Cat Power at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (September 4), two sets, doors 6 and 9:30 pm. $22.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Chan Marshall is leaning out a rolled-down car window on an L.A. freeway, hollering, "Tricky! Trick-e-e-e-e!" at the top of her lungs.
If you're familiar with her press-bolstered persona, you might assume the artist known to indie rock fans as Cat Power is having a psychotic breakdown. But Marshall isn't half the Troubled Artist legend would have you believe.
Right now she's playing La-La Land starfucker, trying to flag down what appears to be triphop pioneer Tricky ("Oh my god, I love him!") on the street. Five minutes later, she interrupts her own story about hangin' with k-os at T.O. strip club Jilly's by claiming she's spotted Peter Gabriel.
It's tempting to see this candid and quirkily upbeat character as the "real" Marshall, to dismiss the stories of shows cut short by depression-induced catatonia and suicide rumours as exaggerations formulated to back up the "Cat Power" image in songs like Hate (sample lyric: "I hate myself and want to die") on her new The Greatest (Matador) CD.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Though Marshall's a self-sufficient fighter who was probably never as consistently fucked up as most folks think, she's candid about the fact that she's doing even better now because she's sober for the first time in, well, ever.
"The record label cancelled my initial tour for this record when they figured out I was a mess," she cheerfully begins, then corrects herself. "Actually, my friend Susanna [painter Vapnek, who's sitting beside her in the car] called off the tour, which was a good thing. If I'd gone on the road I likely would've hung myself.
"Everyone goes through what I went through in different ways, and sometimes they don't have anyone who cares about them enough to say, "Whoa, dude, this is bad.' I'm lucky. Sometimes I wanna be wild and drink, go crazy and scream and party, but mostly I'm thankful to be alive."
Sobriety's clearly agreeing with her. Despite her confession that playing clean for the first time was "intense and fucking terrifying," early tour reports suggest Marshall's delivering her best shows in years.
Too bad her lifestyle shift is overshadowing her new record. It contains some of the most precariously hopeful lyrics Marshall's ever written. The Greatest also provided the indie rock poster girl with the privilege of trying out a Southern blue-eyed soul vibe with some of the best players in the biz, namely the Memphis Rhythm Band, whose members have backed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Ann Peebles.
Hi Records fanatics may be disappointed to learn it's still a haunting Cat Power album to the core, albeit with some sweet bop-shoo-bops and effortless after-midnight arrangements.
For Marshall, who's spoken frankly about her difficulties working with people she's too close to in the studio, you get the sense that teaming up with pros who were relative strangers (guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges claims she spent their first meeting in silence) was liberating.
"When Cat Power first started, back in Atlanta, we improvised everything. I thought that was how everyone played," explains Marshall, who also picked up performance tricks through immersion in NYC's free-jazz scene. "I've learned you have to practise and be more structured, so this record was so much more professional. I'd show the band a song, and they'd write it down in Nashville numbers.
"It was intimidating, cuz they were so good Teenie, who's 60, played with Aretha Franklin when he was 16! On the recording, my singing is much mellower and more controlled, cuz I'm just tryin' to fuckin' keep up with 'em."
Beyond the fact that playing with such talented musicians in the studio and on the road (though she'll be flying solo in T.O.) boosted Marshall's confidence, it seems that the grizzled vets' tour stories struck a major chord.
According to Marshall, a good chunk of her ongoing struggles with mental health and happiness have to do with a sense of placelessness. She recently invested in a house in Miami and spent years in a dilapidated warehouse in New York, but constant touring and a love-hate nostalgia for the culture she grew up in complicate the singer/songwriter's sense of "home."
"These guys aren't young indie kids, and they understand what it's like to be on the road all the time," she explains. "I've been on the road for seven, eight years solid, and it's led to a frustration in trying to understand myself. Touring can really fuck you up.
"When I see how they've been around the block a few times, I feel like when I'm 60 I could be a Bob Dylan and keep touring. I feel less like I have to take on all that baggage myself."
The Memphis dudes also helped Cat Power reconnect with her Southern roots, which are bound up in The Greatest's theme of struggling against adversity even when it seems futile.
"Superstition and spirituality are still so strong in the South because of poverty and hopelessness. When you're so down and out that you can't feed your kids, you have to make a choice: jump out of the window or get down on your knees and pray."