Inside Cat Power's Path to Rock Superstardom

Inside Cat Power's Path to Rock Superstardom

The enigmatic Chan Marshall faces demons and overcomes hardship on her album Wanderer, out Oct. 5.

The enigmatic Chan Marshall faces demons and overcomes hardship on her album Wanderer, out Oct. 5.

Photography: Dominique Isserman

Text: Jonathan Bernstein

“The reason that I do what I do,” says Chan Marshall, “is for the song.” Marshall, aka Cat Power, is one of indie rock’s enduring voices: Whether she’s singing her own beautifully bruised originals, like 1996’s “Nude as the News” or 2006’s “The Greatest,” or serving as a keen interpreter of popular song on 2000’s “Sea of Love” or 2008’s “Silver Stallion,” Marshall’s recordings, which blend scarred folk and ’90s grunge with the blues, country, and gospel of her Georgia upbringing, have aged into defining statements of turn-of-the-century indie artistry.

Marshall moved frequently during a chaotic childhood, attending 13 schools over 10 years. Her grandmother was the rare constant, encouraging her to sing country music at home and hymns in church. Marshall, 46, was a shy, reclusive teenager, but gradually found her way in her late teens when she began making music as Cat Power with her “drug-using, drinking young friends in Atlanta,” who comprised the first iteration of her band. She spent the next decade finding her voice on indie cult classics like 1996’s What Would the Community Think and 1998’s Moon Pix.   

The forthcoming  album Wanderer, with its sparse arrangements, is a return to form: It recalls The Greatest, and comes six years after the experimental pop maximalism of 2012’s Sun (the longest break she’s ever taken between albums). Those years included a lifetime’s worth of upheaval for Marshall. She cut ties with her career-long label after what she calls its undue commercial and artistic demands. “There was a lot of failure around Sun,” she says. “A lot of expectations I didn’t meet, quota-wise.”

Cat Power in Paris, June 2018 (Photo: Dominique Isserman)

Immediately after Sun dropped, Marshall suffered a debilitating autoimmune disease that left her hospitalized and in financial trouble. So she searched for a fresh start, considering moving to Cape Town; and devoted herself to activism, traveling to Ferguson, Missouri to foment a post–Occupy Wall Street movement, Occuparty. Then, shortly after a close friend’s death, Marshall found out she was pregnant, announcing the birth in an Instagram post lamenting the death of Freddie Gray. Slowly, she began to reclaim her life. “I wanted to drown and disappear; I came out dry because of this child,” she says. Unlike Sun’s electronic flourishes, Marshall’s latest tracks are piano and guitar-based ballads reflecting this hard-won peace. “I wanted my new songs to live in a place that would not be injured by money,” she says. “I knew I needed simplicity, a peaceful harbor.”

Wanderer is available from domino records October 5, 2018

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