Southern accents

Cat Power reveals the secrets of her stability
By MATT ASHARE  |  September 1, 2006

MEMPHIS MAGIC: “With the Memphis Rhythm Band it’s like going back to the music that I was familiar with as a baby.”
It wasn’t so long ago that a Cat Power show — especially a solo performance by Chan Marshall, the Southern transplant to NYC behind the Cat Power name — was a roll of the dice. It started as mere stage fright: after hooking up with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn for the pair of albums that launched her career in ’95-’96, she found herself opening for established indie acts in front of large crowds she wasn’t prepared for. Often performing with her back to the audience, she’d mumble through spare songs from Dear Sir and Myra Lee, picking at her guitar like a scab and doing her best to ignore the crowd. And it got worse: as she developed more confidence in the studio, the audience hungry for her skewed and alluring Southern-tinged confessional storytelling grew. By 2000 and Moon Pix (her second for Matador) she had a sizable cult. Her on-stage behavior became more erratic: there were stories of songs half finished, lyrics forgotten, shows at which her gentle singing and soft guitar chordings were barely audible over the shuffle of feet. An on-stage breakdown in NYC had fans and critics alike wondering whether it wasn’t a kind of musical masochism that kept them coming back for more.

But all that changed earlier this year with the release of her most accessible, straightforward collection of songs yet, The Greatest (Matador), a soul-and-R&B-inflected album recorded in Memphis with legendary vets like guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges, and drummer Steve Potts. On the tour that followed — a tour with many of the same players — Marshall finally seemed comfortable in the spotlight. She’s still no Tina Turner. But as Cat Power she’s turned a corner.

I caught up with her on vacation in Southern California, where she’s gearing up for a short solo tour that’ll bring her to the Museum of Fine Arts this Tuesday. (She hooks back up with her Memphis Rhythm Band for more touring starting September 9 in NYC.) And I asked about the changes she’s been through over the past year.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to mention this, but you’ve really opened up as a performer with The Greatest.
You’re right.

How do you account for that?
I got sober. I know that sounds cliché’d. Just, growing up with an alcoholic upbringing, I always thought it was normal to be a drinker. When you take drinking for granted, it seems normal because it’s always around. But there’s a lot of you that gets put on a shelf and you end up living in a bubble. I realized my lifestyle over the past few years was making me more and more depressed and I was creating more of a shell with drinking too much too consistently and not having a home and traveling all the time.

The occupational hazards of the life you’ve chosen.
Yeah. I just seemed normal. I mean, I never thought I’d not drink. And I don’t go to meetings or anything like that. I think I’ve had eight drinks in eight months. But I’m healthier. It’s good for my mind. I was just tired. My body was tired. It was weighing on me.

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