Chan Marshall’s modus operandi: “Working alone is just really the only way I’ve ever done it. I like being alone. I like painting alone. I like to write with the typewriter alone. I’m not self-conscious alone.” Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel
In 2006, Chan Marshall was visiting a shop in Memphis when she happened upon an instrument—not necessarily one that most readers of this magazine would find covetable—that spoke to her. It was an abused, no-name nylon-string that cost only $40. Marshall, who performs under the stage name Cat Power (borrowed from a trucker’s hat decorated with the phrase Cat Diesel Power), has since relied on the instrument as her songwriting muse, and she used its subdued voice to excellent effect on her latest album, Wanderer, her first in six years.
At 46, Marshall, whose first name is pronounced Shawn, has long been an indie-rock icon. After a childhood spent in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where she absorbed the region’s Baptist, blues, and country sounds, she moved to New York City in 1992 and was exposed to an entirely different scene of free jazz and improvisation. Her earliest shows in the city were semi-improvised, but beginning with her first full-length album, 1995’s Dear Sir—which she recorded with Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar) and Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth)—she focused on her songcraft.
On the strength of her earliest efforts, Marshall was signed to Matador Records, a premier indie-rock label. Over the course of seven albums for Matador—from 1996’s What Would the Community Think to 2012’s Sun—she laid the groundwork for contemporary independent singers like Phoebe Bridgers and Angel Olsen.
Marshall’s guitar work—on the acoustic or her customary Danelectro or Silvertone—has always been a study in understatement. On the electric, she plays chiming, reverb-drenched parts, with rolling arpeggios and the occasional off-kilter harmony that perfectly complement her soulful, whiskey-toned vocals.
She was once known for sometimes-erratic performances, owing to anxieties and struggles with substance abuse, but in recent years she has made some transformations. Marshall recently cut ties with Matador, due to mutual creative differences. In interviews, Marshall’s explained that when she presented her latest album to the label, an executive played her an Adele recording to demonstrate how he thought it should sound. That obviously did not go over well.
At the same time, Marshall has stepped into the role of single mother. Her toddler son appears on the cover of Wanderer, next to the neck of her Danelectro. Motherhood has put her in a protective and nurturing place, which is apparent in the album’s generally quiet and cozy vibe, with guitar- and piano-based songs that are produced much more sparsely than those on Sun, with its shimmering electronic layers.
I spoke with Marshall recently via telephone, and, with a trace of a Southern drawl, she talked candidly about how motherhood informed Wanderer. She also discussed her working processes, her no-name acoustic, her vintage Fender amps—and the importance of reverb in her life.
Your latest album is much more stripped-down than your previous one, and the guitars, both electric and acoustic, play a starring role. What did you use in recording the album?
The acoustic is a nylon-string $40 guitar that I got in Memphis a while back. I still have the price tag on it. I really don’t know what kind of guitar it is. The brand is something I can’t see, where it would have the beautiful colors—the very tiny colors around where the strings cross that big circular hole—sorry, what’s it called, the rosette?
Yeah. The rosette is all cracked off. It really is a piece of shit, but the sound is incredible. I keep the guitar on the back of my closet door in my New York apartment.
Is that no-name guitar the one that provides the harmonic backbone on Wanderer’s “Black” and “Me Voy”?
Yes, that’s the one. I love it.
What electric guitars did you play on the album?
The electric guitar on the record is a ’59 or ’61 Danelectro—you know the one that Jimmy Page played? I don’t really know anything about guitars, but I have a few of those. The one I used for the record is a copper one that I got on eBay. It’s really old and somewhat delicate, and the tone is so beautiful. That’s the only one I think I used on the album, but I honestly can’t remember for sure.
TIBIT: Motherhood was a catalyst for Wanderer, Cat Power’s first new album in six years. For the recording process, she rented a house in Miami with her toddler son in tow and brought in all of her own gear to create a personal studio.
You have a lovely tone on the electric guitar. What are you using for amps?
Thanks, I appreciate that. There was a 1964 Fender Princeton, a blackface. That was my first amp, and I’ve had it all these years. It doesn’t have reverb on it, so I bought another one that did. And I also use a Fender Twin. But the truth is, I don’t care really care which one I use. I just like to plug in and turn it on.
“In Your Face” and “Wanderer/Exit” both kick off with electric parts drenched in warm reverb. Is it from one of your Fenders?
It’s definitely from the amplifier—probably the Princeton Reverb, but it also could be from the room, because I put different mics in different places, and I like a room mic across the fuckin’ room. It just gives you a nice sense of depth. But I honestly cannot live without that great amp reverb. I’ve tried and have survived, but it’s not a happy life without reverb [laughs].
That’s funny. “In Your Face” has an ever-so-slightly unusual chord progression….
I don’t know chords. I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?
Not in the slightest. On the album, in general your guitar has a warm and distinctive attack. Are you playing fingerstyle or using a pick?
I don’t usually use a pick. I use the fat on my thumb and the side of my forefingers to pick and strum. If I have to, though, I use a Dunlop grey medium—the dark grey one or the light grey, whichever I can find.