By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
MUSIC CRITICS WILL TRY TO GIVE YOU THE IMPRESSION that any listener can make sense of a record on one or two hearings. With rare exception it just doesn't work — not even with the most simpering of pop songs, expressly designed for a shelf life of limited duration. Sounds corny, but music does have a magic to it that only gradually reveals its tricks, if in fact it ever does.
There's a related, rather mysterious phenomenon of how a certain song is wholly excruciating the first time you hear it, and the next time . . . and the next time . . . and . . . and there's always a next time, 'cause the dumb thing just won't leave you alone; strangely, you might even arrive at the point where you can't live without that excruciatingly dumb song. So, what goes on in that murky area between the loathing and the loving?
That's how it's been with Cat Power and me. The pseudonym of singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, Cat Power has for a few years now made the rounds with several albums' worth of songs that on cursory listen seem intended to make you feel bad. Bleak's one word for it, I thought early on: Who — aside from very young women alone and afraid in the great big city after breaking up with their boyfriends — has the time or inclination to wallow in someone else's misery? Give me something that makes me feel alive!
But I listened to Cat Power's big-bummer music anyway, because I had been told that it was worth the effort, that it could even change my life, burn away several supposings about myself and the secret language of music. Thus I kept torturing myself with Marshall's seemingly forlorn guitar or piano-accompanied musings on life, love, confusion, blades of grass, this color and that abstract painting. And I achieved a breakthrough of sorts. On her new album, You Are Free, Marshall — frustrated with her imposed image as the queen of sadcore — makes a semipoppy attempt at the blatantly upbeat, and, something like a flower opening up, the music reveals itself as most likely never having been a bummer at all. Put it this way: If it's a bummer, why does it make me happy?
I called Marshall at her home in Atlanta, where she's rehearsing for her upcoming road trip, and asked her about all this. Come to find out that she's, like, an actress — spacy and happy (I think she's much in love), bubbly, warm, funny and (busted) very charming. We exchanged a little chat about various silly things, like the grommet-encrusted punk rock ring she got for her young fashion-model boyfriend ("It's kind of scary," she whispers), and my superweird star chart (all planets except one are in Leo), which makes the astrologers run screaming from the room.
"Wow, that's so cool," she says.
"Yeah," I say, "I'm either the second coming of Christ or a latent Hitler."
Anyway, the rather beautiful Cat Power moved back down to her native Georgia five years ago after 11 or so years in New York, where, after being discovered by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, she became not just a respected figure in the downtown art-music scene but a much-photographed model for designers such as Marc Jacobs. But she went back home "'cause I had important things to do."
I say to Cat Power that I get the feeling, listening to her often deeply interior music — usually more like an outpouring of vague impressions of wishes, regrets, yearning, loneliness, alienation or visual scenarios ("and love," she adds) — that her music is something she doesn't like to make big plans for, like the idea is to wait and catch something while she can.
"I just do what I wanna do," she says. "Sometimes, it's like you'll come home and 'Man, I really gotta write something down,' maybe at your typewriter, a cup of coffee, sitting there — 'I just gotta write some shit down.' Or you'll run home and you're like, 'Oh God, I can't wait to get my paints,' or 'I can't wait to go home and fuckin' play guitar.'
"Music kind of makes time feel like it's going forward — and it freezes time. It makes a space that opens your mind a little bit, you see more colors and you see more visual stuff, not just your surroundings. If you're sitting in a jail cell and someone pumps the music, you might see more than the jail cell."
Cat Power's songs have a timelessness to them. I feel like I've been hearing them all my life.
"Really?" she says sweetly. "Thank you."
What makes a song feel timeless?
"It's so mysterious that we all like certain music, or we all like sunny days," she says. "We all have that sort of communication that we don't articulate, because it goes beyond words. It's a sort of instinctual kind of thoughtlessness, even, that we can't think about 'cause we're too busy doing our jobs or raising our kids or trying to be the best person in society or something."
I THINK OF CAT POWER'S MUSIC AS A MISINTERPRETED thing. Is this sad music for depressives to crank while sitting in their rooms and gazing out at the rain? She's not big on jokes, but listen again for an almost vibrating black humor. Her inspired persona of forthrightness and ambiguity seems a rare gift, and it's as if her ambivalence is a running theme in her songs.