Cat Power: The Greatest?

“Taking a Chance with Chan Marshall.”


Dedicated to Em. R. York, the music BB. 


Charlyn “Chan” Marshall, better known by her distinguished stage name “Cat Power,” has cemented herself as the premier poster child when it comes to the heart of the music industry.


In all fairness, 1994 didn’t produce anything particularly remarkable in terms of music besides maybe No Need to Argue and the album’s iconic hit “Zombie” respectively. In regards to film it’s an entirely different story, with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Luc Besson’s Léon coming to mind; in actuality if we’re going to be completely honest ‘94 might be one of the best years in film history, having produced multiple masterpieces. Still, the music industry was crammed with nothing but a bad bunch of pop bunk and angsty prose-works sprinkled with melodrama. 


The gritty and low-fi Dear Sir, hidden under a mountain of boring EP’s, caught only a small glimpse from the public eye. Even so, it was a unique and unequivocally raw sound that worked to tug Marshall out of her depressing heroin-riddled basement scene. The album probably wasn’t the best introduction that the world could’ve had to Marshall’s work; its meager spoils, both metaphorical and literal, would nonetheless go on to contrast her later releases (and, eventually, her way of life). 


By no means would I ever want to take on the grim existence of a young adult in the middle of one of the most depressing eras in both music and life in general. It’s something that definitely hit a burgeoning Cat Power hard, with alcohol and drugs taking a strong grip on her life (for a long while.) The depression, coinciding with other crippling habits, would influence her career up to contemporary age of Marshall’s music; the slow start as well as the constant feeling of being shoved up against a wall have allowed both Marshall and her music to find envelopment in a vast sea of strength and confidence. 


That’s definitely a lot; I should probably elaborate as to what I’m actually getting at. 


I’d testify in an instant that the entirety of the human race has heard or envisioned the story of a true hero struggling to overcome nigh impossible odds. The fables of antiquity pair well with their modern day ‘action-hero’ counterparts; both are still enjoyed, and both share the old-as-dirt themes that come with the hero’s journey (and its equivalents).

Something’s a bit different about Marshall (otherwise I probably wouldn’t bother to write about her or her career.) I’m not sure if it’s her moxy, or her pure confidence; whatever it is definitely sets Marshall apart from her peers. 


After Dear Sir, Marshall released Myra Lee (1996), with both albums being recorded in the same year yet released on top of each other in 95’ and 96’ respectively. Low-fi and mellow don’t properly describe either of these albums, as both are characterized by their previously mentioned raw, gruff vocalizations from Marshall and gritty chords. The first two didn’t necessarily set themselves out to be the best two (as I’ll be getting to); neither was her third release the worst; Chan Marshall would find true success in her later albums, as her unique sound would develop until it reached absolute perfection.


Marshall definitely worked at her own pace, with concerning hiatuses being an occasional issue throughout her career. 96’s What Would the Community Think and 98’s iconic Moon Pix would draw on what would come to be defined as Marshall’s distinct sound, with their balance being tipped in the favor of jazz and folksiness as opposed to the harsh grunge that came before; after Moon Pix, Marshall wouldn’t release anything of note until 2003, when she put out You Are Free which was the first Cat Power album to land a spot on the Billboard 200. 


The sound kept changing; Marshall’s wavy bouts of depression resonated in her voice, her true sound being epitomized in her magnum opus, The Greatest (2006). 


Often being described as one of if not the best works of her life, The Greatest is a combination of the greatest aspects of Marshall and her career. Doing away with the angry ruminations of her earliest works entirely, the album is a perfect blend of folk, jazz and rock. It hits all of the right spots, and in itself is a solid reflection of Marshall as a whole.


It’s raw poetry put to song (something that’s definitely helped by having access to a backing band made out of some of the most iconic soul and jazz performers from the past few decades.) Yet like Marshall, it teeter-totters between heart-crushing depression and glimmering rays of lovely sunshine on a track-to-track basis. 


The title track maintains both qualities; the projection of despair in lines such as “Lower me down…pin me in…secure the grounds,” contrasts with the hope and nostalgia found in the words “Two fists of solid rock…with brains that could explain any feeling.” It paints a picture that hits your heart and soul, lowering and raising your spirits at the same time. 


To consider myself a diehard fan of Marshall’s work would be dishonest. I haven’t listened to much after The Greatest besides a few songs from her newest work, Wanderer (2018) as well as a couple tracks in between the two decade-apart releases. Even with this being true, I did want to make a point that it wouldn’t matter anyhow has the “Venture in Cat Power” has decidedly come full circle anyhow. 


Wanderer is about a year and a half old now, and it doesn’t seem like we should be expecting much else out of Marshall anytime soon, as the entire album was written and recorded as a reaction to her surprise child. ‘Cat Power’ didn’t die as an idea with the birth of a baby boy, but it served its purpose. Chan Marshall is now a mother who’s a bit closer to the Charlyn Marshall which carried with her an air of emotion back in the 80’s and 90’s, yet with a whole life’s experience alongside her; While she plans to continue making music in her traditionally spotty fashion, she’d be good to retire her six-string at any time. 


There would also be a bit of dishonesty if I said that I had an endless amount of positive gestures to direct towards Marshall’s music; I don’t have anything particularly negative to say about her work but the quality of her music alone isn’t why I set out to write on her career. 


A sound most-unique is part of what has brought Marshall to her current pedestal in the music industry. The sound epitomized in The Greatest is both special and resolute; it’s amber goodness sprayed with rose scented perfume. Her backing bands and the tight homeliness of it all is what keeps Marshall on top. Above all, though, Marshall’s story is one of the few in music that came out with a happy ending; even as more music is released at a rocky rate, the story of “Cat Power” had both a beginning and an end. 


Marshall’s story can be understood as one woman’s grand journey over a course of around 25 years. 


It started with a young girl nearing her lowest of lows back in the early 90’s; an undeveloped, rough sound dancing around a new flame sparked a sense of potential for the road ahead. The young girl worked her way to the top and as she matured into a woman her music would reach its peak. Now she’s a mother and past her prime, enjoying simple days beyond the golden aura which surrounded her efforts in the mid 2000’s. The story of Chan Marshall’s music is over. 


Her experimentation in genre and melody, her persistence in the arts and her undying devotion to the work she loved most are all qualities which set Marshall apart from her contemporaries (among so many other things.) 


Music is hard to write on, which is why singling out a particular artist is generally a good choice. I have the intention to write on other artists in the future, especially the likes of my favorite Glam-Era stars such as Bowie, Elton John and Mercury. Highlighting the stories of other musicians around Marshall’s own early era such as Kurt Cobain (who committed suicide the same year Dear Sir was recorded) and Chester Bennington, with the struggles those artists faced being something that’s also important to touch on. If only there was enough time in the world to elaborate on each and every one of their careers. 


We can learn a lot from Chan (pronounced like “Shawn” or with an oriental tinge) Marshall, including a myriad of other things that I don’t have the time, experience or perspective to properly include in detail. There’s no hyperbole when it comes to what can be extrapolated from her and her work. 


As a student, Marshall has inspired me to work hard in order to reach new heights of happiness and success in the future. As a writer, Marshall’s authentic and inventive lyricism brings invigoration when it comes to writing bits of poetry and pieces for the paper. As a singer, Marshall has helped me develop a sense of confidence in my voice and the style that I’ve chosen to implement in my personal musical career. 


As a person, Marshall’s work reminded me that we all have our own story. We all have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s up to us to figure out what goes on in between those moments. That can definitely be a hard thing to do, but it’s important for a healthy and fulfilling life. 


There’s not all too much more to say besides the fact that, even with all of the philosophical musings put aside, you should definitely try out some of Marshall’s music (at least her greatest hits; my personal favorites are off of The Greatest and Moon Pix). 


You only get one chance to be The Greatest, so why not take it? 


Afterword: On a personal note, Marshall’s tunes can really help with difficult times. Even though her hard-hitting lyrics and heartstring-tugging melodies can be a challenge to get used to at first, it’s definitely worth checking out her music to use as a coping mechanism if not for the purpose of hearing some good music.