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The musician known as Cat Power has a penchant for goofing around. That might come as a surprise to those familiar with her music, which is always at least a little bit mournful.
Off stage, Cat Power is Chan Marshall. She's southern, and like so many other southern musicians, she got noticed by playing sad, simple songs. Her voice is raspy; her musicianship is unrefined. When Marshall really caught the attention of critics a decade ago, she'd already been performing for as many years. She was also dealing with a serious alcohol problem — and stage fright.
With that behind her, she's releasing her first album of original work in more than six years, Sun. She discusses the record's unfamiliar new sound, the winding process of recording it and more with NPR's Linda Wertheimer.
On the genesis of Sun
"I had started four years ago in Silverlake, in Los Angeles, out of habit, started writing some songs with a guitar and a piano. And when I played it for a friend, he said, 'Man, this sounds like old Cat Power. Man, this is depressing.' So I just closed shop for eight months. When I went back to the studio, I didn't play guitar or piano. The only thing I could play that was in the studio was a drum set and these synthesizers. And that's why the record sounds totally different."
On abstaining from guitar
"The thing that I'd always relied on was the tempo of playing a guitar — you know, like John Lee Hooker taps his foot or Stevie [Ray Vaughan] moves his head. Playing the guitar, you kind of lock into a rhythm and a groove, and then it relaxes me to make up lyrics and sing. So this time, it was a little different. I had to press these strange synthesizers and roll it, roll it, record it, record it, until I did something that I liked."
On taking an extended break
"After my second-to-last record, The Greatest, I had gone on tour for a while, and I didn't play an instrument for about five years. And I got kind of — it's not self-esteem or whatever, or anger toward myself — but disappointed in myself that I hadn't been challenging myself to learn musically."
On struggling with addiction
"I never wanted to end up like that. I never wanted to abuse alcohol or drugs, from things that I had witnessed growing up. When I went to the hospital, I definitely made a choice, and I think it's made me a happier person. I think I enjoy life a whole lot more than I used to because I was wrapped up in fear and stress. Now, I just need to take care of myself and stay with the people who've been there for me."
On recording and growing older
"I still haven't been able to capture the joy of what it's like when I sing — you know, when I'm by myself, or like when I was a little kid. ... For me, the moment the mic is on and it's rolling, it's impossible to vocally relax for some reason. But one day, I'm going to be able to sing the way I sang when I was a little kid, completely open and free. That's, I think, the one thing that's changed: Growing older, I'm not ashamed to hear my voice."