Chan Marshall channels her inner Cat Power to build a singular 20-year artistic career
Chan Marshall is more than a singer — more than a performer even. The Atlanta native and on-again, off-again Miami resident, who has performed under the Cat Power name for more than 20 years, is an immutable force of fiercely creative nature. Since 1995, she’s released slight albums of jagged indie rock, stark dressing-downs of traditional blues and jazz, sumptuous collections of smoky Memphis R&B, and, with 2012’s “Sun,” a Top 10-charting set of incisive, heart-wrenching electro-pop. Along the way, Marshall has modeled for Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, dated runway models and famous actors, and publicly battled substance abuse, mental instability, shaky live showings and stress disorders.
Marshall makes only one Sunshine State stop, at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, on her current 11-stop tour — and she promised Folio Weekly she’d be digging into her older material to play songs “people haven’t heard before.”
Folio Weekly: How are you today, Chan?
Chan Marshall: Good, good, how are you? My phone is attached to a nail or something, but I’m going to work this out and pull the thing way over here. This is all good. Thank you. Good morning.
F.W.: You’ve lived in Miami on and off for years. Do you have a lot of experience actually performing in Florida?
C.M.: My touring market or whatever you want to call it used to go down there all the time when I used to play more cities solo. I used to play in Tallahassee, Tampa and Orlando a lot. Then when I got a band I found it was actually harder to hit all the cities I wanted, which doesn’t make sense to me. I guess I can’t actually afford to. But now that I’m solo again, I go wherever I want. And I haven’t played much in Florida for a long time. I want to get back to where I was going before — back to what I’m used to knowing.
F.W.: Some interesting shows have appeared on your calendar lately: a tribute to late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a Levi’s-sponsored nationwide train tour/artistic happening. What do you get out of outside-the-box events like that?
C.M.: I also played a benefit for the Somaly Mam Foundation, which helps women who’ve escaped human trafficking and slavery.
F.W.: Rolling Stone described you the “spirit mother” of the Elliott Smith tribute. Does that description feel accurate?
C.M.: Isn’t that sweet? I toured with Elliott a long time ago when I was 24 or 25 when I was singing sad songs to myself, and … I don’t know how to put this except sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to sad music. I also hung out with Elliott in Australia and helped him out years later when he got in trouble after getting beaten up by the police because they thought he was homeless. He had a collapsed lung and broken ribs and was having a really hard time healing. It was like that broke his spirit, the indignation of being treated like a nobody in society, which will happen to you when you’re almost beaten to death by a group of police officers. Anyways, I didn’t listen to his music for years until an ex-boyfriend got me back into it. And after he passed away, I gravitated back toward him of course. People were disappointed in me, though, because I had to print out the lyrics [to the songs I sang at the concert], even though I’ve listened to “Angeles” and “Between the Bars” and “(Pretty) Ugly Before” a million times. Elliott’s music is like a tapestry to me. It’s like Bob Dylan — he’s like a rapper. It’s impossible to know every fucking lyric that Bob Dylan has sung. But the concert was emotional. Everybody processes death in their own way. For me, the spirit while we were performing felt not like mourning [him] but like celebrating Elliott’s life. He was really funny, and a lot of people don’t know that about him. I don’t know if anyone was on the same page with me, but he would want us to be happy playing his music — not in pain or associating him with pain. It was a very good night.
F.W.: Rising indie-pop star Sky Ferreira has recently cited you as a huge help in dealing with the distracting legal troubles that have overshadowed her musical accomplishments. Is that role — another “spirit mother” one — one that feels important to you?
C.M.: Really important. Just like with Elliott, it doesn’t matter what kind of music we play or what our message is — when you meet people, it’s about a person’s heart. If the person I see has a lot of compassion in their heart for the world and knows what they want to do with their lives and is really strong, of course I’m going to help them. It doesn’t matter how old they are. They could be Michael Jackson or whoever. When I was younger, I would never let people help me because I didn’t trust anyone. But as I learned over the years to trust people and through that make friendships, I got more stable. That’s why I appreciate everyone and want to be very inclusive when it comes to bringing people out on tour or reaching out to somebody I don’t eve know. I think people don’t expect that from me, and people need that no matter what they do for a living. People are people, you know? We’ve got shit in common. It’s a great thing to communicate to your neighbor or whatever. It perpetuates it along that they will one day do the same thing.
F.W.: As you sing on “Real Life,” from last year’s album “Sun,” “There’s nothing wrong with helping the strong.”
CM: Absolutely. That’s the whole fabric and definition of our society. I wasn’t even calling myself out specifically with that, either. Even the strongest and most powerful among us reaches a point where they need the human elements of nurturing and camaraderie and loyalty. I think people don’t like to sit by themselves. I see it a lot with the friends I have who are amazing moms and do everything for their kids, and — I’m not saying anything drugs here — will be out on a Saturday night — kids in bed, babysitters over — and someone will have a joint, and there will be 10 of us hanging out around the little grill in my backyard and that person will say, “Hey, let’s smoke a little,” but the mom will say, “No no, I can’t do that because I’m a mom.” Yet she’s so stressed out because she can’t get time for herself. She can’t get her nails done or all the stuff single ladies get to do and take that time that most people take. I’m really hard on myself, so I understand. I know people who take care of themselves and work really hard, but sometimes people who work hard have to see that they need to fucking cut themselves a break, you know? Just take a day off if they can. Or reach out to someone. We all know life isn’t always great, but it’s not weak to ask for help. That was basically the point of the song.
F.W.: On “Human Being,” you say “Everyone has rules to break/everyone has to make mistakes.” Have you learned from the rules you’ve broken and mistakes you’ve made?
C.M.: Absolutely. You can’t see the shit you’ve made unless you step outside of it. And then you’re like, “Whoa — that’s some shit.” You can’t see that you’ve made it until you realize that you’re in it. We all make decisions and choices — that’s part of our nature. There’s scientific data coming out soon in a book that shows lowland gorillas are now offering their kids two sticks of celery to teach them how to choose, which has never happened before. They’re teaching their children that there are choices in life. It’s a simple thing. We have the luxury of being born in a country where we’re allowed to make magnanimous amounts of choices, but sometimes you don’t know which choice is going to put you in some shit. You find out by making mistakes. When I was younger, I always felt like I worked improvisationally with other musicians; I thought, “Hey, let’s just make some sound” and never believed in mistakes. And when I was on stage, people would say, “Aww, she’s just playing weird stuff.” But it was moving to me to find out that I was writing a new song in that moment, gearing myself toward a different time in life or chasing the thought at whatever place I was playing at. That was my communication. I read a Miles Davis quote yesterday that said, “There’s no such thing as mistakes,” which really made me feel good. It really validated me because I’ve always felt the same. We only get more intelligent through our mistakes.
F.W.: Will you be focusing on songs like that from your most recent album, “Sun,” on this upcoming tour?
C.M.: No I’m going backwards and am going to be doing stuff that some people haven’t heard before.
F.W.: Are you already working on a new album? And will you do it the way you did “Sun,” writing and recording everything yourself?
C.M.: Oh yeah, I’ll always do it myself. I always have and think I always will. I did “Sun” because I was getting pressure to “put out a hit record,” and I did — it came out No. 10 on the Top Billboard charts. But I got sick two days later and was in the ICU because of this immune stress disorder called angioedema, so my career or whatever you want to call it kind of collapsed, even though I do a tour. I just lied about it; I didn’t tell people I was sick because I didn’t want to be seen as struggling. And it was really difficult to see the press and people in the music business judge me — just like what has happened to Skye [Ferreira] and anybody in this country. People are very, very anti-compassionate. It just makes me sick, this whole goddamn culture that’s very similar to the Spartans or the Greeks or whoever who would put the slaves in with the lions and watch ‘em get eaten to shreds. That’s the culture we’re living in. People want to feel so safe that they’re fully willing to judge somebody they don’t even know and write about them in magazines. It’s so sad. But anyways, it’s all good now — I had a health issue, and it was my personal problem. I’m better now; [the angioedema] is gone. I got healing. I was going to say something bad about Western medicine because they made me sicker every time I went to the hospital. They just account for your symptoms — they don’t know anything about healing. They can cut it out or cover it, but they don’t know a thing about healing. That’s a shame. But I don’t like to talk about all that stuff.