Cat Power (photo by Stefano Giovannini, courtesy of the artist)
There's as much myth as veracity that guides the legacy of Cat Power, the feral and fierce moniker of singer and songwriter Chan Marshall. Her uncompromising songs, like 1996's "Nude as the News" from What Would the Community Think or the hushed beauty of "Metal Heart," from 1998's Moon Pix, are streaked with steel-grey storm clouds and infinite sorrow. Although the arc of her 10-album career has had its rough patches, Marshall has survived those sad tales and far more — she altered the landscape of mid-Nineties indie rock as a consoler of romance-bruised insomniacs, of those weary of love and its cruelly fickle temperament.
Not that Cat Power always focuses on foibles of the heart; there's surgical precision to her dissection of many difficult truths, plus a technical prowess and innate musicality that characterizes her recordings. She is a sculptor of intimate masterpieces. Like Bob Dylan, a songwriter she has frequently covered ("Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," "I Believe in You") and honored ("Song to Bobby"), Marshall can excel in maddening and cryptic elusiveness discussing or even presenting her music at times – Marshall's longtime fans can likely point to at least one Cat Power concert years ago, especially around the turn of the century, when they scratched their heads and wondered what the hell was going on.
What was going on was quite a bit, and for the artist, most definitely hell. Marshall has never shied from discussing her excruciating struggles with heavy drinking, drug abuse, psychological disquiet, and her own physical health, especially around the release of 2006's The Greatest and 2012's Sun. The darkness of addiction and that former debilitating unpredictability has shifted in a far more hopeful direction in recent years towards recovery and motherhood too; her toddler son is pictured on her tenth album, Wanderer. There's also a younger generation that now regards Marshall with much-deserved reverence for her idiosyncratic path. Over the past 25 years, her guise as Cat Power has been a beacon for other songwriters who have faced severe depression, don't fit an easy mold, defy music industry expectations, and relish nonconformity.
She chisels her compositions with elements of soul, jazz, funk, folk and punk, like cogs in an intricate machine. Her words and music often challenge roles, identities, and temperaments that women are forced to assume, either internally or when navigating a narrowed, patriarchal world, from "The Greatest" or "Colors and the Kids," to her new single featuring Lana Del Rey, "Woman."
If you know people who know me
You might want them to speak
To tell you 'bout the girl or the woman they know
More than you think you know about me
- Cat Power, "Woman"
Born in Atlanta and raised throughout Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, there is a bluesy, Southern gothic vibe that still tethers Marshall to her roots, as if she sprang from a Tennessee Williams play, simmering with brute vulnerability and a volcanic yearning to be heard. But she's also a protégé of New York City, where she lived for decades, a deft translator of the desperation beneath the surface of urban chaos and artifice. Her cover of Fred Ebb and John Kander's "New York, New York," that swaggering anthem sung with macho bravado by Frank Sinatra, is reconfigured as the fleeting, minor key "New York" on Marshall's 2008 album Jukebox as an anguished plea to a ruthless Gotham. Marshall might be mostly based in Miami these days, where she raises her son, but she's still attached to the city that shaped her as a young artist. She'll always be a succinct narrator of Lower East Side angst.
Yet like Sinatra too, Marshall is a transformative song stylist, a musician who listens as closely to the songs of others as she does her own. She's recorded two entire albums devoted to covers — 2000's The Covers Album and Jukebox — and has scattered them like wildflowers on other releases. On her most recent album, Wanderer, Marshall includes a startling interpretation of the Rihanna and Mikky Ekko hit "Stay," a song that once reminded her of a callous remark by an ex-boyfriend. “An old lover, he was picking me up and he opened the door and that song was on the radio,” Marshall recently told the New York Times. “He said, ‘Oh, there’s my girl,’ and I thought he was talking about me, you know? Then the song ended and he turned off the radio, and I realized he was talking about Rihanna.”
Marshall's willingness to extricate pain from her past and re-examine it in her songs is sacrificial, brave and a little foolhardy too. But it's that ability to wade into emotional deep waters that makes her unique. There's a certain symmetry in the choice of Rob Schnapf, who co-produced four of Elliott Smith's albums, to mix Wanderer — the understanding of Marshall's similar gift of corralling her entire being into her recordings. And although she has a habit of apologizing for herself in interviews, as several publications have noted in 2018, there's also a far more discernible acceptance of herself, via the release of Wanderer, as both an artist and a woman.
"That's one of the most calming things, the older that I’ve gotten," she told the Guardian. "When I was younger, I wasn’t always able to find inner solidarity, but as I got older it was liberating. It doesn’t even matter if you’re an artist or not: the easiest way out of listening to the truth from a woman speaking it, is to tell her that she’s f**ing crazy.”
As a free spirit and visionary songwriter and musician who is often denied the credit she deserves for her brave and sometimes messy excavation of that truth in all of her songs, Chan Marshall, and her alter ego Cat Power, is an FUV Essentials artist.
Listen to a conversation with Cat Power, recorded at Soho's Sonos store, at 1 p.m. EDT on Friday, October 5.
Jealous of the Birds: Five Essential Cat Power Songs
#FUVEssentials: Cat Power (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Kara Manning)