Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Cat Power is the alias of Chan (pronounced “Shawn”) Marshall, a Southern-bred, soulful singer and gifted songwriter whose stark, introspective music has made her a favorite among independent rock fans. But Marshall’s creations—quiet guitars and vivid, raw lyrics brought to life by a voice that seems to scrape and soar simultaneously—differs from the usual music on college radio. At times almost silent, yet strong and direct, and sounding completely unaware of her listeners’ voyeuristic ears, “Her work evokes a pure energy that makes your throat sore and your heart ache,” concluded Crimewave USA. “And the beauty of it all is that she does it without clichés and sentimentality.”
A stunning live performer as well, Marshall has also won fans over with her emotionally gripping stage presence. “Chan is the most dramatic performer I’ve ever seen, and she doesn’t even DO anything, she just stands there with her guitar and that voice—the jolting, swooping, sheer force of it,” wrote Amy Kellner in Index. “She plops this heavy stuff down in front of you and you’re touched and a little scared for her. She can even make you cry from lyrics like ‘Yellow hair/You are such a funny bear.’”
Born Charlen-Marie (later shortening the name to Chan) in 1972 in Atlanta, Georgia, Marshall came by her musical talents naturally. Her father, Charlie, was also a musician and continues to play piano and sing mainly blues and roots-styled music in Atlanta. Marshall spent few of her early years in the same home as her father. After her parents divorced, Marshall and her sister were raised by her mother and stepfather. The family moved around often because of her stepfather’s job, and Marshall attended ten different schools in cities such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Although she was not allowed to buy records growing up, Marshall did have access to her stepfather’s collection, which included artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, and Otis Redding, her favorite singer. Marshall also admired the vocal styles of Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan.
At the age of 16 while living in North Carolina, Marshall dropped out of high school and went to live with her father in Atlanta, then moved to New York City, where her interest in music blossomed. “I didn’t really play music until I came to New York later, when I was 20. An old boyfriend had a guitar and I started making up songs. I think I played a show in Brooklyn where people saw me,” she told Steve Tignor of Puncture.
“Mainly, I was alone in New York, except for a close friend. It could be such a weird, silent place, really,” Marshall continued. “Everyone with their eyes down. It almost reminded me of the South, the stillness of everything. My main memory of the South, growing up, is visual; a still landscape, very beautiful. We had this old run-down graveyard behind our house. I remember running over a mud bridge through a tobacco patch in bare feet. God, now that’s pretty Southern. I came to New York to get away from the things that were happening there with me. I had a friend pass away, and other people were just so crazy. I still love going back. It’s a part of me and I don’t even realize it when I’m gone.”
Soon after learning guitar, Marshall invoked these Southern influences of her youth and started performing under the name Cat Power in New York, earning a reputation for her bluesy style. A big break arrived when she was booked as the opening act for Liz Phair. At the show, she met Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn, who agreed to back the aspiring singer in the studio. In 1995, Marshall’s Dear Sir EP was released on the Italian label Runt. The following year, Myra Lee, recorded on the same day as Dear Sir, was released on Smells Like Records. Although some critics complained that Shelley and Foljahn’s accompaniment made Marshall sound too conventional, too rock ‘n roll on both records, her soulful voice and penchant for writing songs via her unpredictable vocalizing caught the attention of Matador Records.
Marshall released her second album (the first for the Matador label), What Would the Community Think?, in 1996. Winning acclaim for its unsettling, emotional songs, the album rewarded Marshall with immediate credibility in the alternative rock press and college radio play. Though admittedly uncomfortable performing in front of others, either with a backing band or solo,
Born Charlen-Marie Marshall in 1972, in Atlanta, GA; daughter of Charlie Marshall, a piano player.
Moved to New York City at the age of 20 and learned to play guitar; released Dear Sir EP, 1995; released debut album Myra Lee, signed with Matador Records, released What Would the Community Think?, 1996; released Moon Pix, 1998; released The Covers Album, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Matador Records, 625 Broadway, 12thFloor, New York City, NY 10012.
accompanying herself on guitar, Marshall’s tour in support of the record further added to her budding reputation. Marshall “offers performances that are raw and unfiltered, always on the verge of implosion,” wrote Steve Dollar of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in his review of a 1996 performance.
In the wake of her rising star, Marshall felt unsure about continuing in the music business. Following a brief period of retirement, she forced herself back into the studio to record a third album, Moon Pix, released in 1998. “On Moon Pix I had no idea what I was doing,” she later admitted about the recording process, as quoted by Brian Garrity in Billboard. “I didn’t know what I wanted at all; everything was just impulsive and just making stuff up.” But despite her lack of preparedness, Moon Pix, recorded with members of Australian punk outfit the Dirty Three, was a superb return.
Mostly comprised of simple songs—such as the standout tracks “Colors and the Kids” and “Cross Bones Style”—placed in a spare, minimalist setting, Moon Pix earned rave reviews. Marshall “makes the grandest gesture out of seemingly compulsive understatement,” offered Dollar in a 1998 review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Her songs can make you feel as if you’ve intruded on a private moment, and the naked, emotional undertow makes it hard to slip back through the door.”
After touring in support of Moon Pix, including dates in Australia, Marshall entered the studio in November of 1999 to work on a new album. Feeling uninspired to play her own material, she instead opted for a covers album consisting of songs she had been performing while on tour. “I knew that if I didn’t [record] them now that I never would,” she explained to Garrity. “I think a lot of people are like that. When they have something that they like, they want to play it.” The resulting collection, appropriately entitled The Covers Album, featured 12 songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground, Michael Hurley, and even herself.
Released in March of 2000, the album received positive responses. Rather than simply performing the previously recorded songs note for note, Marshall instead put to use her own interpretive skills. “Every time she works on someone’s song she kind of takes you on a weird trip,” said Matador co-president Gerard Cosley, as quoted by Garrity, “and you’re not exactly sure where you’re going to end up.” With The Covers Album, “Chan Marshall proves herself a one-woman band who can carry a whole album herself, even when she’s singing other people’s songs.”
Dear Sir (EP), Runt, 1995.
Myra Lee, Smells Like, 1996.
What Would the Community Think?, Matador, 1996.
Moon Pix, Matador, 1998.
The Covers Album, Matador, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 18, 1996; November 26, 1998.
Billboard, March 11, 2000, p. 14.
Boston Globe, October 31, 1998.
Crimewave USA, issue #7.
Guitar Player, April 1999.
Index, September/October 1998.
Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2000; January 15, 2000.
Melody Maker, December 5, 1998.
Puncture, summer 1996.
Rolling Stone, December 24, 1998-January 7, 1999; April 13, 2000; May 25, 2000; June 8, 2000.
Village Voice, September 29, 1998; December 1, 1998; May 23, 2000.
Matador Records, http://www.matador.recs.com (July 19, 2000).
"Cat Power." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cat-power
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