The singer and songwriter Chan Marshall, who performs under the name of Cat Power, has a lot on her mind. She'll talk about injustice, about big corporations, about American economic policy, about the short-sightedness of Western medicine, about independent thinking. But she's staying mum about her next record. Marshall, whose album Sun — a slight departure into the realm of synthesizers, loops and beats — came out last year, says she's been misled, turned around and generally had her mojo messed with by prematurely sharing the details of her upcoming material in the past. That's why she's not tipping her hand.
Marshall, 41, who is active on Twitter and Instagram, has had health problems, problems with drinking, problems with stage fright, problems with relationships (semi-high-profile breakups), and problems with cash that she's been fairly candid about. She's not walking away from her role as indie rock icon, though. Marshall has collaborated with Eddie Vedder. She's worked as a model for Karl Lagerfeld. She's also done surprising and spare covers of songs by or associated with Moby Grape, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, the Stones, Percy Sledge, and many others. Marshall has worked with Al Green's backing band in Memphis. Her records have, in places, been lush with layered vocals and strings, or skeletal and stark. She's not checking out of the music biz, despite her frustrations with it over the years.
"I've got 82 albums to go," says Marshall, pulling a number seemingly out of the air. (She's released nine full-length records to date.) "I'm gonna start [on the next one] in January."
Marshall spoke to the Advocate recently by phone from New York City. She was in the process of preparing to move back to the city from Miami, where she's been living. Her solo show in New Haven won't feature much material from Sun, she says, in part because those tunes weren't necessarily written for solo guitar and piano performance. And she doesn't want to strain to shoehorn them into that context.
"I'm not into transferring stuff [struggling to make songs work in a solo situation if they were meant for a band or with electronic settings]," says Marshall. "I don't like to do that to myself. Because music shouldn't be difficult."
So, don't expect to hear her most recent songs. Unless she changes her mind. Which she might.
"I won't be playing those songs [from Sun]," says Marshall, and then qualifies. "I might if I want to. Normally when I play solo I go back to what I used to know. I just kind of go wherever I go. Whenever I play solo I never know what I'm going to do… I'm gonna be pulling out old stuff people have heard and old stuff they're maybe less familiar with."
Marshall's songs have a depth and candor and emotional rawness — songs about people suffering, living on the street, about working to be true to a vision. Her voice is both husky and fragile, soulful and tender. You get the feeling she strives to connect and to be meaningful, so much so that it sometimes freaks her out. She's spoken in interviews about being troubled by how the rigors of the road and the logistics of touring make it difficult to give of herself to diehard fans. And so her activity on social networking sites serves to ease that burden a little, to allow her to fire off thoughts and pictures to her followers whenever she wants, even if they're not paying to see her on stage.
"That's why I do that so much," she says. "I think Twitter is one of the best things invented as far as individual right-here identity."
Marshall says her fans — online and in person — have helped her over the years.
"I value that a lot because that's a lot of love that I have in my life," she says, "and it's really helped me in the darkest part of my existence."
Her online persona is strident and activism-centered. "I need to vent," she says. She's pissed about what's happened to the women of persecuted Russian punk group Pussy Riot. She's pissed that the Occupy movement appears to have been silenced. She's pissed about the concentration of corporate power in the media. She admires the way someone like Kanye West has drawn attention to things like the government's poor handling of Hurricane Katrina. And she suspects she'll be viewed as a crackpot for having strong opinions.
"There is a threat, if I do become more outspoken," says Marshall. "A lot of people who spoke out got marginalized and bastardized."
Marshall has repeatedly cited the way the Beastie Boys drew attention to the crisis in Tibet as a model for how pop stars and celebrities can bring about change in the world. She knows she doesn't have the mouthpiece that Kanye or the Beasties may have, but she's not going to sit back and be quiet. If you want to call her unstable, or manic, or crazy — labels that others have thrown at her — she's got that taken care of.
Marshall suffers from angioedema, a condition she's been hospitalized for and which caused her to cancel her entire European tour last year. She says she's treating her health now with homeopathy.
"I've been to a million psychiatrists," she says. "I've been misdiagnosed so many times... I've been institutionalized so many times because of questioning the answers. I've been to rabbis, priests, psychiatrists."
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