At Long Last, Cat Power Returns With Originals

Excerpted from the magazine for

It has been three years since Chan Marshall, the one-woman mastermind behind Cat Power, released "The Covers Record," and closer to five since her last studio album of original material, "Moon Pix." Although the beguiling artist admits she spent some of the downtime relaxing in faraway locales, she was always writing songs that she knew would someday end up on a new album -- she just did not know when.

Part of the problem: Marshall, 31, accumulated around 40 new tracks and nearly drove herself mad trying to figure out which ones to release first. Even though the Feb. 18 release of "You Are Free" (Matador) has come and gone, she is still not fully confident with her choices. Asked what went into the selection process, Marshall says with a laugh, "Tension. Delirium. It was almost like creating three records."

Indeed, Marshall is a perfectionist of extreme proportions. Instead of creating and then continually revising her material, she prefers not to tinker with her songs at all once they are captured in their infancy on a basic cassette recorder. Marshall says this is directly responsible for her notoriously hit-or-miss live performances. "For me, what makes a song perfect is the way that it came out originally," she says. "If I can't get back to that source, I get frustrated with myself, because I'm trying to recapture that essence."

It took a change in her usual methods to nudge "You Are Free" to its completion. Rather than banging out the album in a concentrated block of time as she had done in the past, Marshall recorded in dribs and drabs in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. It was all pursuant to the busy schedule of engineer Adam Kasper, who was simultaneously working on projects with Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam.

"He'd be working with them and then the next day I'd be in a hotel room writing songs and getting away from the ones I was there to work on," Marshall says, noting that the album's first song ("I Don't Blame You") and last ("Evolution," featuring Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on vocals) were created this way.

The mix of these freshly written tracks and pre-existing older material such as "Good Woman" and "He War" has resulted in one of Marshall's most entrancing collections to date. Sound-wise, "You Are Free" largely favors the spartan instrumental setup utilized on "The Covers Record," as several songs feature only Marshall's ghostly voice and piano or guitar.

But, elsewhere, she rocks with newfound confidence on "Speak for Me" and "Shaking Paper" (featuring Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on drums). Her idiosyncratic narratives are also on full display throughout, particularly on "Names," a voice-and-piano exorcism of frank childhood memories that was captured on the first take.

"Adam had to run in and press record," Marshall says of the latter song. "That's why I think it is easy to get mad at me. I'm not conventional, unfortunately. But I am conventional! I'm just impatient!"

For Matador head Chris Lombardi, "You Are Free" -- which debuted at No. 1 on the Heatseekers chart-has already proved to be worth the wait. "Her voice is heartbreaking," he says. "I think it's her best album. It shows different sides of her, from the rockin' tunes to some truly sad, beautiful numbers."

Anyone interested in sampling the music can visit Marshall's Web site, where the full album can be streamed. A video for "He War" was recently shot by director Brett Vapnek.

Marshall says she would like to clear out her vaults before too long, but she is already looking ahead to a different kind of life. "It'd be great to release another record a year from now," she says. "Then I could take three years off and do another 'Covers Record.' Then retire. Five-year-plan. At 35, I'd like to have a couple of twins -- a he and a she!"

Excerpted from the March 8, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the members section.

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