Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Cat Power: Light after limbo

Returning to play the songs from her acclaimed latest album, US underground star Cat Power talks about her turbulent life with Lydia Jenkin

US underground star Cat Power. Photo / Supplied
US underground star Cat Power. Photo / Supplied

The release of Sun brought the total number of Cat Power albums to nine in 18 years - quite a tally for a woman who has faced drug and alcohol issues, mental breakdowns and, lately, some serious health complications, since she began performing in the early 1990s. But despite the challenges, and periods of chaos, Power has won international acclaim and found a wide fan base with her soulful, stirring, voice - a little rough around the edges, but so seductive.

Speaking from her home in Miami, Power (real name Chan Marshall), who's just turned 41, is contemplative and sweet, apologetic about interruptions from her neighbours and pets, occasionally a little rambling - but above all she seems thankful.

"I really love what I do, and I'm realising that the older I get. But f***, I've got a lot of shit I want to do," she says with laughter.

Moving to Mexico is one of those things, but before that she's looking forward to touring the album that has taken her four years to finish.

"I'm so excited. I'm gonna do my best," she says with genuine enthusiasm, and passing reference to the fact that she's perhaps not been at her best in the six months since Sun was released. Working on the live show was hard work but then there were some financial difficulties and, finally, hospitalisation after she was diagnosed with angioedema, which forced her to cancel her European tour late last year. It's been quite a rollercoaster.

"Turns out I've had angioedema since I was a kid and I didn't know, so I had to cancel Europe because I had to keep going to hospital - my throat would swell, and I couldn't breathe. I didn't want to be weak, I wanted to do my job, but I couldn't."

It's a shame dates have had to be cancelled, because Sun has been a triumphant return for Power and she should've been able to celebrate. Her first album of original material in six years, it's her highest-charting album in the United States so far, opening at No10, and has recently earned her a Brit Award nomination.

But arriving at that accomplished finished album took four years of struggling with a variety of different approaches. For example, she never set out to make a electronic album with a sound palette of synths, beats and multi-layered vocals. It was some negative feedback from an acquaintance right at the beginning of her songwriting process that changed her direction.

"He thought it was kinda like old Cat Power, and quite boring, and it really hurt. If he hadn't said that, I wouldn't have made the record I have now, so it was probably a good thing, but at the time I was upset by it."

She decided to focus on her domestic life (she was living with actor Giovanni Ribisi and his daughter at the time) until she went back into the studio eight months later.

"Because I felt rejected writing songs the way I'd been writing them since forever, I felt like I had to find a different way. I made a point not to sit down at the piano. And I brought all my guitars along but I didn't open my cases. And I saw bunch of keyboards and synths up against the wall, some of them covered in dust, and I was like, 'can I turn these on?', and had a little play with them and thought, this one is cool, and can we pull out these other ones from the closet, too?"

She then went back to Malibu, rented a house for nine months, spent a lot of her own money building a studio, got all her old bandmates in (Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Jim White of the Dirty Three among them), and played the songs live. But in the end, all that work got scrapped.

"It just didn't sound like what I had in my head or what I wanted in my heart, or whatever ... It's difficult for me to tell my friends what to do. I don't feel like a real musician, you know, I don't know chords and progressions, and pedals, and so trying to give instructions is, you know ... I don't even know what an A or an E is."

She went to Paris instead, and worked in the studio of a producer named Zdar, getting him to help with the mixing, while she worked away by herself trying to focus and piece together her songs. Nine months later, it was done.

Working out how to recreate the songs live with her new band has apparently been a tedious experience, but she's excited to have it figured out and is surprisingly happy with a set-up that requires everyone to run a laptop alongside their instruments - and for Power to wear in-ear monitors, which is pretty different to what she's used to.

"I'm used to analogue, you know, I'm used to me and the band, and not sound checking. It's strange for me to have in-ears, but I'm more assured somehow. They help me to feel like I can do a good job, because I know how the platform is set."

She sounds a far cry from the woman who would occasionally disappear mid-song - and mid-concert - leaving her audience hanging, or who would sing almost inaudibly, or seem totally disengaged from the crowd.

"Being 41 now, I've grown from my earlier records and from that time when I used to perform, doubting the next five minutes, having no confidence. Being in hospital for that mental breakdown after The Greatest, that was the scariest thing that I've ever had to deal with. And then this time when the doctors were saying they might have to put me in a coma to save my lungs, that was a different kind of scary. Because there were a million things I wanted to be doing.

"Last year was difficult but I'm really happy, and really grateful, that I've got the chance to get back out there now."

Who: Cat Power
Where and when: Bruce Mason Centre, Friday February 22
Listen to: Sun (2012)

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