Cat Power: Life Is Beautiful

A year ago, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall had hit rock bottom and was on her way to becoming indie rock’s next tragic figure. But with a little help from her friends and a sober new lifestyle, Marshall is now ready for her close-up. By Matthew Fritch

She remembers it well at the Mercer Hotel, and she’s talking so brave and so sweet. Like a doomed beauty from a Leonard Cohen song, Chan Marshall—the singer/songwriter known as Cat Power—is talking the daylight out of her hotel room in Lower Manhattan. Though the room is now dim in the late afternoon, there are still breakfast dishes on the table, half-eaten fruit plates, silver pots of tea and coffee and eight used china cups. There are two packs of Marlboro cigarettes (Reds and Lights) and ashtrays and saucers used as ashtrays.

The journalists have been arriving all day in two-hour increments, and they’ve come from French magazines, from women’s magazines, from music magazines. They’ve come to hear a story that eerily resembles a confession, because you don’t have to squeeze Marshall very hard to get the sordid details of the alcoholism and depression that led to her suicidal thoughts and psychiatric hospitalization last January. In fact, you barely have to say anything at all before she launches into a monologue that I hear Marshall repeat at least four times, like a tic, over the course of several days. It always begins the same way:

My friend from New York, Susanna Vapnek, she’s a painter, she came and knocked on my door.

Though it’s a harrowing tale, Marshall doesn’t show any signs of distress. She practically prances around the room in white sweat socks and a black, thigh-length dress, her hair pulled up in an Audrey Hepburn tangle. With each guest she receives, she re-tells a funny story about going to see Tony Bennett the previous night and meeting the man afterward.

“I missed the first seven songs because I was constipated on the toilet,” says Marshall. “I missed ‘Cold, Cold Heart.’ I told him, ‘You remind me of Bob Dylan,’ and he said, ‘Impossible.’”

A September article in the New York Times detailed Marshall’s downward spiral, and the Associated Press has since sent a similar version of the story to local outlets, to be printed accompanying previews of her shows around the country wherever she plays. Because Marshall has gained notoriety for being a fitful, erratic performer—some critics have wondered why she bothers at all—her offstage problems are the stuff of public interest. When your breakdown has been picked up by the AP wire, maybe there’s just not that much to be dutifully somber about. Before she sits down with MAGNET, Marshall sequesters herself in the bathroom for a few minutes to apply eyeliner.

My friend from New York, Susanna Vapnek, she’s a painter, she came and knocked on my door.

Marshall explains that her crisis was brought on by fatigue from constant touring since 1998 and the 2003 break-up with a man she calls “the love of my life”: Daniel Cury, a fashion model she dated for four years. She numbed the pain with alcohol, drinking heavily on the road and off, even as she cut her most recent album, The Greatest (Matador), in Memphis in June 2005. It all came to a head in January, when a worn-out Marshall grudgingly began conducting interviews to promote the record. She recalls hosting a reporter from U.K. magazine Dazed & Confused, an L.A. photographer and a Matador representative at her apartment in Miami. She’d been up for two days on cocaine when they arrived.

“I had so many bottles of wine open in order to get them drunk,” says Marshall. “I was a big Scotch drinker, but I thought, ‘They’ll drink wine, it’s smooth. Wine is socially acceptable.’ I was getting them drunk so I could drink. And then around 4 (p.m.), I locked myself in the bathroom and didn’t say anything. The Matador [employee] said, ‘Chan, I don’t know what’s going on, but we can hear you.’ I was crying and thinking fucked-up thoughts because I’m stupid. Because I’m dumb enough to fall prey to self-destruction, and I said, ‘Thank you for leaving.’ And they all left, and when it got dark outside, I went to the store and got the newspaper.”

The front page of the New York Times reported that Hamas had won the election in Palestine, and Marshall says the accompanying photo of a woman at the polls—her index finger dipped in ink to prevent double voting—struck a deep chord as a harbinger of increased world conflict and war. She returned to her apartment, closed all the windows and stayed there for 10 days. A nearby liquor store would deliver two boxes at a time: one filled with beer and another with wine, liquor and champagne. After three days, her cocaine stash had run out, and she began praying and fasting, subsisting on alcohol and water mixed with cayenne pepper. Marshall describes the next week as a waking purgatory, playing solitaire and listening over and over to Miles Davis’ brooding soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1955 film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.

“For those seven days, I started doing things weird,” she says. “[By praying], I wanted to try to save the world in some subconscious, universal way. And I started collecting all these special things—pictures of friends and paintings—and I realized that I was preparing for when they found my body that there would be a story for each friend who came to go through my stuff. I was preparing that last day, when I prayed all day for god to please send me somebody because I wanted to take all my antidepressants and drink and just die.”

And that’s when Marshall’s friend from New York, Susanna Vapnek, a painter, came and knocked on her door.

“The day I went down to Miami,” Vapnek says by phone later, “my sister (Brett Vapnek, who’s directed several Cat Power videos) had talked to Chan in the morning and said she didn’t sound totally coherent. I just got a really bad feeling, and I knew she was down there to isolate herself. That definitely seemed like a sign of depression to me.”

Vapnek jotted down the return address on a card Marshall had sent her and boarded a plane a couple hours later. Vapnek declines to describe the scene in the Miami apartment but says she recognized immediately that Marshall needed hospitalization.

“I was just down in the hole, in the shit,” says Marshall, who spent a week at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. “I know everybody’s probably been down in that hole at some point in their life, where you can’t talk to anyone and you push all your friends away. For months, for a year almost, my phone was on silent. Never even talked to my friends. I started writing cards to let them know I was alive.”

The version of Chan Marshall who’s here at the Mercer Hotel, however, is wired and well-connected. Even as she describes her darkest hours, she’s occasionally text-messaging (her preferred form of remote communication) and taking phone calls. Rapper El-P calls to firm up plans to have Marshall sing on his next album.

“El-Pee-eee,” coos Marshall in her Southern twang, “is that you rapping on that track? That is fucking dope!”

Later, a friend named Reuben Cox drops by with a custom-made guitar that Marshall plans to use for her next tour. Crafted from Hawaiian koa wood, it’s modeled after a Bigsby guitar that Merle Travis played in the late ’40s. Marshall tests it out by playing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” singing Hank Williams’ woebegone ballad well into the second verse before fumbling for lyrics about weeping robins. But not 10 seconds after she’s serenaded the room with one of the saddest songs ever written, Marshall is zooming again—and sticking with the message she wants to deliver to the media.

“I want there to be no mystery,” she says, picking her nose for emphasis. “I’m not a weirdo. I’m manic because I’ve had four cappuccinos, but I think the interviews are important because there’s always gonna be somebody, maybe even a kid or a teenager, somebody’s gonna read it and [realize] how we’re all equal and how normal it is, there is no pedestal, there are no idols.”

All my cynical faculties intact, it is difficult to believe Marshall is strictly doing it for the kids. Maybe the public airing of her troubled times is meant to make herself feel better, or maybe she wants to make somebody else—ex-boyfriend Cury, perhaps—feel worse. It’s definitely an opportunity for a second or third press push for The Greatest, which Matador re-released in September. Something about Marshall’s straight talk feels forced, so when she invites me to join her in Miami in two weeks to observe her healthy new routine—spending the day doing Pilates exercises and eating fruit salad—I accept. As the next interviewer arrives, she calls room service and orders another large pot of coffee and another large pot of Earl Grey.

Menstrual cycles, addictions, ex-boyfriends, mortgage payments, Hollywood crushes, bodily fluids I wouldn’t even feel comfortable discussing with my doctor: These subjects are all fair game and suitable for conversation. About the only topic Charlyn Marie Marshall won’t discuss in depth is her childhood. But we know a few things: She was born Jan., 21, 1972; her parents divorced; she spent her early years moving around Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Father Charlie sometimes played piano with Gregg Allman, and Marshall affectionately describes her mother, Myra Lee, as “wacked out.” According to Marshall, Myra Lee so loved Ziggy Stardust that she dyed her hair red and changed her name to Ziggy; a single mom, she’d drag young Chan and her sister to bars and movies such as The Exorcist and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sometimes living with their grandmother, the sisters would harmonize on blues standard “Salty Dog” and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” the last known musical performances until Marshall, a high-school dropout, turned up in Atlanta in 1991.

Marshall was working at a pizzeria that year when she met Glen Thrasher, a musician, DJ and zine publisher who was a pillar of an Atlanta indie-rock scene that few people remember. Yet it’s very much alive to Marshall, who recalls bands such as Opal Foxx Quartet and Magic Bone as formative influences. With Thrasher on drums and joined by guitarists Fletcher Liegerot, Damon Moore and Mark Moore (the latter two aren’t related), Marshall began playing around town with the first formation of Cat Power, mainly gigging with friends’ bands for free beer. But the impromptu group didn’t last long in Atlanta, and Marshall says she and Thrasher moved Cat Power to New York City in September ’92 to escape a scene that was being decimated by drug use. Though Damon Moore later died of a heroin overdose, Thrasher—who’s had his own substance-abuse problems—remembers it differently.

“I don’t think the move had anything to do with drugs,” he says. “If Chan wanted to move away from drugs, why the hell would she move to New York?”

For the next year or so, Thrasher served as Marshall’s mentor and musical tour guide, exposing her to more experimental sounds and free-jazz performers such as Anthony Braxton.

“What was going on was a transaction,” says Marshall. “People came not to see a cool, rad, punk show … There was no judgment. Only for that moment did that experience exist. So when it was our turn to play, I’d play with my back to the audience. We were creating a little world of our own.”

This is likely as close as we’ll get to an explanation of Cat Power’s infamously erratic concerts. Bewildered fans who’ve witnessed Marshall’s onstage meltdowns over the years—ranging from incoherent or incomplete songs to her simply sitting down in silence—usually chalk it up to anxiety, stage fright or plain craziness. Some fans even root for the train wreck. But meeting Marshall in person, it’s obvious she has the will to put on whatever kind of performance she chooses.

“When the sound onstage isn’t right for her and the audience is yelling, ‘It’s OK, Chan, we love you,’ they’re kind of missing the point,” says Vapnek, who accompanied Marshall on a tour last summer. “She is a perfectionist, and she wants to sound a certain way.”

After Thrasher moved back to Atlanta, Marshall was talked into playing a solo show at CBGB Gallery in 1994 and signed to Matador shortly thereafter. Mainly recording with drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) and bassist Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar), Marshall was proud to be the Atlanta scene representative who “made it” in New York. But being onstage in front of scrutinizing indie rockers only exacerbated the live-performance problem.

“The audience started getting different, like more of a rock audience,” says Marshall, who claims alcohol was never a detrimental factor to her performances until recently. “They didn’t get that we were just making shit up. People started looking cooler and acting cooler, and that made it more uncomfortable. When I’m solo, I still try to create this wind tunnel, where anything can happen. I can pull a different song out and try to explore. Hopefully, the audience can go on a trip with me.”

The audience, apparently, hates going on trips. But few can complain about the albums that have been issued under the Cat Power banner, and Marshall’s last four records in particular form an arc of remarkable artistic growth. 1998’s Moon Pix, cut in Australia with Jim White and Mick Turner of instrumental outfit the Dirty Three, sounds like a minimal folk album broadcast from behind the wall of sleep. Its ghostly mystique isn’t hurt by Marshall’s cited inspiration for the record: a story that would be preposterous except for the fact that she’s been telling it the same way for almost a decade.

“I got woken up by someone in the field behind my house in South Carolina,” she says. “The earth started shaking, and dark spirits were smashing up against every window of my house. I woke up and had my kitten next to me, and I had to say, ‘No.’ And I started praying to god to help me. I had a tape recorder with me so that if they found my body, they’d know my soul was taken. They’d have proof. What was I going to say to people? I didn’t know, so I started singing all these songs.”

No such narrative backdrop accompanied her next album, 2000’s The Covers Record. For most artists, cover albums are filler, but Marshall’s oblique takes on the Stones, Dylan, Lou Reed and others are so odd and askew that she got credit for being both traditional and modern. 2004’s You Are Free reluctantly tilts toward alt-rock, with Dave Grohl on drums and Eddie Vedder contributing vocals, but even the up-tempo, guitar-driven songs find Marshall’s voice sulking and swaying. The album’s telling moment is “I Don’t Blame You,” a piano minuet on which Marshall seems to be addressing herself: “You were swinging your guitar around/’Cause they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn’t want to play.” Though it’s a fan favorite, Marshall has her regrets about You Are Free, lamenting that she wasn’t able to record live with Grohl.

Now, about a year after its release, the dust has settled on The Greatest. It’s a backhanded compliment to label it Cat Power’s most “mature” album—one magazine called it her “Norah Jones record”—because that’s code for coffeehouse banality. (Ironically, Marshall says a proposed plan to market The Greatest through Starbucks stores nationwide fell through because the coffee franchise deemed the album’s gold-chain cover art as “too hip hop.” Matador, which has since re-released the album with different artwork, denies this is the case.)

While it is true that The Greatest is too soft around the middle—mostly mid-tempo piano ballads with touches of brass and Marshall’s most plaintive vocal performances—the album gets a little interesting around its edges. The opening title track is the kind of bruised, bittersweet anthem that’s currently owned by singers such as Marshall, Fiona Apple and Antony Hegarty, and the closing “Love And Communication” finds a deep organ-and-guitar groove for Marshall’s vamping vocals. The Greatest was recorded in one-take sessions at Ardent Studios with the Memphis Rhythm Band, which includes R&B/soul legends such as Teenie Hodges (guitarist for Al Green’s band in the ’70s) and Steve Potts (drummer for the latter-day incarnation of Booker T. & The MG’s). Aside from providing a safety net onstage, the perspective gained from being around career musicians has given Marshall some long-term resilience she’s never had before.

“I have no fear anymore, not like a little white girl who’s half their age,” she says. “They’ve played with everyone: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. Knowing them all these months and knowing that what they are is who I’m gonna be … I’m gonna be 60 someday. Like Dylan. They ask him, ‘Why do you tour so much, Bob?’ And he says, ‘It’s just what I do.’”

As Marshall will tell you—or Tony Bennett, for that matter—Dylan is it; he is the one. She divides the world into the categories of those who “get” Dylan and those who do not. In certain situations, she might just ask herself what Dylan would do. Looked at this way, it’s easy to see how Marshall has continued to tour, ignoring the bad press and weathering the interrupting coughs of her live audience. She is convinced she’s right.

“I don’t care about the criticisms,” says Marshall. “What I’m doing is so special to me because it’s real stuff.”

Miami’s South Beach is an unreal stretch of shoreline harboring a string of oceanfront art-deco hotels and million-dollar condos. By day, the beach fills with European men wearing the kind of thongs you can’t purchase in America except through mail-order catalogs, tanning themselves that perfect shade of leather. The considerably younger women have been nipped and tucked and implanted, snapping fingers to order mojitos from the towelboys who tend to their umbrellas and beach chairs. (And when the two Euro-sexes meet, well, let’s just say that she’s not his granddaughter after all.) By night, the hotel bar scene and velvet-rope nightclubs host all manner of partying vacationers and Cubans coolly smoking thin cigarillos at bottle-service corner tables. In other words, it’s a place where no self-respecting, pale-faced Cat Power listener would think to tread.

And yet, in the first of many celebrity-profile moments yet to come, I find myself on the beach with Chan Marshall in a pink bikini (her, not me), working on a base tan and sipping cortaditos, a Cuban espresso drink made with milk and sugar. The water’s great, by the way: perfect temperature and not too choppy. When we’re out diving for shells, Marshall points out the high rises that are home to celebrities and pro athletes such as Anna Kournikova, Rupert Everett and Pedro Martinez.

Couldn’t quite do the Pilates routine that we’d planned; Marshall got back late last night from the Chanel show in Paris and didn’t have time to make the fruit salad in the morning. At the invitation of Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, Marshall was asked to stand in the front row with the likes of Katie Holmes and Victoria Beckham; for her trouble, she took home about $20,000 worth of complimentary clothing. Marshall casually says she’s hoping to hear more about an offer from Lagerfeld to be “the face of Chanel jewelry,” working as a model for the print-advertising campaign.

Not to mention the pair of movie roles she’s up for: one as Jude Law’s ex-girlfriend in My Blueberry Nights, an on-the-road film starring, funnily enough, Norah Jones; at press time, Marshall’s involvement with the film looks doubtful at best. The other role is in The Funeral Director, tentatively starring Vincent Gallo, whom Marshall dated when she was 21.

And so when entering Marshall’s South Beach home, a sensible and airy second-floor one-bedroom in a courtyard apartment complex, the place hardly seems capable of being the physical prison where she holed up in Emily Dickinson-style solitude. But it happened here, around the corner from Ted’s Hideaway, the pink-stucco bar where Marshall was a regular. She’s not in AA, and she admits to having half a glass of wine the previous night; the cortaditos, the fruit salad and the extra-sweet hot tea she serves in her kitchen all provide the sugar content once supplied by alcohol.

“My shrink just took me off my mood stabilizers,” says Marshall with hints of pride and trepidation, “and cut my antidepressants in half.”

Almost an entire wall of Marshall’s apartment is covered with photos of friends and family, including drawings by her niece and a page of Mad Libs filled in by her goddaughter. Nearly every item on the wall, at some point during my visit, is removed for inspection, then Scotch-taped back in its place. When Marshall heads into her teal-colored bathroom to apply makeup, she insists I sit on the toilet seat beside the vanity so that neither of us is alone.

You have to wonder how, exactly, Marshall’s four-year bout with alcohol and depression went largely unnoticed or unchecked by the people she clearly surrounds herself with. There couldn’t have been a more obvious red flag than Richard Avedon’s photo of Marshall that appeared in the Oct. 10, 2004, issue of The New Yorker. Not only does Marshall’s raccoon-like eyeliner and haggard face make her look like Siouxsie Sioux’s mother; not only is she barely holding up a T-shirt over her torso; not only is she balancing a cigarette with an inch-long ash; but her jeans are unzipped, revealing her pubic hair.

“That’s who I was,” says Marshall, who’s come to terms with that photo but still feels embarrassed that her grandmother bought the magazine and saw her in such a sorry state. At that point, Marshall explains that her drinking had caused her to have diarrhea for two months straight, and when she landed in New York for the Avedon shoot, she had to be taken out of the airport in a wheelchair. “The reason why my fly’s undone is because it hurt so bad, because I was killing my organs. [Avedon] said, ‘Just hold it up,’ and he took it, boom. I didn’t have time to zip up. I guess he didn’t realize my pants were undone because he was 80 years old. And that’s the image they chose.”

Some did notice the decline. Marshall says Matador employee Nils Bernstein, a former confidant of Kurt Cobain, sent her a long e-mail on the topic of self-preservation. Regardless of Marshall’s assertion that she wasn’t a sloppy drunk, others just couldn’t fathom this vivacious, independent woman as a tragic figure. Thrasher recalls seeing Marshall in Atlanta just a week before her episode last January.

“She seemed very happy and was stunningly beautiful,” says Thrasher. “Her smile was the biggest thing I have ever seen. Yet I think this was only a week, perhaps days, before she cancelled a bunch of tour dates and went into some personal transformation mode of operation. I don’t know what that was about.”

As the midday Miami sun reaches full strength, Marshall heads for the pool at the Murano, a luxury condo at the southern tip of the beach. We meet up with an unlikely entourage: Aiko (a Japanese-American girlfriend who lives at the Murano and has only recently heard Marshall’s music), a Turkish-born woman named Mel (a sometimes Pilates partner) and a fiftysomething Englishman and his four children (two boys and two girls between the ages of eight and 12).

Her pink bikini covered by a long T-shirt and wearing a floppy beach hat, oversized sunglasses and sandals, Marshall leads the march of her misfit crew: from lower-level pool to veranda-view pool, to a leisurely lunch of tuna carpaccio and Vietnamese crab rolls, to the pet store where she longingly peeks in at a Chihuahua puppy and ogles a Puggle. Marshall instantly bonds with one of the little girls, and the two do each other’s makeup (resulting in a comical and liberal application of glitter eyeshadow) and hold hands as they walk. Marshall makes no secret about her desire to have children of her own, but she’s slightly less forthcoming about her recent romance with a man in New York, saying only, “He’s English, he’s a poet, and he’s great in bed.”

I happen to guess the name of her latest flame—let’s just say he’s a public figure—but agree to honor the request not to reveal his identity. Marshall has already made so much of her private life available. Besides, her latest endeavors are just as press-worthy: singing and playing piano for a track on Yoko Ono’s new album; covering a Cat Stevens song for a “diamond is forever” TV commercial; and an upcoming tour with a backing band that includes the Dirty Three’s Jim White, the Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer and Delta 72’s Gregg Foreman (the latter two are recovering addicts). Marshall is also working on an audition tape to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live, a whim that turned serious after being encouraged by former SNL actress Molly Shannon, whom she met through Vapnek. Marshall is planning to record another album of covers in Mexico City, hinting at more straightforward versions than those on The Covers Record, and has already penned her sixth set of originals, appropriately titled Sun.

Drying off from the pool and heading back to her apartment, Marshall weighs the evening’s options—a dinner invitation from today’s entourage, a night out at a hip-hop club surrounded by friends—before making a decision.

Tonight she’s going to the movies, alone.