CAT POWER and DIRTY DELTA BLUES at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay), Saturday (February 9), 9 pm. $30. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, comes out swinging in this exclusive interview about her battles with alcoholism, paralyzing stage fright and critics who think her best work is behind her
Cat Power’s world is defined as much by her beautiful voice as it is by her teetering mental state.
Chan Marshall fans have witnessed lots of shambolic stage antics, some more legendary than others, thanks to her dipsomaniac days of onstage emotional breakdowns. Like Marshall slipping into a catatonic state while strumming her equally damaged-looking Danelectro guitar. Or erratically stop-starting her band enough times to kill a concert dead, then falling to the floor in a fetal position as the house lights come up, signalling the show’s abrupt and untimely finish.
Between her once rampant alcohol addiction and a noted life-long battle with stage fright, Marshall was a reliable train wreck of smouldering blue-eyed soul.
But recently, such incidents have ceased. Marshall no longer sees life through the bottom of a bottle, and her performances have become more about hearing the music than watching her public self-destruction.
Marshall’s stage anxiety has dissipated, too. She no longer fears eyes upon her. Rather, she relishes the challenge of performing before a live audience, bounding onstage sporting finger-baring leather gloves like a soul-singing pugilist ready to battle past demons. The result is an unaccustomed gloss of professionalism.
It’s no small irony that the strides she’s made toward becoming a disciplined performer have earned Marshall some critical wrath, including charges that she’s become conventional and lost her artistic potency. A venomous Guardian reviewer recently wrote of her show at Shepherds Bush Empire that “the transformation is horribly disillusioning to witness.” And in a tepid review of her just-dropped covers album, Jukebox (Matador), an influential website compares the record’s sheen to the refinement of her once precarious live performances.
“I don’t give a shit what anybody says,” says Marshall assertively from her newly purchased pad in the art deco neighbourhood of South Beach, Miami.
“If I blew my head off – excuse me, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that – but if I destroyed my life, maybe she would write an amazing article about my life’s work, you know what I’m saying?” Marshall asks angrily, referring to the Guardian writer.
Though it’s an extreme and chilling example, Marshall has pointed out a paradox that often accompanies sobriety albums. By “sobriety albums,” we mean those crossroads-in-life records usually made fresh after a rehab stint, often proclaiming a new lease on life while confronting transgressions and addictions.
Marshall’s compatriot in stage debacles, Ryan Adams, delivered one last year with Easy Tiger, and it’s a safe bet that Amy Winehouse’s follow-up will fit the mould, assuming she survives to make it.
Jukebox doesn’t exactly fit the category, mostly because it’s a collection of covers, a sequel to 2000’s The Covers Record. But it does prompt uncomfortable questions about whether we prefer our heralded artist vulnerable, crafting music through pain and endearingly unhinged.
Marshall’s huskiness and masterfully controlled mid-range make Jukebox a pleasurable listen, but compared to her earlier work it has an unmistakable emotional void.
Her rendition of Lee Clayton’s Silver Stallion, for example, feels almost workmanlike compared to the totally upended and striking (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction from Covers. And there’s certainly nothing as radical on Jukebox as her brilliantly retooled I Feel, by New Orleans hiphop unit Hot Boys (included on Jukebox’s deluxe package bonus disc). Curiously, the most affecting track is Metal Heart, a lugu-brious yet rallying remake of one of her own songs from 1998’s Moon Pix.
But Jukebox isn’t just Cat Power and her melancholy guitar and piano, as before. Her band, the Dirty Delta Blues, which includes Dirty Three’s Jim White, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer, the Delta 72’s Gregg Foreman and bassist Erik Paparozzi, play a prominent role in the album’s crackling Southern soul drive.
It’s also important to consider how lucky we are to have Cat Power at all. She almost didn’t make it this far.
“My record label basically saved my life, ” she says with a hint of Georgia drawl. “I’m very lucky, believe me. I do not pass a day when I don’t count my blessings.”
Two years ago, five days before Marshall was set to tour on The Greatest, 2005’s sultry Memphis-made fo-ray into 70s AM gold, her label, Matador, was scrambling to locate the singer after she had shut down all communication with the outside world for months.
When a New York painter friend named Susanna Vapnek was dispatched to track her down in Miami, what she found, besides a recluse’s lair littered with empty pill and booze bottles, was Cat Power hanging on by a thread.
“It was really painful to go through all that, ” recalls Marshall, who reluctantly admitted herself to hospital shortly afterwards. “I didn’t want to cancel my tour when The Greatest came out. That was a decision my label made.
“If I had my brain split in 14 different corners and was living on Xanax, antidepressants and scotch every day like an idiot who keeps her head above water from the stress of travelling all these years non-stop, I didn’t want anybody to know. It was horribly, excruciatingly painful to get out of the hospital and learn that your tour has been cancelled, you’re in debt, you failed all these people who bought tickets, that you are a fuck-up.”
Like the covers on Jukebox, Marshall made the rehab process her own. Forgoing AA (“I don’t like organized stuff. I don’t like cliques. My friendships are one-on-one”), she dealt with things “her own way.” She took baby steps, lightening her tour schedule at Bauer’s insistence, and says she’s now in a place where she can guiltlessly enjoy a weekly glass of wine. (She recently clinked glasses with Feist in London.)
“I’m never going to let myself work like a little dog and wind up in a place like that where I have no freedom and no mental security,” she says.
“This past year has taught me something I never had before, which is stability. Now I have a dog, I come home after a tour, I have a life, I do my laundry, I read my books, I stick my finger up my nose, I go swimming at the beach, I ride my bike, I scan the Internet to see if Benicio Del Toro has a .…”
What this new lifestyle and mindset will yield in terms of original music remains to be seen. New material could be released this year.
The most cynical of fans will hold steadfast to the notion that only out of darkness can Marshall conjure her powers, inspiring us with those hypnotic songs breathed from her fragile inner core like the haunting breakup sadness on You Are Free or the dusky barstool magic in The Greatest.
But it’s possible that her newfound positivity, sense of self and inner strength could inspire a record more devastating than anything she’s created thus far.
“I’m just thankful for being able to sing, period,” says Marshall humbly, “and my grandmother’s happy for me. That’s enough for me.”
Marshall talks about stars who battle addiction in the public eye:
Discusses bandmate Judah Bauer and how he convinced her on the health benefits of less touring:
Recalling the advice she got about performing from members of her Memphis Rhythm Band:
Explaining her involvement modelling for Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld:
Cat Power riffs on a few selections from Jukebox.
Lost Someone (James Brown)
“Losing the love of my life five years ago. I’m singing it for him – P.S.!”
Don’t Explain (Billie Holiday)
“The one person I wish I could have gone back in time to help save from addiction.”
Blue (Joni Mitchell)
“I’m singing that for the little babies who I pray will not follow the drug and irresponsible sex road. I pray the young ones will not follow that road.”
New York (Frank Sinatra)
“That version of New York is my New York; it’s the Dirty Delta Blues New York. That’s not Fancy Town. Our New York was never Fancy Town. It’s not NYU City. But I still got mad love for NY – that’s my baby.”
Metal Heart (Chan Marshall)
“I just wanted to sing to all the people who were my peers when I was 19, 20 who now are parents and shit – this song is for them." JK