Moody ruminations on the fragile nature of life can be a tough sell, especially when they're flecked with haunting moans and screams. But from the mid-1990s on, Chan Marshall has proven herself a singer and songwriter who can really get under your skin. Working under the name Cat Power, she's earned a devoted, steadily growing fanbase that's followed her from humble avant-folk beginnings. As much about atmosphere as they are melody, her records have also become successively richer in sound, soul and scope.
Charlyn Marie Marshall was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 21, 1972. She spent her early childhood moving through the southern states, staying with each of her divorced parents and a grandmother. She quit high school while living in Atlanta and began performing as Cat Power, opening for some of the city's notable underground bands. In 1992 she moved to New York City and continued playing with indie rockers, attracting the attention of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly. In December 1994, she recorded her first two albums of punk-inspired folk, country and blues songs — Dear Sir, released the following year on Plain Recordings, and Myra Lee, released in 1996 on Shelly's Smells Like label — with guitarist Tim Foljahn and Shelly on drums. The music was rambling and cranky, but charming as well. Matador Records signed Marshall in 1996 and released the third Cat Power album, the critically acclaimed What Would the Community Think. Here, she continued to subvert country and blues styles while maintaining her slow-burning vocal delivery.
On stage Marshall was known to give way to her inhibitions — she often faced away from her audiences while singing. At one point in 1997, she dropped out of music business and worked as a babysitter in Portland, Oregon, before moving to a farmhouse in South Carolina, ostensibly to retire. After a sleepless night inspired a batch of new songs, however, she returned to record 1998's Moon Pix with the Australia instrumental band Dirty Three. Having tired of her own compositions, she began performing songs by other artists. This was the basis for her next album, 2000's The Covers Record. Its choices — the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Michael Hurley - helped to show where her inspirations lie. Some of the songs that didn't make the album, including Bob Dylan's "Hard Times in New York Town" and a much-abbreviated, ethereal version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," were broadcast on British DJ John Peel's BBC Radio 1 show.
By 2003, her work was being celebrated by high-visibility rock artists. Both Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl helped Marshall create You Are Free, which was released that year. She also issued an experimental DVD, Speaking for Trees, in which she performed in the woods for two hours in front of a stationary camera with crickets chirping in the background; it was shot by artist Mark Borthwick and included a bonus CD of the 18-minute song "Willie Deadwilder."
In 2005, Marshall hit road again where she began working on songs that would appear on the highly acclaimed album of the following year, The Greatest (Number 34). Boasting a radical improvement in sound and production, it featured Memphis guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and his bass-playing brother Leroy "Flick" Hodges, veterans of Al Green's band. Gone was the stark sound of the early days. Strings and horns brocaded the tracks and the aura of Dusty Springfield wafted through the music. Shortly thereafter, Marshall cancelled her U.S. tour as a result of a nervous breakdown her record label said stemmed from exhaustion and alcohol abuse.
In spring 2006, she resumed touring, alone and with the Memphis Rhythm Band. That same year, she put together The Dirty Delta Blues Band with guitarists Judah Bauer (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), Gregg Foreman (The Delta 72) and Erik Paparazzi (Lizard Music), and drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). From the stage, she proclaimed her new sobriety and acted more animated than ever before, and her concerts were heralded as triumphs. Jukebox which came out in early-2008 was a sequel to 2000's The Covers Record, admirably interpreting songs by Billie Holiday, Hank Williams and Joni Mitchell.
Jim Macnie contributed to this article.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies