Talking with Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, it’s clear that she’s an artist totally comfortable with herself and her abilities. Cracking jokes throughout the conversation, Marshall’s sweetness and openness regarding her career (from the drug-addled Atlanta days to struggling as a solo artist in New York City) are not only revealing, but refreshing. That sweetness, however, should not be mistaken for weakness, as Marshall has also proven to be just as stubborn and independent today as she was opening for Liz Phair in 1992.
With her Top Star-earning album Sun out this week, Consequence of Sound caught up with Marshall to discuss not only the new album, but also her cancelled appearance at Coachella this year, the pressure to work with a producer, the importance of jazz to her approach, and what effect Anthony Braxton has had on her work.
This spring you wrote on your site that you “didn’t think it was fair to play Coachella while my new album is not yet finished.” No disrespect, but what difference would one performance make considering that the album wasn’t going to drop for six months?
‘Cause I don’t want to play old shit. I wanted to play what I wanted people to hear, which is what they’d want to hear if they had heard the record.
You didn’t want to even tease some of the new songs?
No. You know what? I got so much pressure to get a producer and a new band for this record and a manager that I made the big mistake of trying to meet one. His advice was, “Don’t play it, because how are you going to possibly be ready?” But the reason I didn’t play it was I didn’t want to do old hat. I wanted people to feel inspired. I didn’t want to bring anybody down. I was ashamed to cancel because that’s terrible.
Sun features electronics, drum machine, and synths.
There are three beats that I did not make up. Those were supplied to me by this guy named Mark Lee from Miami, a Jamaican dude that I met and worked with in Miami. There are three beats that I did not engineer on drum machine. Everything else is me making my own beats. There’s no drum machine on the record. Except for the Roland, which is more like a dissonant thing. There is that on “Manhattan”, but it’s not a drum machine.
At one point after touring Jukebox, you said you didn’t want to look at a piano or guitar for a while. Why was that?
Because when I moved to Los Angeles to be in my relationship, which ended three weeks before I finished the record in France in March… when I moved over four years ago to be with my ex, I went in The Dust Brothers’ studio, The Boat, around the corner, a half-mile from where we lived in Silver Lake. I made the mistake of playing guitar and piano like I always did, and I wrote all these songs. I made the mistake of playing them to my big brother, who said very quickly, not out of disrespect to me, but out of concern, that they were real depressing and they sounded like old Cat Power. I just closed shop, put up my hard drives.
After eight months, I went back and I told myself, “Don’t open the guitar case, Chan. Don’t walk over to the piano.” The only thing I saw that I worked on was the drums, the drum set, and these synth sort of things that were against the wall that I got plugged in, turned them on, and touched them, and that’s the sound.
Do you think you’ll ever revisit or release the songs you abandoned from the Sun sessions?
I’ve done this a couple times before, where I have all these on a secret record or whatever. I have a couple of them I’ve never released. I probably have three now, because there’s also the whole Malibu… nine months I tried to get my old touring band, my friends Jim White, Judah Bauer, Gregg Foreman, and Erik Paparazzi, to play the same things I had recorded by myself. I tried to get us to get really good live versions of that and took them on tour so they have the intensity of having to play it live. After trying to mix it all up, it didn’t work, so that’s on another hard drive. So, yeah, there’s that record; there’s another record from The Boat. Yeah, there’s a lot of lost shit, so maybe one day…
When you need a contract fulfillment, you can just pull one out of the vault.
Shit, I’ll write my contract myself. I’m gonna write my own goddamn contract.
Only one song on Sun, “Ruin”, features The Dirty Delta Blues Band. You commented on how the sessions didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. Are you still playing with them, or is that project no more?
Well, there’s a lot of beautiful recorded material from the nine months I was in Malibu two years ago. Really beautiful things came out of that. But I have a lot of other songs that I still haven’t recorded. I have a whole concept for my next record, but I’m not sure if they’re going to be involved in that.
But your question, will I play with them again? You bet your ass. I don’t know if it’ll be for the next record or if it’ll be ten years from now; I’m not sure when, but they’re amazing players and amazing people. I’m very lucky to have had the time with them, because there’s nobody like them musically.
Let’s jump back in time a little bit. How did seeing Anthony Braxton in concert give you the courage to perform publicly?
Having heard some jazz records before, older jazz records, and always being close to ballads… I love “Lonnie’s Lament”, Coltrane, or Miles Davis, the 1955 Louis Malle soundtrack [Elevator to the Gallows, 1958 actually], that contemplative sort of jazz. Being young and having that cassette when I was 13, I didn’t know what it’s like to experience free jazz. I know about the No Wave and the different stuff that was going on. There’s still a large group of people that’s still around that do that kind of music. I had never seen it live, just as I’m saying I never saw jazz live. So, when I went to the old Knitting Factory on Houston [Houston Street, Manahattan] and saw this live, I had already been to ABC No Rio [an art center on Lower East Side, Manhattan] and seen other experimental stuff. And I had seen some experimental stuff in Atlanta because of Glenn Thrasher, from his radio station there. He booked this place called Klang. He had a show called Destroy All Music. I had seen some weird shit and heard some from him, but when I saw [Braxton] live and it was a grown man, like a grandfather man, he was doing something that was unlike what I had ever seen. This was a grown grandfather man doing something that was registering with me.
Back then though, in ’92, it was a consciousness that was emanating from two sides. It was emanating from his physicality of doing it, making sounds, and his journey, his trip he was going on. And there was another side. The audience members I was watching, watching, listening. It was like a journey. There was no posturing; there was no light show; there was no rock and roll sexuality. There was a sexuality that was something else. I don’t know how to talk about it. There was something going on, and I had never known about that before, and that was something that was alive from him and alive from everyone watching. That’s when I learned that there’s a different space that’s still alive that has existed on certain records I’ve heard.
And that was why, as troublesome as it may have always seemed to other people, playing live, there’s a psyche involved with putting yourself on a stage. They look at you with their eyeballs. It’s real difficult because I’m aware of people’s energies and their difference in opinions and personality type. [Braxton] just reassured me that that shit was still around, still alive, and that it’s possible that that journey can still be open for other people even if they’re younger than anybody in the audience and don’t know anything about jazz scale. You know what I mean?
When I listen to or watch jazz performers, for me, more so than rock and roll, it’s more the auditory and cerebral experience of being there, rather than actually knowing what is going on. When I’m at a rock show, I like to know the songs they are playing, or as many of them as I can. But when I’m at a jazz show, I like the mood and the journey.
It’s like going to school, man. Jazz is like going to the most liberated university of consciousness as far as music is concerned. It is a trip, and as far as free jazz is concerned… I was dating this sax player in South Africa, and he’s playing with all these old dudes. Free jazz stuff. This white boy from Sweden, his name is Martin Holm. He said, “You’re doing a great injustice to yourself as a musician. I’m not talking about music theory, but if you don’t learn how to play and read music, you’re doing a huge injustice to yourself as a musician, because there’s a lot less you can convey to humans and to the universe.” And I’m still just as stubborn as I was then. I don’t want to learn a formula that’s been ingrained. That’s part of the beauty that I feel and a new confidence about getting this record done, because I didn’t know what I was doing.
I didn’t know what the fuck the songs were gonna sound like. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know how the machine worked. I didn’t know if I was playing a good enough drum part. I didn’t know, on “Silent Machine”, that reversing that drum and then digitizing and spacing out, through the computer, my vocals… I didn’t know if that was good or bad. But that’s what I needed to do. I didn’t need him telling me [that], just like I don’t need somebody telling me to get a producer. I don’t need somebody telling me I need to learn for society. I’m sorry. One day, maybe when I’m in the prime of my life, I’m Aquarius and my prime is around my 70s, maybe that is when I’ll be taking master painter classes, and I will have already directed five films and put out ten books and made 40 records and have a couple scores. Maybe that’s when I will take music lessons.
I read that you once said telling a musician they need a producer is like telling someone they need a nose job.
Did I say that? God, that’s funny.
In 2000, you commented about how you were tired of touring your own music. You don’t hear musicians say that very often. Was there a reason that you wanted to stop playing your own stuff?
I had been doing this tour with the Passion of Joan of Arc film, the Carl Dreyer film, where I got to take a load off and just play songs that I love. Half of them are my own, [songs] that to this day I still haven’t recorded. Back then, in 1999 and 2000, when I was doing that, playing these covers, playing these songs that I wrote that I still haven’t recorded, I wanted those unrecorded songs of mine to be called Sun, and I still haven’t done it. But I knew The Greatest wasn’t that, and I knew Jukebox wasn’t that. I knew You Are Free wasn’t that. It was real fulfilling to go to a place that are those songs, which is different than singing your own songs. The same reason why Otis Redding loved to sing “Satisfaction”, the same reason Black Crowes love to sing Otis Redding, the same reason Striesand loved whatever, why Dylan loved whatever. You can’t kill songs. They live forever.
Recently, I spoke with James Iha, and the Serge Gainsbourg tribute album came up [Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited]. One of the songs he produced for that album was your duet with Karen Elson [“Je t’aime…moi non plus”]. I’m curious to hear your perspective.
It was difficult to sing on it because, octave-ly, it was in a strange octave for my voice, [one] that worked perfect for Karen, which is really what it should be, because she’s a beautiful singer. We used to be friends. I don’t know why she doesn’t contact me anymore. I don’t know what I did wrong. But she has a beautiful voice, and I knew she had a beautiful voice, and I knew she would be perfect, and I’m glad that that happened for her. But for me, I couldn’t sing in the register that was natural to me. That was a little stifling, but that’s just the way it ended up. And I needed the lyrics to be the way they were in my head, which was really bad and rude of me, but I think Serge was kind of pretty experimental in his way of living. I could be wrong. I never met him. But the family agreed to let me change the lyrics because I translated them myself.