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Talent, torment and the transformation of Cat Power

Singer-songwriter Chan Marshall is a unique interpreter of songs and emotions

Cat Power and the Memphis Rhythm Band at the 2006 Vegoose Music Festival in Las Vegas. Photo: Jason Merritt/FilmMagic
Cat Power and the Memphis Rhythm Band at the 2006 Vegoose Music Festival in Las Vegas. Photo: Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

It’s always either black or white. Few covers of rock songs evoke the kind of polarized reaction that Cat Power’s version of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 classic (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction does. People either love it; or they absolutely don’t. Cat Power is the stage name of Chan Marshall, 46, an indie singer and songwriter known for her raspy, mournful vocals and an eclectic style that draws as much from southern soul as it does from punk, blues and folk music. Diehard fans of the Stones might find it difficult to be comfortable with Marshall’s version of Satisfaction: She slows it down till it becomes nearly unrecognizable; the accompanying music—soft piano and a guitar—is like a subdued pulse beneath her sad vocals; and, most strikingly, she leaves out the crucial verse. In her interpretation of the song, Cat Power never sings that iconic verse: “I can’t get no, oh, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey/ That’s what I say/ I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction/ ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try/ I can’t get no, I can’t get no satisfaction." Never.

Things like that can drive the purists mad. But Marshall is an unusual interpreter of other people’s songs. Satisfaction is from her The Covers Record, which was released in 2000 and comprised 12 songs, almost all of which were covers. Some of them, such as the Stones’ Satisfaction, Bob Dylan’s Paths Of Victory, and Lou Reed’s I Found A Reason, are better known but there are others—Sea Of Love, an original R&B song by Phil Phillips and George Khoury from 1959; Salty Dog, a reimagined version of a traditional folk song from the early 1900s; Naked, If I Want To, a ballad from the 1960s by Moby Grape; and Wild Is The Wind, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington in the 1950s and covered by many people, including David Bowie, George Michael and Nina Simone. In Marshall’s intimate version, the plaintive love song becomes sadder and eerily haunting.

It’s tempting to explore Marshall’s music only through her cover versions. In 2008, she released Jukebox, another set of mostly covers, including a pained, slo-mo version of Frank Sinatra’s New York; Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man, which she reinterpreted in her version titled Ramblin’ (Wo)Man; and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which she turned into a southern soul version, a perfect accompaniment for a sultry night. But besides the two cover albums, Power has a discography of seven other albums, from Dear Sir (1995) to Sun (2012), which have original compositions. Those seven albums also chart the constant evolution that has marked her career. On the early albums, Dear Sir and Myra Lee (1996), she’s an earnest indie singer whose trademark is her ability to blend punk, folk and blues. But by 1998’s Moon Pix, her songs become introspective and complex. The punk-folk-blues elements remain but her lyrics and style get inflected with the emotional idiom of soul music.

In 2003, five years after her previous album of original material, came You Are Free, comprising intense rock tunes as well as spare, piano-driven slow songs which demonstrated her further maturity as a musician. In 2006, she released The Greatest, an album that marked a return to the roots—a tribute to the soul music that Marshall, a New Yorker who grew up in the southern state of Georgia, had heard in her younger years. On The Greatest, she sounds stronger and more full-blooded than before and it may be Cat Power’s most accessible album yet. Its burnished and slick songs, some of which have a tinge of gospel influence, have the ability to find favour with listeners who haven’t yet been converted to her hitherto mournful oeuvre.

During the course of those years, Cat Power also battled her own demons. She became a self-confessed alcoholic, suffered mental health illnesses, and was intensely afflicted by stage fright. Her public performances were often unpredictable and volatile. She would walk off the stage during gigs, and sometimes be able to perform only when her back was turned to her audience. Hugely talented, with haunting vocals and an ability to write deep and emotional lyrics, she was equally tormented, often shunning tours and, instead, recording cover versions of songs as in The Covers Record and Jukebox. A broken relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi didn’t help. The couple stayed together for five years but broke up in 2012. That may have also been a catharsis.

Shortly after that break-up, Marshall released her latest album, Sun. It marked yet another big change in her music. Electronics, including synths and drum machines, feature on Sun, and Philippe Zdar, one half of Cassius, the French house music duo, collaborates on mixing the record. Sun is impeccably produced and sounds modern. Remarkably though, despite the electronica—synths, computer-aided tweaks, et al—the raw emotional grit that is always a part of Cat Power’s music remains intact. There are little bonuses too, such as a cameo by Iggy Pop on the comforting epic, Nothin’ But Time, which is said to be a song for her ex-lover Ribisi’s teenage daughter. Marshall hasn’t released anything after Sun but as we’ve seen in the past, six years may not be too long to wait for a new Cat Power album.

The lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by Cat Power from ‘The Covers Record’.

2. ‘Nothin’ But Time’ by Cat Power from ‘Sun’.

3. ‘Where Is My Love’ by Cat Power from ‘The Greatest’.

4. ‘Lived In Bars’ by Cat Power from ‘The Greatest’.

5. ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’ by Cat Power from ‘I’m Not There’ (music from the motion picture).

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan

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