Cat Power is once again back to its lone constant — frontwoman Chan Marshall.
After six years of playing with a backing band, Marshall is back to playing shows as a solo act.
“It’s a totally different vibe,” Marshall told the Reader during a recent phone interview.
Health and financial issues derailed Cat Power’s momentum right after her latest album, 2012’s Sun, cracked the top 10 of the Billboard sales charts.
Those issues made it so Marshall had to drop her backing band. Her health has rebounded since then and now Cat Power is on the road by herself.
She says her goal was to just be able to get out on the road no matter what. Financial restraints meant that taking a band was out of the question.
“I’m not going to get into logistics of tour support and shit like that,” Marshall says.
Marshall isn’t just handling the shows alone, but she’s now running all aspects of the business side of music herself as well.
“I don’t have a manager so the pressure comes right to my email,” she says.
Marshall says that there’s been some adjustment as she gets back into the solo show vibe.
“It’s been a little shaky playing alone again,” she says.
Marshall says part of the challenge has been dealing with her own expectations, even as she tries to keep the shows off-the-cuff.
“I should be less hard on myself and maybe make a set list,” she says.
Still Marshall says she’s glad to do these shows by herself. It feels natural for her to play solo.
Mostly she says the solo setting allows her to give more of herself to the show.
“I can really focus on the people standing in front of me,” Marshall says.
And that focus includes trying to make song requests happen, even if she doesn’t quite nail how her old songs are supposed to go. The shouted requests help Marshall remember, she says.
Just playing the old material is a bit of uncharted territory for Marshall, who has gotten used to playing stuff from whatever her latest release is when she performs live.
But this time songs from her latest album Sun haven’t been on the stripped-down set lists.
The challenge for Marshall is appreciating her own older work, while delivering it in a way that both Marshall and the audience enjoys. Despite her reputation as a mercurial or even tempermental performer, she strives to make the show excellent for the sake of the crowd.
“I’d like everybody to be happy that shows up,” she says.
And while songs from Sun may not be part of her current live sets, Cat Power’s latest album is certainly a high water mark for Marshall.
The record, which Marshall assembled by herself, came about through large doses of improvisation. She says she didn’t have any set direction for what the album was going to sound like.
“I had no idea, even when I was working on it,” she says.
But Marshall still did have a standard for the quality she wanted to achieve even if the form was constantly shifting. Even looking back on the released album, Marshall says she would be able to find parts she’d have liked to change or further embellish.
“It’s always questionable if anything is ever truly finished,” she says.
On Sun, the idea was to fully embrace that improvised element, especially after her last original studio album, 2006’s The Greatest, was recorded straight ahead with fully arranged songs.
That improvisational side comes from stints starting in the 1990s playing with skilled rock improvisers like the Dirty Three’s Jim White.
That fun, off-the-cuff vibe taught Marshall the value in making music that was far from perfect. “That sort of spirit of mistakes” made her realize that misplayed notes or other miscues were not necessarily bad.
“Mistakes are equally as valid as a polished item,” Marshall says.
So with that spirit and with a desire to step out of her comfort zone, Marshall went into creating Sun. There was one other guideline that let Marshall to craft a record of electronic textures, synth lines and rhythmic pulsing beats.
“I didn’t want to touch the guitar or piano,” she says.
While Marshall admits to not being able to identify specific chords, she started to recognize her material all was build similarly. So instead she focused on a triad to craft her songs, looking at tone, the beat and then the lyrics last.
Sun ends up inverting the retro-soul moves of the Greatest, by incorporating more modern R&B-influenced textures to her songs. The old soul still leaks through, but it’s refracted in a prism of a new Cat Power sound.
Now Cat Power is moving forward by look back at her catalog during this solo run. She’s open to the improvisational chaos of song requests and undefined set lists.
It’s a journey, Marshall says, as each night songs break off into other songs, sometimes leading to a journey and well, sometimes leading straight off a cliff. Both are acceptable destinations as Cat Power continues on, this time with a renewed optimist’s streak.
“Everything’s moving in the right direction,” Marshall says.
Cat Power w/ Nico Turner plays the Slowdown, 729 North 14th St., Friday, November 22nd. Tickets are $22.50 in advance/$25 day-of-show. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.