Cat Power: Light Years

Illustration Zoe Taylor
September 04, 2012

Cat Power has come a long way.

Chan Marshall’s rawness is a major source of her strength as an artist, but it has also sometimes placed her in great personal peril. Without vigilance, self-protective details like tour insurance, SPF and even sleep can elude her, and the fallout—the onstage meltdowns, the stay at the hospital—has been well documented. As Cat Power, Marshall can still channel those old low moments with trance-like eloquence, and when she does, you may be seized by the urge to fling a blanket over her and feed her hot soup. Then you listen to her records again and remember she is a fierce animal. She doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Sun, her first record of original material in six years, is about the past and the future streaming simultaneously side by side. Incubated over three years, recorded in multiple cities (LA, Miami, Paris) and mixed by the French producer Philippe Zdar, the album is loaded with primal electronic landscapes that invoke a grand scale. With a few exceptions, Marshall did everything herself—writing, performing and producing. In the past year, she has finished the record, turned 40, cut her hair off and broken up with her longtime boyfriend. The cover art is a photograph of Marshall at 20, with a pixie cut similar to the one she sports now, directly confronting the camera. It conveys the same message of autonomy: she’s not hiding behind loads of reverb or a shield of hair. She’s had the title Sun in mind for years and the album—exposed, full-circle and radiant—justifies it. We spoke with her on the phone from London, where she was midway through a massive European press blitz.

I’ve been listening to Sun for the past few days, and it sounds like you’re in a really good place. I am. We just got to London…wait, what was your question? I just got off the plane, my brain is fried.

Are you in as good a place as it sounds like from the record? Yeah I am, I am. It goes up and down and up and down and I’m enjoying the middle pretty well.

What did you do right after you finished recording? I went to Mexico, to Tulum. I went with my best friend from high school. My other friend was supposed to come and do my press photos, but she couldn’t do it. My best friend from high school, Jenny, has fucked around with pictures before, so we got a bag of weed, rented a house and just had a great time. No bags, no baggage. It was when they had that big ol’ moon, you know? Do you know Tulum? It’s where the jungle meets the ocean. It’s pure and clean, super raw.

What was your starting point with Sun? You’ve been working on it for a few years? My ex, we’re broken up now, three months, but I moved to LA to be with him when I started at the Boat [the Dust Brothers’ studio] in Silver Lake. I’d never written domestically, I’d always had to be alone. So I went to the Boat and thought, Well okay, I’m gonna try to write in the studio. Then I played all these songs for my friend in the studio and he said that they were really just depressing and sounded like old Cat Power. So I put it on a hard drive and didn’t work again for eight months. I put the sad songs away.

Later, I went back to the Boat and promised that I wouldn’t touch a guitar. But when I returned, I gravitated toward it, and I was using pedals, and I’ve never used any pedal other than a Big Muff ever, in any recording. So I was recording that and setting up the drums, and from those new sounds and looping and things, that’s why we have this record we have. That was the skeleton for Sun. The songwriting is, to me, pretty much the same as when I was younger. I still care about the world a great deal. But I’m definitely not lingering too close. I don’t have a toe in the black hole. I’m not tempted to jump.

Why was it important to produce and record almost everything yourself? I was listening to a couple of people, one specifically, who said, You need a producer, need a manager, need a band. It really made me feel like I didn’t know myself and I didn’t know what was best for me. I hate that. I don’t appreciate second-guessing myself, I can’t do anything when that happens. So of course I do something extreme. I’d been saving all the time I was working, in case I was homeless or needed teeth or whatever, so I cashed that out, left the Boat, and took that skeleton of Sun. I rented this house in Malibu and I flew in Judah Bauer [of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion] and Gregg Foreman [of Delta 72] and Erik Paparazzi, because they have heart and warmth and natural feeling. So we recorded again and then nine months were over, and I took everything to South Beach Studios in Miami, a mixing studio, and tried to blend and mold them together, this sci-fi thing with this physical, breathing sort of sound.

Are you technically minded in the studio? Absolutely not. I know what I don’t want when I hear it. I know what reverb means, I know it sounds hot, it sounds too goopy, shit like that. That’s why it’s been frustrating to record all these years, because a dude working in the studio, they’re like, goopy? I don’t know what you mean. I’m like, I don’t know, round and hazy. It’s frustrating.

So how did you finish the record? I had to go back to Miami to work on it. That’s when I got the phone call from my boyfriend. That’s when we split, March 20th. So for two days I couldn’t really do anything. And my best friend from high school came down from Brooklyn and said, Get up, let’s get on bikes, let’s go to the beach, I’ll make you a salad. The day she got there I was in the water and I said, I’m gonna cut my hair off. She was like, No, don’t do anything extreme. She had her daughter there, my goddaughter, and when they were downstairs making dinner I cut all my hair off. And the next morning, I just felt like I could do it. Whenever I was younger and I would be like, How am I gonna get out of this situation? I always told myself, Well, you take your one foot and you put it in front of your other foot, and then you go forward into your fuckin’ future. So I had to get on the plane and go to Paris and finish.

What was it like working with Phillippe Zdar? Awesome. He’s such a good person. Matador said, You have three weeks if you want to make the deadline, and I didn’t know what I was gonna do. And then my boyfriend played me this Beastie Boys song and I was like, Who mixed this? It reminded me of the amalgamation of cut and paste sound stuff and I thought maybe that person could help me. Because they had to go through all that shit to mix it, they had to get all those sounds on the board. So I Googled who mixed it, found Zdar, emailed my record label and they said Yeah, you can meet him next week cause you’re playing in Paris.

We were both two hours late—that was funny, to know I’m not alone in that way. I only let him listen to seven or eight songs. [We were] in Montmartre, on Rue des Abbesses near the carousels. There were these teenagers being bad, taking water bottles, filling them up—’cause it was hot, it was July 4th—and they were throwing water at each other. While we were watching that, he was listening to “Nothin But Time.” And he said, Okay, I want to do it, but I’m not gonna do too much because I want to keep the sound that you created. And I was like, Cool, ’cause I don’t want a producer. And he’s like, Absolutely not. Later he said, You’re the best producer I know. That’s a huge compliment.

So Sun is your first record of original material in six years, but you’ve taken the occasional break from music before—like in 1996 after What Would the Community Think? Yeah, back then I had just—I didn’t go crazy, I just…I had just come from this really spiritual, life-or-death kind of situation in Africa. I was on a chessboard, and every day was like walking on a new step. I came back kind of spiritually penetrated. I couldn’t tell the difference between what I thought was a part of me and—it’s a long story, but I thought, I’m in Babylon, dude. I got to get out of New York. I got to get out of here. I had 3,000 bucks, I bought a truck for 1,500 bucks and drove up and down, from Virginia to Alabama and then back up. Around South Carolina, I got really fucking tired.

Were you alone? Oh yeah. Oh absolutely. I was like a bat out of hell. I saw a sign that said, “Prosperity,” I followed that sign 10 miles, kept going. I pulled in to the realtor, I saw the people putting boxes in the car, these two houses identical, side-by-side, on all this land. Cute little shitty houses, and one of them was for rent. I think it was $450 a month. I had to pay the deposit, which was $350, and that was that. I went back to the house and I pulled in and they had a potbellied pig inside the house as their pet. They were like straight-up CIA, all they had was computers and files and like, no furniture, just a bed and files and a potbellied pig. Anyway, so that’s where I lived with my boyfriend at the time.

And you were done with music at that point? Yeah that’s right, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to get part-time work, after school things, just play basketball or make art or just something that’s easy enough and attentive. Because I can be super attentive, I can do lots of things at once. I mean, I used to be able to. My boyfriend was out of town for about three months and that’s when I spent three months where the only person I talked to was my neighbor. She’d had an accident, a brain injury, so she was psychologically and intellectually maybe 10 or 12. Maybe seven. She was the only person I talked to, and she was like a little kid. And I wrote all the time, I don’t even know where that shit is. And one night, I don’t even know what the fuck happened, but hell came to get me again. It was in a dream. I wrote these songs [that became Moon Pix] that night, waiting for the sun to rise, because my house was surrounded by 150 trillion spirits pressing against my glass, trying to get in. It was fucked up and really horrifying. The songs were just like evidence.

So the sun rose, I went back to New York and I kept looking for help. I went to priests. I didn’t get any help. It was a really difficult period. I had gotten a phone call from my friend Mike maybe two nights before that episode. He was like, Dude, what are you doing? You’re fucking up. You could be really doing something, and you’re just not putting anything in the universe, you’re just a loser. I was so pissed off. Then the afternoon after I came back from New York I got the phone call that he had died. Later that night I got a call about my friend Lenny. They died on the same day. So that’s when I woke up. I was like, you know what? What am I doing? And I had that cassette of songs and I thought, you know what? I’d played some shows with the [Australian group] Dirty Three, I thought, I’m gonna fax them. So I faxed Mick [Turner] and I asked him if he and Jim [White] would want to play on some songs. And I called Matador and said, I want to do another record and I need $3,500 or whatever I needed to cover my airfare [to Melbourne]. I was there for three months. After hanging out and having a great time, it was wonderful, and then Jim’s like, You know, Mick’s fuckin’ leaving in two days. So I got into the studio.

So that was Moon Pix. What were you feeling about being onstage during this period? The same thing I am now. I know the most important thing is that the song needs to be alive. It’s just the song that’s important, and that’s the only reason that I do what I do, is because there is someplace we can all meet in the universe.

Has it gotten easier over the years to get up there? Well, when I was younger—it wasn’t rude, it wasn’t like, Fuck all these people. I would play with my back to the audience, because it’s not about my face or my butt or my boobs. It’s not about my sex or my identity or my flesh or myself, it’s about this place I’m about to go to. So when I’m playing guitar or piano, if I don’t get that fuckin’ shit right, I’m real mad at myself. If I hit a bad note on the guitar, it’s like, Fuck. It breaks the glass. It’s not good when that happens, we’re not on a journey together. When The Greatest came out, that was the first time I never played an instrument. So I’m standing up there at the microphone—Tucson was our first show—and I never saw those goddamn people before! There they were. They were smiling at me. They weren’t trying to rip me apart. I wasn’t expecting to look up and see young people, my peer group, dudes with beards. I saw their smiling faces and they welcomed me. I never felt that before, I never knew that was available to me. I felt so grateful. I’d gotten out of the hospital [the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami] and I felt feminine, not vulnerable but clear.

But during [the making of] The Greatest I was just drinking scotch all day, no big deal, cause that’s what I began to do. I was having to take a wheelchair at the airport because I couldn’t stand up, I was in so much pain. I was killing myself. And my brain just said, Nope, we’re gonna shut down for awhile. And it made me get my shit together, you know what I mean? It’s like life or death. When I got out of the hospital, I was also hugely in debt, my house was in foreclosure, because I was a fuck-up. I never had tour insurance—what’s that? I just got my guitar, I don’t know about tour insurance. So all the promoters, I owed all these people money, I hadn’t paid my taxes in two years. So I got out and reality just punched me in the face.

Where did you go then? I just took care of myself hardcore. When they let me out, I was like, Oh my god, thank you. Besides humiliation, degradation and invalidation, actually not knowing who you are when you’re trapped in a room—not actually knowing your name, what you look like, how old you are, where you come from—is the worst feeling.

You mentioned before being drawn to a sci-fi feeling. Can you think of anything else that strikes you that way? Ancient Aliens, that show. Google “Chinese alien wars” when you get a chance. I’ve been doing all these interviews every day for a while, and everyone’s wonderful and super respectful and genuine and loving, but you’re the only person who asked about that. You’re definitely an alien. What’s your blood type?

I don’t know. AB something? That’s the most rare.

Yeah, it’s probably not great. You should get a tattoo on your neck, below your ear or somewhere, that says AB negative.

What are you gonna do now, are you gonna go to bed? That sucks, I guess I have to. I have Vogue tomorrow.

That’s glamorous. No, it’s inappropriate, because I look like a pffffffft.

But how do you feel? I feel like a silverback gorilla, if a silverback gorilla could be female. But I also feel like a sheet of paper.

Posted: September 04, 2012
Cat Power: Light Years