Cat's meow 

Coming full circle with Chan Marshall, Cabbagetown's accidental, globe-trotting indie-rock goddess

Cat Power, aka Atlanta native Chan Marshall, has sold somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 records since her 1995 debut, Dear Sir. The new You Are Free, her sixth album, sold a whopping 11,000 copies in its first week of release, landing it at No. 105 on the Billboard album charts.

Impressive stuff for a high-school dropout who, little more than a decade ago, was fully enrolled in the Academy of Glorious Southern Misfits -- the one presided over by local folks like Benjamin, the cross-dressing sage who fronted local acts Smoke and Opal Foxx Quartet. The one centered in the tight-knit, pre-gentrified company town/artist colony/white-trash 'hood of Cabbagetown.

But, then again, rapper 50 Cent's debut also came out last month and sold 872,000 copies in its first week -- and even George Strait's just-released live record sold 100,000 copies.

So why is it that, given her almost negligible mainstream popularity, Chan Marshall has been the subject of a full-page fashion shoot in The New York Times Magazine and features in establishment rags from Vanity Fair to Newsweek? She's also enjoyed marquee placement in Rolling Stone, which gave her and 50 Cent equal space in the opening spread of its March 6 record reviews section.

One thing you should know: Chan is friends with a bunch of music critics. I say this not to imply that her career is built on favoritism or conflict-of-interest -- only to suggest that writers are drawn to her. The same thing that fascinates critics about her maddening ambivalence toward her "career" as a "pop singer" is what makes us like her personally.

Marshall's reputation for being a natural star who lacks the ego to perform confidently in front of large groups makes some twisted sense to us. After all, it's just a willingness to do what she does -- get paid to create material for the consumption of others -- only without embracing the essentially extroverted nature of it all. That's something writers know all about. We put stuff out there, and then enjoy the luxury of not having to stand in front of people while they read our stuff.

Roni: Do you read your press?

Chan: Sometimes. Like this one really great girl in Santa Fe, we just had such a great talk -- things like that I want to read.

What do you think about music critics who use a lot of first-person and self- referencing? Do you ever feel like it's self-indulgent -- that it's presumptuous for the writer to think that the reader wants to read about them?

I think that's the case with a lot of things. Like the grocery store guy could talk to you for five hours about how this salmon is the best salmon, and he's there to tell you because he knows, because he just knows, and ... "OK, I have to go, I just need my piece of fish."

What if a writer actually knows the subject? Is it fair game to write about knowing them?

That's interesting. Uh, yeah, of course. They're just doing their job. Are you asking me that so I don't get mad at you about something you're going to write?

I'm not worried that you're going to be mad, I was just wondering about your perspective. I have questions about it myself. To take something from a personal life that isn't designed for the public. Not that there's anything so personal here ...

I see what you mean -- like, exploiting a personal conversation. Well, it's the choice the writer makes. You just accept that that's what happens -- like this girl in New York who's interviewed me a couple times, and through that we've become friends. It's weird, because I read something she'd written and it made me feel funny. Because I didn't know she had these feelings. It just gets you to know the person a little more.

If I'd only known the following information would one day be relevant, I would've tried harder to remember the details. There was a major trauma -- some guy far away had died -- and that was the reason I had to leave. It was only fair. After all, I was just crashing at my friends' East 4th Street apartment, and Lily was their official new roommate. The deceased was her friend (boyfriend?), and she had every right to mourn without some freeloading stranger sleeping a couple feet away in the living room.

It was the summer of '92 in Manhattan. I had just graduated from college and was bouncing between friends' couches, biding my time until I took off to Europe for six weeks. One friend had moved out of the place on 4th Street, and so the two remaining roommates found Lily, who'd just come up from Atlanta.

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