There are two topics that irritate the otherwise sweet-tempered Chan Marshall – and, unfortunately, they both tend to come up in conversation pretty often. The first is the lengthy gap between Sun, her ninth album as Cat Power, and her previous album of original songs, 2006's The Greatest (the mostly-covers LP Jukebox came out in between). "I wasn't just sitting around eating bonbons for six years," says Marshall, 40, who's hanging out at the moment in West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, which she describes approvingly as a "CIA lockdown hotel." "I was busting my ass."
The other subject she doesn't like hearing about: the possibility that the melancholy songs on Sun have anything to do with her four-year relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi. "It's more about, like, actually me really composing an album than anybody I'm dating," she says. "My life isn't fucking limited to my relationship, you know?" In any case, they're no longer a couple. "The dumpball hit March 20th," she says cheerily, "and he's so happy 'cause he just got married to a supermodel and that's so great, but, uh, God bless us, everyone."
When Marshall got off the road about four years back, she wrote a set of songs that a friend dismissed as too depressing and too similar to her early material – so she threw the tunes away and focused on her then-new relationship. "And I thought I'll just be a wife and enjoy what I have," she says. But her muse was calling – or, as she puts it, "The knock on the door in the back of my head was just, like, piling up."
She returned to the Boat, Flea's L.A. studio. "I didn't play my guitar, didn't look over at the piano," she recalls. "The only other instrument there was, like, a tambourine and some maracas and a drum set and several synthesizer things that I've never turned on before. So when I turned that on: 'Oh, that sounds cool.' So I press 'record.'" From there, she recruited engineer Philippe Zdar – who has worked with Phoenix and the Beastie Boys – and created the most fully realized arrangements of her career, playing most instruments herself.
The album's most emotional track, the nearly 11-minute "Nothin' but Time," guest-stars Iggy Pop (she asked David Bowie first) and was written for a friend's bullied teenage daughter. "It's up to you to be a superhero," she sings. But Marshall, who has struggled with substance abuse and psychiatric problems, is also singing to her troubled younger self. "I'm putting, like, a recycled aluminum-foil crown on her head. And that's what I had to learn to do myself. No one taught me how to do that except my friends and, like, my dog and the birds and the clear water from the mountain. I spent a lot of my life being afraid of things that did and didn't exist. I realized how foolish I was – now I'm not afraid."
This story is from the August 30th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.