It wasn’t so long ago that a Cat Power show — especially a solo performance by Chan Marshall, the Southern transplant to NYC behind the Cat Power name — was a roll of the dice. It started as mere stage fright: after hooking up with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn for the pair of albums that launched her career in ’95-’96, she found herself opening for established indie acts in front of large crowds she wasn’t prepared for. Often performing with her back to the audience, she’d mumble through spare songs from Dear Sir and Myra Lee, picking at her guitar like a scab and doing her best to ignore the crowd. And it got worse: as she developed more confidence in the studio, the audience hungry for her skewed and alluring Southern-tinged confessional storytelling grew. By 2000 and Moon Pix (her second for Matador) she had a sizable cult. Her on-stage behavior became more erratic: there were stories of songs half finished, lyrics forgotten, shows at which her gentle singing and soft guitar chordings were barely audible over the shuffle of feet. An on-stage breakdown in NYC had fans and critics alike wondering whether it wasn’t a kind of musical masochism that kept them coming back for more.
MEMPHIS MAGIC: “With the Memphis Rhythm Band it’s like going back to the music that I was familiar with as a baby.”
But all that changed earlier this year with the release of her most accessible, straightforward collection of songs yet, The Greatest (Matador), a soul-and-R&B-inflected album recorded in Memphis with legendary vets like guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges, and drummer Steve Potts. On the tour that followed — a tour with many of the same players — Marshall finally seemed comfortable in the spotlight. She’s still no Tina Turner. But as Cat Power she’s turned a corner.
I caught up with her on vacation in Southern California, where she’s gearing up for a short solo tour that’ll bring her to the Museum of Fine Arts this Tuesday. (She hooks back up with her Memphis Rhythm Band for more touring starting September 9 in NYC.) And I asked about the changes she’s been through over the past year.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to mention this, but you’ve really opened up as a performer with The Greatest.
How do you account for that?
I got sober. I know that sounds cliché’d. Just, growing up with an alcoholic upbringing, I always thought it was normal to be a drinker. When you take drinking for granted, it seems normal because it’s always around. But there’s a lot of you that gets put on a shelf and you end up living in a bubble. I realized my lifestyle over the past few years was making me more and more depressed and I was creating more of a shell with drinking too much too consistently and not having a home and traveling all the time.
The occupational hazards of the life you’ve chosen.
Yeah. I just seemed normal. I mean, I never thought I’d not drink. And I don’t go to meetings or anything like that. I think I’ve had eight drinks in eight months. But I’m healthier. It’s good for my mind. I was just tired. My body was tired. It was weighing on me.
Your father was a working musician, so you grew up around the lifestyle. Did that have an impact on you?
Oh yeah. Drugs and alcohol were part of my growing up. The people I was around were of the ’60s. There was that sense of rebellion. And then the ’70s hit and it was all about cocaine. The reefer was always around and so was alcohol. It just got darker and darker. But I thought I’d never have a problem with alcohol. And then I stopped and asked myself, “Why am I drinking two bottles of wine at dinner or a half a bottle of Scotch?”
Did being around pros like Mabon and Leroy Hodges help?
Well, they’re older and they have more experience. And they bring no baggage. They just come to do their best and that’s it. They’re still playing and recording and traveling. They know the way the lifestyle works.
What did you learn from them.
[Laughs.] The back-up singers taught me to wrap my neck when it’s cold out. And the band was so good about urging me to ask the soundman for what I want rather than just trying to be nice about it and not saying anything. They were like, “What are you doing? Ask for what you want. You’re paying the motherfucker to be here.” They’re like my team, my coaches, and my friends. I feel blessed.
So why go back to playing solo?
I just have different friends and fans who say they miss it when I play solo. So I’m doing both right now. I’m playing some solo shows and then I’ll be back with the band.