Cat Power - Biography
With a voice that is simultaneously rough, soulful, and sublime, singer/songwriter Cat Power (born Charlyn Marie Marshall) rose from high school dropout, to indie folk-rock star, to controversial media darling in the matter of just over a decade. Her poignantly introspective songwriting, extremely stylized and dramatic renditions of classics, and openness about her personal problems have made her a unique and memorable superstar.
Charlyn “Chan” Marie Marshall was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1972 to a blues singer and pianist named Charlie. Her parents divorced when she was still a child and she spent most of her formative years moving from town to town with her mother and stepfather. At the age of sixteen, Marshall dropped out of high school in North Carolina and returned to her hometown of Atlanta to live with her father. While in Atlanta, she began to perform under the name Cat Power with guitarist Mark Moore and drummer and Atlanta scenster Glen Thrasher.
In 1992, Marshall moved to New York City with Thrasher after many of their friends in the Atlanta music scene began to succumb to heroin addiction. Thrasher exposed Marshall to the City’s cutting edge free-jazz and experimental music scene, which she credits with having a profound influence on her career. Thrasher moved back to Atlanta in 1993, but Marshall stayed.
Through her involvement in the experimental milieu, she met the queercore band God Is My Co-Pilot, who released Cat Power’s first single, Headlights (1994 Making of Americans), in a limited pressing of 500 copies on their own label in 1994. Cat Power was building a solid reputation around New York for her stripped down, bluesy performances — just a girl, a guitar, and heart-wrenchingly honest vocals.
Her big break arrived in the same year when she was asked to open for rocker Liz Phair. At the show, she met drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Two Dollar Guitar's Tim Foljahn who brought her into the studio that December. The three of them recorded two albums worth of material in the same day. Dear Sir (1995 Runt Records, reissued 2001 Plain Recordings) was the first to be released on the Italian label Runt Records in 1995. Her official debut album of nine songs is a mix of dark and expressive folk, blues, country, and punk. Marshall’s odd, poetic, and earnest ruminations dominate the more pedestrian rock and roll contributions of Shelley’s drums and Folijan’s guitar, but this push and pull of the collaboration works well to balance the musical package.
The following year saw the release of Myra Lee (1996 Smells Like Records). Named after Marshall’s mother, Myra Lee was released by Shelly’s own record label Smells Like Records. Although the album was recorded on the same day as Dear Sir, the songs of Myra Lee are edgier and more diverse, with a few downright bleak and unsettling songs such as “We All Die” and “Enough.” Despite the nightmarish tones several of her songs take, Marshall’s soaring and unpredictable voice infuse the album with humanity and a unique ray of hope.
Later in 1996, Cat Power signed with Matador Records and released What Would the Community Think (1996 Matador Records), which shows a widening of style for both Marshall and her backing band of Shelley, Folijan, and a few guests. The textures of sound are layered with piano, xylophone, pedal steel, and Moog. Marshall’s voice is more perfectly imperfect than ever, showing cracks, heaving sighs, and pitching moans. Her songwriting has progressed further down the road she paved with her prior albums but the details are becoming magnified: gentle folk notions turn eerie and her angst-filled punk edges are frilled with lace. The catchier but still melancholic “Nude as the News” spawned Cat Power’s first music video, an artsy black and white mood piece directed by Brett Vapnek who would go on to collaborate with Cat Power on several future videos.
Cat Power spent three promising months on the road touring in support of What Would the Community Think. Despite admitting to having crippling stage fright, Marshall was an intriguing performer to her rapidly growing fan base. In 1996, Steve Dollar of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Marshall “offers performances that are raw and unfiltered, always on the verge of implosion." For Marshall, the fear led to implosion and she fled the limelight at the end of the promotional tour. At the age of 24, she was reportedly ready to retire from the music business. She worked for a time as a babysitter in Portland, Oregon and then moved with her then boyfriend Bill Callahan (of the lo-fi band Smog) to a farm house in Prosperity, South Carolina.
Marshall’s retirement didn’t last long. She reemerged from the South Carolina farm house with a collection of songs that would become her fourth album. She relocated to Melbourne, Australia to record with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, both of the heavy instrumental trio Dirty Three. The result was Moon Pix (1998 Matador Records), released in 1998. Each of the eleven simple and personal songs contains a reference to the moon, but the songs don’t form a traditional or obvious concept album. Each track is unique and tries on a new style for Cat Power. “American Flag” boasts a drum loop played in reverse (from Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”) and “He Turns Down” is a mellow blues-influenced piece framed by meandering flute.
After touring in support of Moon Pix, Marshall spent two years recording The Covers Record (2000 Matador Records). Aptly named, The Covers Record is a collection of 12 interpretations of some of Marshall’s favorite songs from such luminaries as the Rolling Stones ("(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"), Velvet Underground (“I Found a Reason”), and Bob Dylan ("Paths of Victory”). With her fifth album, she revealed a remarkable talent for reinventing the songs of others and presenting them not only as if they were her own, but as if they were the true reflection of her soul. The phrasing of the lyrics are elongated and chewed-up, massaged and bent by Marshall’s gut-wrenchingly emotional will. The instrumentation is minimal, mostly Marshall on guitar and piano, but the album is overflowing with interpretation and meaning. The Covers Record charted at number 44 on the Billboard Heatseekers and cemented Cat Power in the minds of the general public.
Many of the cover songs found their way into movies and television shows, spreading Cat Power’s exposure further. “I Found a Reason” appeared in the film Dandelion (2004) and on the soundtrack for the film V for Vendetta (2006). Marshall’s loving interpretation of Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” (also covered by everyone from The Heptones to Iggy Pop to Tom Waits) appeared in the 2007 hit film Juno and its soundtrack, which hit number one on the Billboard 200.
In 2003, Cat Power’s first album of new material in almost five years was released. You Are Free (2003 Matador Records) was recorded with producer Adam Kasper (Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam), and features several notable guest musicians such as Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, Pear Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis. Continuing her pattern of musical growth, You Are Free is a mature and focused collection of fleshed-out songs with moments of traditional rock fullness. Thematically, many of the songs deal in the poetry of transformation and reckoning, explicitly and covertly. From her breathy cover of Michael Hurley's "Werewolf” to her original but musically plodding “Good Woman,” it is clear that change is on Marshall’s mind. On "I Don't Blame You," she sings from the point of view of a tormented musician…a topic she knows much about.
You Are Free hit number 105 on the Billboard 200, number 2 on the Top Independent Albums, and number one on the Heatseekers chart. To promote the album, Marshall made her television debut on the Late Show With David Letterman, although it can be argued that her discomfort in the spotlight was visible. She has admitted to having had a troubled relationship to alcohol at this time and, despite the success of You Are Free, she celebrated her depression by smashing her Silvertone guitar to pieces in a hotel room. Cat Power’s live shows were erratic. Marshall was known to stop in the middle of a song and start another, or simply end a show after playing only a few songs.
Marshall’s unpredictable and volatile behavior never seemed to have a negative impact on her popularity. Her seventh album, The Greatest (2006 Matador Records), was released in 2006 to eager fans and critical acclaim. Besides being named as the sixth best album of 2006 by Rolling Stone Magazine, The Greatest hit number 34 on the Billboard 200, number one on the Top Independent Albums chart, and number 34 on the Top Internet Albums chart.
Contrary to what the title implies, The Greatest is not a greatest hits album but rather all new material from a newly energized Cat Power. Exchanging her previous collaborators for Memphis soul musicians Mabon "Teenie" Hodges (Al Green), Leroy "Flick" Hodges, Dave Smith and a host of others, Marshall delivers 12 confident, soulful songs. Lush arrangements make the album more accessible than any of the previous Cat Power efforts and the songs have a relaxed and straightforward vibe to them. The title track proved to be a hit, popping up in the popular television show Bones, a Garnier commercial in the UK, and in trailers for Wong Kar-wai’s 2007 film My Blueberry Nights. Kar-wai also used “Living Proof” in My Blueberry Nights, as well as Marshall herself in a cameo roll.
Marshall also began to appear in several ad campaigns for corporations such as Chanel, GAP, and Cingular. In spite of her stage fright and troubled personal life, she possesses a reluctant glamor that consumers, or at least ad execs, find irresistible.
After the release of The Greatest, Marshall canceled all planned shows to recover from a self-proclaimed "psychotic break" that led to a stay in a Miami hospital. She checked herself out after staying less than one week. Within the year, she released another collection of cover songs, Jukebox (2008 Matador Records), which hit three on the Top Independent Albums chart and 12 on the Billboard 200 and Top Internet Albums chart. Jukebox features Marshall’s trademark creative interpretations of classics from the likes of Hank Williams (“Ramblin (Wo)Man”), James Brown (“I Lost Someone”), and again Bob Dylan (“I Believe In You”). We’ve seen this trick before on The Covers Record, but Jukebox contains a few surprises like the funked-out “New York” (by Kander and Ebb) that would even have die hard fans of Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli smiling. The same year, Cat Power also released the 10” EP Dark End of the Street (2008 Matador), which contains six cover songs not included on Jukebox. in 2012 she released Sun.