Singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, covers James Brown, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan on her new album Jukebox but the most striking track is one she penned more than a decade ago.
The Atlanta-born musician first recorded Metal Heart for the 1998 album Moon Pix, and where the original was cool and atmospheric, Marshall’s then-26-year-old voice sounding somewhat detached, the 2008 version is much rawer – years of hard living and heartache pouring out in her plaintive vocals.
“We all go through different stuff as we get older. I’ve still got so much more stuff to go through, unfortunately,” Marshall, 36, notes in a recent conversation with CityNews.ca.
Seated on the bed in her downtown Toronto hotel room, her French bulldog Mona snorting by her side, the singer appears grateful to be where she is now – older, wiser, and certainly healthier. It was only two years ago Marshall was on the brink of death, drinking herself into oblivion in Miami.
“After the love of my life left five years ago, I started a real drinking spiral. I’ve never been much of a drunk but I became one. I wanted to be ‘not there,'” she candidly admits.
“My publicist in New York noticed I was having problems, and sent one of my best friends to find me. She took me to hospital and I got pushed into rehab. My brain (couldn’t) function any more and so it just splintered, and I was going through withdrawal. On the fourth day I was like, ‘Whoa dude, this sucks.’ They wouldn’t let me leave (the hospital), which is the worst feeling anybody can imagine.”
Marshall cancelled a U.S. tour promoting her critically-acclaimed album The Greatest to get well – when she eventually returned to the stage, playing those heart-rending songs night after night was a challenge.
“All the records have always taken a lot out of me, emotionally. After getting sober and touring (The Greatest) with (then-back-up band) Memphis Rhythm, I realize now that I was good enough for what I was doing,” she recalls. “(The guys) made me focus just on singing. They said ‘Don’t even bother playing guitar. Just do your thing.’ It was real hard, but it made me feel like ‘Okay I can do this.'”
Part of the reason Marshall decided to put out Jukebox, a sequel to 2000’s The Covers Record which included her interpretations of Sea of Love and The Velvet Underground’s I Found A Reason (featured in the Natalie Portman film V for Vendetta), rather than a disc of original material was a fear of tapping into those same emotions.
“I didn’t want to do a record that was going to pull my memories and a lot of these things out right yet,” she muses, adding that she does have a full album’s worth of original material written. “After singing these ‘Greatest’ songs for a year I felt real vulnerable, but yet real confident in a different way, in being a woman, a human, surviving something.”
Jukebox includes some of Marshall’s all time favourites, including Mitchell’s Blue, Dylan’s I Believe In You, and a “slanted” version of New York, New York, called simply “New York.” She recorded them with new backup musicians, the Dirty Delta Blues Band, comprised of Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer, Jim White of Dirty Three, Gregg Foreman of Delta 72 and Eric Paparazzi of Lizard Music. It’s obvious there was an immediate connection between them, and they’ve been touring together for more than a year now.
“I’ve known Judah and Jim for so long. They were always my friends,” she says. “As male companionship, as friends, they’re two out of four men that I trust in the world. I can always depend on them. To be able to travel with them and make music with them. they’re not playing on Whitney Houston records or whatever but they should be, because they’re amazing talents.”
Marshall has maintained a fairly solid fan base over the years but lately more people are taking notice of her soulful vocals and unique style. Karl Lagerfeld courted her for a Chanel jewellery campaign in 2006, reportedly after seeing her sitting on a pile of Louis Vuitton luggage smoking a cigarette outside a Manhattan hotel, and she played at his 2006 and 2007 shows in Paris. Marshall has pointed words for detractors of the ads she’s appeared in (Gap, Cingular and Garnier among them).
“I’ve done a few commercials, which I’m very thankful for,” she remarks. “Anybody who says people sell out and do commercials, I’d like to see them put on my shoes and turn that down, when I’m able to put a down payment (on a house) for my mother.”
In 2007 Marshall became the first woman to win the U.S. Shortlist Music Prize, for her album The Greatest. It was a difficult road that led her there, but for now it seems the worst is behind her.
“I accepted myself. I accepted that I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to start making better choices for myself socially, business-wise,” she says.
“I have two weeks off every month. I never had that. I got a dog. I have a life now.”
Photo credit: Chan Marshall at The Metropolitan Hotel in downtown Toronto, Brian McKechnie, CityNews.ca