Coming-of-age stories about artists, especially female artists, often center on how someone "found her voice." Chan Marshall has been performing under the name Cat Power for more than half her life, and her voice has always been her most powerful asset; she never lost it and never had to find it. A soft-edged, smoky alto with a Georgia accent, it's both the surface and the skeleton of the indie rocker's album Sun (out Sept. 4). It's layered deep on every track, as melody, harmony, texture and sometimes even rhythm.
At 40, Marshall--whose biggest mainstream impact has been with her mournful, stripped-down covers of oldies like "Sea of Love"--is releasing her first album of original material in six years. "When I was little," she said recently when I caught up with her in Miami, "I was singing all these different songs, but I never heard myself sing words that I had made up. I didn't know how to sing them because they'd never been sung before." She paused. "Are you mad at me?"
Marshall, despite her charisma and almost cultlike following, asks everyone if they're mad at her. She apologizes more than anyone else I've ever met. (Full disclosure: I met Chan--pronounced Shawn--in 1993 and helped a few of her friends put out Cat Power's first single.) Some people are unstoppable fonts of creativity, driven to follow their impulses and present their art to an audience. Others are paralyzed by self-awareness. Marshall is both. But she stands up to her overwhelming self-doubt and makes the work she needs to make anyway.
In the mid-'90s, Cat Power's live shows were famously inconsistent. Sometimes Marshall would unleash a set of devastating new material--urgent, heartbroken songs like "Nude as the News" and "Metal Heart." Sometimes she'd play with her back to the audience or run offstage crying or ramble through a string of song fragments. Her records, though, were knockouts. Cat Power's fan base grew within the independent-rock scene, then beyond it in 2000 with The Covers Record, a set of exquisite reinterpretations of songs including the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," which she played as a minor-key meditation without its signature riff or chorus, and the Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason," which subsequently turned up in a few movies.
Her voice and presence caught the attention of Karl Lagerfeld, which led to a gig modeling jewelry for Chanel. She posed for Richard Avedon. She could count Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl as fans and collaborators. Her career hit a speed bump in 2006, when she spent a week in a psychiatric ward and canceled a tour to support her seventh album, The Greatest. But when she returned to the stage a few months later, her performances were triumphant. She'd gotten more comfortable with being in front of an audience, or at least learned to deal with her discomfort.