Cat Power's Chan Marshall on Sun: "I didn't want to test myself so much as push myself"
Cat Power (due this Saturday, November 23, at the Gothic Theatre) is the sometimes solo, sometimes full-band, project of Chan Marshall. Although born in Atlanta, Marshall made her way to New York City in the early 1990s and became involved in the underground music scene in the Big Apple. In 1993, Marshall earned an opening slot on Liz Phair's tour, where she gained some great exposure. By 1996, Marshall joined Matador Records, who released her third album, What Would the Community Think, which was produced by Steve Shelley.
See also: Cat Power at Ogden Theatre, 01/24/13
Since then, Marshall's ups and downs and occasionally erratic behavior has been well-documented. But to put to much focus on that would be to overlook the fact that Marshall's a consistently compelling songwriter, whose music resonates with a great many people, and she has a gifted ability to write about the complexities of living an authentic life in way that's genuine. Last year, Marshall released Sun, arguably her best album yet.
We recently spoke with the insightful and friendly Marshall about the natural creativity of all people in their everyday lives, how free jazz opened her eyes to exactly what you can do in music if you dare, and how making Sun finally gave her the confidence in every aspect of her craft from the songwriting to the engineering.
Westword: There was an interview with the Huffington Post you did last year where you said something that seemed pretty personally insightful about how you're not going to protect yourself from your own anger when someone hurts or betrays you. Is that related to feeling what you feel rather than pushing it to the side for the moment?
Chan Marshall: I think that's my big problem, I'm always feeling what I feel. I feel like I need to curb it a little bit. Just if you're constantly in the moment, you're constantly firing on all cylinders. I think it's very in my nature to be in the moment, but I let everything go sometimes, so the the waking life enters your dreams, so nothing, I guess, can really hurt you, and you can be happy.
It seems that intuition, "accidents" and "mistakes," seem have been part of your creative path your whole life. When did you come to start to trust those sorts of things as ways for good and interesting things to happen?
I think in my experience or idea of making mistakes in creating stuff, they're really similar because everybody is an artist, whether they're a farmer, a mechanic, a minister or a mom or whatever. Our choices and our mistakes are a part of who we are and where we are at any moment. The creative process doesn't always pertain to music and literature and the fine arts and stuff.
Everyone can think creatively about any aspect in life, whether that be to get ourselves in trouble or think of new ways to improvise our situations. I think people, as a whole, are creative, and they don't get any accolades or Grammy's for following their heart or being true to their word or acknowledging their mistakes and blah blah blah. It's not a very unusual process. It's not different from that of any other human, except for the social aspect. The more we know about each other, the more we realize we all do the same stuff, and struggle, and have pretty much the same creative process.
On Sun, you have that great lyric about how it's up to you to be your own superhero, and how it's up to you to be like nobody.
I think people, especially in the United States, are concerned with being up to par with what's advertised socially through media and history. Being a superhero is basically being able to rely on yourself and being responsible for your own stuff. I think a lot of people can rely too much on policy on politics.
A lot people, maybe even most people, wish they were someone else at some point in their lives for the reasons you named: It's a way to dis-empower and devalue yourself as a person. You're perfectly fine as you are, more or less. If there's something you are insecure about or don't like, work on that.
Yeah, if no one was us, who would we be? They're terrified to find out.
Why did you want to work with Iggy Pop on that song?
Right? A veteran and a free spirit. I met him years ago in L.A. But it wasn't like we hung out. I asked him and David Bowie to sing on that part because of the song, I believe, that Iggy produced, "Heroes." I also wanted Lou Reed, but I didn't actually put that crow out. He just went in and did his thing, and I heard it, and it was great. I asked him to come back in because one of the lines wasn't done. So he went back in. I used to have his number, and we texted back and forth and left voice mails. He's a cool dude.
In that recent interview you did with Interview, you said it's important for a woman like you to feel protected. Why is that?
I think I wasn't really held by my parents. It's a simple thing, but women I've known that I've talked to, toward whom their parents were cool [toward them growing up tend not to have healthy relationships]. I have healthy male friendships now, but I don't think I've had a healthy male relationship.
I think that comes from not having that father figure and a sense of protection. Sometimes you just need that hug or something [from someone you can trust]. That's the whole problem, people not talking about that shit. They don't teach you that fundamental, interpersonal stuff in school.
Is there anything you have found helpful to calm and relax yourself as a performer?
Yeah, try incense before and during...People think I'm just stopping sometimes, but I am noticing shit ain't working out, and I just want to do a good job. When I'm with a band, I can go straight through everything because I don't have to play any instruments. I think when it's going good, just enjoy it when it's good, because it's going to get bad at some point.
If you don't have a band playing behind you, you have to keep your focus on your instrument. You have a responsibility to the people that came in, so when the show is going good, just enjoy that part when you can. Or you can try to make jokes. Try to smile. It might trick people [into thinking you're joking].
As a spontaneously creative person do you find you approach your live performances the same way you approach your recordings, which seem a bit off the cuff?
Yeah, absolutely. Not the Sun record. I went over it and went over it, and I had no idea what I was doing, so that was true. I think that's how most people make stuff up, not knowing where they're going. But with live shows, not when I have a band with me. Well with the last band it was pretty much impossible because we had downloaded effects using MIDI, and you could easily make a mess out of it. But in the past, like with the Dirty Delta Blues Band, we were able to make shit up. But the more I've been playing with bands, it has been more and more difficult to go and do something different. I'm sure that has to do with me.
So nothing Bob Dylan style, where you can tell the musicians to switch musical styles for that show.
That would be great. I just haven't had that kind of band.
You saw ABC No Rio many years ago. What kind of stuff did you see there?
Oh, man, that was the first show I saw when I moved to New York City! It was a lot of different people, so I don't remember all their names anymore. There was a guy that played saxophone and a Japanese woman that danced pretty much naked. It was small room upstairs with bright lights and folding chairs. I remember Rick [Brown] of Fish & Roses. A lot of local free jazz people.
That was the first stuff I saw in New York. In Atlanta, I was seeing a lot of hardcore and punk. You know, regular rock and roll kind of stuff. When I moved to New York, my friend Glen [Thrasher] from Atlanta, my father figure who did the Lowlife fanzine in Atlanta, he did a show at WREK; he took me to all these free jazz things and to see music I'd never seen before.
I think that's where the improvisational fearlessness...I've never been completely fearless to play music in front of people, but that helped me to understand there's a collective consciousness of people out there that don't give a shit what it looks like or in the end how perfect it sounds. It's more about the experience and the journey of the place we hope to get to while we're listening, or involved with, playing the music. ABC No Rio definitely helped me to understand and appreciate free jazz.
A lot of people described Sun as daring, or disappointed, or whatever, because it wasn't what they expected. Was it even your goal to write such an experimental album?
No, I had no goal. Just when I went into record it, I didn't want to relax with a piano or a guitar because I only know certain ways to hold a piano or a guitar. It felt very caged in. I knew I would have, musically, the same songs. I didn't want to test myself, so much as push myself.
You seem to be very much a fan of hip-hop, which may surprise some of your fans.
I think if you're American, and you like music, and you're around -- one of the early videos on MTV was "The Message" -- everyone around in America, in skate rings, was funk and disco. Hip-hop culture has been going on before it had a name. Anybody who listens to music, that writes about it, or is in bands, knows about other music, too. So it's no surprise that anyone would cite hip-hop; that's a huge part of our American musical history.
Do you feel your music has incorporated hip-hop in some way?
The thing about Sun is that, because I used a digital format, ProTools, I dumped everything to tape as I was recording it, but using actual beats and synthesizer and those kinds of things that have been around since the '60s. For me to use that actually technology was the first step of really incorporating it.
On that song "Free," I used a drum machine, but I didn't realize you could simulate it, so I was doing the beat, the whole recording by hand. Using ProTools for the first time, actually carving things out, I wouldn't say I used or accessed hip-hop; I think using that bedroom technology definitely facilitated Sun.
I used beats for sure and there are some songs like "Sun" that I totally wished Mary J. Blige would sing. I've written other songs in the past where I could hear a real country singer, or a soul singer, or a DJ, like Diplo-type talent using. I was definitely all over the map with Sun. The only pleasure that I think I've gotten out of recordings ever was on this record, and doing everything myself, and being objective enough to know when it wasn't done.
I've always had that problem in the studio. I had eight different engineers on this record. It's no [knock on] them, but I learn through having fun, and the best thing to come out of Sun is that I learned I can do anything I fucking want. Whereas before, I was definitely tech-ignorant and tech-fearful. It's totally different now. I don't know the names of all the gear and all the compressors and all that stuff, but I know I'm much more confident in them in getting what I want. And making sure I don't take anybody's word for everything. What do they know about it being done?