the only one
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by THEO WENNER
Chan Marshall, the singer-songwriter, actress, and sometime model known as Cat Power, wrote and recorded her first album, “Dear Sir,” during the month of December 1994, with the help of Steven Shelley from Sonic Youth. Since then she’s been one of Purple’s favorite singer-songwriters. Alternating between periods of luminescent creativity and of escape and emotional exhaustion, she has continued to experiment with the music and songwriting this native southerner — and daughter of a tap-dancing bluesman — was born to do, always looking for newer and more powerful ways to express her feelings. She’s been away from the scene for three years, and we’re very happy to interview her for our 20th anniversary issue and to celebrate “Sun,” her first solo album since her breakthrough album of 2006, “The Greatest.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — I know you’ve been working on a new album for a while now. Is it finished?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yes. I’ve been working on it for the last three years. I spent my life savings. I spent my retirement money. I spent all my money. I had eight engineers. I went to I don’t know how many studios, and I bought all this gear and rented a house in Malibu. That was the second year, and nothing worked there so it was just a huge waste. But I have some beautiful fuckin’ songs that are going to be on the next record. I had maybe 12 songs. I played it for Matador, and they didn’t like it because it was depressing. It was like old Cat Power. It was too simplistic. Too minimalist. For eight months I didn’t do anything, I just lived my life and thought, well, if I don’t put out another record that’s fine with me. I’ll get on with my life. And I was in a relationship. After eight months, I changed my mind, and that’s when I rented this big fuckin’ house in Malibu so my band could live with me and I bought all this gear. I wrote new songs, and I kept a couple of the original songs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you paid for everyone?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah, that’s what you do when you take responsibility for your creation. That and you try to do something you’ve never done before. I had a few different engineers come in there over a period of nine months. It was a great experience, but the only songs I really got out of it, the only songs I wrote there, were when the band wasn’t around.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you finish the album there?
CHAN MARSHALL — No, I went to France! I needed a new studio, and I was going to go to Gang in Paris. It’s supposedly a great studio, but I never went there. I e-mailed them and said, “Hey, I need to finish my record, can I book?” I had sent an e-mail to the studio because of the Beastie Boys record that came out. I was in LA, driving with my boyfriend at the time, and I was like, “Fuck, this sounds good.” I went home and found out who mixed the album. I didn’t want to use the band anymore. I wanted to do it by myself. The whole record is me by myself, except for one song with the band called “Ruin.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s still all Cat Power then? It’s still what you used to do?
CHAN MARSHALL — It’s different. Instead of playing guitar and vocal, or piano and vocal, it’s like drums, synth, bass. I e-mailed my record label and said, “I think that guy who mixed the Beastie Boys’ new record needs to mix my record because I have like 20 vocals, six guitars, four drums, six synths, like 80 or 100 tracks of sound.” That was last July. I’d been recording there since. On one song the band is there, and on one song the bass player’s there, and on another song the guitar player’s there, but everything else is me, recorded separately.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you arrived in New York, you were like a baby. How old were you?
CHAN MARSHALL — Twenty. I was like a young street boy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were you wearing at the time?
CHAN MARSHALL — Back then, people would put all their old clothes and furniture and stuff in the street and so I would get shoes and pants and coats and stuff from the garbage. It was always like old-man stuff. People would die in apartments, so they’d have to clear out everything from their house. You’d always have tons of shit everywhere, like furniture and guitars. I had no need to buy clothes. Everything I had in my apartment was from the street.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where was that?
CHAN MARSHALL — I still have it. It’s a rental in the East Village, off of Avenue B. I moved there when I was 21. I was living on 4th Street, and I couldn’t afford the rent. So I met this artist/activist and he had a rent-controlled building. At first there were three roommates: me, a photographer/journalist and the political activist/illustrator. Now it’s just me and the artist. The living room is his studio. I’m very lucky that I’ve had extremely cheap rent for all this time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You probably don’t want to give the exact address!
CHAN MARSHALL — No, no. The FBI’s looking for me. They have no idea where to find me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So where did you come from?
CHAN MARSHALL — Atlanta, Georgia. The North had the Industrial Revolution. The South had agriculture, farms — cotton, peanuts, tobacco. Slavery.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And music.
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah. But the North had it, too. Chicago, Detroit, Harlem. But you have an industrial civilization in the North. In the South you have agriculture, and you have a lot of extreme poverty. The choices are kind of limited. The church or alcohol is pretty much what people had. Atlanta in the old days was a big city, like LA or San Francisco, but the Southern version. During Vietnam everybody left home. If they were Southern, they didn’t go to New York or San Francisco; they went to Atlanta. Forty years ago Atlanta was like the New York City of the South. Now everyone goes to New York or LA. My dad moved from Alabama to Atlanta.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your father fight in Vietnam?
CHAN MARSHALL — No. When you get drafted, you have to get a physical and be interviewed. Supposedly, my dad jumped out of the window during the interview, and my stepdad dressed up like a woman. Neither of them went to Vietnam. But my uncle went, and he came back completely psychologically handicapped. He was a medivac, so he sat in a helicopter and went out and got all the bodies and all the injured.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you leave Alabama?
CHAN MARSHALL — I was about nine. I went to Tennessee and lived outside of Memphis. Then I went to North Carolina, to a small town called McLeansville, basically a tobacco field. Then I went back to Georgia, back and forth, and I kept moving between different family members.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were your parents separated?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yes. Before I was born. But they were never really married. They were “spiritually bound” by this old hippie guy at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. It’s like Haight Street in San Francisco; it’s where all the hippies would go. They proclaimed their love via witnesses and probably lots of alcohol. They weren’t, say, hippie in the terms of intellectual, power-to-the-people hippie. I’d say more like get-me-out-of-the-depression hippie.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who would you say raised you?
CHAN MARSHALL — My grandmother, my mother, my stepdad, my father and then sometimes the stepmother and sometimes my aunt and great-aunt.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your parents were musicians?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah. My dad and my stepdad, they were all friends with my mom, and they were all part of the same scene. My mother, she says she was a singer, but my dad did it as a job. He was in all these different bands, and he took care of me a couple of times. He played music for people. He was singing and tap-dancing for money in Alabama when he was five.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you religious?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah. Religion is huge in the South. My grandmother, who raised me until I was four, took me to church with her. And the way she sang was different than going to see my dad play. Music is the only thing that’s universal with religion, I think, like when the Muslims do the call at sunrise and sundown. Even in tribes, music is a human communal thing. I got that part of singing from her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you have to sing at church?
CHAN MARSHALL — I wanted to, because that was the fun part. The minister would be like, “Satan will take your soul! And you will burn in hell!” and whatever, so I hated it. But when we’d get up and we’d sing, we’d all have to find the right page in the book and that was the fun part.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you a member of the choir?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yes, when I lived with my mom in McLeansville. I went to 13 schools growing up. We moved around a lot, and in this one neighborhood, I didn’t know anybody. There was a girl who lived down the street who came to our door and brought cookies and brownies to welcome us to the neighborhood, and she asked if I wanted to go to church with her. One of my sisters and I went with her. Her mom was the piano player for the choir. After church she would have choir practice, so we were in choir with her because our ride home was with her mom.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you start playing music?
CHAN MARSHALL — I was at my friend’s house, playing her piano. I’d been around a piano with my dad, but he’d say, “It’s not a toy, don’t touch it.” I’d go to her house after school and I’d play her piano. It was awesome. And then we’d play Atari video games and Dungeons & Dragons.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were there any bands that made an impression on you then?
CHAN MARSHALL — When I was 16, I saw the Cramps in Atlanta. I was living with my dad, and I saw this band called the Flat Duo Jets open up for them. They’re great. The singer Dexter Romweber was like possessed. He never opened his eyes. People probably thought it was rockabilly, but it wasn’t, it was different. He’s a classical pianist, number one, and he’s from the South. He was fuckin’ amazing. His guitar was an old black and white Silvertone — I had never seen a guitar like that. When I was 18, I was working at the register of a pizza place, and my boyfriend’s friends would hang out. One of the guys was like, “I’m selling my guitar, you wanna buy it? It’s the same one as Dex’s!” It was a ’57, maybe ’59. It was $75, and I thought “fuck” because I didn’t make a lot of money. But I bought the guitar anyway. I put it in the corner of my apartment. It was like art. It was like an homage to my love for this guy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you first get involved in bands in Atlanta?
CHAN MARSHALL — Everyone I knew in Atlanta was in a band and it was all guys. There was this one girl doing something. She was like Courtney Love before Courtney Love. Her name was Debbie Richardson. Her band was called Magic Bone, and they’re not a band anymore. I had a big crush on the guitar player, Damon, because he’s a wonderful being, not because he’s hot or whatever. He was a very gentle person. I was friends with everybody coming to get beer at the pizzeria. We’d drink and everybody would jam at each other’s houses, in the basement. I’d always play drums or bass, never the guitar.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your guitar was always calling for you from the corner of your room.
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah. I started on my day off. Some days I’d just want to be by myself and pick up the guitar and start playing it. I didn’t know how to play, and all the guys at work would offer to teach me, but I wanted to teach myself. I thought if they taught me how to play guitar, I’d play like they played, and I didn’t want to play the way they played. So when I’d jam, my friend Marc would say, “We should start a band, you and me.” And he was already in a lot of other bands. One of them was called I See The Moon. He became one of my best friends.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He saw something in you?
CHAN MARSHALL — Well, he wanted the chicks and the fun and the free beer and to play his guitar because he’s an amazing guitar player. So after a long time, we started a band, because music was all I did. I went to shows. I loved music. All there was to do in Atlanta was to go and see bands. Marc said to me one day, “Chan, Damon says he’ll be in a band with us if we start one.” Damon was my boyfriend’s brother, the guy that I really loved because he was so sweet and very gentle.
I was like, “Really?”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So the three of you started a band?
CHAN MARSHALL — I had a father figure; his name is Glen Thrasher. He had a radio station called Destroy All Music in the ’80s and ’90s. Marc said, “Yeah, and Glen said if Damon joins the band then he would join the band and play drums.” I didn’t even know Glen played music. That made it sound super-interesting because it would be more like having fun like we always did, after work, we’d have fun and drink and play music. So he was like, “Glen said that if he plays then Fletcher has to come.” And Fletcher was a very nice person
I didn’t know very well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The five of you finally made a band?
CHAN MARSHALL — We met together at Klang, the place where Glen did the radio show. He used to book different Free Jazz musicians. That’s where we got together and played. It was Damon and Marc playing Die Kreuzen. They were playing guitars like they were fighting a duel. So much noise. And Fletcher was on the floor making feedback with his guitar and Glen on the drums. And I was like, “Aw, this is cool, I can do this,” because I never played with Damon or Fletcher and I’d never seen Glen play a fuckin’ instrument.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you come up with the name Cat Power?
CHAN MARSHALL — Well, I would serve this old man that used to work on the railroad. The old man would order a slice of pizza or a beer, not both, because he only had enough for one. If he ordered pizza, I’d give him a beer; if he ordered beer, I’d give him a slice. And so he was standing there waiting, and he was starving and wants a fuckin’ drink, wearing this old ’50s hat that said Cat Diesel Power, after the tractor company, which is now called Caterpillar. Marc calls and says, “We need a name for our band,” and I was still not sure we were a band. and he’s like, “Yes we are, and you’re the lead singer, because you’re the girl.” So I said the name of the band was Cat Power and hung up the phone. But, I got so fuckin’ mad about the lead singer thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why didn’t you want to be the center of the band?
CHAN MARSHALL — Well, we weren’t even a band; we had just played together four days ago. The name of the band didn’t mean anything … I was mad when Marc walked into the pizzeria with flyers for the show. Why were we a band? Because we had our first show four days later, on Thursday. Wednesday, the free paper comes out and the music critic had written about us saying,
“I don’t know what they sound like, but I’m going to guess they sound like the Velvet Underground and Jethro Tull.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Those are big shoes to fill for a brand new band.
CHAN MARSHALL — We were going to open up for this college band called Flap. I went there with my roommate who passed away. I was with him and I was like, “I’m not fuckin’ going, man. It’s so stupid, we’re not even a fuckin’ band!” He said, “You know what,” because he was in the band, “Chan, if you don’t go you’re a fuckin’ chicken, because what are you fuckin’ doing? You’re working at a pizza place. You love music.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — But once you got there, you were ready to play?
CHAN MARSHALL — I showed up, and there were cops everywhere because there was underage drinking, and it wasn’t a legal space for real bands, it was a radio station. I went into this little room and I was like, “Who’s playing? This sounds amazing.” I thought, “This must be Flap.” But it was them. It was Marc, Glen, Fletcher, and Damon. Marc looked at me and I was like, “No.” I left. And that was our first show. I ran away. It was so stupid. But then the girl I said was like Courtney Love — Damon played in her band — asked us to open for them at this strip club called the Clermont Lounge. She was amazing, so I wanted to do it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you finally started the band, and they put you in the forefront?
CHAN MARSHALL — I was singing on maybe three out of seven songs. There was no other singing. Just melodic noise. But then everybody started being on heroin. My boyfriend, my first love, all heroin, heroin, heroin, OD, OD, OD. Everybody’s on heroin and Nirvana had come out. It was ’91. I was turning 20. I had to make a decision because my roommate died in a car accident. He was one of my best friends. It’s like I had a dose of reality and thinking about life, where I was, what I was doing, and what I wanted to do. And everybody that I loved except my girlfriend and Marc was on heroin. It was just like…
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s time to go.
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah. My friend who died was in love with this girl from Tennessee. She lived in New York on 4th Street. That later became my first apartment. I called her to tell her that he’d died, and a couple of weeks later she called me back and told me I should move up there, she had an extra room. I was like, “I’ll visit. I can’t live in New York. What would I do in New York City?” So three months later, in July, I visited her and it was fun and sun. We’d sit on her stoop and she’d make margaritas. We’d sit there and smoke and just walk around at night. I had also been there in December with my ex. But we didn’t go anywhere except Max Fish.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you came to New York, and you enjoyed the city and decided to stay. What happened when you told the guys back in Atlanta that you were moving?
CHAN MARSHALL — They were all like, “No! We just set up a band together! We’ve been playing for six months. We have a band.” And I said, “No, I wanna get the fuck out of here.” And I moved on the first of August. At the end of July, Glen told me he had gotten a job at Yeshiva Law School and would be moving to New York at the same time as me. He took me to see Anthony Braxton and we went to ABC No Rio. I felt like I was learning about music. At ABC No Rio, this hardcore space on Rivington Street, he was like, “You know we can play here if we ever want to.” And it was like maybe 10 people, bright lights, and a naked Japanese woman and a guy with a saxophone. It’s not a club where you go see a band and you look cool or act cool. It was like a shithole with bright lights and people just come. It was like freedom of expression. I knew these people wouldn’t judge me if they were going to look at a naked Japanese woman dance around and were going to listen to that noise.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it wasn’t a rock place. It was a jazz place.
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah, everybody was in their forties. And that was our first show. I showed up at like 10. There were eight people. There was a guitar player there and Glen was like, “This is Bob, he’s in our band now.” And I was like, “Oh, nice to meet you.” And then we just started playing and that was our first show. At our second show, I met Gerard Cosloy, the owner of Matador Records.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is Matador still your label?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah, but I didn’t know Gerard was the owner. I’d go to these shows, and I knew him by name. I just thought he was a friend of Glen’s because he had a music fanzine. And then we went to see the Blues Explosion with the Jesus Lizard at CBGBs and I was like, “Oh, this band, they’re awesome.” And Glen was like, “Chan, it’s Jon from Pussy Galore! Gerard is Matador. He puts out their records!” I never knew! So anyway, things got hard. Long story short, Glen got in trouble with the law about eight months later, and I had to get him out of town. So he went back to Atlanta. His roommates became friends with me, and they put out our first single — me and Glen and that guy Bob.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You finally stayed by yourself in New York?
CHAN MARSHALL — Yeah, I got that apartment near Avenue B so I could afford to stay.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you survive in New York?
CHAN MARSHALL — I worked up on Carnegie Hill on 92nd and Madison at a café. I also worked at a Xerox store on Mott Street called Todd’s Copy. Nan Goldin, Jim Jarmusch, Kiki Smith, John Giorno, Dan Graham — all these people would come in and get copies. And I met all these interesting people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you start playing solo?
CHAN MARSHALL — This was 1994. About six months after moving in I got a phone call on my answering machine from Glen’s roommate, who put out the single, and she was like, “Hey Chan, I hope you won’t be mad at me, but I just booked you a show at CBGBs Gallery. It’s called Cat Power Solo.” I was so mad! I didn’t call her back. I thought that was pretty fucked up. I was really mad. It was like maybe three weeks in advance. So I didn’t call her back, and she kept calling me. The night of the show, I got home from working at the café at eight, I have my tie on and my short hair; it was Sunday, the day I’m supposed to be at the CBGBs Gallery. I had two TVs, one black and white, one color — I got them from the street. I’d watch the news and I’d watch “The Simpsons.” I picked up a Village Voice on the way home, and on the cover was Liz Phair. I didn’t know who that was at the time. I go right to the listings and I see it and I’m like “fuck, fuck, fuck!” It says Cat Power Solo at 9 o’clock. There are three people in New York who I knew would be there: Gerard Cosloy from Matador; Jeff Cashvan, who I met at all these shows; and Harry Druzd from Max Fish. So I felt guilty.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you go?
CHAN MARSHALL — I was angry, but I went. Took my tie off, grabbed my amp and my guitar. When I walked into CBGBs Gallery, Jim Jarmusch’s assistant was onstage. She had an accordion and was singing and I was like, “This is weird and cool.” I didn’t know she was an artist. When I see her offstage she tells me she’s going to videotape me. And I saw Harry with his girlfriend Jackie. I don’t remember if Jeff Cashvan was there, and I didn’t see Gerard. I went up and played my stupid songs and that’s that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you must have been glad to have played, though. What was your first major show?
CHAN MARSHALL — When I went home there was a voicemail on my answering machine. It was Gerard from Matador. He said, “Chan, I can’t believe you played tonight! I just saw it in the paper. Why didn’t you tell me? Can you play next Tuesday, open up for Liz Phair, the girl who’s on the cover of the Village Voice? You’ll get $200.” And I was like, “Wow, $200.” So I went! That show was at Town Hall, and when I went to sound check, the drummer for Sonic Youth and this other guy, Tim, came and said, “That was great. Where are you from? What’s your name? Have you put a record out?” I said no, no, no, no, no, no, no. They asked me to have lunch, and I was hungry. I found out at lunch that he was the drummer for Sonic Youth because some guy stopped him on the street and was like, “Oh, Steve,” and I was like, wait…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Steve Shelley.
CHAN MARSHALL — When I was young I loved Sonic Youth, so I got real uncomfortable. I left lunch. I felt really introverted. Then I played my show and Steve was like, “We’d love to play with you, me and Tim, and I’d love to put a record out.” I was like, “I don’t know.” I didn’t trust people. I was incredibly shy. I was always the new kid and I was poor, so when you’re a new kid and you’re poor, you don’t integrate well into society.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I know you are a perfectionist. After all this time, are you happy with this new record?
CHAN MARSHALL — Parts. There are parts that you feel really close to, and you feel like you did a good job on, and there are some parts that you feel like, “I coulda done this,” or “Damn, I didn’t have time to do this,” or… But now it’s all done. I don’t know if you’re going to like it. You might like a couple of songs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — After almost 20 years of performing, do you feel more comfortable now going onstage?
CHAN MARSHALL — Not really. It’s always been an effort. It’s a trip. It’s like you have to leave yourself. It’s a big confrontation, because you’re about to open your… more than your vagina. It’s like the grand cavern.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But when you arrive onstage, you look very calm and relaxed.
CHAN MARSHALL — Maybe nowadays. I mean like five years ago, that was the medication, I think. That was antidepressants. I never looked at the audience before, and I didn’t have a guitar or piano, so it was the beginning of like, “Whoa, nice to meet you. Who are you?”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So in order to perform, you have to go deeper into yourself?
CHAN MARSHALL — I’m already there, but it’s like I’m diving into them. It’s a mutual relationship. It’s a mutual physical action. Performing is like we’re both physically traveling somewhere.
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