Chan Marshall sits in her record company’s office toying with a partially eaten apple. It is a fitting symbol. In Tokyo to promote her new album under the Cat Power moniker, “You Are Free,” Marshall (first name pronounced Shawn) is dealing with her own peculiar fall from grace: the publicity tour.
“I’m talking to you like a human being,” she keeps repeating, as if to wish herself into a different situation.
Her entertaining stories, told in a voice that modulates between a whisper and a whoop, would be more appropriate on a girls’ night out. Lacking an ability to edit herself, thoughts flitting through her head are immediately expressed. The subject changes every few minutes, digressing to her safari in Africa (“A hippo can bite a person in half!”), her worries about teenagers (“They’ve been told about the condom, the p***y and the d**k, but not about the human interaction between a man and a woman”), and the redemptive power of making music (“[If I wasn’t doing it] I would probably have three kids by three different fathers”).
Though she gives it a college try, it is obvious from the red flush creeping up her face and her inability to allow for even a second of silence that Marshall finds the interview process unpleasant, if not downright painful.
“Fame is creepy,” she says when asked about her discomfort when talking to the press.
Then why does she put herself through it? Why not just play music in the privacy of her room?
“There was a sweet young man and a sweet young woman outside a bar [where I was playing] in Idaho,” she explains. “They were saying they were only 16 and couldn’t get in and [they asked], ‘Are you going to put out another record?’ I said sure, yeah, I am, sometime.
“That is what makes you put out a record.”
And if she found herself suddenly celebrated on the cover of mainstream music magazines?
“Oh no. I wouldn’t do it anymore,” she says firmly. “It would be insane. That’s the limit.”
It is a dilemma that she may soon be facing. Though Cat Power is a critic’s darling only well-known within indie rock circles, “You Are Free,” her sixth album, is destined for a bigger audience.
Marshall’s gift, like that of Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, is to channel her most intimate moments directly into song. With their minor-key melodies and folksy, spare delivery, Cat Power tunes give the listener the voyeuristic kick of hearing someone else’s breakdown or epiphany.
Though “You Are Free,” which will be released in Japan this week, has a few beautiful downers like “Names” (a list of abused and tormented children), its varied style should expand Cat Power’s following beyond the Prozac set.
There are even songs that almost rock. “Free” has the gallop of a ’60s anthem, while “Speak for Me” takes on a psychedelic hue.
Then there is Marshall’s voice. Though she has lived most of the last decade in New York, her singing retains the drawling lilt of her southern youth. The young Dolly Parton’s quiet sweetness comes to mind, but stiffened with a bit of Nina Simone’s bluesy power and Marianne Faithful’s gritty dissolution.
It has also, on past records, been a voice infused with desperate vulnerability. With “You Are Free,” Marshall sings with more confidence, becoming the narrator rather than confessor of her songs. She touches on political hypocrisy in “Fool” and issues of self-esteem in “Good Woman.”
This newfound ability to go beyond the strictly personal, to experiment with other perspectives, is perhaps a result of her previous album, “Covers.” It was, as the name implies, an album of cover songs, including Marshall’s chorusless version of “Satisfaction.” Singing other people’s songs has given her own work more emotional space and a more deliberate vibe.
Still, Marshall insists that the songs on this record are just as intimate as her earlier work, their composition just as intuitive.
“What makes you have a dream?” she says when asked where her songs come from. “It comes from somewhere, but I don’t know. It will never change. If it changes, it is because . . . I have a lobotomy.”
“I laugh at the idea of sitting down with a pen to write a song,” she adds later.
Her recording of “You Are Free” — done here and there, and beginning with a list of 40-odd songs (from which the album’s final 11 tracks were culled) — was just as intuitive.
“You don’t know what you are doing,” she says, describing the recording of the track “Shaking Paper.” “You have a guitar plugged into this electric thing and headphones on and you are just listening to something growing and coming and you don’t know what is going to happen or how it is going to end up.”
Some of the songs on the album benefit from the help of a Foo Fighter and a Pearl Jam member, who make guest appearances. Though these connections are a PR person’s wet dream, they make Marshall squirm.
“I don’t like the spectacle because they are just normal people. Though they have a different lifestyle, they are human beings.” she says.
“Just call them E.V. and D.G.” she adds.
It is not the first time Marshall has had the patronage of a more famous musician. Her first album was released on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s indie label.
The cult of Cat Power is a strong one. One myth has a French devotee threatening suicide if Marshall stops making music. Marshall also attributes strange fan behavior to one of the less positive Cat Power legends.
“Everyone talks about this [New York] show where I went insane,” she explains.
“This person had come backstage and proceeded to tell me insane information. I can’t even remember what he said because it was really evil and strange. It got physical, so when I started playing . . . all my brain kept telling me was that he was going to shoot me. So I had a really uncomfortable time, trying to play and being in fear of my life.
“It turned out he did go home and shoot his parents and himself.”
Though she has been almost constantly on the road for the past few years, performing is still an ambivalent experience.
Cat Power’s recent sold-out Tokyo gigs, at a cafe that resembled a living room, were organized to make them as comfortable for her as possible. Nevertheless, Marshall apparently felt most at ease playing the piano, where she could face the instrument rather than the audience. When she did switch to guitar, her long hair veiled her face.
Just as she hasn’t rehearsed pat answers to interviewers’ questions, she hasn’t constructed a performance persona. The same lack of editing that characterizes her conversation characterizes her live playing.
There were dozens of false starts. She played fleeting bits of songs, tantalizing the audience with a familiar hook or groove, before settling into the right tune. You get what you get. (“Don’t get your hopes up,” she said with a self-deprecating smile at the end of the interview.)
Luckily, what Tokyo audiences got were nearly two hours of mesmerizing, gothic blues.
“Maybe it’s because I was always the new kid,” she says of her peripatetic childhood when explaining the odd feeling she has performing. “It is impossible for 20 people just to like you, just to tell you nice things about yourself. It isn’t normal. It feels insane.”
Maybe. But if her Japanese reception was any indication, far more than 20 obviously do.
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