Cat Power's journey to hell and back

ELLE HUNT
Last updated 09:34 21/02/2013
Cat Power
FACING THE MUSIC: Cat Power, also known as Chan Marshall, plays Wellington this weekend.

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"Here comes/here comes/here comes the sun," sings American singer-songwriter Cat Power on her ninth album, appropriately titled Sun. Born Chan ("Shawn") Marshall, she sounds as if she is, at last, no longer enveloped in darkness.

It's a far cry from years of being as much known for being a "tortured artist" as a musician.

Her childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, was marked by poverty and frequent relocations. She's said that her mother gave her beer in a baby bottle, and she grew up spending time in bars.

By the time of her fourth album, Moon Pix in 1998, Marshall had begun a descent into chronic substance abuse.

She became known for her unpredictable live shows - sometimes performing with her back to her audience, in others refusing to come out on stage at all. At a show in Australia in 2004, she crawled under the piano and screamed at people to leave. Most did.

In January 2006 - the same week as the release of her mainstream breakthrough The Greatest, which some diehard fans and critics panned as too glossy and accessible - she was admitted to Miami's Mt Sinai Medical Centre for psychiatric treatment.

But now Sun has been her biggest commercial success, reflecting that her work - at first stark and brittle - has grown less and less dissonant over the course of her 18-year career.

Today, Marshall is mostly sober, allowing herself a tablespoon of vodka in her pineapple juice on special occasions, and is a more confident, consistent performer.

On Sun too, she sounds sure of herself, open to experimenting - but that freedom came at a blow to her confidence, when an old friend, a "big brother-type", criticised an early demo.

Speaking from Mexico, Marshall still sounds hurt by the memory.

"It was just a beginning. It wasn't my record. But his whole take was, 'god, this sounds like old Cat Power - super depressing'.

"It crushed me. It made me feel like I'd failed at what I do, so I didn't work for a long time while I got the anger and courage to go through this whole process of realising 'you aren't doing it wrong'. I'm not going to call my friend a jackass. That was just his opinion. I just held myself away, and refused to let anybody hear s..."

When she did return to the studio, she took a new approach, eschewing her usual starting point of piano or guitar for synthesisers.

"I sat in front of the computer for months and months. It was a real roundabout way of creating something that I'd normally do with a guitar and a vocal.

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"I'll tell ya, I learned so much from working on this record about what I'm capable of, as a human."

Part of that process was grieving for the end of her relationship with movie star Giovanni Ribisi, best known for Avatar, who broke up with her and three months later married English model Agyness Deyn.

Marshall was also plagued with ongoing health problems, including the painful skin condition agioedema, with which she was hospitalised repeatedly last year.

"It was hard to be in a hospital one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight times, wondering: 'Am I going to get out this time? Am I actually going to live?'

"That was what I was wondering, every time, coming out of hospital - doctors telling me that I could have a stroke or a heart attack from the lack of sleep, from the lack of oxygen.

"But I don't want to talk about it, because I don't want the universe to define me as an ill person, because I'm just like anybody else who had so much stress that her body told her, 'Now you stop'."

Her desire to be heard led her to the social imaging site Instagram, where last November she announced her decision to cancel her European tour supporting Sun. She checked into Mt Sinai again a week later.

"I was in emergency rooms on tour and trying to hide it from the audience, trying to be the person I want to be, which is healed, normal, healthy. I don't want stress. I want to do my job, and that's where I am now.

"This time I made the call because I'm not able to do what I used to do. In order to survive, I needed to have a decent month off, start over and reassess."

She is better now, she says. "I've been doing yoga every day. I'm doing the best I can . . . Because I was hospitalised, everyone thought I was on drugs, and that I went to rehab. I wasn't in rehab. My brain couldn't handle the stress, the build-up of pressure - I was just super-depressed.

Marshall laughs. "I'm much more well-equipped to deal psychologically than I did back then."

THE DETAILS

Cat Power plays Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland tomorrow and Wellington Town Hall on Saturday with support from Watercolours.

- Wellington

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