But in remaining totally committed to her artistic journey, the path has not always unfurled smoothly across a 20-year-plus career. After being hospitalised with a frightening immune deficiency disorder the day after the release of her last album Sun (2012), Marshall overcame a long convalescence to begin writing her tenth record, Wanderer. “The first song that I began recording was the song Woman,” she says of the album’s first single, which features Baroque-indie-pop vocalist Lana Del Rey. “But I never meant to include it on the album because I didn’t feel confident enough to deliver the message. So I kept it a secret.
And then I met Lana, became girlfriends with her. She said ‘Honey, let’s go on tour!’ She gave me this familiar link: now I had a confidante, I had an ally. I wasn’t just singular in my proclamation of my truth: suddenly, it felt easier to say it. That’s why I asked her to sing on it. And then I found [current label] Domino. It brought me back to remembering: in a small way, I am part of the musical community. I am. I am. I’m part of the musical landscape.”
Marshall’s processes, however flawed or inefficient they may outwardly appear, are at the very core of her understanding of her musicianship. “I had a lover in South Africa – he played the saxophone – and he told me that if I learned jazz that I would be such an accomplished musician,” she says. “But who wants to f-cking learn everything, and know it all? That’s that book’s perspective, that’s that teacher’s, that university’s perspective, of what the truth is. And I know that sounds so ignorant,” she sighs, then dips into the past: “But my tangible life – washing dishes, being a nanny, cleaning houses, being a bartender, being a waitress – had nothing to do with a book, or academics. My life was built on tools that I had to learn to survive. So of course I don’t want to play f-cking guitar the way you play guitar. All these dudes,” she groans, and then affects a fratboy voice: “’Let me teach you how to play!’ I don’t want to f-cking play like you, knucklehead! It’s part of the pleasure of self-discovery. There is pleasure in there.”
“Anybody can do it!” she adds. “You think f-cking Aretha Franklin took vocal lessons?”
The songs on Wanderer often include a meandering piano, rippling with slow, contemplative melodic runs. “I don’t have a formula; I have a memory of where I put my fingers that sounds good to me,” Marshall say of her technique. “So that’s why I’m careful: I’ve never been instructed.” But from the time she was a child, she was voracious about wanting to hear its sound, even though it would be well into her international career before she decided to record herself playing. “The first time I sat down at a piano, I guess I was around five,” she says.
“My father [blues musician and pianist Charlie Marshall] had a Wurlitzer, and he told me very young: ‘Don’t touch it, don’t touch it, don’t touch it, don’t touch it, it’s not a toy.’ Then, I travelled a lot as a kid, living in different households, with different family members, different strangers. During one period of time during fifth grade there was a girl who lived down the street. When I’d go inside her house, she’d always watch TV, but I would always ask if I could go in her living room to play the piano. I had no idea what I was doing. But I would sit there, as long as I could, and I would play the black keys. Because I discovered that whenever I touched the black keys, it always sounded good together, but when I tried to touch the white it didn’t work.” Marshall had discovered the magic of the G flat pentatonic scale, at age 10.
She continued to seek out pianos to play; towards the end of high school, she lived with her father for a small time before he kicked her out. “He had a baby grand piano in his apartment,” she says. “As a teen girl who isn’t a f-cking idiot, who was maybe going through a world of sh-t – and it took me years to release some information through my songs about that world of sh-t – if I had ever sat to play it, he would be upset. He would never even consider teaching me, taking time with me as a parent, to enjoy a moment of time with me. So when he would leave for work, I would attack it; I would play it so hard I was hurting him back, you know?”
Now, she coaxes the keys; in addition to the assertion that she’s careful because she hasn’t been formally taught, maybe she feels safe in the fact the instrument can’t be taken from her again. In the past, every home and every bar had its own piano, and musicians would come to it and build up its own history. “Exactly, exactly,” Marshall says. “That’s the reason why I started asking for a piano at venues. Slowly but surely I started playing it because it was there. And only when I started asking for it, I thought ‘Oh… maybe it’s time to record.'”
Wanderer is out October 5 via Domino.
Cat Power is touring in Feburary next year! Dates and ticketing info:
Saturday 9th February – Zoo Twilights, Melbourne Zoo (All Ages)
Tickets from Zoo Twilights.
Monday 11th February – Enmore Theatre (All Ages)
Tickets from Ticketek.
Tuesday 12th February – The Tivoli (18+)
Tickets from Ticketmaster.