Cat Power: “The music I’m drawn to is about either healing or abandon – one or the other”

Chan Marshall has spent 11 albums exploring the darkness within and without. “I don't regret anything," she tells Mark Beaumont, "because otherwise I wouldn't be here with the love I have"

The darkness seems to have finally swallowed Chan Marshall. Recent interviews about the chameleonic alt-rock icon’s – better known as Cat Power – third covers album ‘Covers’ have taken place in dim-lit hotel rooms; the perfect ambience, perhaps, for her filter-free confessions. Notoriously open in the press, she’d talk of her transient upbringing around the American south, a childhood steeped in parental absence, familial alcoholism, brimstone religion and breadline insecurity.

She’d address her own depressed and heartbroken descent into alcohol dependency and the psychotic visions and breakdown that ensued. Of her years of financial struggles, intrusive stalkers and controlling relationships. Of finding herself, at her lowest point, standing on a bridge preparing to jump.

Today, the black is all-consuming. Over Zoom from her home in Miami, she doesn’t turn on her camera. “I think I might have shingles,” she explains, her voice morning-parent fragile. She has recently hinted to interviewers that she doesn’t trust technology’s data links to “certain companies” and says today: “[Alexa’s] just telling on me and everybody else. Even if your smartphone is in your freezer in a tin box that’s, like, loaded with dense, dense foam or concrete, they can still hear you from the Smart TV. It’s all definitely Orwell.”

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She’s absolutely right, of course; in a world of wanton and intrusive data harvesting where you can barely buy a toilet brush that won’t tell Amazon how to sell you things, ‘techno paranoia’ doesn’t come into it. But it’s this sort of verifiable truthing that gets an artist labelled ‘crazy’. “That’s literally the first thing they’ll tell you,” Chan agrees. “That’s the whole comeback. The easiest thing to say about a woman is she’s crazy because the man who’s telling her that does not want to hear what she’s saying. It doesn’t mean that what she’s saying is not true.”

Chan has had to suffer more than her fair share of ‘crazy’ talk. Since emerging from Atlanta’s drug-soaked alt-rock underground (via New York’s experimental scene) with her sparse 1995 debut album ‘Dear Sir’, she broke through with 1998’s masterful ‘Moon Pix’, written while in the grip of a hallucinatory nightmare of dark spirits crowding at her windows.

She started hammering Jack Daniels and Xanax every day from dawn to cope with a devastating break-up and bouts of suicidal depression around her 2003 record ‘You Are Free’. She played shows during that period where she’d barely finish songs, mumble incoherently, moon the audience and walk offstage. And she wound up in a psychiatric ward in Miami’s Mount Sinai hospital in 2006, thinking she was seeing back in time to ancient civilisations.

Post-rehab and therapy – and grounded by becoming a mother in 2015 – however, the press-dubbed ‘Queen of sadcore’ remains defiantly honest and outspoken, unafraid of misrepresentation. She happily admits that her forthcoming ‘Covers’ tour has been rescheduled to April because “I guess people were taking their tickets back because of the virus – they didn’t want to go out; promoters were getting antsy”.

She adds that, when asked to tour with Garbage and Alanis Morrissette last year, she “had 38 bucks in my bank account when I got there”. Asked about her connection with Lana Del Rey, who duetted on 2018’s ‘Wanderer’, she reveals that when she was dropped by her long-standing label Matador that year, Lana was one of very few who reached out to help.

“When I was told that my last record ‘Wanderer’ was no good, there was a year where I didn’t have a label,” she says. “There’s about 200 people that were affiliated with what I thought was my family who never checked in with me… [I thought], ‘I guess I can sell my apartment and I’ll just raise my son, I’ll move somewhere and try to get into writing… I’m a really good waitress and cook and stuff, and I can just get a good stable job and start a different career’.

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“In that year of time when my phone wasn’t ringing, I got two calls. One was from Warren [Ellis] and Nick [Cave] from The Bad Seeds after [2016 album] ‘Skeleton Key’; they invited me to open up for them in California. And then I got another call and it was from Lana and she asked me to open up for her in Europe.

“So at a time when I felt like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m like, totally not part of any musical community and I got dumped by my family’, these people reached out and offered me a job. And it was more than a job. It was like, ‘We’re artists, so it’s actually OK. This just happens to artists; they get put out to pasture when they have a baby when they’re a woman or whatever it is. I’m not worth it, but I’m still an artist.’ Lana’s just one of those people who reached out at a time when I felt really super-muted.”

The Matador rejection hit her hard: “I learned that even though you may love somebody, it doesn’t mean they love you back.” Issues had been brewing for some time, though. Chan has always produced her own records, but when talk inevitably turns to Damon Albarn‘s recent ill-advised disparaging of Taylor Swift‘s songwriting, even someone so clearly in control of her art gets angry about other producers and mixers getting the credit for her hard work.

In detailing the fights that she – like so many female artists – has had to get her due respect, Chan fumes until she can no longer speak: “I [feel] like if you hired someone to produce your music, they deserved to have a [credit]… If I’m putting in all the ideas and the arrangements and work, I don’t think that a record label should step in behind your back, give your advance money to somebody… who you told, just like you told the other engineers, that ‘You’re not producing this; you’re an engineer on this’ – and it gets stolen from you.”

Cat Power onstage in 2019. Credit: Getty

She’s described the Matador split as one of the lowest ebbs of her life, which is saying something for an artist who didn’t meet her mother until she was four (she was raised through her early years by her God-fearing grandmother), started drinking aged five, has spoken about cowering in her bed as a six-year-old terrified of being murdered by men trying to break into her Georgia city apartment, sung confessional songs about assault and abortion, lost numerous friends to AIDS, cancer and heroin, and confessed to writing goodbye notes to her friends and family while planning a shotgun suicide on tour in 2006. What gets her through such patches now?

“I was a mom at the time when that happened with my ex-label,” she says. “I don’t know how I would have handled it if it hadn’t been for that. That knee-jerk reflex to keep yourself and your child safe… Part of the reality of becoming a parent, in my experience, is that everything gets an order really quickly. All the things that might be spread left and right and you’re feeling shit here and there – as soon as you realise ‘OK, well, this is point A’, then everything just lines up.”

Finding a new home for ‘Wanderer’ with Domino Records (“they respect me, I respect them… they’ve let me be me”), Chan entered the pandemic with ‘Covers’, her 11th album, already recorded. “I had to super-duper isolate because of auto-immune stuff,” she says of a hereditary condition has seen her hospitalised numerous times, unable to breathe. Hence, this sublime record – bringing her inimitable sophistication to bear on tracks by the likes of Del Rey, Frank Ocean, Nick Cave, Nico, Iggy Pop and Ryan Gosling’s band Dead Man’s Bones, rather than the more time-worn tracks of her previous covers albums – was “preserved in a block of ice” for the duration.

Even when full of other people’s songs, a Cat Power record is endlessly revealing. Lana’s ‘White Mustang’ is included as a nod of thanks to a saviour sister. Frank Ocean’s ‘Bad Religion’ gets the glacial alt-soul treatment to reflect Chan’s own opinion of organised religion: “Military and religion are pretty much social constructs that the world lives by,” she says. “It’s not fair that that those are the main norms because women are not valuable in either of those norms.” And her own 2006 song ‘Hate’ (key lyric: “I hate myself and I want to die”) is reworked as ‘Unhate’ – a welcome sign of positive psychological shift.

“The easiest thing to say about a woman is she’s crazy because the man who’s telling her that does not want to hear what she’s saying”

Is ‘Covers’ a healing record? “They all are,” Chan replies. “That’s the music I’m drawn to. It’s either healing or abandon, one or the other. You can’t survive whatever’s going on without one or the other… I was on tour solo for a couple of years in 2013 and ’14 and I was playing that song. Then I found out I was pregnant, and without thinking twice I just changed the lyrics [to ‘Hate’] and never, ever want to go back… because it’s about suicide, of course. When you become a parent, those of us who love our children and would do whatever it takes to protect them, we don’t look back.”

There are also a couple of songs involving characters fleeing their troubles into a bottle (The Replacements‘ ‘Here Comes A Regular’; The Pogues’ ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’) – not so much a way of processing her own ‘00s issues with alcohol, she says, as to encourage others to process their own: “The pandemic has allowed people to ask for help mentally in a way that they never would have been forced to sit and realise shit about themselves and the world around them…

“Having gone through depression – and unfortunately it’s super-common – I had found that if music wasn’t able to help, or friends, alcohol was like the closest relative. The second-best thing to being alone and depressed was alcohol. I wasn’t asking for help back then, when I was suffering.”

Does she regret any of the performances from that period? “I don’t regret anything, because I wouldn’t be here now with the love that I have in my life now, and the clarity and the hopefulness.”

Buoyed by her new deal and parenthood, Chan seems to have gotten her life straight. Now for America. Her Facebook posts are full of concerns about the US’s inexorable slide back into the Middle Ages, and she’s deeply informed on the root causes. Ask her about the rise of the white supremacist threat and she’ll expound at length about the Government’s complicity, questions over the FBI’s involvement in the assassination of Martin Luther King and Christian fundamentalism.

She’s aghast at the anti-abortion legislation being pushed through in some states: “If somebody has their virginity taken from them by a family member or a stranger in whatever ways that would happen… The fact that not only would she have to carry the child full-term, if she were to try to get an abortion, someone who knows her can rat her out and get 10 grand. This country is completely insane.”

From Facebook’s alleged alliance with Trump over fact-checking his speeches to Elon Musk’s multi-million-dollar government research contracts (“he’s a lap dog”) and the militarisation of US police forces, Chan still sees a lot of dark spirits clawing at her window. But, she feels, the unifying effect of the pandemic might be a blessing deep in disguise.

“The consciousness in my opinion has become, ‘There’s more of us’,” she says. “Before it was just three kinds of people: mean, stupid and then us. But now, maybe some of the mean people understand a little more about empathy, and maybe some of the dumb people actually learned something.

“I feel like now there are more people willing to have uncomfortable conversations and to not side with their friend because they’ve known them since kindergarten, or their uncle who is filled with hate and stupidity. Because of the pandemic, I think there are a lot more people on the right side of the street.”

– ‘Covers’ is out now via Domino Records. Cat Power tours the US from April 13

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