It’s difficult to approach interviewing Chan Marshall – the style icon, rehab survivor, and singer-songwriter better known as Cat Power – without some form of trepidation. Not that she’s famous for primadonna antics à la Alison Goldfrapp, but she has a reputation for being more than a little distant. Her first concert DVD ( Speaking For Trees ) was, after all, filmed in an isolated location where the only audience were trees; her early concerts were notorious for such stage antics as hiding behind the piano, giving lengthy monologues and cutting songs short when she tired of them. Then there are her well-known personal struggles, including alcoholism and a stint in the psych ward of Mount Sinai hospital. And although it’s clear she’s pulled her life together over the past few years – beginning with the more sunny disposition of The Greatest and continuing through to her measured, mellow, and assured performances around Australia back in 2009 – it’s still difficult to be sure which Chan Marshall one will end up speaking to. Will she be the flighty, inattentive genius, or the candid, eloquent survivor?
As it turns out, Marshall is a little more complicated than that simple dichotomy suggests. She’s cheerful and polite, asking me how I’m doing in her low, slow drawl, but it’s also clear that there are quite a few things on which she doesn’t want to be drawn. We start by talking about Sun, the much-delayed record she’s working on, and her first album of original material since 2006’s The Greatest.
“I started it out about two years ago,” she explains, “never having stopped my life to do something. I think that was just the way of life I had adapted to: touring was what I always did, and I never ever thought it was different to what anyone else ever did, I thought it was normal.
“So I slowed down and started writing, and started developing a new part of what I thought was just going to be a part of the album, because the album was going to be mostly songs I’d already written. But now, some time later, I’m not recording the older songs I had thought were going to be the core of Sun, and I’ve written more songs …” She trails off. “Sorry, this is so boring!” she giggles, clearly uncomfortable with talking about herself.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had time off to write an album,” she presses on. “There’s a couple of writers I know, painters I know, who’ve had a situation like that, but for me, it’s the first time anything like that’s happened. I do a tour occasionally, but I’m not running around the globe any more. I don’t know if that’s changed the way that the songs are being written, or musically being recorded, but …”
One of the difficulties Marshall is currently battling is the process of choosing what goes and what stays in the album: “It’s like having a split personality, because you have to decide,” she says. “It’s like having a ton of babies, and you have to decide which ones get to have a public life. Which ones do you send to school, which ones do you do home-schooling with? I’m not saying that my songs are as precious as a child,” she qualifies, “but I’m going a little bonkers trying to figure it out.
“There’s also the aesthetic differences in the material, given the amount of time I’ve been recording: which ones do I respect, and which ones am I tricked into respecting because they’ve been around for a few years? Which ones do I truly respect and value, and which ones are just familiar to me?”
Since Marshall relies only on herself as a producer, the responsibility here is all hers. “I’ve always been the person, the producer – if there’s eight songs out of 30 that I didn’t know wouldn’t be on the album, I have to make that call,” she says. “I’ve always played iffy songs to friends, but the confusing part of that is that every friend always likes the song that the other friends didn’t like. So there’s nobody’s opinion I hold greater than mine. I’m not saying my opinion is greater than anybody else’s, and there are times where I don’t trust my opinion about something that’s confusing the shit out of me. But I don’t know how I’d work with a producer.”
Despite taking time off from touring to focus on Sun, Marshall has still made the time to visit Australia, a country she clearly holds dear. Aside from her most recent tour over 2009-10, she has also toured here frequently, including a support slot for homegrown hero Nick Cave, and recorded the entirety of her breakthrough album Moon Pix in Melbourne in 1998 with members of Dirty Three (Dirty Three drummer Jim White plays in Marshall’s touring band, Dirty Delta Blues). So what is the basis of her close connection to the country?
“The country reminds me of something – I love the terrain, I love the landscape. Maybe it’s based on a romanticised observation of the people, but there’s something earthy about the place. It’s not industrialised – there’s major cities, obviously, but I just love all that earth you have over there, and all the people you’ve got walking on it.”
CAT POWER and DIRTY DELTA BLUES play The Forum Theatre on Friday January 21 – tickets from feelpresents.com. They also play a sold out show at the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine on Saturday January 22. Jukebox and Dark End Of The Street are out now through Matador/Remote Control.