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Cat Power on “Wanderer”

Woman of Her Word

Apr 23, 2019 Cat Power
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After speaking for an uninterrupted 15 minutes, Chan Marshall stops to apologize. This will happen several more times during our conversation, and each time it is for the same reason.

The years since the release of 2012’s Sun have been intense, and she simply loses herself in their retelling. In truth, this story begins during the writing and recording of Sun, an album Marshall says came with the unwelcome mandate from her longtime label, Matador, to “deliver a hit.” The stress that followed the touring for that album kicked off a hereditary angioedema that threatened her life and sent her around the world looking for an effective treatment. Once cured, she became deeply involved with the burgeoning Occupy movement, then watched it unravel. Disillusioned, she was soon packing her bags for South Africa, where she unexpectedly became sick again, this time discovering she was pregnant. To top it all off, after she returned to the U.S. and finished the album that would become Wanderer, Matador promptly rejected it, leaving Marshall to question whether her career was over. All she had left was her son and her music.

“I realized, ‘Oh, these guys [at Matador] don’t have artistic integrity, or I’m a terrible artist,’” she recalls. “‘I can live with either of those options, but I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got to continue to tour or figure out how to get a book deal so I can write a book and be with my child.’ I couldn’t cry or be sad. I had to learn the lesson there very quickly and move on.”

Speaking from the same New York City apartment Marshall has rented since she first became an indie darling in the mid-‘90s, she is in good spirits today, slipping into a playful Southern drawl when she talks about the joys of motherhood. Still, it’s clear that the previous half-decade has left its mark on her. When she speaks about her dealings with Matador, the legendary indie label that released seven Cat Power full-length albums, she can barely withhold her disgust. A self-described “poet who likes to sing,” she saw the increased commercial expectations as an imposition into her creative process, something that lingered long after Sun hit number 10 on the Billboard 200. Though she is adamant that the pressure to create a viable product has not compromised her artistic vision in any sense, she is equally adamant that Wandererher first album for Dominowas meant to be something different.

“My whole goal for this album was to let [it be] whatever it was that has saved me along the way, that has spoken to fans who’ve told me, ‘Chan, you really helped me through this time in my life when I needed help,’” she explains. “I didn’t tear anything down. All I did was have silence and whatever shall be, shall be. And I protected that link, that line, that thread. Whatever Bessie Smith song I heard one day that made my mouth fall open, and it was just her [singing] a cappella. Whatever thread I have heard in Leonard Cohen in between the music, when he’s lamenting his soul. Whatever thread was going to come through me, I was just holding the needle. Less than being stripped down, it was just nothing.”

Opening with the gospel-tinged title track and winding through haunted ballads and a soulful cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” Wanderer is an album constructed of quiet, intimate brushstrokes. First single “Woman” serves as a sort of thesis for the album, a rousing anthem that manages to be both a statement of personal defiance and collective liberation, a shot across the bow of those who would doubt her. Track-by-track, the album is the sound of an artist learning to trust her instincts again.

“I had to understand my value,” she says. “And through that, it has been revealed that I’m okay. All these gut instincts that we have in our lives, as we get older society will punch them out of us. If we can always remember that you have to stay true to your gut instincts in life, perhaps spiritually you will be safe,” she says with a laugh. “So, whatever. I’m totally starting over now, dude.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 65 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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