Decoding Cat Power

Written by August 30th, 2012 at 7:10 am

Chan Marshall only communicates through text messages. The instant gratification of the medium seems to be the proper vehicle for her freewheeling personality. She talks in long circles of loose association. Following along can be a bit like deciphering codes.

On a Friday morning in June, we’re scheduled to talk but she’s sleeping late and misses my call. I text her to re-schedule and she calls back a few minutes later. “Don’t be mad at me,” she says coyly, after being a little flighty while she’s making a cup of coffee. Once the caffeine takes, though, she’s relaxed and chatty, asking my eye and hair color. (She guessed them both right.)

On this day, Marshall is in Brooklyn, staying at a friend’s house with her French bulldog, Mona. Over the past six years, she’s lived in Miami, Malibu, and Paris while working on the ninth Cat Power album, Sun.

If you were a fan of Cat Power’s early experimental folk or mid-2000s Memphis soul albums, Sun may come as a surprise.  It opens with the dubby, downtempo groove of “Cherokee.” Programmed snare hits alternate with a boxy hi-hat shuffle and “swampy” (Marshall’s adjective) electric guitar lines, courtesy of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer.

“I never knew love like this, the sun, sea, you and I,” Marshall sings, setting the tone for an album that touches down in far-flung geographical and emotional destinations. On the title track, “Sun,” it’s more of the same: brooding programmed drums and a squirrely, arpeggiating synthesizer. You could just as well be in a Euro dance club as Laurel Canyon. Did I mention there’s Auto-Tune?

“I’m really impulsive and I forget really easy and I change my mind very quickly,” says Marshall about making the album, which was recorded in at least four studios, with countless engineers and musicians but, in the end, still stands as a staunchly original work by Marshall.

“The whole record is one massive, living, breathing loop,” she says, sounding like someone who has lived with it for six years.

*****

Recording sessions for Sun began at a Los Angeles studio called The Boat, where Marshall worked alone and wrote mostly piano-based songs.

She quit working there for eight months after someone said the songs seemed too sad. “I felt like a failure,” she says. “He made me feel like he’s an authority on what’s sad.” When she recovered from the artistic setback, she told herself she wouldn’t touch a guitar or piano and turned to drums, synthesizers, and outboard studio gear. That started her on the path towards Sun in its present and final state.

With her new interest in recording equipment, Marshall built her own studio in Malibu and brought in her band – Bauer, Gregg Foreman, Jim White, and Erik Papparozzi (the so-called Dirty Delta Blues band, a portmanteau of the members’ previous bands – White’s Dirty Three, Foreman’s Delta 72, and Bauer’s Blues Explosion), who had toured with her in Australia, the U.S., South America, and Europe – to record.

“I played them all these songs like ‘Cherokee.’ I knew if I forced them to play these songs live they’d become much more first-nature – more fleshed, not question mark-y,” says Marshall.

Only one song from those sessions found its way to the final album – the first single “Ruin” – and it might be the album’s best track.

“I’ve seen gypsies who made it all the way and kept going / Kept rolling, with nowhere to go,” Marshall sings in the opening line, before going through a Google-able litany of place names that come off like a stunning rhythmic jumble: Saudi Arabia, Calcutta, Soweto, Mozambique, Istanbul, Rio, Rome, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, et al.

I ask if Marshall has been to all these places and she answers with a recount of a fourteen-day trip, somewhere in Africa, that reads kind of like an acid trip.

“You pitch your tent. There’s no hotel, there’s no neighborhood. There were children learning under a tree – school’s under a tree. I was thirsty and didn’t have water. The tracker told me – he was a militiaman … missionary, I don’t know what the fuck they call ‘em, they go ahead of the front lines and kill in advance, but he gave up. He said go over under that tree and there’s a fruit called the marula. I was just by myself in my nightgown, like from the 1800s. It’s like a piece of sheet that they cut off right at the top of your breast and right above the middle of your thigh and two strings – just nothing but to cover you up. I’m wearing that and underwear and flip-flops, no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no water. I realized I was really getting thirsty so he told me to peel back the marula skin and suck the condensation.” This story goes on to cover the green mamba snake, scorpions, a hawk – “I never saw a hawk so big it looked like a vulture” – a water buffalo, and a rhinoceros (“I thought it was a rock”).

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