Heart to heart: in conversation with Cat Power

Chan Marshall, known to most as Cat Power, makes deep, soul-searching eye contact when she speaks. Curious and instantly compassionate, her soft, considered-but-not-languid voice is as musical when she’s talking as when she sings, and makes you lean in over the table so you don’t miss a word.

In the midst of her world tour with new album Wanderer, we are speaking about her recent Sydney show – which was “good, I mean it’s always good when it’s not terrible” – before talk turns to affairs of the heart. As the writer of songs like Metal Heart and Love & Communication, she is certainly qualified to comment.

Marshall is so open that I feel little shame confessing that I have cried to her records in the past, and I ask her about songs that define heartbreak for her.

“I mean, the painful shit is so traumatising its so hard to remove it from our memory, and I guess that’s why songs play such a huge part in humanity. They can help us heal, they are like a prescription. Certain songs can help us, like medicine, for certain pains.”

And what would she prescribe for a broken heart? “I remember when I was 20 years old, my boyfriend, just out of the blue (I was naive to his drug problem) ... I came home he was just, well, packed. And he just said, ‘Pumpkin, I’m moving back to Atlanta.’ I remember he had this old station wagon and I watched him drive away from my window.” Left alone in a huge living room, with a tiny television and a stereo, “I felt like I was gonna die, you know? I just collapsed on the couch."

"I felt like I was dying. And I saw [Rolling Stones album] Sticky Fingers, and I knew which song I needed: I Got The Blues."

"And I just listened to it for hours, you know the one, track one on side A. Every heartbreak, whether it’s romantic or the loss of someone, has a song. It’s never really a record, its usually just a song that kills me.” Chan snaps her fingers. “And it kills me quick.” She can move on, but she has to play it again.

“It’s like that singing, those vibrations, like wolves, you know how they all howl together or how women all sing together? There’s something about the community of it, that’s why humans love songs.” But it is not just the vibrations of the music but the language of lyrics; we talk about the failure of language, because it is all male derived. “You know what?” muses Marshall. “The first time I opened Ulysses, I was with my friend, who was older. He was the drummer in my band, my father figure, my mentor. And I was three pages in to the centre and he just asked me, ‘Chan, why are you reading that?’ So I put it down and stopped reading it. I’ve never finished it. It would break his heart if he knew that, but I just so looked up to him. He was just being funny, sarcastic and cynical, but I wasn’t, so I never finished the book.”

Stepping away from the art of others into Chan’s own back catalogue, I ask her how if feels to perform and to have other people share in the feelings behind her own songs.

“There is a place, a world within a world, that we can visit when we put on a record but it’s another layer when you see something live because it’s inclusive."

"It’s almost like there is proof for it all ... And people love proof. We leave behind that feeling of singularity [from listening to a record], and if it’s a good show we all go down together. And there is certainly some healing from being together." When Marshall performs songs that move others, she reveals, “I’m moving, I’m moving with them. We are all going down the rabbit hole, but we each are Alice. And, as a musician, I notice that, and I acknowledge that, as though time stands still.”

Those familiar with the Cat Power back catalogue will know her self-explanatorily titled The Covers Record, featuring such tracks as the Stones’ Satisfaction, Dylan’s Paths of Victory and Moby Grape’s Naked, If I Want To. As she explains it, each of us possesses such different vibrations that it is almost easy for one person to sing another song and bring it a completely different feel. Simply put “we all have different senses. And these artists that I love can all bring something new, be it Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, everybody can do their own version of something. Each soul can learn a different translation of human spirit.”

With each different soul comes a new person to try to understand, and in the context of knowing and loving others, whether they break our hearts or not, Marshall doesn’t think it’s truly possible to know all of someone else. “And it's dangerous, because do we ever really know all of our selves? We have been trained to look out, to project and to neglect looking inside."

"If we only knew how powerful we all were, we could change some really systemic problems in the world.”

While comfortable looking inwards, Marshall is passionate about the world that surrounds her and gender inequality is something she cites as heartbreaking. Whether watching her first love drive away, seeing sexism in the music industry – which, she says, boils down to “exploit, exploit exploit” – or wider-reaching issues of female persecution, her heart breaks. Perhaps the array of cracks and concerns within her heart is what has made her an engaging and relevant artist over such a long career. And yet, even though we join her down the rabbit hole, she confesses, she is still “looking for my own terms”.

“Male rockstars are kind of like kings, and I don’t know if I have the terms of my own to really say it?”

Perhaps it requires a woman’s ear to understand – but she is certainly understood.