her bulldog, Chan Marshall aka Cat Power is talking about Sun, an uplifting concoction of electronic beats and poppy melodies that explores new territories for Marshall. We last spoke just days before Christmas 2005, on the eve of the release of her melancholic, Memphis-infused record The Greatest. Over dinner and drinks in Miami’s South Beach, she was in a fragile, agitated state; just as her album was gathering acclaim, Marshall’s personal world was collapsing. The next morning she cut short Dazed’s shoot, locked the door of her condo and retreated into isolation; days later, she was admitted to hospital following a stress-and-alcohol-induced breakdown.
This year, Marshall turned 40. She broke up with her boyfriend, chopped off her hair and finished Sun, a record with an unmistakable new confidence at its heart. In the years since we met, “I’ve pulled it together,” she told us from Miami.
Dazed & Confused: It’s been a long time... How are you?
Chan Marshall: I’m so sorry about the last time I saw you. It was fucking horrible. You were the last person I saw before I went into hospital. Remember we went to that bar? On the walk home I was thinking, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ This piece of paper was floating in front of me down the block, it was Mary J Blige’s face – she had a new record out. And that’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I won’t.’ After the hospital – I was in seven days – that was the first record I listened to, and I’ve been listening to it again recently, The Breakthrough. Back then I felt so lucky to be alive. Listening to it now, because of the recent break-up I had, it’s completely empowering.
D&C: What’s your life been like since we met?
Chan Marshall: Well, I began a relationship and moved to Los Angeles to be with him. I was definitely approaching life in a different way for the first time. He has a daughter who is very important in my life. From six months old, to 40 years now, I never lived anywhere as long as I did in Los Angeles. It was a learning period for me, about myself, what I really want, all that good stuff.
D&C: Was the more electronic sound a deliberate attempt to change how you usually write?
Chan Marshall: I played my songs to somebody and they said, ‘This is like old Cat Power, kinda boring.’ I put the songs in the closet, thought, ‘Fuck that.’ I try to save money for when I’m homeless, when I’m old, because it comes and goes for musicians. But I spent all my savings renting this house in Malibu to make these songs. I swore I wasn’t going to touch a piano or guitar first ’cause that’s how I write, so I went to the synths, to the drums instead. I listened to the skeleton of it and I was like, ‘It sounds like shit. It’s like medieval sci-fi.’ My boyfriend – now ex – played me the new Beastie Boys song and that’s when I knew who to mix with, Philippe Zdar. I had to play Paris the next week, so I met him at a café in Montmartre. He said, ‘I don’t want to do much, because you need to keep your sound.’
I could never see me being connected with that word, ‘strong’. I didn’t feel strong. Recently, I have been able to pull it together, and be a success. To me, success is happiness
D&C: Because you’re self-taught, you have a unique way of playing.
Chan Marshall: Yeah, because I’m stubborn! I didn’t want to play like someone else plays. If someone teaches you how to bake a cake, you’re going to bake it the way they do. It’s so simplistic, what I do. Teenie Hodges (Memphis-based songwriter and guitarist famed for his work with Al Green) told me, ‘It’s so simple, it’s difficult.’
D&C: Can you remember the first song you wrote?
Chan Marshall: Yeah, it was when I lived on the tobacco fields in North Carolina in McLeansville. My neighbour had a piano, and, after school, I would run to her house – she’d always be watching soap operas. I’d only play the black keys. The song was called ‘Windows’. I used to write stories, too.
D&C: About stuff that was happening in your life?
Chan Marshall: No they were like dreams. One was about this psychotic killer, written from his perspective. There was another story about a little girl who was taken by her father, and put in a boarded-up house. He banged a hole through the closet so she could survive, piss and shit, but there was no way out. She prevailed in the end. Then I started painting – art class was the only thing I was good at. When I lived with my dad, he was never home so I’d get stoned all the time and just listen to music and paint. My parents were teenagers when they got pregnant – they never went to college, they were just in bands. So I had their collection – Black Flag, 70s radio stuff like Sister Sledge and Barry White, psychedelic rock, blues, jazz…
D&C: Were you always comfortable with your voice?
Chan Marshall: Absolutely not. Well, I knew all these hymns growing up, when my grandma took me to church. I knew country songs. There’s a cassette of me aged six singing ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Salty Dog’. I went to 13 schools growing up, so I was always the new kid. You know when you go play sports, you have to change your clothes? I’d always wait until every-body left, and then change. I’d sing, because it sounded like a fucking amazing studio, because it’s all tiled – schools in the south are real old, from the 30s and 40s. The basketball team would come in after school and I’d sing for them, it gave me confidence.
D&C: Was religion part of growing up?
Chan Marshall: My dad was a Jehovah’s Witness. My parents both have Cherokee blood, so my mom liked going to pow-wows. I got baptised for my grandmother because I knew she wanted it so much. I’m 40 now, it took me, like, 35 years to get rid of all that knowledge of demons and Satan – it was real hard on me growing up. The last time I saw you, that’s what I was dealing with. I thought I was in hell, in a processing centre for your soul. I’d just seen my ex-boyfriend get arrested and put into a psychiatric ward. Then I got a plane to Atlanta, and I started hearing voices. I went straight to a psychiatric centre and they put me on an experimental anti-psychotic that I shouldn’t have been on. And then I went to shoot a video with Harmony Korine, and he put me on a cross. Which is fine, I love Harmony so much, but my frame of mind was... I was on another planet. Then I got on a plane to meet you. I shut the door when you guys left, closed all the curtains, didn’t sleep for days. I thought I was going to be led to some sacrifice for Satan. My friend got me to hospital, she was crying in the taxi, said it was because her stomach hurt, but she was crying because she saw what a mess I was. I got there and these guys in white outfits took me. I was hearing lions growling, all these people whispering by my bed.
D&C: When did you realise what had happened?
Chan Marshall: There were all these orchids, I thought they were from God. I was beating myself up in there, ramming into the wall to kill myself, I thought that was the only way I’d get to heaven. My friends would come visit, I didn’t know who the fuck they were, and on the third day, I recognised them but I thought they were imposters. My doctor called it a psychotic break due to stress. After I had slept, my mind was stronger. There was a piece of stainless steel drilled into the tile, and I told myself, ‘Chan, go look in the mirror.’ But another voice was saying I was an 85-year-old World War II veteran who’s been homeless, got no teeth, one arm. I made myself look. And it was exactly the face I knew from when I was six but with 30 years pasted on to it. I ran into the shower and washed my hair, changed into new pyjamas, fresh socks that smelled so good, I combed my hair, and the nurse said, ‘You’ve decided to join us, Ms Marshall.’ She gave me a mood stabiliser and antidepressant. I ate lunch, and then played that game Uno with my friend, because I knew I had to pass some kind of test. It felt like I was on a tightrope or getting an Academy Award – there were people in white coats with clipboards, writing down everybody’s activity. Some people were eating their cards, or throwing them in the air. I don’t remember if I won Uno, but I was let out the next day. My friends were at my apartment, someone had sent me a big, white teddy bear. I was sober and I’d lost 30 pounds.
D&C: People are talking about the ‘old’ Chan and the ‘new’ Chan, about how confident Sun sounds. Does it feel that way to you?
Chan Marshall: I could never see me being connected with that word, ‘strong’. I didn’t feel strong. Recently, I have been able to pull it together, and be a success. To me, success is happiness. And I think I do have the will for that. When I was recording The Greatest, I was in a bottle the whole time. I don’t want to dwell on the past. I just need to put one foot in front of the other. That’s how I’ve been living since I saw you. It’s about focusing on the present tense.
Sun is out now on Matador
Photography Jaime Salazar