Cat Power with J. Tillman
October 21, 2010
The 5th Avenue Theatre
By Tyson Lynn
Cat Power’s music is a wooden boat. Weathered, rough-hewn timbers joined and assembled by forgotten hands, powered by sails fixed countless times by coarse stitching, and captained by the whims of the winds and a fickle rudder. It is a boat plagued by tabloid barnacles, patched with remaindered rum casks, and seemingly always on the verge of capsizing. It has no home port, flies no flag, and keeps no maps. It is beautiful and ever at sea.
Cat Power is, for all intents and purposes, 38-year-old Chan Marshall. Since 1995, she has produced several albums showcasing her minimalist style and breathily evocative vocals. In so doing, she has found power in spacious arrangements and the tragic crack of her voice.
After dropping out of high school, Marshall took an erratic path to stardom, performing with friends in art pieces, taking drugs and using music as an amuse-bouche for her mostly social aspirations. Somehow this lackadaisical approach landed her an opening slot for Liz Phair in ’94, back when an opening slot for Liz Phair was not just something she sang about, it was something people coveted. Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn were there and immediately encouraged her to record, ultimately playing on Marshall’s first two albums, recorded during the course of one New York winter day.
These snagged the attention of Matador Records. Her third record, What Would the Community Think, was released under their imprint, with Foljahn and Shelley assisting again. And then, in late ’96, Marshall took a leave of absence from music, working at first as a baby sitter in Portland, Oregon before moving to a farmhouse in Prosperity, South Carolina with then boyfriend Bill Callahan (on a side note: Callahan must have some serious game. Marshall and Joanna Newsom? Well played, sir. Well played).
Although she was planning on retiring from performing publicly, Marshall ended up writing several new songs, the nascent nub of the forthcoming Moon Pix. Recorded in 11 days, the album was well received and put her on tour for the next few years. Ultimately, Marshall became tired of her own material and started performing musical accompaniment to the silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc. Combining original material and many covers, these multimedia presentations eventually became 2000’s The Covers Record.
Three years later came You Are Free and three years after that The Greatest. The former featured Dave Grohl, the latter Al Green’s guitarist Teenie Hodges. As you might expect, the energy of these albums are very different. You Are Free doesn’t muck much with the CP formula, while The Greatest put Marshall’s fragile energy in a sturdy, historic frame (it was recorded with the Memphis Rhythm Band at Muscle Shoals; it also won the 2006 Shortlist Music Prize, making Marshall the first woman to win the honor). Perhaps ironically, in the wake of The Greatest‘s release, Marshall canceled shows as she dealt with her relationship with “a young Miami investment banker”. As part of her recovery she was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Miami’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. She left after a week.
In 2008, she released another covers record (Jukebox) and is now working on a new full-length. What will it be like, how will it sound, who will play on it, who will write the songs? You can ask Marshall tonight, at her City Arts Festival performance at the 5th Avenue, but you’d probably get just as good an answer from asking the stars, querying a mountain, or following a sturdy wooden boat adrift at sea.