The Spin Interview: Cat Power
The artist also known as Chan Marshall is ready to sing the blues away.
What follows is an unabridged version of the Cat Power interview that appears in our December issue. Chan Marshall does not look troubled. On this late September afternoon, the fresh-faced and ponytailed 34-year-old singer, better known as Cat Power, perches on a windowsill outside Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel, humming little ditties. Petting homely poodles. Whistling at attractive businessmen who pass by on the sidewalk. Having recently rereleased her gorgeous Memphis soul album, The Greatest, she’s got a newly confident swagger and ten American dreams’ worth of plans, including two upcoming albums, a book she wants to write about Africa, her role as the new face of Chanel jewelry, and an acting career she’d like to launch. Strange that this is the same Marshall who, after The Greatest debuted last January, canceled a tour and admitted herself to Miami’s Mount Sinai Medical Center — the result of a breakdown. Then again, maybe this is exactly how someone who survived psychiatric treatment should look. Happy. And lucky.
Spin: What was the first song you ever wrote?
Chan Marshall: In fourth grade, I lived by this tobacco field on the edge of a town called McLeansville, North Carolina, and I had this neighbor who had a piano. I’d only seen pianos in church or in my dad’s apartment, and I was never allowed to touch instruments. I grew up in a house that had alcoholism problems, and there are different codes of living when you grow up like that. I didn’t go to other people’s houses much. So one day my neighbor’s parents weren’t home, and she was watching TV, so I snuck into her den and I played this song that’s very similar to a song I have called “Norma Jean.” Back then I called it “Windows.” That song — I felt like I had a secret, like I had made a life for myself.
You’ve said you’ve been drinking since you were very young. What started it?
People who drink habitually don’t realize they’re doing it, because it was part of their upbringing. Everybody from my immediate family to my grandparents to my great-grandparents — there were always severe alcoholic and psychological problems. If your parents gave you fire to play with when you were two, you’d be standing in fire by the time you were an adult. [Before my most recent hospital stay] I was drinking from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed.
You recently spent a week at the hospital. What made you decide to check yourself in?
It wasn’t for drinking — this was for a reaction to drinking. This was the third time I’ve been in the hospital. I never really connected the dots. I never really thought, “When something bad happens, you go to the bar and turn off your emotions.” I never realized that I’d gotten to the point of such depression. So that’s why I can’t drink anymore. I need to be able to face things.
It’s been reported that you’ve had seven drinks in seven months. That’s not sobriety.
Well, yeah, once a month. I call myself sober because if there’s something special, like my friend’s birthday in Miami, I’ll have half a tablespoon [of vodka] with pineapple juice. That’s what I call a drink.
Have you ever thought about going to Alcoholics Anonymous?
No. It wasn’t that I was an alcoholic. It was that I was on tour for so long and that I lost the love of my life in 1998 to another woman. He was the first person who loved me who I loved. I never saw or heard from him again until last night. He has a girlfriend now — his mom told me, she came to my show in Atlanta. That was the second time I checked myself into the hospital, when I found out that he was with somebody else. I mean, he was living with her. We were done and I didn’t know about it.
How were you able to get out of the hospital that time?
I had to go on tour the next week. That’s when the drinking started. I had a bottle of scotch backstage at that point. A year later, my rider had a bottle of scotch and a case of beer for every show.
How much were you drinking every day at your worst?
Well, it was always a fifth of Scotch. And then it was a fifth of Scotch and two Xanax. But that was normal. I mean, fuck man, there are 21-year-olds who go to NYU who probably drink like that five nights a week.
What was happening in your life before you went to the hospital this time?
I had holed up in this apartment in Miami for a full year and didn’t have any contact with people. My phone was always on silent. Some weeks it was just turned off. I really wanted to die. When you’re that depressed, it’s not even “depressed” anymore. You’ve just given up. There’s nothing inside you that’s good.
How did you finally get out of the house?
My friend Susanna flew down to Miami from New York. I hadn’t talked to her in about a year. She just had a bad feeling. She kept asking people, “Have you talked to Chan?” Susanna got there and I was so happy to see her because I’d been…well, you know, my grandmother was very religious growing up and she taught me from a very young age that Satan is bad and God is good. But you tell a child about Satan and demons and saints and angels, and with a child’s imagination, it just becomes a part of your mind. As an adult, you have to really remember that it’s all just folk tales. Like werewolves, that kind of thing. How did you react when she told you that you were going to the hospital?
I didn’t understand why we were going. I thought she wasn’t feeling well. She was crying in the cab, holding my hand. And I was thinking, “God, she must be in so much pain.”
What happened while you were there?
Well, six months earlier I had this dream about Johnny Cash. He slid into a booth beside me and he was like, “June and I, we’ve birthed a new child. And its name is Acanthus.” Anyway, I was filled with this really happy feeling of exultation. I just felt like I’d been touched, you know? Like I wasn’t alone. So I was in this store one day and there was this ring there with this leaf on it. I asked the woman what the leaf was and she said it was acanthus. So I was like, cool, I’ll take it. When Susanna came, she took my ring because she was like, “They probably aren’t going to [let you take it into the hospital].”
The doctor said I had a psychotic break because I was suffering severe, massive depression and overwhelming stress. I basically lay in bed for the first three days and refused to talk or eat or open my eyes. If someone came around, I would try to blink really quickly. I wasn’t looking at people because I didn’t want to take their pills. I was afraid that I would never leave that place. I was afraid that I would be drugged and I would never be able to say, Help! Susanna was holding my hand. She said, “Chan, I have to leave, but I’m thinking about you and I’m literally twenty blocks from you. I’m going to come see you tomorrow and everything’s gonna be fine.”
On the fourth day, I woke up and I was like, “Shit, Susanna is not coming back. Maybe Susanna is just part of your split personality. Maybe everyone’s part of your split personality. Maybe your mom doesn’t exist. Maybe you aren’t you. Maybe you’re really 75 years old and you’re homeless with cancer and you’re on a respirator, and when you open your eyes, you’re going to see that you’re dying.” So I got out of bed and went right up to the mirror. At this point, I was raw. I hadn’t seen myself. I hadn’t brushed my hair. I wondered [if I looked in the mirror], would it be me? And I looked. And I looked like me. Like the inside of me. Like a little kid. When I saw my face, all I wanted to do was protect that person. And I realized, “What are you doing here?”
So I was like, “What would a sane person do?” I brushed my teeth and I combed my hair. Susanna had brought a few cosmetics and new fresh clothes, so I put them on and I felt clean. I had not gone outside my room yet. But I went out the door and I went down the hall, where all the people had gathered to watch TV. I had heard everyone outside my door saying their names and asking for their medication. So I acted like everyone else, like I was supposed to act. I went up to the counter and I was like, “I think I’m supposed to ask for medication?” And that was it. That was the day.
On the fifth day, it was easier. And on the sixth day the doctor came in and said, “How are you today Chan?” And I’d say, “I’m fine.” So the doctor says, “Chan, are you having any strange thoughts?” And I was like, “On a scale of one to ten, being in here, I’m at a four. But definitely not at a ten, like I was when I first came in here.” And he was like, “Okay, are you hearing voices?” And I was like, “No, not at all. Just my voice.”
Had you been hearing voices before you went to the hospital?
I wasn’t hearing voices. I was having visions.
What kind of visions?
My window got blown out, so there was a sheet of wood over it. There were little dark knots on the wood and it looked like the desert. I could hear the wind behind it — whooooooo — blowing across the desert. And where those knots were, the desert was exposing this huge, massive civilization. All these super ornate, shiny, pointy buildings. It was this Arabic type of place, like the Sahara 5000 years ago. These other knots started moving. It was very hallucinatory. All that sand was representative of time. I felt like I was going back in time.
It’s embarrassing to admit things like this. What I thought was a vision was obviously just my mind. And since I hadn’t slept in seven days, my mind was out the window.
How do you feel now?
Oh man, I’m just so happy to be alive. I’ve always been like that when I was little. I feel lucky. I feel blessed. So grateful and thankful to myself that I didn’t fall for any tricks and I didn’t fuck up and I didn’t become a junkie and I didn’t jump out a window and I didn’t fall prey to those traps because I had self-preservation. I don’t come from money or an educated family background or any sort of supportive family life, so all of my choices are made on my own. This was the first time that I ever let myself be taken care of against my will. That’s such a weird concept.
How do you respond to people who say you’re intentionally cultivating a “crazy artist” mythology around yourself?
It makes me laugh. I wish that I could be that conniving!
You have a reputation for unusual behavior during live shows: starting and stopping songs, talking as if you’re in a trance, apologizing repeatedly. Where does that come from?
Say you’re typing a poem and there’s something wrong with the E key — it looks like an R or a Q. And you’re like, fuck, and you pull the paper out. That’s what playing is like for me. There’s just something wrong — the sound, the lights, someone looking at me, maybe the piano’s out of tune — that’s why I stop and start. I want to make it perfect. It’s not like I’m trying to torture people. I don’t care if I’ve got a booger up my nose or my head’s on fire; it’s not about me. It’s about the song.
Do you have stage fright?
It makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it — all the people and the lights. I don’t appear shy, but I’m a very sensitive person.
Do you have to play live? Is that part of your contract?
No not at all. I wanted to.
You enjoy playing live? You don’t always seem to enjoy it.
That’s the thing about me. People think, Oh she’s crazy — she doesn’t like to play. But that’s not it. It’s like tapping into some communal vein. There’s always one person who talks to you after you go through this physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological experience. It’s a dualship, a communication between the listener and me, even though you’re not talking to each other or looking at each other, there’s this space that starts living. This space in the universe that we all share, and it opens up, and then we forget we’re in a bar. It’s like looking at a painting or watching a horse run. It’s that thing that keeps us liking life.
You recorded The Greatest in Memphis. What was it like to work with soul legends like Mabon “Teenie” Hodges?
The recording process was intense — you know, white girl from Georgia asking these legendary musicians if they’d be interested in recording “Try Me,” by James Brown. Teenie would be like, “Now what key is the song in?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know anything about keys.” And he’d be like, “Okay, just play it.” I’d play and he’d mark down the Nashville numbers system — that’s the way poor people learn to play because [takes on a deep-South accent] they don’t have no con-serrr-va-tory. And Teenie would be like, “See that note you played? That’s the key. It’s always gonna come back to that note.”
Teenie taught you music theory?
Yeah, but I didn’t really need to know any of that. [Laughs] You know the dude in Africa with a wash bin? He doesn’t need to know. That Chinese guy in the subway with the instrument with one string? Do you think he’s studying music theory?
Your next record will be another covers album. Whose songs will you be doing?
Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cole Porter. I’m going to record it in Mexico City in January, release it next summer. Then I’ll have time to audition for Saturday Night Live.
You want to join the cast of Saturday Night Live?
Yeah. I met Molly Shannon when I was playing a show in Brooklyn. I didn’t know what to say, so I said [imitates Shannon’s voice from her SNL cheerleader skit], “I love it! I love it!” She didn’t laugh. I think she was embarrassed. But four years later, I saw her again and told her this story about my friends getting handcuffed, and Molly was laughing. She was like, “Oh my God, have you ever thought about acting?” So I might ask her to forward my audition tape.
When you look at all the albums you’ve made over the past decade, what’s the most significant change you hear musically?
The biggest change is probably something you can’t hear on the albums — it’s something that happens live. When I was six, I was singing [Kenny Rogers’] “The Gambler” onto a cassette for my grandmother. Now when I’m onstage, I’m singing the same way, singing from happiness. My songs always sounded triumphant to me, but they never sounded triumphant to other people because I was always insecure about my abilities. I caught so much bullshit from sound guys for years. With The Greatest, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to play live and have it sound like it did on the album. This Memphis group is the first band I’ve recorded with that has practiced. Having all the songs in key has liberated my singing for the first time.
Can you tell me about Sun, the album that’s due after your next covers album?
It will come out in spring of 2008. I’m producing it. One song is called “Leopard,” I used to sing it when I was 26. There’s another song, a spiritual song called “Mountaintops.” And there’s a really sweet song called “Funny Things” that’s like a little kid’s tap-dance song about having special secret thoughts: “Funny things in your dreams/Can you whisper talk to me?” And then there’s “Silent Machine,” which I actually wrote a long time ago. There’s another song called “Oh Time.” It’s about my ex and it’s about forgiveness. My friend Susanna always cries when I play it.
How does it go?
“A ticket to Atlanta / Family knows another now / A ticket from Atlanta / Family knows, another shot down / You win / I give in / I forgive you / Oh time, the great healer / Oh time, the great healer.”
You know Cat Power — she tends to write pretty personal songs. The myth! The mystery! [Laughs] That’s why I’ve always done interviews: to show there’s no mystery at all. When I was 21, I wanted to do interviews because I wanted to save the world. I still do. But half the time I’m still trying to save myself first.