Chan the Driving Cat

It’s hard to be exposed to Chan (pronounced “Shawn”) Marshall — on her albums as Cat Power, watching her perform in that guise, or in her dryly circumscribed interviews — and not say to yourself, “I hope she’s going to be okay.” The same goes for talking to her on a cell phone while she’s driving, which is how she made herself available for a recent interview.

“Fuck, I’m in the wrong lane,” she says before doubling back, consulting a map (seemingly without stopping her rented Mitsubishi), and returning to the highway. She had just been complaining about her aggravation at being perceived as “a little bird.” Given that those who most annoy her with this assessment are sound engineers at tour venues — all men, Marshall says — the obvious remedy is to take each of them for a drive. That ought to disabuse them of any notion that the singer is a delicate creature.

“I’m really scared,” Marshall, 27, says, punctuating a conversation about her well-reported stage demeanor, written off as stage fright by some, borderline schizophrenia by others. “I’m scared … all this traffic. I just went on the ramp and cars are coming at me.” The signal disintegrates and Marshall is gone. So much for fear of performing. Hope she’s okay.

A brief talk that begins with Marshall apologizing for not answering her cell phone right away continues through two apparent near-fatal brushes with traffic and contains two yawns from the singer. She comes alive mainly when discussing her misunderstood performances. After the release of her critically lauded 1998 album, Moonpix, widely reviewed as one of that year’s best discs, she toured with a small band. Judging from concert reviews, Marshall’s shows supporting Moonpix oscillated between gigs of staggering emotional intensity and displays of heated emotional unraveling.

But then, Marshall may be further proof that the gray area between eccentric and crazy is really a gender line. Folks like her, Fiona Apple, and Sinead O’Connor have suffered the fickle wrath of fans and press. These people tolerate behavior from less-talented men that is more vigorously stupid than merely tearing up a pontiff pic, storming off stage, or, in Marshall’s case, turning her back on audiences or making like Cousin It with her bangs to avoid eye contact with them. When a hard-rock band talks shit from the stage or gives an uneven performance, no one seems to notice.

“I don’t care,” Marshall says of the negative press some concerts have received. “They don’t know what it’s like. It makes me mad. Anybody who …” she starts. Stops. Drives. “I can’t control it. The sound man may be a nice person. He may have a family, children, go to church, whatever. But that doesn’t mean anything when the sound sucks.

“Before, I’d get so upset that I wouldn’t talk to them (the sound men). It’s hard to communicate, but I have to do it. I have to be aggressive, abrasive, because I’m the one who’s performing. No one knows but me.” Like an indie-rock Annie Hall, her sentences fire rapidly and stop on a dime, frequently in midthought. She punctuates many of these half-statements with “yeah.” (Asked about songs left off her new album, she replies, “A lot of … yeah … for one reason or another … a John Lee Hooker song … yeah.” Then she hits the on-ramp thinking she might be going the wrong way.)

“To the sound men,” she starts again, “I’m a girl with a guitar. They have an idea how they want me to sound, like a little bird. I don’t want that, and a lot of times they don’t understand or don’t care.”

Marshall is performing solo again for this tour. She says it has eliminated the “pressure” she felt playing with a band two years ago. “I was burned out after the Moonpix tour.” With only her boyfriend and minimal equipment, she’s driving herself across the country (she’s “near Canada” during this interview), an artist for hire. “It’s been good so far. The shows have been good, and driving, it’s been pretty.

“A lot of what’s good this time has to do with the fact that I’m not just playing my own songs. It’s easier to describe how other people’s songs should sound to the guy controlling the sound. That and the fact that there’s no band.”

The loose structure of these dates is a good fit to the slim, seductive sound of The Covers Record. On the album, Marshall suggests more than sings, her voice gauzy and intimate. It’s an approach that reinvents The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (without the chorus) as a starkly dramatic Polly Jean Harvey-style rumination and turns the much-covered invitation “Sea of Love” into a straitjacketed lament. If only because Marshall makes all 12 songs equally eerie, the disc is quietly effective.

Marshall wrote only “In This Hole,” though she still considers it a reinterpretation. “I am covering it,” she says. “It’s not the same song to me when I do it this way. The music changes, the emotion of it. I think I like it better this way.”

Marshall says she has most of her next original album ready. It’s unclear whether it will be the piano-driven album she told writers was in the can at the time of her last tour. Although she has written songs on tour in the past, Marshall flaps her lips in a tight, endearing sputter before sighing, “I’m not feeling prolific right now.”

Marshall’s feelings could fill a lot more than her five albums. She has admitted a family history of mental illness, talked about an alcoholic mother, and said she wasn’t allowed to have records as a child. (She has said that as a result, she doesn’t buy or collect albums and has little patience with those who emphasize music culture or business over, say, just enjoying life.) Anybody who followed her through the acclaim and music press attention following Moonpix knows that half of that album was written following a nightmare, when Marshall kept herself awake to stave off more bad dreams of her trip to South Africa. Two close friends died on the same day in different cities around that time. She may not be a little bird, but her songs have a nerve-racked fragility that goes further than hinting at a dark side.

Even relatively lighthearted banter has a distinctly paranoid edge. “I can see you,” she says as the interview commences. “I have one of those picture phones. Satellites in space burn a hole through the ceiling so I can see who I’m talking to.” It’s David Byrne-deadpan, Michael Stipe-weird (Marshall is a fellow Georgian), but funny as only Marshall (who described her unshaved armpits to an Index magazine writer in 1998 as “One skunk, two skunks,” with a gesture pointing at each) can be.

On the third yawn, following the second close call, she muses that she may one day resettle in Tucson, Ariz., a tour stop she favors. “When you walk on the sidewalk there, the earth is right beneath the pavement — as opposed to having been built over a subway tunnel or a bridge. That’s comforting.” Hearing Marshall talk or sing, you couldn’t wish her more than the comfort of her choosing. Hope she gets to Tucson okay.

Categories: Music