Smoke, it turns out, died a few years ago of hepatitis C and AIDS complications. Learning this fact, it's impossible not to think of Marshall's song "Names" (from her new album You Are Free), in which she slowly recalls friends from her youth, all fallen prey to abuse or addiction. In her career as the bewitching indie songstress Cat Power, Marshall has written plenty of depressing tunes, but "Names" is one of her bleakest. "His name was Charles," she sings, her voice flat and emotionless. "He said he was in love with me/ We were both 14/ Then I had to move away/ Then he began to smoke crack/ Then he had to sell ass/ I don't know where he is/ I don't know where they are."
Marshall's peripatetic history -- bouncing around the South with her mother, living briefly with her father before getting kicked out, and finally landing in New York City -- seems littered with these kinds of casualties. Two minutes later in our conversation, as she's laughing at the way Californians say "dude," another long-lost voice pipes up. "My other friend who passed away, four or five years ago -- he was from Mission Viejo, my best bud, and he had me speaking the dude language." But again, there's nary a trace of the maudlin in her recollection, no sign of the morbid woman who imagined her own death in the song "Headlights" (from her 1995 debut, Dear Sir). Instead, Marshall can't stop laughing at the memory of her pal. "Oh God, it was so fun. "Duuuude!'"
Marshall's easy laugh doesn't exactly square with her public image. Her music, spread across six LPs, is anything but upbeat, conjuring a kind of heavenly folk noir out of desiccated blues, scorched-earth campfire songs, and despondent country. Even on her harder material, she sounds less like a rock 'n' roll libertine than a wounded animal shaking in a corner.
You Are Free, though, offers an expanded portrait of the singer, with muscle appearing where once there were only exposed capillaries and translucent skin. It's still not exactly a rock record, but producer Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam) has toughened up her sound, emphasizing the electric guitar's tungsten burn and the drum kit's dry bite. Even on the softer numbers -- the bluesy "Baby Doll," the Mazzy Star-ish "Half of You" -- Marshall's multitracked vocals circle each other like wary leopards. This cat may still purr, but for the first time she's also showing her razor-sharp teeth.
Despite the title of You Are Free, the new Cat Power record sounds more like that of an artist seeking freedom from something. Given her notorious stage fright, Chan (pronounced "Shawn") Marshall seems to be searching for a way out -- barreling straight through the center of her fears. After all, one of two covers included here is John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider," retitled "Keep on Runnin'" by Marshall.
For all the frequent directness of her lyrics, Marshall's impossible to pin down in conversation. Stories about interviews gone awry abound. A recent article in Jane magazine had her asking the writer, "Are you mad at me?" when he attempted to put her on the spot. When I ask if the choice of burying her voice down in the mix on her early albums was intentional, she says incredulously, "What does that mean?" before beginning to fret. "Now that's one more thing I'm worried about."
But eventually Marshall loosens up. She's overjoyed to learn that a New York club DJ recently played "Free," the rocking second cut off You Are Free, in the middle of a techno set, with the audience dancing on unabated despite the song's acoustic guitars and minimalist percussion. "That makes me so happy!" she exclaims. "That's the whole point of the song."
The pivotal lyric in "Free" runs, "Don't be in love with the autograph/ Just be in love when you scream that song on and on." Given Marshall's own high profile -- she got her start playing with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, she's been romantically linked with Smog's Bill Callahan, and Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl both contribute to the new album -- it's worth wondering if the number's an admonishment to her fans. She denies that the tune is about her, emphasizing a more general point about listeners' relationships to songs and the stars who sing them. "The feeling I have is that young people think that they might love, like, Eminem, but I don't think they're so aware that the reason they love him is because he's famous," she says. "He sang something that resonates in them, and they're going, 'Hey, I feel the same way! I feel like I can't talk about what I think either!' What I hope they figure out in appreciating whomever it is that they love, whomever's saying something to them, is that it's something they're [thinking] themselves -- that they're not saying. It really lives within all those millions of fans, more than it does this one guy."
This kind of stay-true-to-the-music attitude is a familiar pose for any number of rockers schooled in the lessons of punk, but Marshall's almost visceral relation to her music protects her comments from cliché. A singer whose voice knots up like rough twine before going limp and liquid, Marshall practices songcraft at its most physical, a trait reflected in her description of her own musical upbringing listening to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Otis Redding, caught up in the grain of their voices, her heart beating "like an animal."
For a musician who so literally embodies her art, then, what's most surprising about Marshall is that onstage she appears as if she wishes she were invisible. She's known for turning her back on the audience, apologizing profusely throughout her performance, and, most disconcertingly, running offstage midset. In 1999, playing San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill with members of Australian country-rockers Dirty Three, Marshall stopped short again and again, staring at the stage and muttering "I'm so sorry" while her band members stood patiently by. After the Manhattan performance of that same tour, the New York Times' Ben Ratliff chided Marshall for her "outrageously passive-aggressive behavior and non-musicianship." The photo accompanying the article pictured the singer hidden behind her bangs, with "Chan Marshall and hair" as the caption.
She's notoriously evasive about the subject in interviews, but on "I Don't Blame You," which opens You Are Free, she hints at her ambivalence about the public eye. "Last time I saw you, you were onstage/ Your hair was wild, your eyes were red, and you were in a rage/ You were swinging your guitar around/ 'Cause they wanted to hear that sound/ But you didn't want to play/ And I don't blame you." If Ratliff thought her behavior onstage was passive-aggressive, the song's closing lines won't change his mind: "They never owned it/ And you never owed it to them anyway/ I don't blame you."
I mention the song, hoping it might draw her into a discussion about her own behavior, but her answer makes me even less inclined to press the question. "That was the last song I wrote," she says. "We were in Italy, and we were mixing, and this person I don't want to name -- because it's the last thing this person deserves -- kept coming up in conversation. It just kind of pissed me off. There are so many people this song could be about that passed away, or kind of didn't survive what was expected of them."
Before I can ask if she's ever felt similarly at risk, Matador Records' publicist breaks in on the phone line, reminding us that our time is finished.
Marshall, surprisingly, pipes up. "Just one more question?"
I try a back door once again, wondering if she's a private person. "Both, private and not private," she says. "Just like everybody else: We all need to chill out, and we also need to get out." Even in this maxim there's a double sense, an escapist urge to get the hell out of Dodge.
Earlier, though, she offers an anecdote that stands in stark contrast to her more guarded tendencies. When asked how audiences on a recent tour of Brazil received her, she practically swoons, saying the people acted "beautifully, sweetly, kindly, peacefully." She lingers on the memory, savoring every word. "They just ate me up." One pictures her crowd-surfing on the shoulders of her admirers, basking in the tropical sunshine -- a vision far removed from the image of her gripped with anxiety onstage. It's reassuring to think that wherever she's running, she's still willing to take a course straight into the arms of the people who love her.