Laneway: Cat Power is coming full circle

By Lydia Jenkin

Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, has stepped out from in front of the band and is taking to the stage solo for the first time since 2005. She tells Lydia Jenkin what Laneway fans can expect from her set on the Cactus Cat stage.

She was only approached towards the end of November to ask if she could play Auckland's Laneway Festival next week, but Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, had no qualms about saying yes.

"Oh, I made sure I could make it."

She's been coming to Australasia for more than a decade and has a soft spot for New Zealand, particularly because it means she gets to catch up with artist Chris Knox.

"I saw him for the first time in 1992 and he was running around CBGBs in New York, playing solo, and he was running around the room kissing everybody, like even French kissing. And at the end of the show, he had the entire audience doing a human pyramid - you know, on their knees, stacked up - everyone had left their tables and he had them all stacked up on the floor, and he was taking their picture. It was f***ing awesome.

"Then I met him properly years later when I came to play in Auckland and Dunedin. He was doing great when I saw him last year, he's amazing. He's a good person."

Her performance on Monday will be quite a change from her show at the Bruce Mason Centre last year, however.

Back then, she was touring her most recent album Sun (2012) with her band. The album (which was four years in the making and marked a turn towards synths, beats, and multi-layered vocals) was met with great acclaim and found its way into the top 10 in the US. It also earned her a Brit Award nomination. But the 41-year-old found herself hospitalised with angioedema shortly after its release and had to postpone her touring schedule.

She seemed fine and well again when she came to New Zealand last February, and ready to celebrate her triumphant return to form, but the year was marred by further struggles for Marshall.

"I guess, it's like if a horse gets sick or hurts its ankle and it can't run, people don't bet on the horse any more - they don't invest in the horse, they're not interested in that horse any more, like its owners and trainers and backers or whatever.

"I'm not a horse, I'm a human, and so I financially support myself, but I lost a lot of business partnerships that I'd had for a long time. And I felt like I was under a lot of scrutiny. So all of that wasn't so great."

The lack of financial support for the tour made it hard for Marshall to make the books balance, too - she was able to pay the costs of the tour party but she wasn't making any money herself.

"I'd been able to pay their wages but not earn a living and I could barely pay my mortgage, so I had to let everybody go."

It was a difficult, stressful situation that made her consider hanging up her touring boots for a while, but then she was invited to take part in a particular project as a solo artist, and it reminded her why she loves touring so much in the first place.

"It was really refreshing as it turned out. My friend who's an artist, Doug Aitken, he got some people to sponsor this train ride from New York, all around America, with different artists on board - visual artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, dancers - it's called Station to Station, and he asked me if I would play. So that's when I played solo for the first time since 2005 and it was great.

"It was an amazing environment - we'd pull into these old railways stations, some of them had been abandoned or renovated, and a lot of people who came didn't know who I was, and it reminded me of what it was like when I first started touring, because I felt really free."

So, solo shows are what she's been doing for the past few months, taking her act to intimate venues across the states, just her, a guitar, a piano, her stories and her songs, and she'll be performing a similar set at Laneway - on the slightly smaller Cactus Cat stage, over by the water, to a (hopefully) hushed crowd.

"When I started back on the train, I thought that when I got up on stage, the songs I knew would come back to me pretty easily. But it wasn't the case and I don't know if that's because I've aged, and maybe stress hurts your brain cells, but I could only remember certain songs.

"Now I've got about 30, so depending on what the curfew is, generally I play for about two hours and that's all my songs I can remember. People sometimes shout out other songs they want to hear and I feel like I would love to play them for them, but I can't remember them yet.

"For now it's my covers like Satisfaction, and then there are some songs people have never heard before that are my songs, and some that they know of course. It's something I haven't really done since The Greatest."

Her latest hits, the songs from Sun such as Cherokee and Manhattan, won't be on the set list though.

"I don't wanna touch that with a 10-foot pole. No, I mean, I would love to play them really, but it's kind of impossible, because I didn't write those songs to be played solo, so it doesn't make sense to play them like that for me.

"Maybe if someone else covered them it would work. Maybe Philip Glass," she laughs.

But no matter which Cat Power songs or albums resonate most with you, the set should be a treat. Recent reviews from the US have been mostly reverential, applauding her soulful, unadorned delivery and her stirring, seductive voice - the things that grabbed the world's attention in the first place. And it seems to be working for Marshall at the moment - though the touring is tiring, she's looking at this year to be her best yet.

"I don't want to always be coming from a place of struggle, I want to be better. And I want to be like everybody else, to be safe in my job and balance my life and my touring with taking care of myself, so that's my goal for 2014."

Who: Cat Power aka Chan Marshall
Where and when: Performing on the Cactus Cat stage at Laneway at 9.30pm
Listen to: Moon Pix (1998), The Covers Record (2000), You Are Free (2003), The Greatest (2006), Jukebox (2008)

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