February 19, 2003

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Free kitten
Cat Power channeled the spirit of Good Will Hunting – go figure – corralled a herd of demons, and then made a superb new album.

By Jimmy Draper

'DID YOU SEE that movie Good Will Hunting?" Chan Marshall, the voice behind Cat Power, asks.

We are parked on a brown leather sofa in a side lobby at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, discussing her new record, the superb You Are Free. Except, maybe because she'll be on a flight to Los Angeles in a few hours, the 31-year-old Marshall keeps spotting celebrities, or thinks she does, anyway. And while each sighting inspires a burst of chatter about movie stars that derails our conversation, I'm more distracted by the incongruity of the affection Marshall – an underground singer-songwriter not exactly known for uplifting, feel-good music – has for Matt Damon's heartwarming schlock.

"Do you remember the scene where the psychiatrist's like, 'It's not your fault. It's not your fault'?" she continues in her drowsy Southern drawl, slouching in blue jeans and a green and brown plaid shirt. "He repeats it, like, 10 times, and by the eighth time, my eyes started watering up 'cause I realized what was going on: the doctor was forcing him to see all this shit from his past that made him feel like shit his whole life. He was making him see that the feeling has been projected on him, that it wasn't even a part of him."

Marshall's candor is unusual, as is this conversation, which drifts almost randomly, one moment hailing the wonders of Paris and the next underlining the importance of the Internet. She speaks so passionately about Good Will Hunting, though – recounting in vivid detail the day a friend dragged her to a theater and how she found herself bawling at the film's end – that the influence of the movie's defeating-your-demons theme is clear. And since freedom – from the internal and external pressures caused by her career and the horrors of the modern world – is the central concern of her new album, it's nearly impossible to ignore the influence of that scene on You Are Free.

After a brief interruption caused by another could-be celebrity, Marshall sits upright on the sofa and returns to her testimony. "It's not your fault," she says quietly, smiling and repeating the phrase several times, as if she'd found a mantra in the prosaic message of the film.

News travels fast

Marshall has, to put it mildly, a reputation that precedes her.

With albums like Moon Pix, her folky, blues-strained breakthrough from late 1998, and 2000's The Covers Record, Georgia-born Marshall established herself as the missing, modern-day link between Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Perhaps more famously, however, she's carried the cross as indie rock's Most Troubled Troubadour since her single "Headlights" surfaced in 1994. Many unnerving, painfully uneven performances and abysmally bleak recordings have lent truth to that tag, but I find it strange that the thoughtful and thoroughly funny woman before me seems so unlike the media's characterizations of her as a woman on the verge.

Of course, Marshall isn't onstage at the moment, which is largely where she's earned her rep. Prone to crippling stage fright, she's been known to perform with her back to the crowd, hide behind her hair, and lie face down on the floor. She forgets lyrics and stumbles through her songs. She rambles incoherently. She apologizes profusely for fucking up. False starts abound. Sometimes she simply flees the stage. The New York Times once described her show as an "inversion of standard rock performance ethics," and anyone who's seen her perform would probably find it hard to argue with that assessment.

Much journalistic ink – some of questionable intent – has gone into analyzing Marshall's unpredictable performances. She's been accused of being unprofessional, which sounds kind compared to those who believe she is mentally unstable. One faction insists her freak-outs are calculated, the antics of an attention-starved fraud. Another feels sorry for her. And some, annoyed at all of the attention she's gotten, now refuse to think about her at all. Most, though, are simply resigned to the fact that a Cat Power show is a hit-or-mostly-miss proposition. Marshall offers her own, slightly oversimplified explanation: "Oh, man! I get so nervous," she says sheepishly. "Nobody's perfect. The spectacle isn't an autopsy, though, anyway. Like, 'Ow!' she says, pinching her arm. "No! There's gotta be something personal in everyone, but they really put you up there and nail you to the cross."

It's too bad the grim fascination of seeing an onstage meltdown has caused people to forget that a Cat Power performance can be a profoundly moving experience. When she does manage to overcome her fears, Marshall can captivate a sold-out venue with her fragile, folk rock hymns. Sometimes there are no breakdowns, no tears or stage flights – just haunting, heartbreaking songs that bleed into one another and illustrate why some people clutch their Cat Power albums like lifelines and devoutly attend her concerts despite possible disaster.

On some nights, the good ones, Marshall is driven to exorcise her demons in a way I've found only in the unpolished and often unpretty realness of Mary J. Blige. A Blige performance might get rough at times, but only because life gets rough too. Marshall recognizes a kindred spirit when she sees one, gushing , when I mention the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, "Mary's so punk rock. She's a survivor and so strong, and she's inspired me."

Marshall reveals that she's recorded "Deep Inside," the spotlight-critical single from Blige's 1999 album Mary, but as with all of the songs recorded for her sequel to The Covers Record, she has no plans to release it. "People were so skeptical about The Covers Record in general," she says, explaining why she shelved the project initially planned to follow her last album. "Any time there's any heat, I usually just back off. Everyone was like, 'Oh ...,'" she says, cringing. "People wanted a follow-up to Moon Pix. It was a mistake. It was all a mistake. Nothing is ever really – I mean, even with this record, I'm just lucky that I turned it in and I'm not in trouble or something."

The comment is typical of Marshall, who – as she so often does onstage – spends much of our time together dismissing and finding fault with her own work. She apologizes for not living up to people's expectations, lists off things that are more important than her music (Rwanda, the impending war against Iraq), and humbly downplays even the slightest possibility that people find solace in her songs. Throughout our interview it's clear that, despite (or because of) all of the criticism she receives, no one is harder on Chan Marshall than Chan Marshall. "Anybody can do what I am doing," she says matter-of-factly. "Oh, definitely."

After the fall

For all of the self-doubt that plagues her onstage and when she's talking about her music, You Are Free is Marshall's most confident, fully realized work. Produced by Adam Kasper (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters), the first collection of original Cat Power material in four-plus years sounds like it's the first time Marshall actually cares that people hear her music. Whereas her previous recordings often had an unfinished, demolike quality that almost called for peripheral, background listening, You Are Free commands and deserves undivided attention with slicker production, not-so-secret guests (Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl), and Marshall's most accessible, structured songwriting to date.

Most important, it sounds light years removed from the emotional wreckage of her previous releases. In older songs like "Metal Heart," "No Sense," and "Schizophrenia's Weighted Me Down," Marshall seemed to lose herself in a black hole of hopelessness; here, as the album's title suggests, she crawls out of the darkness. "We can all be free ... pray it to be, shake this land," she urges on "Maybe Not," and such optimism largely permeates the record, showing up on songs like "Shaking Paper" and "Babydoll." The album's biggest musical departure, the almost rockin' "Free," even uses a drum machine (!) to implore the timid to find freedom on the dance floor. The songs are still largely downbeat and bittersweet, but since Marshall has finally allowed hope to creep into them, it's as affecting an album as you'll hear this year.

The highlight is "I Don't Blame You." Marshall uses the song, a devastatingly beautiful piano-based hymn about a musician who feels forced to perform the songs everyone wants to hear, to commiserate about the pressures and perils of performing. "What a cruel price you thought that you had to pay," she sings. "They never owned it, and you never owed it to them anyway, but I don't blame you." It sounds like an ode to Kurt Cobain, whom she's spoken passionately about in the past, but she balks when I mention his name. "It's not about him – that's all I can say. You're the first one to make that connection, though. But I'm not gonna say who it's about."

Still, it's hard not to read both Cobain and Marshall's struggles with the spotlight into "I Don't Blame You." She did, after all, once tell a reporter that she'd probably respond to MTV-size celebrity the same way the Nirvana singer did. Which is why the understanding and empathy at the core of the song and album is so heartbreaking: just as Marshall keeps releasing records and stepping onstage to rid herself of demons, she wants people to fight the pressures and expectations they have projected onto them, to unlearn the bullshit that makes them uncomfortable in their own skin.

"There's so much projection about the Bud Light-commercial girl or the images of jock guys, so much projection and fear of not fitting in," she says, her fists clenched in her lap as she explains why she chose the title. "I just wish that young girls and boys who are shy or don't wanna dance at the party, that they'd realize nothing lasts forever and they should take chances and go with instincts. Don't be afraid to do what you wanna do."

Marshall would never believe it, but You Are Free might help some listeners realize all of those projections aren't their fault, just as Robin Williams's psychiatrist did with Matt Damon's character. It's her best work by miles – a near masterpiece that, for anyone else, would be a career's crowning achievement. Marshall is, predictably, unsatisfied.

"But I can fulfill what I want a little later," she says, then laughs. "One day you'll hear me say, 'This is the record.' You'll be like, 'What is she fuckin' talkin' about?! She's insane!' But the day it happens, mark those words. That's it. I won't be around anymore. I'll be like, 'I did it. I can go home now.' " And when Marshall leaves the biz behind, when her songs and her stage performances have finally freed her from whatever it is that haunts her, I won't blame her, either.

Cat Power performs as part of Noise Pop Feb. 26, 7 p.m., Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F. $15 (advance tickets sold out; limited tickets available night of show). (415) 474-0365.