Cat Power: The Singer Of The Song

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

“There’s a lot of loss in these songs. There’s a lot of great fortune and light and love and wonder. But with all great love there is always great loss.”

Chan Marshall, also known as Cat Power, is calling from her hotel room in Los Angeles. She’s just arrived from a trip to her hometown of Atlanta, where she attended a funeral for a close friend. She’s talking about a song called “Black,” which appears on her new album Wanderer and serves as a compassionate warning of sorts to those in danger of succumbing to their addiction. It’s a topic that hits close to home for Marshall, who says she has lost many friends to addiction since around the time she was 20 years old.

“People who I have been close to who have lost their lives to addiction, they didn’t want to be told,” she says. “They need help and they don’t want the help. Then they do want it and it’s a cycle. That song ‘Black’ is a cycle of loss. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s playing with death any objective pain you might be having because they’re going through so much shit in their own heart.”

Since the release of her most recent album Sun in 2012, Marshall has experienced a great deal of loss and transition. She counts the passing of several of her friends as well as the end of an important romantic relationship among the upheavals in her personal life. And when she finished Wanderer, her longtime record label, Matador, let her go.

She has also found new sources of joy and meaning. She gave birth to a son, now three and a half, in 2015. She cites her experience as a mother and the perspective she’s gained as she’s grown older she’s now 46 as invaluable sources of inspiration for the songs that comprise Wanderer.

“My record label of 23 years, rejected the album,” she says. “Then I had to find a new home for it. I was in a situation at that point because I really loved this record. It has a lot of information that, as a woman who’s older and a mother and has a lot of different kind of life experiences. For the first time in my life, I feel very grounded as a human, as a woman.”

Matador wanted Marshall to give them another Sun. That album remains her biggest commercial success, giving Marshall her first Billboard Top 10 album. As of September 2018, Sun has sold over 114,000 copies in the United States.

“I loved Sun so much because of all the work I put into it,” she says. “My ex-label had said they needed a hit record and I needed famous producers, but I worked so hard to do everything myself. Every sound you hear I did. That’s why I love that record Sun so much, because I made damn sure I was going to do every fucking thing myself.”

While making Wanderer, Marshall maintained that independence and self-sufficiency. She produced the album herself and wrote all of its tracks, with the exception of a stark, beautiful cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.” She used the songs as “totems” to help her work through her period of transition and to help make sense of the drastically changing political landscape in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Accordingly, the songs were and remain deeply personal for Marshall, who made it her mission to protect them from outside pressure and scrutiny.

“This entire album, the process, the broken relationship with the past label, the fucking state of our American political system right now — I really love this record because I feel there is some sort of protection over the content,” she says. “I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s because of the protection I had to have regarding the process. I feel very proud of releasing an album that feels honest and makes me feel good about myself. It’s very important to me that I feel confident that this album feels honest, safe and protected.”

Wanderer begins with one of two title tracks. (The second closes the album.) The opening “Wanderer” is bright, airy and hopeful, clocking in at just over a minute and built on a gorgeous display of a cappella vocals from Marshall, who sings a gradually swelling melody that recalls traditional gospel music. The closer takes the same concept but colors it more darkly, adding rootsy acoustic guitar and vocal reverb that makes Marshall sound distant, closed off. It’s as though she knows she’s given something precious in the preceding songs and caps them in defiance, daring anyone to challenge her artistic vision. 

The simplicity of those two tracks is found across the entire LP. The arrangements are built on Marshall’s voice, guitar and piano, with scant else added. As such, the album has a rawness not heard on Sun, one that hews closely to the vulnerable spirit of the original, just-written incarnations of the final studio tracks.

“At the end of 2013, I booked a tour solo by myself,” she says. “I wanted to get my guitar and I wanted to remove the entire specter of the last album for myself and I wanted to write songs. Usually when I do that it’s when I’m on tour in a hotel room. That’s how shit always starts cooking. Then I try them out on stage. That’s how it’s always worked for me.”

So Marshall traveled the country in her car, starting in New York and working her way counter-clockwise around the United States. She let new songs begin to take shape, taking them back with her to her home in Miami, where, after the tour concluded, she decided she would move to New York to work with a group called Occuparty, hoping to open a New York office with a friend with a goal of what she describes as “create a tri-partisan movement for the American voting system.” Things didn’t work out.

“[My friend] passed away right before I found out I was pregnant,” Marshall says. “The universe basically handed me a choice. At the age I was, 42, I was at a high-risk for pregnancy because of my age and an autoimmune disease. So I decided I would take the child, and that I would sadly walk away from this thing my friend and I were trying to build. So I found myself back in Miami. And I had all of these songs.

“They were skeletal. They’re always skeletal, like mantras, or totems. I built a studio in my house I called ‘the Pink House.’ It was a house I rented to be pregnant in, basically, the last few months of my pregnancy. My friend from France, I flew him over. He lived with me. We started slowly laying down some of the skeletons.”

When Marshall moved out of the Pink House, she returned to her condo and resumed recording work at a studio in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood called 10K Islands. Eventually, she headed to Los Angeles to work with Rob Schnapf at his Eagle Rock studio, MANT, where she finished what would become Wanderer.

“I’m an objective listener when I listen to my own material,” she says. “It’s not that I’m scrutinizing my voice or my instrumentation, it’s just that, maybe because I’m Aquarius, I can be so objective about the songs. When I felt like there was a deadline, I packed everything up and went to Rob Scnapf’s studio in Los Angeles called MANT in Eagle Rock for three weeks.”

Though Marshall always enters the studio with ideas, she’s never one to have a firm plan for how her sessions will go. Instead, she lets inspiration run its course, trusting her instinct, heart and deep musical knowledge to lead her in the right direction.

“There are always new songs that just appear in the studio,” she says. “They get made up or recorded and weren’t part of what I was bringing. They just arrive. That was the song ‘Wanderer.’ ‘Stay’ was another one.”

For her cover of “Stay,” which appears on Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic, Marshall also veered a bit off course, as she hadn’t originally intended to record it. As she explains, the song first grabbed hold of her years back when she heard it on the radio while in the car with a now ex-partner. She heard it again years later in a cab in Miami and realized the song had never loosened its grip.

“I just started bawling,” she says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was related to that person who I’d known since I was 18 years old and who was a super abusive person but was no longer in my life. Or was it Rihanna’s delivery? You can hear Nina Simone sing a song about something that has nothing to do with you, but it’s her voice that locks you in and it just holds you down. You fucking feel it. About a week later, my friend from Japan came to visit and wanted to go do karaoke and I sang that song 16 times in a row.”

She sang the song while she and Schnapf were setting up in his studio (“I like to set up stations: piano-vocal, guitar-vocal, whatever.”) as a warm-up track, and Schnapf was recording. At his urging, she included that recording, with a few slight flourishes added later, on the album.

Marshall’s songwriting process is similarly spontaneous. She’s not one to have traditional writing sessions, instead letting songs pour through and out of her.

“I don’t sit down at a typewriter and write this shit out,” she says. “All of my songs are stream of consciousness, with a guitar and a tape recorder. That’s just how they come out. Once a song has revealed itself, I can tell tell you the images that are in my head, and describe what that song’s about. But as it’s coming out, it’s like the songs are somehow translations.”

In many moments across the album, Marshall translates our world back to us. On “Woman,” which features vocals from Lana Del Rey, she turns personal oppression into universal empowerment, the track’s music swelling as her confidence grows. (In a recent interview with the New York Times, Marshall answers, “Thank you for asking, but no comment” when asked if the song “was a middle finger to her ex-label.”) On “Black,” she charts death, addiction and “the struggle so many have come through.” “Robbin Hood,” which she notes is told “from a female’s perspective,” examines gender and its power dynamics in loose, poetic verse.

It’s no surprise, then, that these transmissions from Marshall’s heart to the microphone are so sacred to her. And in case it isn’t clear enough that Wanderer is a landmark album for Marshall herself, the cover art is a photo of her with her two foremost loves: her son and her guitar.

“I just wanted to go forward by myself, with my guitar, the piano, and go forward as what I’ve always loved: the teller of the tale. The singer of the song.”