Decoding Cat Power

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

By way of explaining “Ruin,” Marshall also discusses the origin of Hinduism, the Ancient Chinese, African tribes, the “A” blood group, and “the myth that aliens came at different times and that’s why civilizations began.”

I ask her how she gets all of those ideas into one song and she says she focuses her mind on one sound and lets her subconscious relax. “That’s where all my data is – my dreams, my past life, my future. All the words come out when it’s relaxed,” she says.

It seems to work. “Ruin” is catchy, concise, and addictive. It could be the single mainstream radio has always wanted from Cat Power. She wrote the song in Puerto Rico, which helps to explain its Latin-tinged groove that escalates with care of nine multi-tracked pianos. Jim White spent two days on the drum edit. Dan Auerbach was supposed to play guitar on the song but it never ended up happening. That’s the type of extended chronology that goes into a single Cat Power song. If you’re still following along at home, it does make for pretty entertaining listening.

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Charlyn Marshall (the shortened version of her first name rhymes with “dawn”) was born in Atlanta on January 21,1973. She’s an Aquarius, a dominant and extroverted sign. At the age of seven she moved to Bartlett, Tennessee, outside Memphis, and also lived for a time on a tobacco field in North Carolina.

She says her fondest memories of growing up in Atlanta in the Seventies are when she lived in an apartment behind the Magic Mart near the famous watering hole Aunt Charley’s, in Buckhead Village, and her babysitter was the Mississippi-born fashion designer Patrick Kelly.

Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records says he learned of Marshall and Cat Power – the band is named after the construction equipment manufacturer – around the time that Marshall moved to New York in 1992.

“I don’t think she was connected with an art/music scene in NYC initially,” says Cosloy. “Her connections were still pretty Atlanta-centric at the time and it wasn’t until a while later that the associations with people like God Is My Co-Pilot, Steve Shelley, Tim Foljhan, Bob Bannister, Matt Sweeney were forged.”

Shelley (who plays drums in Sonic Youth) and Foljhan would play on Cat Power’s first album, Dear Sir. Matador signed her in 1996, releasing What Would The Community Think? and then Moon Pix in 1998. These early albums are beloved by fans for their intimate outsider-folk aesthetic and sparse production.

In 2003, Cat Power released You Are Free, a moody album with plenty of droning guitars and double-tracked vocals. The album opens with the rudimentary piano chords of “I Don’t Blame You” and one of Marshall’s best couplets: “Last time I saw you, you were on stage / Your hair was wild, your eyes were bright, and you were in a rage.”

In 2006, Marshall took a detour with The Greatest, recorded in Memphis with classic soul session players. Two of the album’s best songs – the title track and “Lived In Bars” – Marshall wrote one afternoon in Atlanta. “The Greatest” she once said is a kind of family history: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / Two fists of solid rock / With brains that could explain any feeling.”

By about 2010, with two hard drives full of demos from the Dirty Delta Blues band sessions in Malibu, it might have seemed like Marshall’s next album of original material – 2008’s Jukebox was a covers record – would turn out something like The Greatest.

Marshall took the demos to South Beach Studios in Miami Beach, Florida, where she says she “tried to put chocolate in my peanut butter.” In other words, she tried mixing her skeleton versions of the songs from the Boat with the live band takes from Malibu. “And it did not work,” she says.

A turning point for the album came when Marshall heard the production on the Beastie Boys’ album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, which was mixed by Philippe Zdar, of the French electronic duo Cassius, who had also worked on Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. “I’m not saying I sound like the Beastie Boys, but that’s what I was dealing with as far as all the textures, sounds, quantities of actions,” says Marshall.

Some of the songs on Sun are built around layers and layers of digital tracks. “Pro Tools looks like if you ran over an alien and had a print-out of what it looked like biologically,” Marshall explains.

Marshall met Zdar in Montmartre to discuss having him work on the album. “We were both three hours late. I’ve never met someone who is as late as me,” she says. Things clicked, and she spent the next few months in his Paris studio and eventually mixed the album with him.

Sun feels like the album Chan Marshall was destined to make. It has elements of her highly personal experimental side, which she was able to fuse with a level of production that she seems pleased with.

But there’s a problem with that.

“There are a whole bunch of other songs connected,” says Marshall. “This could be completely turned around. I could say this is my Joan of Arc reaction to [someone] saying the songs were too sad. There were a lot of other songs that were part of this album that were completely taken away. The marriage is … there’s a partner.”

She says eight of those songs have been recorded, though who knows when, where, or if, they’ll ever surface.

“Is it the record I thought she’d make? I can’t answer that question. I honestly had no idea what sort of record she’d complete,” says Cosloy.

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On Friday, June 15, Marshall’s ex-boyfriend, the actor Giovanni Ribisi, with whom she’d been living in L.A., married the British model Agyness Deyn. After Marshall and Ribisi broke up earlier in the year, Marshall cut her long brown hair to a short, boyish crop cut.

“When I landed in Europe three weeks ago – June 11th – it  was like hitting a wall every day,” says Marshall. The European press asked her about working with Zdar and if Sun was a breakup record. “Both of those questions infuriated me.”

Instead, Sun is about “active life” – “consciousness and subconscious-ness, left brain and right brain,” she says.

Maybe an example of what Marshall means can be found in one of her favorite songs, Jay Z’s “My 1st Song,” which closes out the Black Album.

Even if American Songwriter’s readers don’t listen to hip-hop, Marshall says there’s something to be gained from how “earnest” the song is. “The record is over, he’s thanking everybody – Auntie, Mom, Dad, and all the people that have been with him forever. Then at the end he’s like, remember when you didn’t have no feet on your bicycle. Head of black music. It’s really charming because it’s so personal. He says he’s going to go somewhere where there are no mosquitos and have a cappuccino. Just enjoying your present tense, present time. Living in the present time.”

Sun is Cat Power in the present tense, too. Just don’t try to make her put it all in one text message.

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