In the summer before the release of her ebullient ninth album, Sun, and not long after her publicly scrutinized breakup with longtime boyfriend, actor Giovanni Ribisi, I spoke with Chan Marshall, the 40-year-old, Georgia-born songwriter who performs under the name Cat Power. When I initially called at noon, she didn’t answer. A few minutes later, she responded with a text: “Sorry JUST WOKE UP gimme 2 minutes to get off the crapper, get my dog outside, press the coffee button & we’re on!! Or can we do that all together on the phone?” I told her she could call me when she was ready, and she did, five minutes later.
During the hour-long interview, she held an eight-minute conversation with her godson, ate a bowl of Honey Puffs cereal, and belted a soulful verse from Nina Simone’s version of “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,” which she describes as “one of the greatest pieces of audio I’ve ever heard in my life.” The whole interaction felt intimate and unburdened by the usual social niceties that can slow conversations to a mumbling drag. Marshall talked while she chewed, spoke in several character voices, and freely discussed her mental breakdown and her difficulties with live performances, which, fueled by her past struggles with alcohol, have been notoriously unpredictable. This kind of uninhibited talk might be surprising in another context, but not with Marshall. You can hear the same raw, loose energy in the cracks of her singing and the cinematic peaks and valleys of her songwriting. It’s what Cat Power is known for: she doesn’t hold back.
I. LOVE & COMMUNICATION
BULLETT: Are there any love songs on the new album?
CAT POWER: I would say “3, 6, 9,” because it’s about self-respect, which is an aspect of love. Another one would be “Nothing But Time,” which I wrote for my ex’s daughter, Lucia, who’s a teenager; when we lived together, she was dealing with some online bullying.
Online bullying sounds terrible.
Yeah, there’s this thing called Formspring. Teens and preteens can go and become members with their Facebook accounts and join anonymously, and you can say whatever fucking shit you want to say to whomever. It’s often really hurtful stuff. It was a big deal a couple of years ago. So she was going through that, and I wrote that song for her. And at the time, she had fallen in love with Ziggy Stardust, so I called David Bowie and Iggy Pop to sing on the song. David said no, but Iggy said yes.
I’m so glad I didn’t have to endure the Facebook era in high school.
Yeah, you hear about these kids committing suicide… I think one of the big things is that the community formed by punk rock music in the ’80s is missing now. There’s nowhere for young people to really get that camaraderie in music anymore. What’s considered underground now is electronic music, and all the labels and new descriptions coming out of that.
A few of the tracks on Sun have elements of hip-hop, I noticed.
When I was playing the record for the owners of Beggars [Music, her label] in Paris, I wished that I’d given a song ve to Jay-Z and that he would have been is interested in doing it.
“Doing it” meaning he would sample it?
He would’ve been much better singing it. Or saying it.
Do you listen to much hip-hop?
Only hip-hop that I like: Hot Boys, B.I.G., Jay-Z, Trina, Foxy Brown, Three 6 Mafia, Eric B., and Sugarhill Gang.
When did you start working on Sun?
I first recorded four years ago in L.A., when I lived with my boyfriend, now my ex. I actually had a dream about him last night. We were with our old dog and he had an alligator farm in the backyard.
Do you analyze your dreams?
That’s what they’re there for!
So you think your dreams have meaning?
Are you kidding me? Dreams are very, very important.
II. YESTERDAY IS HERE
I’ve heard you say that you feel like something is always wrong when you are on stage. Do you still feel that way?
I can’t believe I said that. When I was young, I would always say the wrong thing. But yeah, something is usually distracting me when I’m doing my job, especially since my job is to be faithful and dedicated to the song. It’s hard to present the song in its natural state if someone is taking a picture with a flash, seven times, in the front row, or if there are two chicks who are like [Valley Girl voice], “Oh my God, I know! So last weekend, that was so much fun!” I’m like, Can you go to the bar where everyone else is talking? It’s hard to be a professional robot when things are fucking distracting your mind, when what you are trying to do is to get away from your mind. What if the lighting guy thinks strobe is perfect for a slow song? What if the sound guy turns the vocals so loud it hurts your ears to whisper?