What do Chan Marshall -- better known in music circles as the alluring and enigmatic indie favorite Cat Power -- and teen queen Britney Spears have in common? The automatic response is "Nothing!" But before you make that your final answer, think again. Both have taken on the daunting task this year of covering one of rock & roll's most sacred cows, the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Spears made headlines recently when she announced that she would record the anthem on her next album, but Marshall has actually beaten her to the punch.
Marshall's stark, torch-songy cover of "Satisfaction" kicks off her latest collection, The Covers Album. As the title suggests, the disc is Marshall's attempt to put the lo-fi Cat Power spin on some of her favorite songs. In addition to the Stones, she offers her takes on Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground and others.
The genesis for the album came from Marshall's infamous struggles with stage fright. "The reason why I wanted to put these songs out is 'cause I really was tired of doing the rock tour," she says. "By the end of the [last] tour, I started playing every one of these songs -- none of my own -- because I was so disgusted by how it had turned into rock every night, with the beer and people talking. So then I thought, 'What if I went on tour with these songs?' And then I was like, 'Maybe I should put them out on a record.' Then I could tour on that record and I'd be comfortable, instead of playing songs onstage and feeling very vulnerable and thinking, 'God, these people don't want to hear this fuckin' song.'"
Ironically, The Covers Album is the most naked recording yet from Cat Power. The stripped-down piano and guitar arrangements and Marshall's breathy, haunting vocals give the listener the voyeuristic sensation of reading a diary or watching someone undress in front of a window left open in a vain attempt to combat the sweltering humidity of a Southern summer night.
There is a slight Tennessee Williams/Faulkner vibe to The Covers Album. It hardly leaps right out at the listener, but it's there, breathing just beneath the surface. Though Marshall, who grew up in the South, has lived primarily in New York over the last few years, she's retained more than a bit of the Southern belle charm.
It manifests itself in her graciousness (after coming in late for the interview, through no fault of her own, she apologized seemingly dozens of times), her bewitching smile and the occasional drawl she slips into unconsciously. Marshall, who keeps apartments both in New York and Atlanta, finds Southern life more enjoyable. "It's the part of the world where you can cook dinner and relax," she say. "I love having beers or bottles of wine, just cooking and telling stories. And in Atlanta I have much more of a place where I can entertain."
Those who've seen Cat Power live, and have witnessed Marshall's stage fright firsthand, might be surprised to learn that Marshall is so outgoing. This is, after all, the same woman who, on a good night, might only hide her entire face behind her hair. And last year, at a show at New York's Bowery Ballroom, Marshall was so upset she turned her back to the audience and sat down on the stage, while continuing to sing. Fans patted her on the back and consoled her as she sat there.
The support of her fans could ultimately allow Marshall to learn to be comfortable onstage. Through interaction with her fans, she is learning that there are people who want to hear her songs, and that they go out to clubs for her, not just for beer and to get laid. "The more that I tour, the more that I realize these people aren't out to kill me," she says. "Cause I never felt a connection with them. But now I'm realizing that some of the people like me."
She recalls one specific meeting with an Australian boy that had a profound effect on her. "This guy that I know in Australia is very tough. You know, a tough guy and he's just like, 'You know, you made me cry.' And I was like 'What?' I couldn't believe it. And he's like, 'That song was just a fuckin' great song.'"
She says it's those fans that help her get through the bad nights. "It's for that girl, and that girl, and that boy. It's like I'm thinking of them the whole time I'm doing it. That's the only thing that really saves me when I'm having a miserable time."