A Moment

Under the Covers

Musician Chan Marshall — better known as Cat Power — on the songs that call to her and what comes next.

Chan Marshall of Cat Power by Greg Hunt
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WITHIN THE FIRST five minutes of chatting with musician Chan Marshall, our conversation has already turned into an impromptu workshop for devising metaphors about songwriting. This is a particularly complicated subject for the singer-songwriter, who explains that despite being a celebrated recording artist for going on 30 years now, she still finds discussing the how and why of what she does to be more than a little confounding.

Marshall, who is better known as Cat Power, is calling to specifically chat about “Covers,” her soon-to-be-released 11th studio album and her third proper collection of cover songs. The album takes on tunes by the likes of Frank Ocean, Jackson Browne, and Billie Holiday, and shows off the knack for reinvention that has made Marshall one of her generation’s best-known interpreters of song. In her hands, songs elongate, bending to the will of her voice. They often sound as if they were written just for her, and occasionally bear no resemblance to their original versions. When I posit the idea of a song itself being like a suit — a thing that can be tried on and worn by different people — Marshall lights up. “That’s really cool,” she says. “I’m imagining this suit now. Depending on the person, it could change fiber, it could change textile, color, shape, the little embellishments change — maybe you add cuff links or the sleeves are rolled up. Maybe the cut is the same, but you wear it in velvet or pinstripes. Same suit, same song, but it’s gonna look way different depending on who is wearing it.”

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I don’t set out to record covers. I set out to just sing. If it’s my own song that comes out of my mouth, fine; if it’s a cover, fine.

Trying to get to the heart of what makes for a good cover song — or what makes any song memorable — is something Marshall has spent years investigating. Cat Power records have always been imbued with an elliptical, inscrutable quality that places Marshall in a world entirely her own. Her music, characterized by a honeyed voice that puts her squarely in the company of the great soul singers, often treads a blurry line between folk, rock music, and the blues. Given her wide range of influences and famously unpredictable, shape-shifty live shows, Marshall’s career is more akin to Bob Dylan’s or Nina Simone’s than to her ’90s indie-rock peers. Her evolving body of work is like a prism through which the entire history of popular music is reflected and refracted in increasingly interesting ways. (Her beloved dissection of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” remains a career highlight.)

In keeping with the artists she most admires, the practice of interpreting songs feels just as vital as writing and recording her own — and the process is remarkably similar. “In the olden times, with blues, jazz, even classical music, people have been playing each other’s songs,” she muses. “Folk, jazz, country, R&B, even rock and roll — everybody always did covers. It was a normal part of music history. So for me, from being a little kid and singing different songs your whole life, or humming them, or buying lots of records, I don’t know exactly where they come from but these songs are always floating around in my head. Sometimes on tour I may do a cover just out of the blue. There’s never a reason to write a song or to sing somebody else’s, it’s just like, ‘Oh my nose itches,’ so I just itch it. There’s no thought in it. It just arrives. If it becomes a thought, an action, then it lives. I don’t set out to record covers. I set out to just sing. If it’s my own song that comes out of my mouth, fine; if it’s a cover, fine.”


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Though her own songs have inspired numerous covers of their own (including, very recently, a take on the Cat Power classic “Metal Heart” by Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan), Marshall’s take on music making is that it all springs from a very pure place. “I don't know what art is, but I think it’s just a translation of the unknown,” she explains. “Everybody has their own thing. Like if you're a painter, or a poet, or a prose writer, or a dancer, there’s a lot of immediate energy that’s always available if you just try to take fear out of your process. I don’t know how to describe it. I think to be creative you have to try to keep a surreal open mind. That is where new things can happen.”

All of a sudden, it’s like we were at summer camp. It just became more and more fun.

Marshall, like the rest of us, spent the better part of the last couple years locked down at home during the pandemic. “I was able to do things. Watch a lot of things. Feel all the things. Went through a lot of fear and sorrow. But I also got to teach my son to read. I got to teach my son to write. I got to teach my son to do arithmetic.” She is now energized about returning to work, and was able to go out on tour for several weeks in 2021 alongside fellow ’90s stalwarts Alanis Morissette and Garbage, proving what a powerful draw three iconic women can be. It was a particularly heartening experience for Marshall after having spent the bulk of the past 30 years on the road, often alone, navigating the ups and downs of a chaotic music industry. She describes the camaraderie that unfolded on this tour — particularly among women who understood the particular slings and arrows that come with being a female artist of a certain age — as both comforting and deeply invigorating.

“Being in any industry, it’s just a bunch of white dudes everywhere,” says Marshall, noting that her own experience as a musician has often been sidelined by misogyny, particularly by a media that seeks out ways to portray female artists as fragile or unreliable. “They don’t take you seriously because women aren’t supposed to understand the business. An artist is always ‘crazy.’” The Alanis tour, however, was different. “All of a sudden, it’s like we were at summer camp. It just became more and more fun. Because of COVID, there was no backstage and no guest lists and no extra people around. It was just us. Normally, each faction on a big tour has their own family or their own friends, but we just had each other. We just had a great time, and as soon as we were together behind closed doors — Alanis and Shirley Manson and I — we wanted to get to work on society. We knew that each of us was really interested and connected in the right way, whether we're fighters or survivors or whatever. We were on the same page. That felt fucking awesome. It was just a reminder of how good it can feel to be a musician and play music with your friends — to feel really psychically, magically available. Real normal. Real healthy. Real genuine. That’s what I want to carry into 2022. That’s the feeling.”

Cover Story

A selection of deep cuts and formidable covers from Cat Power’s back catalog.

  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

    From 2000’s “The Covers Record,” this take on the Rolling Stones’ classic turns the male bravado of the original on its head, making the song more of a haunted plea for connection than a demand for attention.

  • “Stay”

    Lots of people covered this 2012 Rihanna ballad, but few did so in as stark or elegant a way as Cat Power. Included in 2018’s “Wanderer,” this version scales back the song to a simple voice and piano arrangement, with all the injected open space between the words changing the dynamic of the song completely.

  • “Wild Is the Wind”

    Originally released as a single by Johnny Mathis in 1957, “Wild Is the Wind” has been famously covered by the likes of David Bowie, Nina Simone, and George Michael, but Cat Power’s take from “The Covers Record” would become a fan favorite. Stripped of any excess instrumentation or accompaniment, Marshall’s take is both beautiful and harrowing, and almost unbearably sad.

  • “I’ll Be Seeing You”

    Made famous by Billie Holiday, this track from Cat Power’s 2022 “Covers” release dials up the wistfulness in the song’s lyrics, playing it like a love letter for someone you hope to see again but probably never will.

  • “Blue”

    Largely considered Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece, “Blue” is a formidable piece of music for any artist to take on. This Cat Power interpretation from 2008’s “Jukebox” emits an almost palpable glow — gently played piano, warm organ tones, and Marshall’s smoky voice blend seamlessly. When she sings, “Songs are like tattoos,” it’s a reminder that the most affecting art always leaves an indelible mark.

  • “Sea of Love”

    Arguably the most played song in her catalog (particularly at weddings), Marshall’s take on this Phil Phillips hit from 1959 is one of the sweetest in her arsenal of covers. When she sings, “I want to tell you how much I love you,” it’s a sentiment so pure that you can’t help but believe her.

  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

    From 2000’s “The Covers Record,” this take on the Rolling Stones’ classic turns the male bravado of the original on its head, making the song more of a haunted plea for connection than a demand for attention.

  • “I’ll Be Seeing You”

    Made famous by Billie Holiday, this track from Cat Power’s 2022 “Covers” release dials up the wistfulness in the song’s lyrics, playing it like a love letter for someone you hope to see again but probably never will.

  • “Stay”

    Lots of people covered this 2012 Rihanna ballad, but few did so in as stark or elegant a way as Cat Power. Included in 2018’s “Wanderer,” this version scales back the song to a simple voice and piano arrangement, with all the injected open space between the words changing the dynamic of the song completely.

  • “Blue”

    Largely considered Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece, “Blue” is a formidable piece of music for any artist to take on. This Cat Power interpretation from 2008’s “Jukebox” emits an almost palpable glow — gently played piano, warm organ tones, and Marshall’s smoky voice blend seamlessly. When she sings, “Songs are like tattoos,” it’s a reminder that the most affecting art always leaves an indelible mark.

  • “Wild Is the Wind”

    Originally released as a single by Johnny Mathis in 1957, “Wild Is the Wind” has been famously covered by the likes of David Bowie, Nina Simone, and George Michael, but Cat Power’s take from “The Covers Record” would become a fan favorite. Stripped of any excess instrumentation or accompaniment, Marshall’s take is both beautiful and harrowing, and almost unbearably sad.

  • “Sea of Love”

    Arguably the most played song in her catalog (particularly at weddings), Marshall’s take on this Phil Phillips hit from 1959 is one of the sweetest in her arsenal of covers. When she sings, “I want to tell you how much I love you,” it’s a sentiment so pure that you can’t help but believe her.

Header image by Greg Hunt

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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Elinor Carucci Photographer

Born in Jerusalem in 1971 to a family of Moroccan, Syrian, Bucharian, and Italian descent, Carucci’s work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions worldwide and her photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Houston Museum of Fine Art, among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Details, New York Magazine, W, Aperture, and ARTnews. She has published numerous monographs. Carucci teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Patrick O'Dell Photographer

Patrick O’Dell is a photographer and filmmaker known for his work in the world of skateboarding, notably directing “Epicly Later’d” for Vice, and “Dumb” on Hulu, as well as shooting pictures for Thrasher magazine. He is also proud of his longtime friendship with Chan Marshall.

Greg Hunt Photographer

Greg Hunt is an American filmmaker, photographer, and visual artist based in Los Angeles.

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