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16 September 2014 09:15 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Cat's out of the bag: the metamorphosis of Chan Marshall

  • Marelise van der Merwe
  • Life, etc
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In September, Cat Power’s first original album since 2006, Sun, was released. And, shock of shocks, it was a pop album. In the months leading up to it, first one song was leaked, then two, then three – all of which left reviewers cautiously optimistic about what was coming. But now that the whole shebang has found its way into the open, MARELISE VAN DER MERWE is convinced the album is – quite simply – a corker.

At the release of The Greatest, Rolling Stone described Cat Power as “one of those blessed, slightly unstable artists whose songs can find that expressway to your spine – and can also make you wonder how she finds her pants in the morning.”

“Vaguely unstable” might be the understatement of the century. If you’ve ever seen Cat Power perform – and probably abruptly stop halfway as her nerves overcame her – you couldn’t fail to notice that seems to breathe anxiety through her skin. It’s like an odour that seeps off her; an air of desperation that makes one feel a peculiar combination of horror, protectiveness, and discomfort at your own voyeurism. 

With an almost crippling shyness that, at best, made her appear desperate to be anywhere but on stage and at worst, had her collapsing in a broken heap, it seemed an act of pure self-loathing that she had decided to become a performing artist at all. And the self-loathing was never something she bothered to hide: in between eerily rasping Kurt Cobain’s infamous refrain, I hate myself and I want to die, she blacked out her surroundings, and perhaps herself, in any cocktail of booze and narcotics she could lay her hands on. Until, that is, she was so confused she saw Kanye West on television and believed he was a vision of Jesus coming to deliver an epiphany. (An epiphany it was, however: that moment was one of the turning points that sobered her up for good.) She herself recently admitted in an interview that she would not be able to listen to her past albums chronologically, saying: “I couldn’t do it. It’d be too excruciating…I [would] hear just fear. A lot of fear.”

And then, amazingly, came Sun.

Chan Marshall – the artist behind the better-known moniker – has toughened up. Since she made her debut in the early nineties, she has crept under our skins with her jarring riffs and haunting whispers; the ethereal, porcelain-soul girl who was so broken that even her voice seemed to blow our way rather than being the product of deliberate singing. But she’s now 40, and it shows. Her music is – finally – badass.

And badass not in the contrived style of Lady Gaga or, worse, Madonna: badass in a confident, empowered, she’s-her-own-woman way. The music itself is gentler than in the past, but it’s by no means apologetic, and retains her distinctive style. She’s matured powerfully, in the manner of Tori Amos, who famously said: “I love young women who are angry. They’re wild mustangs. But if you don’t learn to transcend that, you turn into a very disturbed forty-year-old.”

Amen. And although Marshall does, characteristically, rely on the occasional discordant backing, Sun is a more harmonious whole than her previous work. The lyrics have their own understated power. It’s a more mainstream sound, certainly, which may disappoint some of her more diehard fans. But it’s also more subtle, more cohesive. Sun doesn’t shout, but it does speak up.

Listen to ‘Silent Machine’ live 

In short, Cat Power has grown up. And it’s the first time that she is actually playing all the instruments herself; a sign, possibly, that she was ready to take charge – admitting that part of the reason she played everything herself was because she “didn’t want to disappoint anybody”. As she put it to The Stool Pigeon, “[Turning 40] was no big deal. Once you make it past 21 and 25 and 28, then 30 and 34, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I made it.’ It’s more relaxing... 

“This record is kind of like an amalgamation of realising, ‘Fuck, I can kinda do what I want.’ And I always could, but I didn’t know that. I thought older people who knew about music and knew how to play it and knew how to be in a band, who were cool and popular, who had no shame or whatever… I didn’t know that anybody could fuckin’ ask [for] what they want. Like, ‘I’m so sorry, I would like to request a new engineer’ instead of just gritting your teeth and struggling while you’re working. If you ask, maybe you’ll get. I never knew that was a part of life; never knew you could try to live life exactly the way you want.

In Sun, she sings like someone who’s finally found her voice. It’s the sound of a profoundly talented woman who, praise be, might no longer be falling apart under the pure strain of being. “Never, never give up what you always wanted,” she sings. “Never, ever give in.” And then, surprise, surprise, “I wanna live!”

Quite a change, eh? Marshall seems, if her album is anything to go by, radiantly undisturbed. There are those who credited her apparent stability in the last six years to her relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi, but I’m inclined to disagree. Firstly, I don’t believe she would have chosen a stabilising relationship for herself if she were not already transcending some of that self-hatred internally – it takes self-love to make positive decisions, after all. 

But secondly, she had already written most of the material for Sun before hooking up with Ribisi – the raw material was complete before her last album, The Greatest, was even released – and thirdly, what work remained on Sun, she completed while her relationship was falling apart, wrapping it up in the horrific two months between her final breakup and Ribisi’s new marriage to model Agyness Deyn after a secret romance. So no, no credit to Ribisi.

Circumstances aside, Marshall appears uncharacteristically in control. She told The Stool Pigeon that she didn’t waste any time picking herself up after her breakup. She reeled from the shock of the loss – saying that the split came “out of the left field” – but she rallied. She chopped off her hair, flew to Paris and, in her words, “wrapped up this shit”. In her quiet way, she kicked butt. And, external circumstances aside, she seemed, for the first time, to be coping.

For a fan, it is hard to contain a fist pump at hearing this. It’s about time we saw those reserves of strength rise to the surface – reserves she must have had all along, given what she has endured: a troubled, pained adulthood and a horrific childhood during which, among other things, her controlling, blues-playing father refused to let her buy music or play his instruments. 

Watch the ‘Cherokee’ music video

Marshall is no Janis Joplin; she’s no Joan Jett. Heck, she’s not even the self-involved, Uncle Joey-bashing Alanis Morissette. As broken, messed up, drug-addled and full of fury as she has been over the years, she never quite fitted the mould of the music industry’s other Angry Young Women who, no matter what guise or genre they appeared in, all seemed to share a common stamp – an aggression; a way of being deliberate. 

Marshall had none of that. For starters, she was too skinless. Secondly, her pain was just too private. She never seemed to be performing; one always felt, watching or listening to her, that you were eavesdropping. Nothing about her was externalised – she seemed disinterested in the effect on her audience, and disinterested in letting out any rage. Instead, her songs were the musical equivalent of rocking back and forth; a quiet, inner devastation that we just happened to witness because she didn’t care enough about herself to keep it hidden. If depression is anger turned inward, then it was that particular brand of anguish that seeped out of Marshall – the mark of a woman who had so much to be angry about, but was too gentle to turn it into rage. Instead, it became brittleness, misery, and a terror of living in the world. 

So the foray into pop has, for many of her fans, come as a shock. But Sun is eclectic enough to pull it off: as Café Maroon put it, “’Ruin’ is a case in point of the songstress’ wide-ranging music influences mentioned previously. With a rhythmic piano and dry drums, the track opens like a bossa nova tune contrasting like no other track with Cat Power’s earlier work. It does so even more thanks to upbeat lyrics, which put aside the artist’s brand melancholy and take you on road trip across the world – reaching a gallop as the chorus breaks out.” Beyond ‘Ruin’, she shows influences as diverse as U2, The White Stripes and a variety of R&B. So straight pop it is not. 

To be completely honest, there is a part of me that grieves for her more maudlin, husky sound, even if she it’s a sound that singlehandedly increased the world’s whiskey consumption by a few thousand litres. But it’s undeniable that Sun deserves praise: this is not fluff, and nor is it saccharine. There are songs bursting with vitality, but she covers the full emotional spectrum with her usual light yet caustic touch:

Walk off to the woods and the streets every night

Walk to the people who walk too close

Into each other they’re hanging so bright

I am told as a mother you may remember her

If there ever was a religious figure

In my age it don’t count to have buttercup eyes

The silent machine is eating me, child

You put on your light and then turn around.

So yes, it’s a more joyful album. Yes, it’s vibrant, powerful, and unusually full of a will to live. But Cat Power has not lost the power of her voice – on the contrary, she seems to have found it. And Lord knows after nearly two decades as a suffering artiste, she’s earned her way into a more peppy genre. 

She’s shown that she’s a serious artist – more so than most. Now, for God’s sake, just let the woman be happy. Ish. DM

Listen to more from Sun (but please buy the album afterwards – we don’t speak pirate):

  • Watch the ‘Ruin’ video here
  •  ‘Manhattan’ NYC mix can be heard here

Photo by Reuters.

  • Marelise van der Merwe
  • Life, etc


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