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Interview: Chan Marshall of Cat Power

"I feel guilty, like I need to play guitar again, I need to play piano again."

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Cat Power

Cat Power (Chan Marshall)

Stefano Giovannini

Cat Power is the stage name of Chan Marshall, an Atlanta-born songwriter whose doleful voice and spartan style has attracted a legion of followers. Following her breakout Moon Pix album in 1998, Marshall's profile has grown to the point where her eighth LP, 2008's set of covers, Jukebox, charted around the globe, including in the Billboard Top 20.

Interview: 17 November 2009

How deep into making the new record are you?
“I don’t know how far I’ve gotten, but I feel like I’ve gotten ten real finished ideas. I was just going to go in and record some songwriting ideas, little things I’ve been writing whilst living here in LA, and do the record later. But, it just turned into a whole bunch of new songs. Unexpectedly a different thing. It’s this Moon Pixyish kinda thing.”

How does it remind you of Moon Pix?
“With Moon Pix, I wanted to go to Australia, so I manipulated that I could go to Australia if I recorded an album; [Matador] would send me there, pay for the recordings. So, I came up with these song ideas while I was in the studio, like I was in a room by myself with a tape recorder. The reason this reminds me of Moon Pix is because I’m just in the studio with an assistant engineer; it’s just me and a dude that I don’t know. Just making stuff up. Whereas, with The Greatest and You Are Free, I went in with these big batches of songs. It just feels so different.”

And it’s an exciting different?
“It’s an exciting different! I don’t know if age means anything, life experience or not having any, or if I’m just in a different place now. With The Greatest I was just in an awful place personally, and 'Lived in Bars' was recorded in a jumbling mess of going into different studios over a number of years. But with this I feel so refreshed. I feel alone. It just feels so great to be on my own. It feels more peaceful. I don’t know how to describe it!”

Is the music reflecting a more peaceful feeling in your life?
“The thing with all the records is that it always felt like there was a pressure to put one out. You Are Free I was all over the place, following this engineer around, and I felt really powerless with all the recordings piling up, and with depending on this other person. And with The Greatest, there was this pressure of needing to release an album. Jukebox, the label pressured me to put it out. Now, there’s no pressure, and with Moon Pix there was no pressure. And the way my life was, then, it was sort of similar. I wasn’t touring all over the place; I was just parked in Melbourne for that summer, just chilling out. Maybe that’s why it feels similar now: because I’ve just been parked here.”

Were there whole years where your life was just one unending tour?
“One unending blur, yeah! Definitely. From after Moon Pix, I never stopped until The Greatest, basically. And then I slammed on the brakes, and had the carpet come out from under me. Luckily, when I got back on the carpet I was able to do it in a completely different way. [The Dirty Delta Blues Band] all have their own bands, and their own lives, so we just go out for a couple weeks, come home. It wasn’t just carving through the world for three years, it was building a more healthy habit of touring, as opposed to leaving everything behind, leaving friendships to just corrode. There were many years where it was definitely like that. And then there was all the drinking. It helped so much having my friends be with me for these three years. It’s been sort of like a home, like a traveling family.”

You used to be adamant that you weren’t a performer. Have you changed how you feel about being on stage?
“It’s definitely changed, because my audience has gotten a lot bigger since my Moon Pix audience. I kind of miss the intimacy of the old way, of exercising the capability of being able to face the crowd. I miss the fear. Because my friends have been with me on these tours, it feels like we’re all in it together, and that’s empowering, because I’m not alone. But, at the same time, I haven’t played an instrument [on stage] since The Greatest. I feel bad, I feel guilty, like I need to play guitar again, and I need to play piano again. Because that’s such a function of writing, for me, to have the instrument mesmerizing my subconscious. So I think I’m going to go back to being just me. Which is scary. But, I mean, even with the band, I still feel scared up there, being in front of people.”

What was it like performing for the camera in My Blueberry Nights?
“It was really weird. When you’re on the stage, there’s a lot of people’s faces, and you can feel that energy on your face; you feel your cheeks get red, you feel all these other eyeballs looking at your eyeballs. But, with the cameras, it’s like ten people on crew, standing behind the camera holding this thing and that thing, but it’s really, really quiet. It felt both intimate and distancing; like it was just me and the other actor out there on our own, but behind that glass there’s all these other people. It felt like jumping in a book, like there’s another universe there. Sometimes, when there’s a song that I’m singing, when it’s really something, the universe goes away, and you’re in this other realm, somehow. It felt a little like that. It was an interesting experience. And it was nerve-wracking. Because I know what my face looks like, I know my face looks funny, but over there, behind the camera that’s capturing me, I know that there’s this imagination, this universe, this story that’s like a book. It was cool to trick your brain like that. So, it was amazing and weird and hilarious at the same time. It was such a strange opportunity.”

You don’t get piles of offers like that?
“Nuh-uh. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. How rare is it that someone who’s not even an actor gets asked by Wong Kar-wai, such a cool person, to be in his movie? It was like someone asking me: ‘do you want to run in the Olympics?’ Like: ‘Sure! That sounds fun!’ You know you won’t win the gold or whatever, but to be around that caliber of athlete is amazing. To see the technical aspects of cinematography, to see the make-up and hair people go to work, putting the fake hair on Jude Law to cover up that receding hairline, to see behind the mask, that was really exciting.”

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