Cat Power’s Best Covers and Biggest Changes, According to Chan Marshall

“When I heard Billie Holiday sing, I could feel her. It was the first time I didn’t feel alone, because I heard somebody who also felt so desperately alone.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Roger Sargent

Something happens during a good Cat Power performance. “The dimension arrives,” explains Chan Marshall, who’s performed under that moniker since the 1990s. “A little tiny portal arrives, and it’s like, Oh, shit, did that just happen? Oh, that felt really good.” It happened last September, when she headlined the side stage at Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. She’d recently finished a stint opening for Alanis Morissette and Garbage solo, armed with just her piano and guitar. But her first show back with a full band since the COVID-19 pandemic felt different. “That night was just, for me, it was one song,” she says. “And it usually takes a month to have a show like that, where maybe we didn’t sound so great, but every single one of us was just thriving, having a great night, and that was a huge gift.” It wasn’t just Marshall and her band — the transcendent feeling carried over to the audience, owing to a loose, intoxicating set list stacked with deep cuts and what’s become a hallmark of her best performances: covers.

Over her career, Marshall has become known as much for her songwriting as for her ability to interpret music, whether a Rolling Stones classic, a folk or blues standard, or a Rihanna hit. At Pitchfork, the highlight was a meandering medley of the folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine,” Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” and “Shivers” by the Boys Next Door. Marshall doesn’t cover songs in a grab for relevance or as a novelty — she’s motivated more by a genuine connection to the songs she chooses to sing, almost on as deep of a level as the ones she’s written. “It’s like an itch,” she says. “If I don’t fuckin’ record it, as a document, it feels like it’s gonna make me sick or something.”

Marshall is on the phone from her balcony in Miami, smoking an American Spirit Yellow and drinking a cold decaf coffee. She’s promoting Covers, her 11th studio album and third covers album, following 2000’s The Covers Record and 2008’s Jukebox; for all three, she says, she had to ask her label to do the project. (“It’s not something that they want to do.”) Still, Covers is a worthy installment in the Cat Power canon, a collection that includes everything from the surreal 1998 masterpiece Moon Pix to the unlikely 2012 pop hit “Manhattan.” Covers is one of the best documents of Marshall’s omnivorous tastes, with the singer taking on the Replacements, Frank Ocean, Billie Holiday, Lana Del Rey, the Pogues, and Ryan Gosling’s onetime band Dead Man’s Bones. Even one of her own songs, The Greatest’s “Hate,” appears in a new performance as “Unhate.”

Rather than looking to rock and pop, Marshall finds her covers inspiration from the folk and jazz scenes, where songs are passed down and around and reinvented, without hang-ups around whether the performer wrote it. “All it does is it just creates a sense of community, you know?” she says. “More people learn about different things, and it’s really essential to our fuckin’ evolution that we all learn about other stuff.” Marshall spoke to Vulture about her history of covers and what she’s learned from nearly three decades in the music business.

Song on Covers that feels like you wrote it

I just go back to the first time I heard Billie Holiday, and the connection that I felt from hearing her sing was I didn’t feel as lonely. I think I was 13. I heard that someone else felt truly lonely. There are two pivotal songs for me. First was the live version of Aretha Franklin from 1964 on PBS singing “Amazing Grace”; I was 12 [in 1984] and that was the first time that I had music change me. I don’t know how to describe it — something changed in me when I saw that performance, that I hadn’t experienced in music before. But when I heard Billie Holiday sing, I could feel her. It wasn’t necessarily thinking I wrote her song, but it was the first time I didn’t feel alone, because I heard somebody who also felt so desperately alone.

I felt like she was a homing device. Like, if she was the grand alien wizard, I felt like I had found an answer to a riddle. She possessed some sort of supernatural device that I learned, some strength that I don’t know how to describe.

Covers song you changed the most

I’d say “Against the Wind.” When I record, I always set up the instruments and the mics and get the levels and make sure everything sounds good. Like, “Stay,” the Rihanna cover from my last record — that was me doing a vocal test and a piano test. I’d never played that song before. “Against the Wind” was a similar example of me just testing the mic, getting in the mood, getting in the vibration of the other dimension, you know? ’Cause I got all the technical shit in order; now I’m gonna try to get into the dimension.

The first four songs for Covers were recorded in the same way that I was describing. But I’m not sitting at the piano, I’m not sitting at the guitar, I’m not sitting at the drums. So I told the piano player, guitar player, and drummer to — I basically composed the first four songs. The first song, I jump in the vocal booth, the tape’s rolling, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I had an experience last summer with an older friend of mine who was going through a lot of shit, and I was like, Fuck. I grabbed his phone and I played “Against the Wind.” And he just looks at me, and he stopped crying, he smiled at me, and he understood that he could be stronger and he could get through what’s going on. And I was in the vocal booth and I was like, Fuck, maybe I’ll try to sing that song. So I looked on my iPhone, got the lyrics, and I just started singing. That was one take.

I jumped out of the booth and composed the music again, for “I Had a Dream Joe.” Did the same thing with my phone, had no intention of ever in my life covering “I Had a Dream Joe” ever in my life, never. I mean, “Against the Wind,” sure, maybe one day I might think of that. Then the third one was “In the Sea,” which is so sad and groovy. And then the last one was “You Got the Silver.”

Favorite cover of a Cat Power song

No, you know what’s one of the beautiful things? Johnny Cash, three weeks before June passed, his granddaughters contacted me. He was already recording another covers record, and I spoke with them and they said they played their granddad my album, I think it was You Are Free. Hearing that Johnny Cash heard a moment of me, just meeting him in that way … I had a dream about him after he passed, but that’s another story — a beautiful, beautiful fuckin’ dream.

But anyway, they were trying to decide which song he was gonna cover, and they said that he loved my music, he loved that record, he loved my songs. It doesn’t bother me that that never happened. I am so full of appreciation knowing that someone that I love so dearly, who I’d never even met — I’ve known his songs since I was a little girl, you know? I have a full heart just that he appreciated me, and that means much more to me than someone covering my song.

Favorite song to play when you returned to touring

For the recent Garbage-Alanis tour, solo with the guitar [and] piano, “The Moon,” probably. Or, oh wait, oh no, “Metal Heart,” I play it a different way now. I’d say either “The Moon” or “Metal Heart.” I play them both differently now. I think “The Moon” ’cause I changed the lyrics, and I tell the audience that they are the moon, they are the universe, and that no one’s gonna ever tell you that you have to know, and you already know, don’t you? So I think “The Moon.”

Least favorite song to play live

It would have to be “Hate.” I recorded this album with a band in L.A. for four days. I stayed in the studio for another week, so I was doing mixes, mastering and different things. I was having to hear certain things, and when I was listening to “Unhate,” I realized that — and it was a big deal for me to see this — I struggled with depression since I was young, and all these albums up to The Greatest, even The Greatest, I was always suicidal. And it had never occurred to me that after that, I wasn’t anymore. So when I heard this song and I’m thinking about the guitars, and the technical aspect of the recording sounded okay, I think I got it, and I just started listening to the words. I realized, Damn, I never put that in front of my face and thought about every fuckin’ record. I was always really trying hard to not, you know, go away to where nobody knew.

In 2014, I did a solo tour around the entire world while pregnant with my son, because I had already booked it. And I chose to sing that song again, and that’s when I chose to change the lyrics, when my son was in my belly. That’s the only way that I would’ve ever played that song again, is because I had a soul in my belly and I felt like I needed to make that song right. So “Unhate” is the one song I can play now that I didn’t wanna ever play.

Song you couldn’t have written when you were younger

Probably “Nothin But Time.” I played this show at at the opera house in Sydney, Australia, for the Moon Pix 20th anniversary with Jim White and Mick Turner plus a strings section. Doing that performance in that place with those friends, Jim and Mick — we were older, you know. We had survived our life’s ups and downs, as some of our friends had not been able to do. And being able to sing all those songs, it was as if I was able to make the younger me, the Moon Pix me, that age [26] in my life — I’m not gonna say I was able to heal her, but she was able to arrive in some safe dimension of now. If she only knew then that she was gonna be okay. That’s what “Nothin But Time” is about for me, for other young people. And older people looking back on their life. Yes, things are hard, but yes, everyone has a piece of fortune. Not everybody is allowed to ever see it or hold it or experience it. Most of the world is never allowed to even sense that it exists. So, that’s what that song’s about: It’s just fortified like, you know, I don’t know — power. I don’t know!

Your son’s favorite song

He likes “Pa Pa Power.” He doesn’t like any of my songs. His name’s Boaz, he’s my best friend, he’s my worst enemy — I’m just kidding. But [laughs] he’s the coolest dude. I have a little macho boy, he’s like straight-up fuckin’ Taurus. God sent me backup.

So when he was able to walk, he’s still falling down on his face and his diaper, and I was just practicing “The Greatest,” and he came from his bedroom, and just, his look on his face was terror. And I looked at him and I was like, “Are you okay, honey?” and he’s just [whining], and I didn’t understand. So I made him comfortable, and I started playing again, and he came back over, and he was like [crying]. It was the music. He couldn’t deal with me playing “The Greatest.” So his whole childhood, if I try to play guitar or piano, it’s gotta be rock and roll, hip-hop, punk rock, post-punk, or something. He says, “Mom, you know I hate beautiful music ’cause it makes me sad.” Like, I can’t listen to jack shit at home that I would normally listen to.

But he likes “Pa Pa Power.” He likes the bass, he likes the boom-dun, boom-boom-dun, boom-dun. And he likes the lyrics. Because, he got really interested when Black Lives Matter happened and he was hearing the chanting. He was 4 when it started, but he’s asking all these questions like, “What is ‘Power to the people,’ Mom?” So I told him everything, you know. And I think, because of all of that, he somehow understands that “Pa Pa Power” has to kind of do with that, which it does in my opinion. I’m really close with Zach, who wrote the lyrics, and I’ve actually never asked him what it’s about because it just seems to be evident what it’s about, but I’ll ask him when I see him next week. What exactly does “Burn the cars / Burn the streets / Pa pa power” mean? But anyway, my son loves that song. Or, that’s the only song he likes.

Weirdest place you’ve heard your music

I got an offer to do a panties commercial when I had done my first record for Matador, What Would the Community Think. They had asked to use a song of mine, for like, Victoria’s Secret or something like this. And there was no money, but it would be exposure, whatever. And I was like, “Fuck you.” I happened to see the commercial when it came out, because it was huge, and the motherfuckers had gotten like a template musician to make this similar song, even the end of the song they did exactly the same. So that’s the weirdest place I’ve seen my music. It was “Nude As the News.”

I didn’t have a lawyer or a manager then. I’ve had a manager now for the past four, five years. Thank you very much, thank you very much. [Laughs.] I have a lawyer now who was not Harvard dorm roommates with the guy who ran my label for 20 years. I have a new lawyer now.

Biggest misconception about you

That I’m a train wreck live. When Moon Pix came out, I was suffering from depression. I didn’t really have a support system in my life. There was a show for Moon Pix, and my ex–record label [Matador] had invited all this press, and I’d never done that before. The first show for the album and this and that. And there was a guy backstage that I knew from a long time ago, when I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I was like, “What the fuck are you doing here?” We weren’t very close at all. He was a junkie. He came closer to me, he started lifting up his shirt, and he had a Glock in his pants. Pulls up his shirt, puts his hands on the gun, about to pull it out, and I just instinctively turned around, ’cause I know every junkie loves sugar. So I bent down to this little mini-fridge, pulled out a Coke, smiled, and cracked it open and handed it to him, and he dropped his shirt, moved his hands, huge smile, took the Coke.

So I ran downstairs, and I talked to my ex–record label, and I said, “There’s a guy upstairs, he’s got a gun, and I don’t know if it’s loaded or what, but you need—” And the words were, “Oh my God, she’s fuckin’ crazy, go play. “And I looked at them like, Oh, of course, of course I’m dealing with this shit. This is what’s in my path all the time. So I turned to the security guard, this huge dude, and I was like, “There is a guy with a gun upstairs, can you please call security or backup or 911?” And he did his walkie-talkie thing. So I go out and I start playing, and it’s packed, it’s the Bowery Ballroom. I’ve never played the fuckin’ Bowery Ballroom before. I’m playing the first song, and I hear this shuffling, and they throw him down, but they didn’t restrain him and take him out of the venue. They didn’t believe me. And I watched them. By the fifth song, he starts making his way through the audience. That’s when I fell to the stage, ’cause he was coming quickly, and I ran, crawled off the stage, and I started crying, and they just thought I was insane.

All the journalists, the New York Times, everybody wrote that I was a train wreck, didn’t finish the set, all kinds of things. And I internalized it, like I did as a kid, growing up with the trauma. I just suppressed it. Yeah, that I’m crazy. That I have no idea what I’m talking about. I finally don’t struggle with that, you know. It took me many years not to. ’Cause I think that’s like an illness, that construct that men have against women. Anyway. [Laughs.] I don’t wanna go down there. I don’t wanna talk about this shit! I’m cool, and I think we’re all good around here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Originally performed by Bob Seger in 1980 on his album of the same name with the Silver Bullet Band. Marshall’s cover is darker and more brooding than Seger’s heartland rock hit. In 2018, Marshall told Pitchfork she dreamed she met Johnny Cash in a diner, where he told her that his wife had given birth to a son named Icarus. Johnny Cash died four months after his wife, June Carter Cash, on September 12, 2003. The guitarist and drummer of the Dirty Three, who originally recorded Moon Pix with Marshall in Melbourne. Shields, the Godzilla: King of the Monsters co-writer, who performed in Dead Man’s Bones with Ryan Gosling. While the title may seem to fit a lingerie commercial, “Nude As the News” is about an abortion Marshall had when she was 20. Marshall left Matador Records before releasing her 2018 album Wanderer on Domino Records. She claimed Matador turned down the album after a number of disputes. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff called Marshall’s 1999 Bowery Ballroom performance “a train wreck” in a review headlined “Performance Anxiety: Hiding Onstage.”
Cat Power on Her Best Covers and Biggest Changes