Penning songs that are offbeat in narrative, but literate and emotionally revealing, and performing them in a soulful, idiosyncratic style that reveals both strength and fragility, Cat Power was one of the most acclaimed singer/songwriters to emerge from the 1990s indie rock scene, a one of a kind artist unafraid to reveal her inner self in her music and follow her muse in a variety of different directions.
Cat Power is the stage name of Chan (pronounced "Shawn") Marshall, born Charlyn Marie Marshall in Atlanta, Georgia on January 21, 1972. Marshall's father was a blues musician, but her parents divorced when she was young, and she spent much of her nomadic childhood moving back and forth between her father, her mother, and her grandfather. While Marshall's parents didn't encourage her to play music early on, she wrote her first song when she was in fourth grade, and immersed herself in her stepfather's record collection, dominated by soul and classic rock. When Marshall was 16, she moved in with her father in Atlanta, and by 18 she had dropped out of high school and settled on her own. She fell in with a group of experimental indie rock musicians in Atlanta and began jamming with her new friends, initially for fun but eventually playing with several bands before forming a group called Cat Power. The name came from a trucker's cap emblazoned with "Cat Diesel Power" that Marshall spotted while working at a pizza joint. After streamlining it into a suitable band name, she later took Cat Power as her stage alias, and she began earning a reputation on the Atlanta music scene.
In 1992, Marshall relocated to New York City and initially focused her energies on writing songs, but as she became aware of New York's experimental music community, she was emboldened to put fresh emphasis on performing, and began playing semi-improvised shows around the city. In 1993, Marshall became acquainted with members of the group God Is My Co-Pilot, and with their help, she released the first Cat Power single, "Headlights" b/w "Darling Said Sir." Later the same year, Cat Power opened for Liz Phair in New York, and two of the fans who caught the show were Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar and his friend Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Foljahn and Shelley were impressed enough with Marshall that they volunteered to help her make an album, and they backed her on Cat Power's first full-length album, Dear Sir, released by Plain Records in 1995. A second album, Myra Lee, was issued by Shelley's Smells Like Records label in early 1996, featuring unused material from the Dear Sir sessions. Strong reviews and growing interest from the indie music community led to Marshall signing with Matador Records, and her third album, What Would the Community Think, appeared in the fall of 1996.
While Cat Power became known as a compelling performer, Marshall also developed a reputation for erratic live shows, sometimes performing with her back to the audience, stopping songs in mid-stream, or spouting spontaneous monologs on-stage, suggesting she was often uncomfortable in front of an audience, though on other nights she could deliver a solid, intense show. In 1997, Marshall's anxieties led her to drop out of music and move to South Carolina, but a bout of insomnia followed by nightmares inspired a new set of songs, and she opted to return to the recording studio. 1998's Moon Pix was recorded in Australia with accompaniment from Mick Turner and Jim White of the Dirty Three, and featured a warmer, more full-bodied sound than Cat Power's early work. Marshall set aside songwriting for her next project, 2000's The Covers Record, which included a new recording of "In This Hole" from What Would the Community Think, along with interpretations of classic songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Moby Grape, and others. In early 2003, another Cat Power album was released, You Are Free, which offered a more polished and cohesive sound than before and featured guest appearances from fans Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl.
In 2005, Marshall recorded The Greatest, an excellent soul-influenced album featuring Memphis R&B legends Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and Leroy "Flick" Hodges from the Hi Records Rhythm Section. The album came out in early 2006, and Marshall booked a tour in support, but the road trip was cancelled when her long simmering emotional problems and troubles with alcohol came to a head. Marshall would later tell a reporter, "The doctor said I had a psychotic break because I was suffering severe, massive depression and overwhelming stress." Marshall checked herself into a hospital to deal with her nervous breakdown and her alcoholism (she admitted to drinking as much as a fifth of scotch each day), and a few months later, she was back on the road with the musicians who helped her record The Greatest, delivering strong, confident performances and telling the press she had finally controlled her drinking problem.
After touring with the crew from The Greatest in the spring and summer of 2006, Marshall hit the road again later that year with a group she called the Dirty Delta Blues Band, featuring Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Gregg Foreman of the Delta 72, and previous collaborator Jim White. The Dirty Delta Blues Band formed the core of Marshall's studio band for the next Cat Power album, 2008's Jukebox, which like The Covers Album was dominated by versions of songs by the likes of Billie Holiday, James Brown, and Joni Mitchell.
In 2009, Marshall became romantically involved with actor Giovanni Ribisi and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to him. The relationship ended abruptly in April 2012, while Marshall, who was taking time off from music to help Ribisi raise his daughter from a previous marriage, was working on her first collection of original songs since 2006. Adding insult to injury, Ribisi married his new girlfriend in June 2012. Marshall responded by putting the finishing touches on the album, called Sun, which was released in September 2012. ~ Mark Deming