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Chan 'Cat Power' Marshall comes out of a deep funk and produces lovely music

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Nov. 17--on her new album's penultimate song, Chan "Cat Power" Marshall serves up an anthem of self-loathing for the ages. Titled "Hate," it's just jabs of stuttering guitar and Marshall's murmured voice descending into helpless panic: "Do you believe she said that? I said, 'I hate myself and I want to die.' "

Until recently, going to see a Cat Power show was very much like that. As good as Marshall's records have always been, her shows were uncomfortable verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown spectacles that could be painful to watch.

But this year, a newly confident Marshall is touring with an expanded ensemble called the Memphis Rhythm Band, which plays Cat's Cradle on Sunday. By most accounts, Marshall's performances are as solid now as they used to be shaky. And does she still play "Hate"?

"When I play that song now, I change the lyrics because I don't hate myself anymore, which is a good thing," Marshall says, calling from New York. "I feel some shame in having released it because I don't think that's a good seasoning to flavor young people's minds with. But that's what art and music help you do, live things like that through songs rather than doing them. So maybe it's OK to get that emotion out and feel understood. I felt that, it's a normal human emotion everybody has at some point."

When Marshall recorded "Hate," she was at a low ebb. The song appears on "The Greatest" (Matador Records), which she made in Memphis with a crack band of players who backed up Al Green, Willie Mitchell and other soul stars back in the day. It should have been a dream come true for Marshall, given her love for Otis Redding, James Brown and Mary J. Blige. Yet she was miserable.

"I really didn't care about the album when I was making it," she says. "I felt overly sensitive, defensive, protective. Recording with these legendary people was intimidating, and I wasn't very strong and I felt pretty depressed. Now, I think it's because I was just at the brink."

Getting sober

Shortly before "The Greatest" was released in January, a breakdown led to Marshall being hospitalized for alcoholism and psychiatric treatment. Getting through that has a lot to do with her newfound confidence onstage.

"I got sober," she says. "When you face that demon, in a hospital situation where you have no choice but to face up to yourself and the really awful parts you've been hiding away for however many years, you see that it does something to you. Now, I guess my 'career' is better. I feel like I got that cliched 'second chance,' and I'm just thankful to the friends who were there for me. I'm better now, and playing with this band live feels like a dream come true. It feels completely different from the album."

Whatever Marshall's feelings about "The Greatest," it's a beautiful record and her highest-charting album to date (it reached No. 34 on the Billboard charts back in February). Marshall's drowsy Dusty Springfield-styled voice and nervous, mysterious lyrics make an intriguing fit for the loping, steady rolling rhythms of classic Memphis soul -- her idiosyncratic version of Springfield's 1969 classic "Dusty in Memphis."

Boxer Muhammad Ali, one of the most iconic figures of modern history, is a recurring figure. Marshall is shown with a jacket reading "Cassius Clay" (Ali's original name) in the video for "Living in Bars." And the title track, named after the 1977 Ali biopic, could be an alternate history of his life. Over a subdued bed of strings reminiscent of "Moon River," Marshall sings from the point of view of a man looking back: "Once I wanted to be the greatest/Two fists of solid rock/With brains that could explain/Any feeling."

"That's not directly related to Muhammad Ali so much as Cassius Clay," Marshall says. "It's about what if he'd never become Muhammad Ali, if he took other chances and choices in his life as a child and didn't become the great empowerer and freedom-of-speech person he was. So that's a song for every man, woman or kid who had that same great strength as him, but didn't go as far."

N.C. connections

Marshall wrote "The Greatest" in Winston-Salem, at a sound check before a show that would be the first time Marshall's mother ever saw her perform. It was an emotional night that Marshall seems to have mixed feelings about ("I don't know what she thought," is all she'll say of her mom's reaction). But it figures that it happened in North Carolina, given how many odd connections she has to the state.

After Marshall's parents split when she was young, she moved around a lot growing up and spent a few years in Greensboro and McLeansville. The latter town was where she wrote her first song, summer after fourth grade, on the piano at a neighbor's house.

Then when Marshall was 16, Carrboro denizen Dexter Romweber (Cat Power's opening act for Sunday's show) rocked her world. When she saw Flat Duo Jets for the first time and heard Romweber bringing the same blues, soul and country music she loved to life, Marshall was so inspired that she got a guitar of her own.

"It was a Silvertone, just like Dexter's," Marshall says. "I kept it in the corner of my room as a piece of art, like a vase. I never thought I'd be a singer, write songs. I used to write poems and the only times I'd sing was in school or in church for my grandma. That's why I sing like a little kid now. So this whole Cat Power thing started as almost a hobby, because of playing this guitar I loved.

"For me, Cat Power has just been a device to get advances so I can travel -- whether it's $3,000 or $10,000 or however much -- then I put out this very nice gift, a souvenir. I've always just used making records as something to enable me to see the world."


Copyright (c) 2006, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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