One of the traps music sets for listeners is that it encourages us to believe we're on intimate terms with the person on the other end of our headphones. When a song really works, a communication takes place between singer and fan: Frank Black terrorizes our minds as he screams about losing his; Greg Dulli heaves the pain of a tortured relationship onto our shoulders; even a songwriter as elusive as Stephen Malkmus proffers narratives of private self-doubt, dressed for success that never comes. And it all feels up close and personal, confessions streaming from their hearts to our ears, and meant, somehow, for us alone.
With no other contemporary artist is this line between artifice and autobiography more smudged than it is with Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power. The unrelenting directness of her discography -- from her debut album, Dear Sir, through her newly released sixth LP, You Are Free -- contributes to the confusion: No matter how oblique the words or sophisticated the arrangements, there's a naïveté reflected in Marshall's voice and music, giving the impression of someone unself-consciously pouring her soul into every song. Even her covers -- and doesn't Chan love doing covers? -- are made new in her image of fragile sadness. Add to that her ramshackle upbringing and constantly unspooling personal tragedies, her onstage breakdowns and offstage breakups, and it's easy to feel you possess the essence of this girl, in the same way that you own the sleek silver discs she's given you.
But if you think you know Chan Marshall -- well, you do. And you don't.
"I think 'Good Woman' is really important to me," Marshall says at one point in a phone conversation from the studio in Atlanta, where she's rehearsing with her touring band. Her voice barely rises above a whisper as she talks about the track from You Are Free, one of a few on the album that has been a Cat Power live staple for years. "I mean, it was really hard to sit myself down and look at what was going on in this relationship I was having, and try to, I don't know, be objective about the situation, realistic about -- ohhhh . . . I don't know how to say what I mean."
She pauses, and like quicksilver, a certain guarded brusqueness falls over her voice: "I guess we've all been through that -- someone doesn't love you back, and you have to face that fact and move on. And it's hard."
Elsewhere, Marshall is more cagey -- hiding herself in generalities the way she hides behind her long hair onstage. After saying that the song she's feeling closest to from You Are Free is opener "I Don't Blame You" -- which many critics have taken as a commentary on Marshall's ambivalence toward performing -- she dodges behind the veil when faced with the obvious follow-up: Why?
"Well, the album was recorded over a long period of time, in a lot of different cities -- wherever my engineer could get space for free, you know, we'd go -- and that was the last one I wrote. So I guess it just seems the freshest."
Despite her occasional aloofness, for those who cling to an image of Chan Marshall as a woman perpetually on the verge of tears, it may be a surprise to discover she's a bit of a tease, a coy goofball, a joker. Asked to elaborate on the extended recording process for You Are Free, she responds in a singsong, "Bor-ing ques-tion . . ."
"Well," she continues brightly, "Once there was a microphone, and then there was a reel of tape. One day, a lady walked in. She had a guitar . . . Boring! I'm bored!"
Out of the mouth of J. Lo this would come off diva-esque, but somehow Marshall gets away with it -- probably because everything else about her is anti-diva; indeed, she saves most of her effusion for a heartfelt defense of the presence of two bona fide celebrities on the album (Dave Grohl did her the favor of returning to his drum kit, and Eddie Vedder lends his voice, mixed low, to "Good Woman" and the evanescent closing track "Evolution").
"They're just people, you know? Nice people, who came into the studio and played some music with me," she explains, sort of. "It's not like there were -- ha! -- trips to Barbados and Kristal, and lawyers and groupies and I dunno, cucumbers-down-pants craziness going on." She laughs, then turns serious again.
"I hate that it's been turned into this whole thing," she continues. "I mean, you connect with someone, person to person, and then all of a sudden it's like . . ." She breaks off, as she often does, and picks up at the point where her brain has raced ahead. "I really don't understand the whole celebrity thing. You've got kids being fed this image of what life is supposed to look like or something, and it's just -- banal. There's so much more in the world -- suffering and joy and ideas -- and that mentality of mindless distraction just gets to me, I swear."
You don't have to take Marshall's word for that, because much of You Are Free works as a musical argument for going deeper: "Baby Doll," "Maybe Not," and "Evolution" are among the songs in which Marshall cries out for people to see more of what's around them and, as she puts it, break loose from the "mentality of everyday reality."
"When you think that, in a relationship, a man and a woman -- they love each other and the wires still get crossed; how can you expect two people who have never met, thousands of miles apart, sitting on a payload of nuclear missiles, to communicate?" Marshall asks. "I need to believe they can, but . . . it takes vision.
"But it's like everyone who tries to say something, everyone who tries to tell the truth about the world, they get assassinated or something," she continues, her voice falling again into a whisper. "And I guess that's what I meant; so many of the songs, that was what was on my mind: this need for people to be braver," she finishes, leading by example.