Chan Marshall, better known as the indie rock singer-songwriter Cat Power,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Chan Marshall, better known to indie rock fans as Cat Power, has had enough of talking about herself, about her songs and being on the road, so sitting for one more interview isn't going to be easy.
Still, in the kitchen of her rented cottage at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip, Marshall tried to be a warm host, offering a drink or dinner from room service. "Ask me any question," she says, then stands suddenly. "I'm going to have a … real beer. I'm stressed out."
Marshall (whose first name rhymes with "Shawn") just released her first album of original material in more than six years, "Sun." She's in California to try her hand at directing her own video in the desert "because I don't trust anybody to do it," she says. "I've done that before and it just gets silly."
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Dressed simply in a black T-shirt and jeans, her dark hair is cropped short like Joan of Arc, just as it is on her new album cover. She coos over her little French bulldog and checks her iPhone constantly for messages, while the stereo blasts an endless playlist of favorite tunes, including Kanye West's "New God Flow," others by Mary J. Blige and rock classics by the Allman Brothers and the Velvet Underground.
She sings along with West: "All my ladies say — good music, good music!"
When the stereo lands at some mid-'60s Aretha Franklin soul, Marshall recalls the first time she heard that voice. "Oh, it was file footage on TV from 1964. I was 11 or 12, and I was home from school," remembers Marshall, now 40. "She was singing … on 'Amazing Grace' and I started crying. I had never seen music like that before."
On her new album, Marshall played all the instruments herself, blending electronics with her core indie rock sound, meticulously shaping the songs at studios in Los Angeles, Miami, Paris and at a rented house in Malibu. "The first thing was recording the song — the skeleton," she explains. "The next thing was putting tendons on it and muscle, skin, filling it with blood. What kind of blood? What kind of hair?"
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Some of the ideas dated back to a 1999 tour of original material she performed live at screenings of the 1928 silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc." But after an early round of recordings at the Boat studio in Silver Lake, Marshall was unexpectedly stalled.
"Four years ago I played it for somebody, and he said 'It is so depressing. This sounds like old Cat Power.' It really broke my heart and I packed everything up and I didn't work for eight months."
When she eventually returned to the studio, Marshall decided to "put my guitars over there and I didn't look at the piano. There was a drum set in the back and there were these synthesizer-looking things and I asked them to please turn them on, plug them in."
The album wasn't completed until a final round of sessions in Paris, immediately after the March breakup of her four-year relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi.
The result is a shift in sound and tone, nothing like her earliest confessional work or the celebrated Memphis soul-flavored "The Greatest" in 2006. On the new album's title song, Marshall is weary and hopeful with anticipation, at times relaxed and biting, amid layers of electronic beats: "We are free, you and me / We can finally run / If they catch us, we can / Whose side are you on?"
On the gently urgent "Human Being," a Western rhythm on acoustic guitar accompanies her call for personal self-expression: "You got your own voice, so sing . . . We all got rules we have to break / We all have to make those mistakes." The 11-minute epic "Nothing but Time" was written for Ribisi's teenage daughter and includes a cameo by Iggy Pop growling, "Your world is just beginning … It's up to you to be a superhero / It's up to you to be like nobody."
"I got told I needed a producer I don't know how many times — maybe 27 times, 30?" she says of the self-produced, self-financed collection. "Then I recently got told 'I'm so proud of you.' That was even more great to hear."
Early reviews for "Sun" are positive (Entertainment Weekly said the singer has "never sounded more confident or in control"), but for Marshall it's of equal importance to her as the last Cat Power album, her 2008 cover song collection, "Jukebox." She is noticeably resentful of the notion that her albums performing existing material are somehow less meaningful that her original work.
"Nobody considers a covers record an album," she says with irritation, then notes the long tradition of artists reinterpreting existing song, as she's done since long before her 2000 album "The Covers Record." "Yeah, and it used to be super normal — from the Baroque, 1600s to tribal to folk to Gershwin, Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to blues to jazz to country. Then it kind of went away."
She presses her remote to call up Nina Simone's version of "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter," which Marshall says inspired her own "Peace and Love" for "Sun." But there is chatter coming from the next room and Marshall suddenly rises to join the discussion about the coming video shoot, and she is distracted again. In a few days, she will be gathering players for a new band to perform the songs from "Sun."
"I've always done things myself," Marshall says, and the new album is no different. "I've never bragged or screamed that I produced a record before. I never told anybody. But I felt like I had to do it the whole way this time … I did it the way I needed to."