Chan Marshall, the emotive singer/songwriter who records under the name Cat
Power, knows the exact date she decided to quit music.
"I played my last show in New York last June 19 and moved to South Carolina
on the 20th," she said recently from her Atlanta, Ga., apartment.
The 26-year-old Marshall (whose first name is pronounced "Shawn") said she
found the New York music scene too overwhelming. "Everybody's in a band;
everybody is enthusiastic about playing music; everyone enjoys communicating
about music," she said. "I don't listen to music much, and I don't buy records -- I
don't really know much about music."
Of course, the fans who have become attached to Marshall's haunting work
over the past three years would likely argue that assessment of her musical
knowledge. Moon Pix (Sept. 22), the upcoming fourth album that marks
what is for Marshall an unexpected return to music, builds on her previous body
of largely autobiographical work.
On this record, Marshall has increased the impact of her music by tempering the
sound. Gone are her previous indie-rock bandmates Tim Foljahn (Half
Japanese) and Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), replaced by the Dirty Three's Mick
Turner (guitar) and Jim White (drums), who provide a moody, atmospheric
background to her songs.
Far more interesting than Marshall's decision to leave music, however, is what
prompted her to return.
Just as she remembers her last day in New York, she can recall the wee hours
of one morning last October when the demons -- literally, demons --
pushed her toward Moon Pix.
"I had a dream and there was this voice trying to tell me it was Jesus, but it was
a bad voice," said Marshall, a high school drop-out from North Carolina who
says she's wrestled with nightmare visions throughout her life. "The voice was
telling me to come out into the field around my house, and that I would have no
past. But I wasn't buying it, so I woke up and told it no. So I turned on all my
lights and that's when I had a severe breakdown."
In the days before the dream, Marshall said she had spent hours typing a
"conversation with God" amid sleepless nights and pots of coffee. It was these
ruminations on spirituality and music that swirled inside her head and heart as
"And I thought all these demons were surrounding my house," she said. "It was
five in the morning and I knew I had an hour and a half until sunlight. I thought
I'd typed so many words to God, I couldn't possibly speak any more to God --
and the demons were outside my house. So I just grabbed my guitar and turned
on every light in my house and played until the sun rose. And I wrote six songs,
five of which are on the record."
Those who give the album a late-night listen will likely not be surprised by the
amazing circumstances of its conception. Songs such as "He Turns Down" --
with its delicate, repetitive question, "Have you ever seen the face?" -- and
"Metal Heart" ironically exude strength in their gentle execution, finding their
power in humble spirituality.
It doesn't matter that many of the characters floating in and out of Marshall's
songs are actual people from her life. Fans needn't know, for instance, that her
nephew is the "funny bear" in the tender "Colors and the Kids." What listeners
latch onto is Marshall's soulful voice and her bare emotions, filling in the cracks
with what they can from their own lives.
Marshall is now preparing to take her new songs to Europe before the album's
release. Joining her on the brief tour will be White, Anne Laure Keib
(percussion, vocals) and Marc Moore, the guitarist who first encouraged
Marshall to pick up the instrument six years ago.
"The emotional tenor of the songs has remained the same," Moore, 29, said of
his friend's artistic progression. "But she's become much better as a guitar
player and much more expressive as a singer. She's always written the same
sort of songs. Her new album sounds different because of the people she was
playing with, and I think she was thinking of the music of the songs instead of
just the vocals."
For Marshall, music has long been a way to find personal strength after growing
up with an alcoholic mother, an unembracing peer group and a misguided
understanding of herself as stupid, crazy, a failure.
She often wonders whether others, especially other musicians, are able to work
through their own misguided notions.
"Blues singers are walking on the line, the crossroads between sin and
salvation, and that brings out an energy that we understand because it's
spiritual," she said. "But what we don't get is that it's bad -- it's like the wrong
side of the tracks. But you never know a choice. I don't think Billie Holiday ever
had a choice. If all you ever know is that you are on the wrong side of the tracks,
well, that's all you know. That's all I knew growing up."