By any measure, 2012 should have been a spectacular year for Chan Marshall, who has recorded under the name Cat Power for two decades. “Sun” (Matador Records), the first Cat Power album of all-original songs in six years, was an ambitious record that was drastically different from Marshall’s previous work in every way – heavily rhythmic and synthesized, and also the closest she’s ever come to sounding optimistic on-record.
“It’s up to you to be a superhero,” Marshall sang on “Nothin’ But Time.” “It’s up to you to be like nobody.”
Shortly after its release, “Sun” became the first Cat Power album to crack the Billboard top 10, an impressive commercial accomplishment for an underground denizen like Marshall. But despite the album’s upbeat vibes, things went awry very quickly. By November, Marshall had canceled a European tour due to health issues and declared bankruptcy.
A year later, Marshall has recovered enough to hit the road again, albeit stripped down from last year’s full-band extravaganza to performing solo. She plays in Carrboro Sunday night.
So is she ... better?
“Yes, although I actually got sick again recently,” Marshall says, calling from New York. “Something with my pancreas. I’ve got the best acupuncturist in New York and a homeopathic guy who goes to Africa, so I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. All the hospitals last year just made me sicker and sicker. Western medicine is them either cutting something out of you or giving you pills to suppress symptoms, rather than actually healing you. Eastern medicine is what cured me. It’s good. I’m not Superman yet, though.”
True enough. Marshall is a superlative artist, with a feel for darkly emotive tune-craft and a dusky crooning voice that’s among the most distinctive in popular music. But she’s always been a fragile sort who has to battle psychological issues, including crippling stage fright. Having heard plenty of stories about herself over the years, Marshall exhibits a bit of defensiveness regarding others’ perception of her sanity.
“I don’t have a manager anymore,” she sighs. “No one will work with me because they all think I’m so crazy. I’m not. I’ve just got to start small again.”
A solitary spirit
A solo tour makes sense from a creative as well as financial standpoint right now, because Marshall has actually been moving in more of a solitary direction of late. Despite its full-bodied sound, “Sun” is almost completely a solo work. Marshall played almost all of the parts herself out of a desire to make the album her own with no input (or control) from record companies.
To that end, Marshall rented a house in Malibu, Calif., to work on it in isolation. Part of the process involved spending afternoons in the yard outside, watching and listening to hawks flying in from the surrounding canyons. In acknowledgment, “Sun’s” opening track “Cherokee” includes a hawk’s piercing, defiant-sounding cry toward the end.
“I’m three-part Cherokee and hawk is one of my spirit animals, and I heard that in my mind when I was recording,” Marshall says. “I spent my life savings to make the record I wanted to without taking any money from the label because I didn’t want any producer telling me what to do. So I did it myself.”
A year later, Marshall seems to feel a combination of pride and bitter shame about what happened with “Sun.” The week the album hit the top 10, Marshall says, she was in the hospital with tubes down her throat and could not have cared less. It was only much later that she could process her feelings.
“Later, that kind of hit me when I went into failure mode,” Marshall says. “That’s when you’re inside failure, mourning a loss within yourself that’s hard to get out of. I suffered a deep depression from not being able to control my health. But I was proud of myself. They told me I needed to make a hit, so I locked myself away, spent my life savings and gave ’em one. Then it went away because I was in the hospital and couldn’t do all the magazine covers, TV spots and blah-blah-blah when you’re in the top10.”
Back to one-on-one
Once Marshall got well enough to start thinking about working again, finances dictated that she had to give up on full-band touring for the time being. While it’s a situation she regrets, there are some advantages.
“The band was great and so were the shows, and I’m miserable that I can’t continue that,” Marshall says. “But I was carrying a band and crew with 14 people – guitar player, drummer, lighting dude, monitor dude, drum tech – and I just couldn’t take the financial hit any longer. I needed to go back to something less stressful. Besides, I was also missing playing my old way, the ancient style of one-on-one. Cat Power used to be just me and a guitar or piano. On the road in that environment is how I wrote songs, and I was kind of missing those old songs. So I’m starting over again. I haven’t played solo since 2005, and it feels normal.
“I just hope I won’t bore people.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/onthebeat