Interview

You can try keeping Cat Power on message all you like, but the tangents are just too good

A star-studded, anecdote-heavy chat with Chan Marshall as she releases her new covers record

Chan Marshall is a born storyteller. It helps that she has a rich history, from her unconventional upbringing back in Atlanta to the storied career she’s pursued as Cat Power for three decades, while concurrently battling a barrage of afflictions, including addiction, depression and chronic illness.

It’s about much more than material, though. She’s a surprisingly great mimic, pulling out a plethora of pitch-perfect accents, from the laconic Aussie drawl of Bad Seeds man Mick Harvey, to the soothing Southern tones of her late grandmother. She’s expressive, illustrating her anecdotes with mime, song and sudden changes in dynamics. Most of all she’s generous with her experiences, her thoughts, and her emotions, unafraid to revisit her darkest or most humiliating moments before a total stranger if she can reveal her truth.

This openness goes some way to explain why Marshall makes such a good covers singer. Her ability to imbue other people’s songwriting with fresh meaning is pretty unmatched by this point, as is evidenced by Covers, her third – and best – collection of recontextualisations so far. Source material ranges wildly, from contemporary pop and R&B (Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean) to jazz (Billie Holiday) and rock (Iggy Pop, The Pogues, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Perhaps most startling is ‘Unhate’, a reimagining of ‘Hate’ from Marshall’s own 2006 album The Greatest. Fleshing out the sparse arrangement of the original, the new version also provides some much-needed closure to what is a harrowing and very real tale of self-loathing.

It’s Covers that we’re here to discuss today, gathered in her low-lit bedroom at an East London hotel. Marshall has recently arrived from Paris, and she’s warm and welcoming, outstretched on the bed in a faded blue boiler suit, ripped at the armpit. She’s also a ball of nervous energy, lying down one moment, pacing the room the next, cigarette in hand. Declining the offer to lie down too, I sit cross-legged at the end of the bed throughout, occasionally making attempts to wrangle the conversation back to the record she’s promoting. Eventually I give up trying: the tangents are too good.

How was Paris?

Paris was great. I got to see all my best friends, except for one. I’m like a local band everywhere I go, because I started touring the world around 23. So, you know, I’ve made all these one-on-one friendships over that amount of time.

I saw you attended Chanel’s Métiers d’art fashion show too. How was that?

It was incredible. You walked through the building where you could see how they make the shoes with all the ancient shoe moulds. The guy’s showing how he flattens the sole, and another guy’s like [mimes hammering], with all these little tiny nails all around the sole. And he’s done it for so many years, the old guy. And then – oh my God – we went to this Atelier museum place and you got to walk by all those sample tweeds, all the different dips of leathers, all the fabrics… It was nuts.

You were friends with the late Karl Lagerfield, right?

Yeah, Karl was an awesome person. He was like Uncle Karl. He was like Santa in a way, because he was always super joyful. I mean, he’d get very serious very quickly but his greetings were always one liners, like so fucking hilarious. And he never laughed at his own jokes, which is the mark of a great comic. He was always original, and so generous. I could make him laugh too. I wasn’t afraid of him.

How did you meet him?

I met Karl on the sidewalk in New York: he just came up and told me a joke. I had to do press for The Greatest and I met Karl outside the hotel I was staying in. See, I had already released the record, but I was in detox and I didn’t get to do the first tour, so [the label] had me do interviews. Anyway, every day for a week, I would sit there with journalists and do the press, and in the mornings Karl would sit at the other end of the banquette with his whole team. And we would just bullshit the whole day, and it was really fun. That’s how we became friends. 

You’ve always had close links to the fashion industry, haven’t you?

You know, my babysitter was [designer] Patrick Kelly. He was like my father figure when I was five or six, until he left Atlanta and got Marc Jacobs’ old job – the Perry Ellis design job in New York City. I remember my mom got a phone call, and she said, “Patrick is downstairs.” I ran downstairs and there was this huge stretch limousine, and then the window winds down, and Patrick’s like, “Heyyy!” He swings open the door and me and my big sister – she’s two years older – we jump in. I’d never been in a fucking limousine. And he’s just laughing, like, [affects camp Southern accent] “Come on girls,” and he opens a sunroof. 

At the end of the street was my first grade school, and around the corner was a McDonald’s. We never ate at McDonald’s. He took us through the drive-thru and we got a Happy Meal, and the whole time we were like a couple [of] little puppies, squealing and screaming, the wind in our hair. That was the last time I saw him in real life. When I was, like, 10 or 11, I was at a Supercuts [hair salon] and I saw him in a copy of Vogue and I was like, “Mommy, it’s Patrick.” He was holding the hand of Grace Jones, laughing. But yeah, it’s all art, you know? Music, poetry, fashion. 

Let’s talk about the new covers record…

[Interjects] It’s a historic tradition of songs. Songs are passed down – that’s what we do as human beings. Songs are a huge part of our life, whether we speak the same language, whether we’re born in different centuries. 

And they have the power to pinpoint precise moments in your life too.

Like prisms, right? Every song is a prism in which every person finds their reflection.

Do you learn anything about yourself from the process of playing covers?

I’m not sure if I learn anything about myself, but I definitely feel nurtured, healed, tempered, calmer. I may feel a little more understood by a… holy spirit vibe. I don’t know how to articulate it. I’m sorry, is it okay for me to smoke? [Lights cigarette] You know, you hear Bessie Smith [sings a line from ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’], or Eartha Kitt [sings the chorus of ‘In My Solitude’] and it’s some sort of emotional translation. Doesn’t mean I know myself any better but certain songs help me feel understood. 

On your previous two covers records, you reworked one of your own songs. This time, you’ve reinterpreted ‘Hate’ from The Greatest, under the title ‘Unhate’.

[The original] song was about suicide. And after I got help, I was never going to utter those lyrics again… All of the albums I’ve ever done, I was always suicidal. You know, just really struggling with my mental health from trauma and stress. Because people like me don’t ask for help.

When you say people like you…?

People like me have to push on through. We just got to keep fighting, you know. [Sighs] And then now, being able to identify my responses to certain feelings – you know, I had to learn how to sit with that feeling. To breathe and be like, “Ok, now I have to try to understand my fight or flight impulse,” you know? I gotta look at what made me feel that way? That’s what I needed to learn about myself. And I didn’t learn it through a song. I learned it through detox and working with a therapist.

I love how with ‘Unhate’ you haven’t erased your experiences, but rather reframed them in the past tense to honour them.

It almost feels primal. But, you know, we all make mistakes, we all do things we regret. And you know, the lesson isn’t the bad choices we make or the shit we go through: it’s how we adapt and get through it. And what we learn from it, and how we handle the next situation. The shit that happens to us that’s negative – that’s not the lesson. The lesson is how we grow when the shit hits the fan; how we handle the rough stuff.

You cover Nick Cave’s ‘I Had A Dream Joe’. You go way back with Nick, don’t you?

Yeah, I first played with him in Australia in 2001. The last show [of the tour], I refused to meet him, because this is back when I was drinking way too much, managing my stress and heartbreak and my depression through alcohol. Which is something I always swore as a little girl that I would never, never end up doing. Ever.

So the last night of the concert, I’m terrified because I want to meet [Nick] so bad. And I’m friends with Warren [Ellis] – I’ve known Warren for fucking ever. But I’m fucking terrified to meet Nick. So I’m underneath the table, and there’s a tablecloth but it’s not long enough to hide me. I was completely wasted, just dealing with shit, but not dealing with anything at all, you know? Just trying to manage the thoughts of suicide. 

Then I hear these feet. And I see the shoes and, thank God, whoever it is doesn’t see me. Then [adopts pitch-perfect Australian accent] Chaaaan. It’s Mick.” It’s Mick Harvey. And I was like, “Oh, hey man, what’s up?” And he’s like, “Come on darling, you got to come say hello to Nick.” And I was like [affects nervous stutter] “I, I, I will but…” He’s like, “Chan, it’s rude.” And then I was like, “Oh fuck, it’s rude? FUCK! Now I’m being mean to the guy?”

So I walk to the door and I see Warren, like, “Hello gorgeous,” and he’s making a green juice. Mick moves out the way of the door, looks at me and says, “Hey Nick, I got Chan here – special delivery.” [Laughs] And there [Nick] was, putting on a shirt that had already been buttoned up at the bottom. So his hands are above his head and he looks like one of those tube men that blow in the wind, and that made me laugh a little bit. And then this black hair pops up through the shirt, he holds the shirt down and buttons it. And I don’t remember a single fucking thing he said to me but he just became someone that I was able to call a friend.

Let’s talk about ‘Bad Religion’. It’s a song you’ve been covering in live sets for some time, right?

Yeah, cause I’d been playing this song called ‘In Your Face’, which is basically about these white world leaders that ravage these countries all over the world. It’s called ‘In Your Face’ because in Buddhism karma is written on your face. So I kept singing the song on tour and I didn’t like the way it’s making me feel. There’s no resolution in that song, it’s just like a totem. So one night, I was just like, [sings] “Taxi driver…” And I was just absolved: it felt like, now I can fucking move to that song and there’s no weight and my heart doesn’t hurt. 

The original version is inspired by unrequited love, and repressed homosexuality…  

[Interjects] And probably abuse and the way that the church has manifested itself into every social construct around the world.

Were you raised religious?

No, no, no. [Long sigh] I was quite ill when I was born. And for my mom it was a lot to handle, and I think she felt like she needed to look after herself. So she was missing for about four-and-a-half years and the woman who took me home was her mom. In her home, I was taught everything I needed to know: respect, patience, grace, dignity, honourability, trustworthiness, cleanliness, health, herbalism, cooking, reading. She passed right before the pandemic – three days after her birthday – and usually when I’m home I’ll pick up the phone and we’ll talk like best girlfriends. And she just always had, like, the best advice. So the whole pandemic, that phone just sat there.

But growing up, she’d read the Bible every night, and I always would snuggle with her. That’s how I learned to read, by watching her finger trace the passages. I learned to sing with her at church, because that’s the fun part of being a Southern Baptist: singing. I had always thought it was my dad that taught me to sing because he’s the musician – he sings cover songs for a living – but it was my grandmother.

Are you passing that love of singing onto your son?

It’s funny, I’ll be cooking and my son keeps saying, “Stop singing.” And that’s what my mother actually used to say to me. But when my son says it, he’s like, “Mom, stop singing. Because you know how I feel about that.” I know, I know, I know… So I change the song and he’s like, “Mom, I said stop.” He hates beautiful music, because he sees it makes me sad.

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