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The Queen of Sadcore

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.

"What does ambivalence mean?"

"Mixed feelings. You might be addressing a certain subject, but you may not know how you really feel about it."

"I guess I think about things. A lot of people think that I'm just sad and quiet and whatever, but I'm just feeling my environment."

The best things Cat's done seem to have been captured instantaneously, rather than slaved over in the studio. Parts of the new album, though, are a bit more produced than her previous work; among her more recent records, Moon Pix, recorded in Australia with members of the Dirty Three, was a way-loose affair of creaky, stately piano and electric-guitar squawk; The Covers Record featured Cat in austere solo versions of her favorite pop classics and obscurities, from Hank Williams to the Velvet Underground to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. But You Are Free, with guests Dave Grohl on drums and Eddie Vedder on Lee Hazlewood-like croon, works hard in spots apparently to prove that Cat Power can wake up and really apply herself when she feels like it. The emotions on several cuts, such as "Free," the vitriolic "He War" and "Speak for Me," are, how you say, more in your face or up your bum this time around. But that could be a temporary phase.

"The poppy songs were just fun to do," says Marshall. "I was thinking about teenagers and how they're like the boys over here and the girls over there and, you know, they're so scared of each other, but they like each other so much, but there's nothing in school that kinda helps them get along. I know they teach sex education, but they don't teach understanding and communication. Sex, sex, sex, sex — and then when they go home they don't understand the human part."

Marshall's power works in an organic way. If you put her music on and listen to it like you would the wallpaper, invariably you're drawn toward it. It's in the way she adorns the tunes so simply, and it's in the unspectacular, untrained normalness of her voice, which pulls you in like the way a teacher got your attention by whispering. And it's a deceiving voice when pitted against the well-chosen words she chooses to sing. Hear "Say" from Moon Pix, where her monotone reading of the line "Never give up" would seem to trickle irony. But: Bleak, as in empty, isn't the word for it; when she follows that line with "The music is boring me to death" in "Colors and the Kids," it's funny. And it's mysterious why that is.

Cat Power's new album, cobbling together the songs she's accumulated over the last five or so years, comes after a period in which Marshall was thinking that she didn't want to be a musician at all anymore.

"Yeah, it's part of the thing that people don't know about," she sighs. "People say, 'Oh, you know it's so great that you get to do what you love.' But if it's all you do, it's different." Currently Cat Power has the urge, though, and inspiration still comes from somewhere in the ether.

"Music is like a place where there's no limit," she says. "You have that within you, like with painting — there aren't any rules; you don't even have to think about what you're saying or what you're thinking. That's the best thing about creating; it's just making stuff up."

Cat Power performs with her band at the Troubadour, Tuesday, February 18, and solo at the Knitting Factory, Friday, February 21.

CAT POWER | You Are Free | (Matador)c