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Cat Power: Soul Kitten

Chan Marshall has written some of the saddest most beautiful songs in rock, but she's no longer living them

February 7, 2008
cat power london 2008
Cat Power performs at Shepherds Bush Empire in London.
Carsten Windhorst/Photoshot/Getty Images

Chan Marshall is holed up with the current love if her life in a Soho hotel room, and for this brief moment, she couldn't be happier. The sheets are rumpled. Room-service trays are everywhere, covered with the remnants of her last few meals – half-eaten fruit plates, drained-dry beer bottles. As late-after noon sunshine pushes through closed shades, Marshall is rolling around on pale-green bedding with her beloved: a snuffling French bulldog named Mona.

"Do you wuv your mommy?" Marshall asks her dog in a squeaky baby voice. "Do you?" Mona offers a growl in response and leaps off the bed, toenails skittering on the wooden floor. Marshall, 36 – who, under the name Cat Power, has written and sung some of the most gorgeously sad and haunted songs of the last ten years – sits up and giggles. "I got her last Christmas – she was like a big sleepy potato," she says in her real speaking voice, which is whispery, musical, with only traces of her childhood Southern accent. "She was so scared, shaking, with these big, big eyes."

Mona isn't scared anymore. And her owner isn't either, though there's still something fragile about her. Marshall is sipping chamomile tea that she says tastes like bubble gum, and smoking the first in an endless series of Marlboro Lights. She's thin, maybe too thin, and tan, maybe too tan. There are tired circles under her brown eyes. She's wearing no makeup and a loose checked shirt that looks like it might have belonged to a boyfriend; her pale-blue jeans are rolled up like she's prepared to wade into something unpleasant, revealing a comfy pair of white slipper-socks. Marshall can't seem to break what she admits is a lifelong habit of repeatedly posing the same heartbreaking question to whoever's in her presence: 'Are you mad at me?"

In more than a decade of recording as Cat Power, Chan (pronounced "Shawn") Marshall has achieved the kind of steady, old-fashioned artistic growth that few Gen X musicians have managed, moving from scratchy, barely-there songs of raw pain to her 2006 masterpiece, The Greatest, with its polished Memphis-soul backing, jauntily despairing songwriting and whiskey-and-honey vocals. But even before she suffered a spectacular, alcohol-fueled mental breakdown in January 2006 – in which she stopped eating and sleeping and started having hallucinations about giant pyramids – Marshall was in danger of being better known as a basket case than as a musician.

Her rep as a live performer was tragicomically awful, more Ol' Dirty Bastard than Joni Mitchell. At her best, she would hide behind her hair, argue with the sound man, cut songs short, shed tears, get drunk; at her worst – an infamous 1999 New York show, to be precise – she ended up curled into a tight ball at the edge of the stage. (To be fair, it turns out that particular freakout was inspired by terror over a very real gun-wielding stalker.)

Marshall's 2006 breakdown came from the same dark place as the songs on The Greatest: She was devastated by her breakup with Daniel Cury, a model she still calls the love of her life. She was ready to die – at one point abandoning plans to kill herself only because she saw a handbill for an upcoming Mary J. Blige album that she wanted to hear. She ended up spending seven hellish days in the mental and substance-abuse ward of a Miami hospital in early 2006 and emerged transformed, if not quite sober, as the beer bottles in her room attest (she eschews AA and practices her own version of moderation management instead).

She went on tour with the Memphis Rhythm Band, the Southern-soul veterans who recorded The Greatest with her – and shocked her audience: She was suddenly a show-woman, even a ham, dancing onstage instead of weeping. "It was like I woke up," she says, flashing the smile that explains why fashion photographers have been enamored with her for years. "I feel more myself now and more, like, able. And less resigned to listen to any of the youthful negative questioning, debilitating, you know, nervous thing anymore."

Friends see the same changes. "Her demons were a little out of control back then – she's sort of made friends with them now," says Judah Bauer from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who has known Marshall for a decade and plays guitar in her current band. "Her intentions are different: She's heading more toward life," It's the third week of December, and Marshall is in New York enjoying a rare month off: She spent the time in her apartment in Miami, seeing friends, watching what she calls "my Oprah and Tyra," and walking Mona on the beach at sunrise and sundown. Marshall has an album ready, called Sun, all about the pain and joy of her rebirth — but you won't be hearing that one for a while. "Because these [new] songs mean a lot to me, and The Greatest meant a lot to me," she says. "And I'm not going to do it right now. I'm not going to go back in there where it hurts right now. I'm going to do what fucking makes me feel good right now." So on January 22nd, she instead released Jukebox, a stylish, atmospheric covers album dominated by songs she heard growing up: tunes by James Brown ("Lost Someone"), Joni Mitchell ("Blue"), Billie Holiday ("Don't Explain") – and even Frank Sinatra ("New York, New York").

With backing from her versatile, Stones-y new band, Dirty Delta Blues (which includes her longtime drummer, Jim White of Australian indie rockers the Dirty Three, as well as Bauer), the album offers a rougher take on The Greatest's soul-and-country vibe; it's altogether unlike 2000's Covers Record, which featured all-but-unrecognizable, skeletal remakes. "With all my other records, I feel a sense of mourning for that person who wrote them then," Marshall says. "People say they love The Greatest, but my voice was not strong, and I was in a state. So I feel like Jukebox is my first record – even though I know that sounds so stupid and juvenile. It was my first time recording and being happy. I'm so happy that there are, like, songs that make me happy."

The next day, Marshall is in the bathroom of her hotel room, casually peeing with the door open. As she does so, she happens to be telling me that she doesn't believe she needs the kind of mystique that surrounds Bob Dylan, one of her idols. "There's no mystery," she says. "I've got nothing to lose by talking." She had just been speaking in agonisingly candid detail about her regret over the abortion she had when she was twenty years old – she has written at least one song, "Nude as the News," about the son she's convinced she should have had. "It's the biggest mistake I ever made," she says.

Marshall isn't big on boundaries, which helps explain her talent for creating a disarming intimacy with her fans and just about anyone she meets. When I see her that second afternoon, she's wearing my scarf, which I'd accidentally left behind the previous day. As Marshall tells stories from her life – many of them disturbing, including one about a 1998 incident in which she believes she saw hundreds of evil spirits clawing at her window in the middle of the night – she follows a narrative logic that is, at times, eccentric. She jumps into various accents: British, French, South African, along with variations on the Southern inflections of her youth. She's still very much the tomboy she was as a kid: She burps repeatedly, un-self-consciously, and picks her nose a few times. Altogether, she's such a dark, charming bundle of quirks that she doesn't seem quite real – she's like an overwritten character from an indie movie that can't decide if it's a comedy or a drama. (Maggie Gyllenhaal happens to be hanging out in the hotel lobby downstairs on the first day – perfect casting.)

For all of Marshall's openness, there is one subject she won't address. One shrink diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder from some event or events that took place during her childhood – a vagabond, Southern Gothic upbringing that saw her bouncing between her parents. She refers obliquely to "violence" in her background and says that whatever happened is "common," but she won't be specific.

Marshall comes from a long line of poverty-stricken alcoholics. Her maternal great-grandmother was a share-cropper who had her grandmother picking cotton at five years old, the child's fingers bleeding from the burrs. Marshall's parents met at a gig in Atlanta by one of the bar bands her musician father played in. "The story goes that he took this girl Nancy home that night and that he asked Nancy for Mom's number," Marshall says, "And my dad said she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He saw her from across the room."

They had Chan in 1971, when they were still teenagers. They split up when she was a baby, and life got rough. Her mom married a businessman – another barband musician – and they moved all over the South, while her dad stayed in Atlanta. Marshall recalls both her father and stepfather jamming out blues on electric guitars – the kind of clichéd riffs she still can't and won't play. She also remembers her father shooing her away from his piano when she was small, telling her it wasn't a toy. Drugs and alcohol were always around; she drank beer out of baby bottles, watched family members smoke bongs in front of her. She stopped believing in God when she was seven.

And by high school, Marshall was a mess. "I was so unhappy," she says. "I was, like, constantly suicidal and, you know, not havin' friends. I just started taking LSD and smokin' all the pot I could get and drinkin' anything I could drink. I got arrested for shoplifting, and my mom sent me to my dad. I'd get high all day and all night." She flunked her sophomore year and then dropped out when her father's apartment got crowded: A new girlfriend had moved in. Marshall had to get her own place, so she needed a full-time job.

She ended up working for three and a half years at an Atlanta pizza joint called Fellini's, surrounded by tattooed dudes, many of them musicians – "gorgeous young things." "She was in the right place, because everyone she worked with there had a difficult history," says Clay Harper, her boss. "She had a lot of life and character. And she was good for business because she was also cute." One day, on a whim, she bought a Silvertone guitar and a little amp from one of her crushes and put it by the futon in her tiny apartment. Eventually, instead of listening to one of three records she played over and over on her cheap stereo – Aretha Franklin's This Girl's in Love With You, Sinéad O'Connor's The Lion and the Cobra and Joni Mitchell's Blue — she started teaching herself to play. Soon she was in an awful, noisy band called Cat Power. After more and more friends started getting into heroin – some dying – Marshall moved to New York. She found herself playing music again, stumbling into a high-profile gig opening for Liz Phair in 1994. The Cat Power name (taken from a Cat Diesel hat someone was wearing at Fellini's) stuck, even if the band didn't.

Last April, Marshall met Bob Dylan at one of his concerts in Paris. Judging by "Song to Bobby" – the only new composition on Jukebox – it was an emotional experience. "At last we meet," Dylan said. When she had met another hero, Patti Smith, a few years back, she was too drunk and depressed to open up; it was different with Dylan. "I love you," Marshall told him.

"I like the sound of that," Dylan replied. "At least somebody does." She'd felt a deep connection with Dylan since age nine, when she found his Greatest Hits among her father's records – where she would later discover Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly and the Stones. But the Dylan record was special. "He was all alone on that blue cover," Marshall says. "I didn't know nothing about alone music. It felt like he was singing to me."

The only other non-cover tune on Jukebox is "Metal Heart," a song written and recorded for her fourth album, 1998's Moon Pix. The original version is slow and almost unbearably sad, a tale of a damaged person "losing the reasons why" and blocking herself off from the world: building a metal heart. The new version is far better-played and better-sung – but by the end. it's also defiant, maybe triumphant: Marshall howls, "Metal heart, you're not worth a thing," with a purifying force.

Does she still have a metal heart? It's early evening, and the lights are dim in her hotel room as Marshall considers the question, while Mona sleeps nearby. She's wearing a light-green shirt buttoned to the top, her hair in a ponytail – weirdly, she looks like Patti Smith in Dylan mode or Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There. "Not so much," she says, then shakes her head. "I mean, yeah – that's part of who I am, I guess. But I guess it's open now." She smiles, her teeth pristine white against her tan. "I unlocked that motherfucker," she says.

This story is from the February 7th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

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