Music Interviews
8:26 am
Sun September 2, 2012

Cat Power: 'I'm Not Ashamed To Hear My Voice'

Originally published on Tue September 4, 2012 7:20 am

The musician known as Cat Power has a penchant for goofing around. That might come as a surprise to those familiar with her music, which is always at least a little bit mournful.

Off stage, Cat Power is Chan Marshall. She's southern, and like so many other southern musicians, she got noticed by playing sad, simple songs. Her voice is raspy; her musicianship is unrefined. When Marshall really caught the attention of critics a decade ago, she'd already been performing for as many years. She was also dealing with a serious alcohol problem — and stage fright.

With that behind her, she's releasing her first album of original work in more than six years, Sun. She discusses the record's unfamiliar new sound, the winding process of recording it and more with NPR's Linda Wertheimer.


Interview Highlights

On the genesis of Sun

"I had started four years ago in Silverlake, in Los Angeles, out of habit, started writing some songs with a guitar and a piano. And when I played it for a friend, he said, 'Man, this sounds like old Cat Power. Man, this is depressing.' So I just closed shop for eight months. When I went back to the studio, I didn't play guitar or piano. The only thing I could play that was in the studio was a drum set and these synthesizers. And that's why the record sounds totally different."

On abstaining from guitar

"The thing that I'd always relied on was the tempo of playing a guitar — you know, like John Lee Hooker taps his foot or Stevie [Ray Vaughan] moves his head. Playing the guitar, you kind of lock into a rhythm and a groove, and then it relaxes me to make up lyrics and sing. So this time, it was a little different. I had to press these strange synthesizers and roll it, roll it, record it, record it, until I did something that I liked."

On taking an extended break

"After my second-to-last record, The Greatest, I had gone on tour for a while, and I didn't play an instrument for about five years. And I got kind of — it's not self-esteem or whatever, or anger toward myself — but disappointed in myself that I hadn't been challenging myself to learn musically."

On struggling with addiction

"I never wanted to end up like that. I never wanted to abuse alcohol or drugs, from things that I had witnessed growing up. When I went to the hospital, I definitely made a choice, and I think it's made me a happier person. I think I enjoy life a whole lot more than I used to because I was wrapped up in fear and stress. Now, I just need to take care of myself and stay with the people who've been there for me."

On recording and growing older

"I still haven't been able to capture the joy of what it's like when I sing — you know, when I'm by myself, or like when I was a little kid. ... For me, the moment the mic is on and it's rolling, it's impossible to vocally relax for some reason. But one day, I'm going to be able to sing the way I sang when I was a little kid, completely open and free. That's, I think, the one thing that's changed: Growing older, I'm not ashamed to hear my voice."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the musician known as Cat Power is how much she loves to play.

CAT POWER: You're listening to NPR. This is Cat Power.

WERTHEIMER: She's been performing for more than 20 years. But for most of those 20 years, her music sounded kind of sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T BLAME YOU")

POWER: (Singing) Last time I saw you, you were on stage.

WERTHEIMER: That's "I Don't Blame You" from her 2003 album. Offstage, Cat Power is Chan Marshall. She is from Atlanta but she lived lots of places around the South. In the beginning of her career, she played mostly simple songs, playing her own accompaniment on guitar and piano. She sounds very young on these tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T BLAME YOU")

POWER: (Singing) I don't blame you, I don't blame you...

WERTHEIMER: Cat Power has produced her first CD of original work in six years. She calls the recording "Sun," and it's a turning point for her musically and in other ways. She was in Miami when we talked to her about how the record got off to a slow start.

POWER: I had started four years ago in Silverlake in Los Angeles, out of habit started writing some songs with a guitar and a piano. And then when I played it for a friend, he was like, man, that sounds like old Cat Power. Man, this is depressing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) I never made sense to him anyway, could you imagine if they turned their backs...

So, I just closed shop for eight months. And then when I went back to the studio, I didn't play guitar or piano. The only thing I could play that was in the studio was a drum set and these synthesizers, and that's why the record sounds totally different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) Marry me, marry me to the sky. Marry me, marry me to the sky. Marry me, marry me to the sky. Marry me, marry me to the sky...

WERTHEIMER: And did you feel like you knew what you were doing as you sort of headed for this new sound?

POWER: Absolutely not. The thing that I always relied on was the, you know, the tempo of playing a guitar, you know, like John Lee Hooker taps his foot, you know, or like Stevie moves his head, you know. So, like, playing the guitar you kind of lock into a rhythm and a groove and then it relaxes me to make up lyrics in my head and sing. So, this time was a little different. I had to press these strange, you know, synthesizers and roll it, roll it, record it, record it until I did something that I liked and then cut it and then loop it and then go into a trance and set the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) (unintelligible)...

WERTHEIMER: I gather that, just as you always used to do, playing the guitar and the piano yourself, this was do-it-yourself as well. I mean, the production, the performing, all of it.

POWER: Yeah, I wanted to - I had been, after my second-to-last record called "The Greatest," I had gone on tour for a while and I didn't play an instrument for about five years. And I got kind of - it's not self-esteem or whatever, not anger towards myself - but, like, disappointed in myself that I hadn't been, you know, challenging myself to learn musically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) I'm sorry. (unintelligible)...

WERTHEIMER: Chan Marshall had other challenges, which affected her work, especially her performances - terrible stage fright made her erratic, periods of drinking compounded her problems. But things changed for her in 2006. That was the year when things got so serious that a friend checked Marshall into a hospital and she began to understand what had to happen, what she had to do.

POWER: I never wanted to end up like that and I never wanted to abuse alcohol or drugs from things that I witnessed growing up. I definitely made a choice and I think it's made me a happier person. I think enjoy life a whole life more than I used to because I was wrapped up in fear and stress. Now, I just need to take care of myself and stay with the people who've been there for me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, if we were to play one more song that would just sort of celebrate that, which one would it be?

POWER: I would say "Nothing But Time," because I wrote that for my ex. His daughter, Lucia.

WERTHEIMER: Now, "Nothing But Time" is 11 minutes long.

POWER: I know. I'm sorry.

WERTHEIMER: We're not going to play the whole thing but we do want to play part of it.

POWER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BUT TIME")

POWER: (Singing) Dear Lucia, I'm all in (unintelligible). You got to wait (unintelligible) and just trying to get by. Your world is just beginning and I know this life seems never-ending...

WERTHEIMER: It's a beautiful song.

POWER: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: You know, the lyrics are sort of portentous. I mean, like, there's a...

POWER: What's that mean?

WERTHEIMER: Important - I'm trying to tell you an important lesson to the little girl, you're saying.

POWER: Well, it's also talking to my inner-kid, you know, 'cause she's always worried and, like, you know, she can't do anything wrong. It's like a for everybody song, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BUT TIME")

POWER: (Singing) But you remember the time, and they ain't got nothing on you...

WERTHEIMER: You've been doing this for, what, 20 years?

POWER: It's crazy - 21 or 22.

WERTHEIMER: Has being older changed the way you feel about writing music and performing it?

POWER: Yeah, I mean, I still haven't been able to capture the joy of what it's like when I sing, you know, when I'm by myself or, like, when I was a little kid. I still have not been able to capture that. Because when you're recording, for some reason, it's like your ego and your id are, like, both there. You know, rather than you just being there and not being aware of nothing, for me, when the moment the mic is one and it's rolling, it's impossible to vocally relax for some reason. But one day I'm going to be able to sing the way that I sang when I was a little kid, like, completely open and free. That's, I think, the one thing that's changed growing older that I'm not ashamed to hear my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) All the way back home, lost time, lost time...

WERTHEIMER: Chan Marshall is the woman behind Cat Power. Her new album, "Sun," is out on September 4th. Thank you for talking to us.

POWER: I'm honored.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

POWER: (Singing) Why do we do it? (unintelligible)...

WERTHEIMER: For a limited time, you can hear Cat Power's entire new album, "Sun," at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINDA WERTHEIMER READING SHOW CREDITS)

WERTHEIMER: I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.