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Q&A: CAT POWER: Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Chan Marshall in Brooklyn, August 2006 / Photograph by DAVID BLACK


Friday, October 27, 2006

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Chan Marshall appears in
Issue 28: 20 Interviews



The Stop Smiling Interview with Chan Marshall

By Robert Gordon

When planning the recording of her latest album, The Greatest (Matador Records), Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) phoned me for assistance. She wanted to record in Memphis with a Memphis group and a Memphis sound, and wondered if I could help put together a band. Her call renewed an acquaintanceship we’d struck up during her previous Memphis sessions, for What Would the Community Think, a decade earlier. Though her records make it plain, I’d forgotten how open Chan was, how unprotected — raw in a way. There’s little pretense to her, hardly any protection of the private person behind the public one. Surprisingly, as she’s survived and succeeded in the biz, these calluses have hardly developed.

Such vulnerability is both valuable and, perhaps, detrimental — valuable to her as an artist, detrimental to her as a public figure. She mines feelings and territory most adults have managed to bury, foregrounding her fragility, expressing it intensely. Publishing intimate stories can sometimes transgress lines of privacy, but these are like her songs: revealing, sometimes untidy, powerful. They are who she is.

On stage, she can be so disturbed by the imperfections of the venue — bad sound systems, out-of-tune pianos, audiences — that she’ll leave in mid-show. On the heels of The Greatest’s release, she was preparing to tour with the Memphis Rhythm Band, which includes alumni from Al Green and Booker T. and the MG’s, as well as heralded Memphis producers and other all stars. The rave reviews were pouring in, and it seemed she might break out to a larger audience.

However, the anticipation of the performance aggravations, combined with the pressure of fronting such an esteemed amalgamation of artists, sent her reeling. On the eve of its launch, the initial tour with the Memphis Rhythm Band was canceled.

This unpredictability, she reveals, was exacerbated by overindulgence in alcohol. At the time of our interview, she had gone more than six months without a drink, the result being a renewed confidence, less erratic behavior and an overall zest for life. She’s since toured a number of times with the Memphis Rhythm Band, and the reviews have been sensational. She’s continued to tour as a solo artist, as well.

Now, Chan is making forays into feature films and art museum videos. (The difficulty of scheduling this interview with her nearly drove me to drink.)

Chan (pronounced “Shawn”) is being courted by the William Morris Agency, though she’s told them she’d prefer they not handle her music work because, as she said, “I don’t want to be a super-duper star, and that’s what they would want to market me as.” She’s bigger than a cult star, smaller than a teen idol and, she seems, finally, really happy.

Stop Smiling: I know you’ve recently given up drinking. I thought it’d be interesting to talk about cigarettes.

Chan Marshall: Cigarettes?

SS: Do you love cigarettes?

CM: [Laughs] I need to make a bumper sticker: “I [heart] cigarettes.” There’s something anti-fascist about smoking. I’ve just been doing it for so long. I started when I was in second grade. My mom would come home from work, before we’d go out with her, and she’d light a cigarette — Kool Kings. We’d sit on her lap and play around for a minute, then she’d go take a shower. She’d always leave her Kool King lit in the ashtray, so that’s how I started smoking. I remember first grade and kindergarten, I would beg her, “Please, please don’t smoke. You’re going to die.” Then, when I was in second grade — I’ll never forget it — I thought, Fuck. I’m hungry. All we had was bread, which was kind of old, and the toaster had caught on fire so many times I was scared of it. I used to put mustard on my bread and we didn’t have any mustard. That cigarette was sitting there, so I started smoking it. Do I hate smoking? Yeah, because I’m damaging my lungs and I want to be normal. But for me, normal is smoking.

SS: What do you miss about drinking?

CM: Oh, my Lord. I miss that feeling of warmth. Like when you drink scotch, you down it in a big gulp and there’s just something about that association — swallowing the scotch, tasting it in your mouth, that smoky flavor. It almost psychosomatically chills you out. I miss that. I miss being chilled out.

You can tell by all the talking I’m doing that I miss being laid back. But I don’t miss being depressed or so chilled out that I don’t want to talk to friends. I don’t miss being so depressed that I don’t want to see people.

SS: What’s been the hardest part about quitting drinking?

CM: The hardest part is remembering things that I’ve done on tour, on stage, with friends, in hotel rooms, different situations that were just really stupid. That’s the hardest part — remembering. Like taking my shirt off at the Chateau Marmont, or hanging out all night with these homeless Muslim guys in Spain. Realizing that I put myself at risk. For instance, I’m not allowed back at that hotel.

SS: What happened there?

CM: All these photographs in the New York Times were really disturbing me. The election was coming up. There were all these mosques and synagogues being bombed — just really depressing images, and I kept cutting them out and sticking them all over. I had heavy traffic coming in and out of my hotel room. At the pool I was just clearly shit-faced, getting people in the pool to sing along and running around topless. I pulled Kirsten Dunst’s top down at one point. You know, just drunk — someone who doesn’t realize their actions until they get reminded.

If you drink every day, I highly recommend trying not doing it for a while. Being on the road, touring, the many bars … you meet so many different strangers. I drank to create a bubble so I wouldn’t really have to be there all the time. And alcoholism runs in my family. I thought, Oh, it’ll never affect me. I’ve got a control on it. But there’s a good aspect: It helped me understand alcoholics I’ve known my whole life. It helped me understand their perspective and the crazy things they do that were often hurtful — traumatizing at times. It helped me understand I can’t take it personally, even though it’s really hard to accept sometimes.


SS: What was it like working with Richard Avedon?

CM: Cool as hell. He does all the portraits of the artists for The New Yorker, and he’d been given a record and he listened to it and said, “I want to see her before I shoot her.” He wanted to create a relationship before he shot me. So he invited me when he was in the hospital to meet him. I had just woken up. I played a show the night before. I got out of bed and got a bunch of flowers. I looked like shit. That was back when I was drinking. I was half-drunk, probably. He’s in the hospital bed and he’s like, “Oh, you look fabulous.” I was like, “I look like shit.” He said, “You look gorgeous. I want you to look just like this.” That was no problem, because I had a show the day before he wanted to shoot me. One of the first questions he asked me was, “Do you like Bob Dylan?” I was like, “Oh, my god. Are you high?” “Good. Because I sense the struggle in your music.” He sent me a book: “To Chan, Yours in the struggle. Love, Dick.”

SS: What book?

CM: The Sixties. He was talking to me about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. He said, “I was doing fashion just to pay for trips to Cambodia and Vietnam. Something about your music shows me that you understand things and I just want to talk to you.” I told him about the show that I was doing for Janis Joplin’s birthday in Central Park. He said, “I would love to come. I loved Janis so much. She was a great girl. Such a sweetheart.” He came to the show, this 80-year-old man rocking out to Big Brother and the Holding Company and me.

So then he shot me the next day. He wanted me to come an hour before so we could hang out. He took me upstairs. He has two different studios in New York. This is the one that’s around 21st Street. He took me upstairs to his apartment. It was like a museum. It was modest — 800 square feet maybe, all open-floor with a kitchen. He had a portrait of Marilyn. He’s like, “I did that when I was 40. I was older than you. You weren’t even born.” He had all these photos from Africa. He had pictures of his wife and his son and books upon books. It was just a mesh of collectible things from all over the world. He opened up a bottle of champagne, and we sat in the garden and I smoked. He was so accommodating. He was running around doing everything for me — so handsome, such an open-minded person. We talked about Dylan and a lot about the civil rights era. He was just a wealth of knowledge. I wish you could have interviewed him.

Anyway, then we went downstairs and he was like, “I want to show you what I want you to wear.” When he opened the little dressing room, it was all Bob Dylan T-shirts. “I just want you to wear this. I’m going to rip it a little.” I was like, “No way.” He’s like, “You look great. Just leave your hair up.” He took about six Polaroids, 8x10. I was sick. I’d just gotten back from Mexico. I had some toxin in my blood. On the seventh shot, he had cut my shirt. He said, “Keep pulling it up — just like it’s a towel or something.” And that’s the picture. My stomach was hurting so bad because I wasn’t eating and was just manic. My jeans were unbuttoned and unzipped the whole time, but when he told me to take the shirt off to snip it, that picture happened. The first pubic hairs ever to be published in The New Yorker. My grandmother shit a brick.

He gave me the sixth Polaroid. I have it. It’s 8x10. When the hurricane hit my apartment in Miami, it blew my window out. It blew my kitchen door in. I lost one thing. I lost the photograph of me and my mom and my sister from before she met my stepdad. It really makes me sad. That was a good memory. The only thing I give a shit about was that picture that I lost and the Avedon portrait, which they found.

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Chan Marshall appears in
Issue 28: 20 Interviews


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