Article by Greg Weeks, NYC, 1998.|
Sand From The Urns
I'm here to decide whether to let my life go, or fight to stay inside it. To face the music, or stay dead.
Or -- I've come here to be alone for the rest of my life with the tension, the beautiful tension, between those two alternatives. I may decide nothing. May stay here forever with my alternatives. May take them both out of here with me.
I just want to let myself be guided, in this solitude, by my truth. --
Denis Johnson, Already Dead
Something was definitely wrong. Those who had experienced more than one live Cat Power show understood and expected the possibility of an uneven performance, but this evening's disaster at NYC's Knitting Factory went beyond the realm of an "off night." The lone performer, one Chan Marshall, hit the first song, "Ice Water," without difficulty, but was barely able to complete the following numbers. Instead, Marshall would break into fits of ponderous strumming mid-song, mumbling apologeticaly under her breath and looking miserable beneath her own skin. As her set unraveled the crowd turned, disinterested, conversing loudly and adding to Marshall's frustrations. But how could anyone -- even those familiar with her complicated stage persona, trying their hardest to support the flagging performer with enthusiastic shouts and screams -- have known that the evening's fiasco was not the result of poor playmanship or a dirth of concentration, but of a struggle that had been raging internally within Marshall for months? One which had finally come to a head.
Nearly a year passed between that fateful night and the re-birth of Cat Power as a grounded and energetic live entity. Supported by friends AVON FUTURES (vocals), ex-SLINT drummer BRIT WALFORD, and guitarist MARK MOORE (who played in Cat Power during the band's formative stages), Marshall launched into a set of lush, sprawling and spiritual songs at NYC's The Cooler, previewing the material to be found on her as of then unreleased fourth album, Moon Pix. The comment made most often that evening by the wowed audience was how shocked and elated they were to see Marshall actually smiling and enjoying herself on stage. A lot can happen to a person in ten months.
Listening to Moon Pix it seems almost incorrect to refer to it as a work by Cat Power. In the past Marshall has made the distinction she holds between Chan Marshall, the person, and Cat Power, the performer, very clear, but much of Moon Pix blurs this demarkation. Cat Power is a name befitting an indie-rock band, but Moon Pix very rarely fits that category. More so, the material describes a work akin to the output of such soloists as VAN MORRISON and JONI MITCHELL: personal and at times punishingly intimite -- as evidenced by such gracefully melancholic and introspective tracks as "The Color And The Kids," and "Say."
A direct product of Marshall's disintigration and spiritual re-birth, Moon Pix captures and defines a movement towards healing, even while -- or perhaps a direct result of -- dealing on the most intimate terms with the bitterest of emotions. "He Turns Down" aches in ways few other songs do, splaying Marshall's insides for all to see. Yet the song structure -- the free-form jazz-flute and upright bass which affect a graceful buoyancy -- belie the lyrics' desperate message. Marshall hasn't abandoned her well-honed themes of loss and isolation so much as turned them in on themselves and become their master. Guided by her truth, Chan Marshall has found the strength to keep her demons at bay and face the music.
Greg Weeks: Okay. So, last year when we left off...
Chan Marshall: [Joke's] You're talking like a shrink, you know this?
Greg Weeks: (laughs)
Chan Marshall: I was 25...
It was the Knitting Factory show, and it was a total meltdown on stage...
That was last year, right? Yeah, it was horrible.
What exactly was it ... I know there was the whole political thing...
Suicidal... voices.... breakdown. Complete confusion about what's real and what's not real, and what matters and what doesn't matter. And how am I feeling? Do I feel? Am I evil? Am I smart, am I stupid, am I insane? It was definitely just a breakdown. It had nothing to do with being on stage or being a female or being in a band or from living in New York. It had nothing to do with anything except that, like, it was the most difficult ... [struggling with what to say next] The day after I left New York I went and bought a truck, and was going to move to Mexico but ended up in Prosperity, South Carolina.
And what put you in that direction?
'Cause I had to leave this fuckin'... I couldn't function at all.
Why didn't you go through with going to Mexico?
Because I found a town called Prosperity. I found this house that was for rent and it just stopped me. It was like, [mimics a car screeching to a halt] I went in and the woman had the house ready and she was like "it's $425, and it has eight rooms," and there were fields all around it. No people anywhere. I just stopped my car and looked at the house, gave her some cash, called BILL [CALLAHAN] and told him, and we moved there. And it fuckin' made me so happy.
That's how you worked through everything that was going on in your head?
What about all the stage anxieties that you had as far as performing in front of people, and whether being a performing artist was a worthwhile career choice for anyone?
I totally had put that in... that night [at the Knitting Factory] when I was walking away from the stage and Bill was about to go on, it was over. When I was standing there I was sealing the envelope and closing it on myself and just throwing it into the wind. I just totally threw it into the wind. While I was up there playing I was just sealing the envelope and closing it and just giving it away. Just like, "fuck this."
Basically, you were thinking of resigning from being a musician entirely?
Absolutely! I already knew that I wanted to do that like six months before. I mean, on tour, like six months before that, just realizing that it was just over. October. The end of October, Matador thought I was moving away to write a new record. And, I got the fuck outta here and just cooked, and read books, went swimming, played tennis, went to the dog pound, went to museums...
How much of a help was Bill? He moved with you... was that as a friend or something more than that...?
And he helped you work through all that kinda' stuff?
Bill taught me something. I understood something new because of what he taught me.
Which was...? He seems pretty grounded, is that what you got from him?
He's very grounded. He taught me that the feelings that I was feeling... there were reasons for my feeling this way. He told me that it was natural. That I should have such extreme feelings from such extreme cause.
And the cause for you was this onrush of semi-fame?
Not at all. Not at all that. I was like a mechanic. Like, an audience was an engine and they needed their engine fixed. They brought money to see me fix their engine. It just became a mechanical thing where I wasn't allowed to feel anything.
Do you feel that that's what the audience was asking of you or was that just the way that you started to see it?
No. It's a reality. It is a reality that I play my songs. That's reality. It is a reality that people like to go see shows and have some beer and, like, people actually talk about how they feel about the show, and it's sorta' like, it's this sorta' world where people get paid to be photographers and interviewers [Hear that Jack, she thinks you pay us!] and people go buy vintage stuff and do all these record collections and it's like charts and graphs and coolness and factors and science and method of rules. [And] all I'm doing is this thing that seems really natural, but then ... there's no way for me to really describe it because it's a feeling. It's negative. But I've learned that now. I've learned something new. That's what I mean. And it's spiritual, and my songs have changed because of it, and I feel better. I feel like I've turned. I feel like I'm coming down the mountain now. It's interesting.
So, you attribute the shift in your musical styles to...
Has the style changed?
It's more hymns now, isn't it?
Than the blues.
Well, it's funny because...
It's how I feel.
Yeah, it's a lot more soulful. There's definitely something that's been injected here. A different kind of realness. You're not obsessed with melancholia. It doesn't seem like that's overwhelming you. I went through Moon Pix and listed a bunch of the themes that immediately come out, and almost all of [the songs] seem to be about salvation, transformation, celebration, or isolation.
What do you mean?
The thematic text within those songs talk about becoming "someone different," becoming "someone better." Things like that.
That's "Colors And The Kids."
That is, yeah. I can't go through every song and tell you specifically each part, this was just something I did as a thumbnail. I could listen to the album and give you lots of different examples. There's still fatalism, and there's still self-destruction dealt with in here [glancing at disc]...
Which one!? "Moonshiner?"
Um, "Moonshiner" definitely.
That is the only song... that's a traditional song, I didn't write that song.
And "Back Of Your Head."
That's an old song. That's before I felt good.
Yeah! I remember you playing that before.
See, the other songs are not bad.
But that's what I'm talking about.
All the ones that I wrote one night, because I quit music, and I'll tell you really quickly, let me tell you really quickly what happened. I quit playing music, lived in South Carolina. Really enjoyed my life. Went to Wall-Mart, bought some bluejeans and a t-shirt and some flip-flops. And I just existed as a... I cooked. I ate smoothies. I made créme broulé. I made biscuits. I met a beautiful kitty that became my good friend and whatever. I read books and wrote some things down, and I painted [you can check them out on the Matador website] and watched Seinfeld, and I watched Matlock and... I listened to NPR, and I listened to Mountain Radio and went canoeing. And I saw horses and petted cows and did things, and talked to birds and stuff. I went on walks and I saw abandoned shacks and shoes and suitcases and clothes and bottles and refrigerators, and people and children and had conversations with rednecks and racists and Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists and janitors...
So, basically you grounded yourself. That's real life.
People that are not a part of Babylon at all. People that are not a part of Manhattan life. They're not city life. People that go to bed at 9:30.
So you sat down and in one night wrote all these songs out of that experience of...
Okay, so there it was. Everything is great and I really just... eyes wide open. I wake up every morning at seven a.m., every sunrise I'd wake up and every sunset I'd get tired. I didn't miss a single sunset or a single... okay, so I did, but every morning I tried to see it and every evening. I got this book 'cause I like this writer, DENIS JOHNSON, and I guess he's like my favorite writer. And I got this book called Already Dead, and I read it and closed the book (Bill had been out of town for a couple weeks, this was the last week), finished the book, [which] had a lot of spiritual issues and Babylon issues and like weird, fucked-up social-psycho, sexual, social relativity to [the] modern human breakdown mentality... evil. So I closed the book and it really, I fuckin' identified with some really scary things in there. I mean, you obviously know why he wrote the book, because he needed to get something out. And then I went to sleep, and everything's fine -- I hadn't had a nightmare since March.
And you were having a lot of nightmares before.
All my life I've always had nightmares. Hadn't had a nightmare since... 'cause I went to Africa the nightmares stopped, then I had one nightmare in March. And that was it. So now it was October, and I lived there in the country and everything was great. And I was asleep and I heard this... Oh, actually, I closed the book and I started writing, Like, typing, typing, typing, for about two days straight. Typing about... things... just questions, questions, questions, debating questions. Looking to the Bible. Trying to flip-flop, looking through... trying to find... faxing friends but... [whispers, hurt] everyone thought I was crazy but... I faxed two people... talking about things, and writers, and the creative digestion we all endure like, ah, art... art kills us because .. but anyway. Never mind.
So you digest all those things in that book and you were working through it...
And then I go to sleep and I hear music. And like, I hear this "eeeghnnnshaaawnnnnn." It sounded like a blare horn, like a... like one of those nuclear reactor things, but it was like "Ehhhhhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnn!!!" And then I turn and was like, "Whoa," and right when I woke up it was like, [gently sings] "dum dee dee dum da dum, shaawwwn, dum de da dum de da dum da." And I look out and it's blackness out behind my window, but I can see the fields behind there. I can see the pine trees in the back of the field, and over back behind the field I can see the sky and stars. [sings again to convey what she heard] And I hear this [in a very sober tone],"Chan, will you come meet me in the field? Please. Come. Meet me in the field." [mimics the music, then says] "You will have no past ." [sings again] "Will you come meet me? In the field? [pause, then in a slightly ominous whisper] Now?" And I just went, "Noooo!" And I woke up and what I was doing in my brain I was going, "NOOOOO!" And I went like this [struggles her head to one side] "Nooo." But in my dream I was trying to get away from it so badly because it was a lie. It was a bad lie. It was fake.
Getting rid of your past...
That voice was fake. It was not good. It was like this [mock seductive] "Ooooh, ooooh, come to me. Come meet me. Will you come meet me?"
Seducing you to come to it, right?
Yeah, and I was like... I screamed in my dream 'cause I was laying in my bed and I was looking outside, but in my mind I was goin' "NOOOOOO!" But it woke me up because I really went "Noooo." And I sat up and was like, "no," and I ran and I turned on every light in the house. I went from room to room, [mimics turning on light switches] went to every room, went to the hall, went to the other room. And what I saw was, every room that I went in there were these black shapes that were going... right when I said "no" I felt them running... in the time that it took for me to say "no" from the bottom, the soul, the pit, the hell of the earth they'd already begun shooting out. They were crawling, scrambling up the house, they were scrambling, like thousands of them. Scrambling, scrambling, scrambling, just like a sheet coming. Like a wave coming from all over the world coming, as fast as it could get. And I saw them coming, and I could feel them coming. And I could see them, every time I turned on a light they would almost be like, trying to bust in, but they couldn't. They couldn't get in my fuckin' house. I was so resilient, and I was so in control. They were everywhere. And I went into the hall to turn on the light and saw one going like this [demonstrates one of the shapes being repelled] and there was a crucifix there and, literally I was just looking at the crucifix and it [the creature] just evaporated. And they were all completely like this [mimics a breeze and the shapes floating in air] outside my house. They were all like.. it was like, um... [whispers] it freaks me out so bad. It was as if there was um, a rhythm that they were doing. They had like a... it was almost as if there was a particular chant, like a pulse that they all shared. And it was like, you could hear it, and it was like...
So what happened to them?
Well, they were almost like... their faces were like trying to, their black heads -- these see-through gray masses -- were like trying to get through the wall [begins to cry but quickly regains composure]. They couldn't get in because, [whispers] I was safe. And I didn't... there was nothing I could do. Well, it was 5:30 in the morning -- I went and grabbed the bible and it was like, numbers. It was like 1, 569.64 multiplied... it didn't make any sense to me, and I couldn't find any words to hold on to. And it was just, all I needed was a sense of some words. Something that was like a language to make me help myself, 'cause I was alone. And Bill was all the way across the ocean. And um, so, my kitty-cat was there, and I was crying, ya' know. And I was talkin' to myself. And my kitty-cat like got on my bed and um, and she was just sitting right there going like this. She was just looking at me. She was just sitting there going [cocks her head and looks inquisitively]. And I was just talkin' to her going, "I'm really freaked-out." And I didn't know what to do 'cause they were trying to get into the house, so I got...[begins to cry again and speaks haltingly, with genuine pain and terror in her voice] my guitar. And I was afraid that I would get killed. So I got a tape recorder, 'cause I was afraid that if they found my body... they wouldn't know...
Do you want to stop talking about this? [pause] Are you alright?
I was afraid they wouldn't know what happened to Chan. They would think that, "Oh, she was crazy. She just died."
So, you got the tape recorder so that they would know that you...
Just as evidence that, okay, they're taking me. They're trying to posses me, okay. They're not going to get me so I turn on the tape recorder so I can leave something 'cause I thought they were going to kill me. And that's when um, that's when um... that's when this song [points to "American Flag" then motions to various other tracks on the disc], and that song, and that song, and that song, and that song... all came out into the guitar.
Just in that night.
[whispers] Yeah. And that's when they came out. And it was... my kitty-cat was just sitting there the whole time. She was just lookin' at me like... she was looking at me like "it's okay." And I was like, I know, I know it's gonna' be okay. [regains composure] I was just screamin' you know, I was like screamin' my head off 'cause I didn't have any...I hadn't been trained in religion, or education or anything, and I didn't know how to take control. I don't even know how to pray. So, I was just really caught, really stuck. So, all I knew what to do was like sing. 'Cause it really would take my mind away from that, and I felt like I could defeat those things if I just trusted in God and let him do it for me. [softly] And so he did it for me.
So, those songs you feel are a direct link from God through you?
Well, they're more like a personal... like, all I know is the words that I know. And, if he gives me energy then he gives me energy. All I have is my own will. We all have our own wills. And my will, my vocabulary, my instinct, my impulses, they're mine. Y'know, how I've been trained, or manipulated from birth, so that's all I have. So, if God gives me some sort of... thing, the only way I can translate it... that's how I ended up translating that feeling that he gave me.
And do you feel that's why you wanna keep writing.. not necessarily be a public figure at all, but have to keep writing songs for yourself?
Well, I wanna get involved in like... I'd like maybe in ten years to... an interviewer from Esquire told me that it takes 1,000 votes per state to become enrolled for the Presidency of the United States.
Have you ever thought of starting on a smaller level? Have you ever gotten yourself involved in grassroots...
That's what I mean. That's why I'm going on tour. That's' why I decided to release that tape. I started in Australia, to record that record with them [JIM WHITE and MICK TURNER of the DIRTY THREE], at the place, 'cause that's as small as I can get where I am. That's the only trade I know. Somebody else, y'know, can go to college and can learn fancy technological tricks...
It doesn't take a college education to know what's right and to go out there and say, "hey, I want to help change things."
But, it does as far as getting a job quicker involved in politics. It's just going to take me a long time before I'm ever...before I get able to do anything. I'm sorry I broke down, I just... I can't talk about it with anybody. Anyways, this government is only interested in reproducing a separate entity for itself. The world is just destroying places.
Obviously you've had an experience that really changed your life and what you wanna do. It gave you... now you have a direction...
My life is okay. I don't care about, I mean, I do care about my life and what I want as a human life-form.
Then why are you back in New York?
Because I have to do all these interviews, because I'm goin' on tour.
But are you planning to go back to South Carolina?
After tour I'm planning to go back to Atlanta, to move back home, 'cause I wanna hang out with my friend BENJAMIN [lead-singer of Atlanta-based band SMOKE] and my friend Jennifer.
You didn't record Moon Pix with STEVE SHELLEY and TIM FOLJAHN. I had read that it was annoying to you that audiences were constantly chanting for him [Shelley] to come out.
Yeah. Not constantly. That wasn't the reason why. The reasons why are like informalities, like the only time we ever saw each other was when they were available to play a show like once a year. We never saw each other. It was just like.. I just, I was gonna' do this record all by myself. And then, when Bill was like "Oh yeah, I'm goin' to Australia." I was like, "What?" And I'd asked Dirty Three three years ago if they would record with me and they were like, "yeah." But I never thought it would happen. But it was just a formality, just because we were never... we were always doin' different things, us three, and Steve totally... When I met Steve and Tim I was much different from where I am now -- inside myself. As far as I'm concerned, what I do in my life I was a lot different back then. I didn't know shit. I didn't know anything.
Recording this album, were you in full control?
Absolutely. I was tellin' somebody it's like having thirty plates on each arm, and trying to shift them. Shifting like twenty plates to the other hand. That's what it was like, because we only had two days of recording time.
And why did you decide to open with "American Flag?" The drum machine; the big wave of feedback.?
Basically it goes in order of the production, the way it went. It's the first song we did because Mick [Turner] couldn't come in that day, so we just did that. So, those are the first two songs.
And what made you decide to use the flute on the second track?
'Cause I wanted one on there.
[Prodding] 'Cause you wanted a flute on there.
Yeah. I thought I wanted violin, but it turned... it was the flute.
Who's playing that on the album?
Her name is BELINDA WOODS. She's awesome. So is the bass player. It's a shame because they played on another song, but I just... it's by this old friend of mine that I haven't seen in a really long time. We kinda went our different ways, but by DEBBIE RICHARDSON. It's this song I've been covering of hers for about four years and I finally recorded it. But, I wanna be really fair with her. I wanna wait until I fuckin' see her in the flesh and blood and can say, "Debbie, I need to get an address, a post office box where I can always send you a royalty.
Any other unreleased tracks?
Yeah. The other song that was written that night, it was called "Staleyyawn," like a place. Like a transcendental state of being. Sort of a relaxing... Staley's like a horse name, like a young horse.
And that's just you recorded with guitar?
[Nods] And that's not going to be released until later. And I changed that one to "When On The Mountaintops."
With future recordings do you want to do more adding on of extra instruments?
Well, I have like about eight, about six songs that I'd like to do -- I don't know if I'm gonna' release it on Matador 'cause I think I could probably release it pretty soon -- of just piano songs.
Yeah, what did you think of the delay? I mean, this album has been finished for what, eight months?
Well, I mailed it to them in February, when I was in Australia. And, I didn't talk to them for like five months. They were just really busy, I think. I played it for my friends and they were all like, "It's good y'know, except this one song, "Colors And The Kids." That one's a little weird."
Weird? That's like your JONI MITCHELL influence coming through big time on that song, I think. When you do those high falsettos. I think it's a gorgeous song.
It's a beautiful song, but it's memories of dreams and friends.
Yeah, those lyrics...I've often wondered if the lyrics were in some ways about your sister's child.
IAN. Yeah. It's totally Ian, yellow hair, funny bear, that's totally about him and it's also a reference to Benjamin from Smoke; January 9, January birthday, 'cause I'm never around on his birthday.
So, tell me more about this piano album. You've got how many songs?
"Let Sadness Not Be."
When did you write these?
When I came to New York.
And where did you have the access to the piano?
Context Studios. I just wanted to play piano one day and I went in and I wrote these songs. One of them... I cover Callahan's "Widow" ["Red Apples"], and this other one...I can't remember right now.
Is it mostly original stuff?
It's half and half actually. And then an instrumental, and then "Let Sadness Not Be" is really, I like that one. "Let Sadness Not Be Attached To Your Name."
And you just made it all up there on the spot.
So, you're doing a video right now. You're going to meet somebody about a video you're doing for which song?
And what's your idea for that?
Lavender room, with a red outfit, with handstands and my girlfriends doing "Lucky Star" dancing. [see Matador site for streaming video and stills]
Oh, like in the MADONNA video.
Yeah. It'll actually never be played in America. That's obvious, don't you think?