Feline Fatale

Enchanting songstress Cat Power flashes her Cheshire grin -- and her newfound strength

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."

Stefano Giovanni


At Noise Pop with Crooked Fingers, Film School, and Joanna Newsom

Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $15


Bimbo's, 1025 Columbus (at Chestnut), S.F.

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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.

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