Chan Marshall Of Cat Power Tells Us The Story Of Her Style Evolution In Exclusive Interview

A still from Cat Power's Manhattan video.
Photo: Matador Records

While Chan Marshall, more commonly known as Cat Power, was filming her music video for "Manhattan," a busker in a New York subway station told her, "you're even more rock and roll than me." She tells me this over the phone, from the back of a car on her way to the airport where she is about to fly to London to perform on Later...with Jools Holland. She laughs as she tells the story, like the notion of her, a woman whose most recent album, Sun, debuted at number 10 on the Billboard Top 200, being more rock and roll than a man wailing away on an electric guitar in a train station is absolutely absurd, and don't I agree? I tell her she's pretty rock and roll herself, but she's not buyin' it. "I never set out to be a rock star," she says.

Marshall is a woman who, even after nearly twenty years of touring, putting out albums, appearing in a Chanel campaign, and soundtracking the design house's 2012 pre-fall show, still seems genuinely surprised by her success. Surprised, or wary that they're confusing her for someone else. They're most assuredly not, though, and Marshall is undoubtedly one of the most singular, compelling, and enigmatic musicians alive today. The video for "Manhattan"—a melancholy yet joyful ode to city streets with a galloping beat and a swinging, earworm of a melody—shows Marshall walking confidently through the New York City streets with her hair cropped short and dyed blond, alternating between a denim jacket and a leather one, both emblazoned with a rune-like 'C-P' symbol on the back. It's a nostalgic love song of a video, co-directed by Marshall and Greg Hunt, representing but one important city out of the many places she has lived, and lives she has had. It's all of these lives that created the singular, enigmatic artist, as well as shaped her undeniably chic (Karl Lagerfeld cast her in his Chanel campaign after seeing her standing on the street outside of the Mercer Hotel), effortless style. From a rough and tumble Georgia childhood to living with legendary '80s designer Patrick Kelly, a great many things have shaped Marshall's signature, minimalist style, anchored by jeans, boots, leather and jean jackets (all mostly provided by ACNE, who give Marshall her touring wardrobe) and, of course, black eyeliner. There's a lot more to it than that, though, and we caught up with Chan to get the whole story, and what a story it is.

MTV STYLE: What role does style play in your life, as far as the way you see your identity. You said that you didn't set out to be a rock star, and I got the vibe that you definitely aren't doing anything intentionally to create an image, but how do your clothes reflect who you are?

CHAN MARSHALL: Well, it's probably much more of a loaded question than anyone cares to hear...I was pretty much brought up raggedy style, like in the gutter in the rain in my underwear until I was a four year old. Then I moved on to hand me downs 'cause as a single mom, when I met her when I was four, it started to be kinda boyish. Just tee shirts and corduroy, jeans, tank tops. I only recall wearing a dress once for Easter when I was maybe 6 or 7? And once for my friend's prom, a skin tight floor length, turtleneck, stretch black laced long sleeve. I wish I still had that dress. And that body. I never dressed overtly "sexy" due to being the new kid in all public schools.

While back at "home," I had a very extreme childhood, regarding acclimating to different cities, towns, people, classes. From hanging with my father figure from 4-7 years, the designer Patrick Kelly, and eating out of the dipsty dumpster, to borrowing stolen clothes from my neighbors thief mother in a small tobacco town in North Carolina. This is turning into a story. But it's not a story if it's true.

Yeah, so every school I went to I always looked "weird" to everybody. When I was 11 I wore fluorescent yellow parachute pants and red rubber pumps with some sweatshirt and always parted my hair on the side, which was UNFATHOMABLE in the south. You has to have "wings" or you were weird. For my 6th grade picture, I thought I would impress everyone, including myself and dress the part. I wore a Izod-type shirt with a crew sweater & the izod collar sticking up out from the crew sweater collar and a fake gold thin chain hanging just they way they all wore them at school, coming out through the Izod type collar...and my hair, perfection. Each side of my head had the largest wingspan of feathered hair, perfect on each side, even the girls in the high school bus who had gapped teeth and peroxided hair and camel toe jeans noticed my perfect magic "wings". I sprayed the s*** out of my hair in the bathroom with my friend Cheryl's aqua net and she laughed the whole time cuz as redneck as she was, she knew I wasn't & we loved it. That day I fit in.

How has your style changed throughout your life? Did it take you a long time to develop your personal style? Did you experiment with fashion?

I saw my old father figure [Patrick Kelly] in a magazine called Vogue, the first and last time I ever professionally got my hair cut at Supercuts. I couldn't believe, number one, that he was in there, I was so happy for him, but also I saw so many things I recognized from just living what small life I had led by that time, 12. I saw paintings, I saw Andy Warhol who I knew from my fashionable father (who I rarely saw and who I idolized), his Interview magazine collection. I saw black clothes, beautiful places, perfectly nice imaginative haircuts, options, topics, all related to fashion, of course, which meant wealth to me, but it was normal as an art form and I knew that instantly and at 12, I began to take notice of my creativity in my dress on a bit more definitive level, like "mood dressing". I had my all black period where I wore clingy goth type chic stretchy s***, normally when I was with my grandmother, who is very chic for a cotton picker from southern Georgia. Then I had my psychedelic soft punk rebel kind of look when I moved in with my father in an all gay swingers apartment complex in 7th grade in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I made myself a gorgeous teased out long Mohawk and either wore my Exploited tee shirt or my Cure tee shirt, loaded up with rosary beads, drew with ink pens on my hands like tattoos, my combat boots, and lots of eyeliner and would take the bus to Lenox mall and sit with the older punks who never knew my name.

Then when I moved back in with my mother in Greensboro, North Carolina, I tried to conceal my Mohawk under a black beret for weeks and it was pretty grown out and I had chopped the length off of the back so I thought I was safe. Well she found it and cut my hair. The next morning was my first day at my new school. I cried in the morning as I looked in the mirror and had to make it look better with toe nail scissors before I took the bus. I stole a denim shirt from my dad that had silver triangle clasps at the end of each collar end and I buttoned it all the way up, wore same color jeans sprayed my hair to help it look "soft and approachable" and my Converse. Since it was MY first day of school, but not everyone else's 'cause I changed schools sometimes 3 times in one school year, it was picture day. So then a new style was formed. I wore my shirts buttoned up all the way all the time. I think in some sort of rebellion to having my hairdo castrated I chose to "nun" it up. Dressing completely non descript, sort of classic 1940's sort of Frida as a boy thing, eyeliner on some days, and on some nights when I would sneak out my window I would change dramatically, into another "me". The me I wasn't, skirts, ripped stockings, grungy wild thing running Tate street with the skaters and homeless teens doing drugs and drinking till it was time to wake up for school. I did that because I wasn't allowed to see my best friend, Angie Smith, who came from a wealthy family on the other side of town who was the most fun. Best friends always are. With her I could express myself completely, on the run in the night blaring The Misfits and Corrosion of Conformity or The Smiths or Suicidal Tendencies...At school, the weirdo was tame. Monochromatic was always sensible to my eye, patterns very rarely, I have always wanted to blend in, never stand out. So when I was out my window, I blended in with my community.

Did you design the Cat Power symbol? Does it represent more than just the name?

Well, I had made it up maybe ten years ago but never showed it to anybody and nobody ever knew about it and for the video I directed, Cherokee, I needed a tool to represent freedom and a message of solidarity or union of outsiders and ultimately it is an arrow pointing upwards, but separately, it is, yes, the letter "C" on the left and the letter "P" on the right, conjoined.

Who taped it to the back of your jackets?

I had taped it to a cement column in the desert during the Cherokee filming, you can see it's on the trailer video on the Internet. Then when the video was over, I had also taped it to my bronco, so I ripped it off the bronco after the shoot was done and we were all barbecuing and in the hotel pool and I taped it to my amazing gift from ACNE, the black leather jacket, and that's where it will stay.

My denim thrift jean jacket is just a silkscreen. I was so broke after I got sick and my top ten record "Sun" flopped, so I couldn't afford to invest in merch, so me and my friends Alyssa Pitugula & Annika Oksanen & Jenni Li would hit different thrift stores on tour, DC, Milwalkee, Detroit, those were the best ones & Alyssa & Annika would silk screen them for me to sell at my show. It is probably the coolest thing I've ever had for my fans to have. I picked it all out and would have kept it all, but I had to throw in a bunch of my own personal clothes 'cause I have so many clothes believe it or not. The money basically paid for Alyssa & Annika's salary for that tour and I wouldn't have it any other way.

What's the process for picking what you're going to wear in your videos? Do you have a stylist?

I don't believe in stylists unless you are doing a photo shoot with Inez and Vinoodh or Mario Sorrenti. And I love so many fashion photographers, Katja Rahlwes who used to be a stylist, Hedi Slimane, who is also a designer, it's all very simple to owners of such an amazing talented eye. Not saying i am talented or even putting my foot in their door, but i have great admiration for so many designers, photographers, stylists, Carine Roitfeld, Camille Bidault Waddington, Camilla Nickerson, but with just me, there is no process at all. It is a quick clear decision, never a choice. The object in a video and/or on stage, is to stand alongside my words and to bring my body into the lens of that scope. What could be a tricky balance of falling into definition or falling out of interpretation, I always think one look, always, each tour. Less is more kind of simplicity/potency.

What or whom have been the biggest style influences on you?

Big question. Human struggle, rock and roll, literature, underbellies and underdogs of the world and throughout history, the oppression of humanity through organized religion and its strikingly positive effect on those who need it yet deserve a better life through their own government, nature, the sea, the countryside, all animals, all terrains, friendship, loss of loved ones, learning in general, magic and dreams.


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