Do you know this trick?" asks Chan Marshall, holding a table knife several inches from her face and inspecting her crooked smile in the blurry reflection. All that she has put in her mouth so far tonight are several Marlboro Lights and some espresso, so she's sure not to find anything green and leafy wedged between her teeth. The trick, in this case, is to interrupt the process of question-and-answer that has the thirty-one-year-old singer-songwriter who performs as Cat Power squirming in her wooden chair at Café Orlin in downtown Manhattan. "I always get nervous when that thing gets on," she says, directing her eyes at a tape recorder. "It's forever. Even if you erase over it."
Marshall's reputation for being uncomfortable in the spotlight precedes her. When she performs, she sometimes breaks down in tears onstage or plays her guitar with her back facing the audience or gets unnerved and quits in the middle of a song. I am aware of this lore as I sit across the table from her, and I keep waiting for her to say or do something truly bizarre or erratic, which of course she doesn't. Although I did lose count of the number of times she asked "Are you mad at me?" for no apparent reason.
Her anxiety, though dimly visible, is buried deeper than a dinner conversation could uncover and is only laid bare in folk songs so fragile they sound like they could break under the weight of their uneasiness and desperate longing. "I want to be a good woman/And I want for you to be a good man/This is why I will be leaving," she sings in "Good Woman," from her recently released fifth album, You Are Free. Accompanied by violinist Warren Ellis, of the Australian indie-rock band Dirty Three, and two preteen girls singing backup vocals, her lightly twanged voice concludes the song with this thought: "This is why I am lying when I say that I don't love you no more."
Marshall's songs are born on either piano or guitar, with uncomplicated chord progressions played over and over while she searches for the right words. "Usually I'll be feeling a feeling, like happy, sad, sexy, angry, in love, rejected, confused," she says. "The act of playing the music and singing creates a kind of trance, a space in time you go back to. But it wasn't even there when it was there."
As a child, Marshall – whose birth name is Charlyn – attended ten schools in three Southern states – Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina – until she finished eleventh grade and dropped out. Her father, Charlie, was a professional musician who played local gigs with a band called Brick Wall. "He'd give this huge soliloquy: 'The guitar is not a toy,'" she says. When Charlie was out of the apartment, Chan would sneak time on his baby grand. "I'd kind of bang on it and see what it was like – not hurt it, but just play it to prove that this thing isn't so powerful," she recalls.
When Marshall was eighteen, a friend gave her a guitar and an amp, but she didn't play it much – she was too busy making the $350 rent on her Atlanta apartment by working six days a week at a pizza parlor. The idea of being in a band, she says, "seemed so small-minded. Like, 'Ugh, how obvious. How corny.' It felt pretentious."
But as several of her friends started abusing heroin, she turned to music as an outlet for her frustration. Soon after, Marshall moved to New York and started going to punk and free jazz shows at tiny clubs on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "It excited me, because anything went," she says. "People weren't judging you. Those experiences helped me feel confident that maybe I didn't know what I was doing, but that didn't mean it was wrong."
Cat Power will spend much of this year on tour with a four-piece backing band, and Marshall says she's fine with that. "I do like playing," she says. "I accept it now, and it's become my trade." She doesn't even mind getting bad reviews, so long as they're honest. One time, she remembers, her booking agent faxed her a New York Times review and warned her that it was "really bad." "I was like, 'Oh, man, is he saying that I'm a stupid bitch with no sense of humor, and I'm poor white trash, and I don't have a vocabulary, and I stand funny, and I'm dumb?' "Marshall says. "I read it, and it was a completely objective opinion. I e-mailed my booking agent and was like, 'This isn't bad. It's realistic. It's good.'"
Would you give yourself a positive review? I ask her. She shudders and says, "Ugh, no! The music's not good enough. It's too naive." She imagines that she has fans because the songs are "easy to understand." Maybe, I suggest, people identify with her music because it's sad? "Or triumphant," she counters. "I don't ever think it's sad. I think the songs are somehow triumphant, because there's realization and acceptance, which is kind of a triumph. It's like accepting something to yourself, and that gives you strength."
This story is from the May 1st, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.