“Are you mad at me?”
Chan Marshall will ask you this whether you are a bartender mixing her a tequila and soda after closing time or a bodega clerk waiting to take her order or a passerby walking a dog or, certainly, a new acquaintance grappling with how to speak to her at length about deeply personal subjects she is both loathe to dig into and unable to avoid. You will assure her, repeatedly, that of course you’re not mad. Why would you be? But eventually, you’ll realize this is just a thing she does, the way you might say, “Know what I mean?” She talks a lot, to everyone, gregarious and inquisitive with strangers in a way they may not be used to; there’s a lot of energy to burn. She is disarmingly forthright and carefully guarded, often within the same thought, constantly measuring how much she should be saying as she’s already in the middle of saying it. She’s been the face of, or muse for, Chanel, among other high-fashion houses, yet she will lift a butt cheek and rip one mid-sentence without ever breaking your gaze or her train of thought.
She is, though she won’t claim to have any notions about her own legacy, part of an increasingly rare species of artist who has maintained the kind of long, vaunted, twisty career that couldn’t be emulated even if someone wanted to.
It’s a typically muggy June night in Miami’s South Beach, at a tony bayside bar about a mile away from the condo Marshall has owned for the past several years. She is wearing a loose black T-shirt and black jeans, her hair short in the back but draping past her eyes, eerily similar to the cover of 1998’s much-beloved Moon Pix. She’s 40 going on 24.
“I just saw a photo of my ex on Instagram moving on with his life.” This is how she introduces herself, by way of apology for being late and out of sorts, in case I think she seems out of sorts, but I’m not yet sure I do. She has just landed in Miami after dropping off her French bulldog, Mona, in New York, and she’s leaving in two days to do promo in Europe. After a long period of settled quiet, her life is fast becoming unsettled and unquiet, partially by design.
Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power for almost two decades, is about to release her first album of original material in six years. It’s called Sun, and it’s good in a way that makes the rest of her work have to stand on its tiptoes and straighten its tie. Marshall has been talking about this record publicly for much of that six-year span, which might suggest that the birth has been a particularly labored one, even though none of the songs she thought would be on the album six years ago are on it now. But this isn’t an indie-rock Chinese Democracy; it’s just that she sort of stopped being a professional musician, for the first time in her adult life, to be a person, a girlfriend, a mother figure, someone who spends more than a week somewhere before going somewhere else. To be specific, for the past five years she has lived in Los Angeles with actor Giovanni Ribisi and Ribisi’s teen daughter, Lucia. But now all that is over and the machine is cranking up again and there are some nerves. She needs to hire a band, she needs to figure out how to play these songs live, she needs to feel less shitty.
There have always been nerves. Anyone who happens upon her three hours from now, onstage at the otherwise empty karaoke dive underneath the Shelborne Hotel, belting out Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” or “Be Without You” by her hero Mary J. Blige, would be shocked to learn that, for many years, this woman was famous, or the 1998 equivalent of Internet-famous, for falling to absolute fucking pieces while performing in front of audiences. But soon after the release of 2006’s Memphis-soul revue The Greatest, Marshall canceled a tour and checked herself into a hospital for what she told SPIN soon after was “a reaction to drinking.” When she emerged, the album was re-released, and Marshall was transformed from indie rock’s favorite tortured soul into a happy, confident approximation of an artist with her shit together. (“Artist sounds like another word for a fuckup,” she says in her faint Southern drawl, pulling on one in a long series of cigarettes.) Who wouldn’t be grateful for her good spirits and better health? But, as unfair or impolitic as it may be to say, it felt a bit like some important edges had been sanded off.
Sun isn’t intended to be a repudiation of that, but she produced the album and played the sundry electronic synths and samplers herself on all but a few bits, then pieced together the songs with Pro Tools, all things she’d never done before. (“I have no fuckin’ idea what that shit was called or what it does, but as long as it’s plugged in, I can use it,” she says. “Anyone can bang on a piano or hit a drum. I never fucking had a lesson. I don’t know how to play like people who know how to play. A monkey could do it.”) The album is also more evocative of the moody, atmospheric benchmark Moon Pix than anything else in her discography, though it’s the first you could properly dance to rather than merely lilt to. There are reasons — some cosmic, some mundane — why she thinks that a more outré musical approach, in conjunction with her first real experience of domestic bliss, has brought her back to what feels like a creative peak, and why the album’s cover is a photo of her taken 20 years ago.
“I think things have come full circle,” she says. “I am that same person. We’re always going to remind ourselves of our mistakes and how we do things differently, trying to be a better person or whatever.” But she doesn’t want to learn anything right now. She wants to drink and sing, then go back to her apartment with a couple of old friends she bumped into earlier in the night, lug her turntable out onto the balcony, play Nina Simone records, get high, and watch Game of Thrones. When I wake up, 15 or 90 minutes later, curled up on a throw pillow on the smooth concrete patio, the Florida sun is already relentless.
This story originally ran in SPIN’s September/October 2012 issue — order yours here now!