Cat Power Talks New Music and Miami
by brett sokol
Plenty of musicians have looked to Miami Beach for inspiration, whether as a den of iniquity, a libidinal party zone, or simply as a place to hunker down in the studio away from prying eyes. Add Chan Marshall, better known as the singer Cat Power, to those creative ranks. Although her own take on the city is hardly going to end up in any tourism brochures.
“Miami Beach reminds me of Manhattan after a nuclear war,” Marshall earnestly explains. “Everything is real simple.”
Yes, the traffic can be bad, and the parking situation can often spark thoughts of extreme violence. But Miami Beach as an atomic wasteland?
“Think of the way it narrows down at the bottom end,” Marshall continues, describing the South of Fifth neighborhood she now calls home following a Southern upbringing and spells in both New York and Los Angeles. It’s an area whose sidewalks still empty out come nightfall, and with a little imagination, “It’s like a radioactive bomb went off that made most of the people vanish. Then the water rushed in and took away a bunch of the streets. Have you ever read Denis Johnson’s book called Fiskadoro?” she asks, invoking that 1985 novel’s post-apocalyptic vision of South Florida as the last surviving slice of the United States, home to a few uneasily coexisting tribes speaking a mangled Spanglish, tuning into radio broadcasts of vintage Jimi Hendrix from a still-intact Cuba (now Islamic instead of Communist), and living amid the debris of a once mighty civilization.
Dystopian futures aside, it’s an excellent refuge for a songwriter— at least based on Marshall’s new electronics-heavy ninth CD, Sun. It’s a stylistic left turn, largely jettisoning the angular guitar-centered work that marked much of her late- ’90s and early-’00s releases. Of course, it was 2006’s soulfully weathered The Greatest that first catapulted her beyond indie-rocker status, recasting her as a full-fledged chanteuse. Backed by members of Memphis’s famed Hi Records studio crew, who served up the same supple rhythm and blues they used to power Al Green’s classic ’70s sessions, The Greatest cemented a musical persona that The New Yorker writer Hilton Als likened to “that of a Southern belle in blue jeans, a trashed Faulkner heroine whose arias of disillusionment, hope, fantasy, bitterness, and understanding are played out in 4/4 time and in a distinctly American syntax.”
It was an image the fashion world seemed equally enamored with—there was Marshall posing for Karl Lagerfeld as a Chanel spokesmodel and serving as a muse to Marc Jacobs. She even appeared on the big screen, starring alongside Jude Law in Wong Kar Wai’s film My Blueberry Nights. Yet her 2008 CD, Jukebox, proved she was no mere It girl: Marshall could convincingly sing the phone book or, in this case, a set of mostly covers, including a chestnut as hoary as the Frank Sinatra standard “New York, New York,” and still make it all sound hauntingly fresh.
That spirit and her unwillingness to repeat herself are why it took four years for a follow-up. She recalls that while recording new material in Los Angeles, she played these initial sessions for a friend. “He told me they sounded just like old Cat Power songs, just depressing and boring. I didn’t work for a long time after that,” she says. “When I went back into the studio, I told myself I wasn’t going to pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano, because I needed to learn how to do things differently. And the only way to do that was by challenging myself. That left the drums, the synthesizers, and the keyboards.” Almost all of which Marshall learned to play herself over the next few years, slowly, painstakingly, but with plenty of inventive accidents along the way.
The end results on Sun center on a clutch of dark grooves, less suited to the dance floor than to an ominous shimmy across a candlelit living room. Think of The Rolling Stones’ 1980 hit “Emotional Rescue,” with Mick Jagger purring about “riding across the desert on a fine Arab charger” while the band’s rhythm section locks into a lean, yet satisfyingly deep, shuffle behind him. Much of the same vibe suffuses Sun, from the slowly churning 11-minute opus “Nothing but Time” (featuring a vocal cameo from fellow Miami transplant Iggy Pop), to “Cherokee,” with Marshall huskily singing, “If I die before my time, bury me upside down…. marry me to the sky,” to “Ruin,” which breathily runs down her global tour schedule, only to conclude, “What are we doing? We’re sitting on a ruin.”
“That song is about how every great civilization has always failed,” she explains, insisting it’s not hard to see flashes of history repeating itself. “Look at what they’re saying about the Federal Reserve; banks are collapsing, the entire world’s economy is failing—but I’m just a musician, and I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she says dryly. So Miami Beach is a good place to acclimate oneself, Fiskadoro-style, to the coming collapse? “It’s a beautiful day today, and it’ll be a beautiful day tomorrow…. Boom!”
photography by denise truscello/wireimage.com (pearl concert theater); stefano giovannini (marshall); Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images (lagerfeld); courtesy of matador records (sun)