The news that Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, was journeying to Memphis to record with Al Green's old band seemed at first glance about as likely as Pavarotti hooking up with the Sex Pistols.
Marshall, after all, is hardly a natural soul star. For more than a decade, she has plied her trade on the far margins of America's indie nation, performing with such fierce reluctance it has seemed at times the effort might do her in.
On one notorious occasion at New York's Knitting Factory, she felt a wave of fear hit her, and started to scream, till someone pulled the plug. Another time, she started shaking, and sat down amongst the sympathetic crowd. This prompted The New York Times to slate her "outrageously passive-aggressive behaviour and non-musicianship", at a gig "staggering for its inversion of standard rock-performance ethics" - a good review, by some lights.
Her records, too, are hushed, hesitant things. Her most famous song, a version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" on The Covers Record (1999), simply removed the chorus, to reveal a spare song of desolation. Still, she has garnered fans from Patti Smith, Sonic Youth and Beck to Elton John. But the soul-exploding roar of Otis Redding seems from a different galaxy. Yet, for seventh album The Greatest, Marshall did indeed move to Memphis's Ardent Studios, Stax's second home, and one of Southern soul's sacred sites.
There, she worked with "Teenie" and "Flick" Hodges, the heart of Hi Studios' old house band, and still guitarist and bassist for Al Green. And, via her own shy brand of emotional nakedness, she's made a modern record that fits right in with the studio's soul-baring past. Like Lambchop's Nixon, it weaves together soul and country, black and white, young and old, to create a soft album of perilous depths.
"My label Matador asked me who I wanted in all the world," Marshall says of its genesis, once she's composed herself; her first attempts at talk are manic gibberish, a product of the nerves that freeze her on stage. "I wanted Otis Redding's band, really. But I didn't know where I could get 'em. I didn't know who was playing any more. And then I heard Al Green still had his band. There are three Hodges brothers. The third one declined, because he says he doesn't play devil's music any more. That made me sad. But 'Teeny' had found out where in the South I was from and when I met him, he gave me a bottle of Georgia Moonshine. He had his own in his flask. His stuff was stronger. Before that I felt, 'Oh, man, they've played with all these great people'. My head was working too much. But liquor's just quicker, to settle you down."
Marshall's own Southern odyssey, in as much as she'll reveal it, hardly matches the well of pain black soul music sprang from. But its rootlessness had its share of hardship. As a child, she can recall Southern scenes that Redding would surely recognise: an eerily silent rural Georgia home which backed onto a graveyard, where she'd run through tobacco patches - hardly part of the 20th century at all. Later, she floated through the region with her divorced, free-spirited mother and two siblings. In the late 1970s, symptomatically, they shacked up with the obscure funk-rock band Mother's Finest.
"It was like those movies where the stereo is playing, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd," she told Paper magazine, "People are on motorcycles and smoking mad dope, and little kids are running around." Falling out with her mother she moved in with her dad, before he too kicked her out, when she became a high school drop-out, aged 16.
Both parents had banned her from buying records, but she'd still absorbed a love of gospel and soul. When a friend advised her to try picking up a guitar she kept in her room "like a vase or a plant" (or a future she didn't dare contemplate), Marshall formed a band she called Cat Power, in 1992.
When two close friends died, she broke away again, to New York. "I was the first of my family to ever leave the South," she says. In the East Village, she started hanging in the same crowd as Beck. When Sonic Youth associate Wharton Tiers lured her into the studio, the sessions resulted in "Headlights", and the album Myra Lee (1996). In the former, her first words on vinyl, Marshall whispered the dying thoughts of a road accident victim, mangled on the tarmac. For the latter, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelly was among the musicians trying to wrestle her disparate emotional registers into conventional NYC indie-rock shape. What Would the Community Think (1996) and especially Moon Pix (1998) then saw her throw off any pretence at rock music, revealing an interest in America's most deeply rooted folk forms. Moon Pix has moments of great beauty, in "Metal Heart" and "Colors and the Kids" particularly. For the cover, she stares out from a framed black-and-white photo, surrounded by flowers, as if she were a trapped spirit from another age, and the publicity pretended she was a recently dead, lost master, a latter-day Emily Dickinson. The album, Marshall's long-haired beauty (like a softer Nico) and her vulnerability on stage gained her a fervent following.
But it was The Covers Record (2000) where Cat Power first crept onto the radio, always late at night, with that Spartan, spooked version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", surgically removing both its chorus and any sense of relief, and restoring "I Can't Get No"; as the song's lost point. Other covers, of Dylan (a hero), Moby Grape, Smog, the Velvet Underground and Nina Simone might have revealed a sort of lineage, if most hadn't been mauled almost to the point of unrecognisability. You Are Free (2003) then saw her grow into songs of a beauty that were nearly lush. But the Ming vase fragility and crushed self-esteem which resulted from her early wandering and rejection were still at her core. Though she wrote of an old-time community, Cat Power remained a flinching, neurotic, modern loner, not fitting anywhere.
The Greatest, too, is riven by a sense of betrayal, of personalities splitting under stress; on "Empty Shell", pronouns shift, as if Marshall isn't sure who or where she is. The album's emotional centrepiece, "Willie", prays for half-crazed victims, and puts her in their company. Where "Teenie" Hodges co-wrote "Love and Happiness" with Al Green, Marshall's 21st century soul opus ends with the more ambiguous, cold "Love and Communication".
And yet, the veterans she called on have clearly been inspired. Where other recent Southern soul reunions, such as Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me, merely asked them to rehash their old motions, here they shadow Marshall's sentiments with miraculous discretion. And she in turn, back in the region that spawned her, suddenly sounds complete. This, it seems, is where her soul is too.
"It's probably the first time I've ever tried to do what I wanted to do," she says of the sessions. "Even in this attempt, it's been momentary and not really thought-out, going with gut feelings and improvised, which is what I've always done. But this time, they knew what they were doing. When there were strings, they charted it the old way - because I don't know chords or bridges, or anything like that. I just knew I wanted the essence of "Moon River". I'd literally sing them what I wanted. The most important thing is that everyone was really talented and warm. After playing together for so many years, and in this place, in Ardent, where just walking down the hall to go the bathroom, you see all the record covers, from when Albert King or someone recorded there - it just felt like a real community thing. I feel honoured that they accepted me."
The difference between the old-fashioned, soulful world of Ardent, where Marshall felt so at home, and modern America's brutal musical requirements, was borne out as soon as she played her label the results.
"Well, that's the true sadness - the musical depression," she says, her diffidence falling suddenly away, as real anger starts to spark. "I'm sure even back when James Brown was cutting singles, they'd be saying, 'We've gotta get played on the radio'. But now, it's like the people are secondary to the sound. When this record was mastered, the guy said, 'This won't go on the radio because it's not going to be loud enough for the signal on the compact disc'. So I had to get it remastered. It still won't be played on the radio, but now it sounds like it's supposed to - because I pushed everything up, made everything loud, made it sound like - an advertisement, or something? That's the energy, the noise that the music industry's created, like we're all pushing towards the future. It has to fit in with the programme, you know?"
Marshall has at least arrested this onward rush long enough to reveal the enduring greatness of her group (who were to have played with her last week, trading as the Memphis Rhythm Band, before the concert was cancelled due to ill health). Does she think such old studio bands, the one-time heartbeat of Southern soul, are a wasted American resource?
"Well," she says darkly. "There's a lot of things we could get into on that topic of American wasted resource involving music in the South, like what happened to New Orleans. That wasn't even surprising, if you look at the policies of America recently." She gives a long sigh, truly depressed, and furious. "It's just so shameful. It's... criminal. There's so much about the South, and the history of it, that's heartbreaking for me - and touching and spiritual, too. You see the past there, you know? That lends itself to the reality. You can see the echoes, but they're getting faint. The South being so agricultural, there are no monuments. I mean, you can visit Robert Johnson's house. But there are no real... affirmations."
Marshall, like most Southerners, had a Christian background, ,but The Greatest's title doesn't refer to the Lord. If anything, the other world it alludes to is within the riven singer herself. Al Green's career switch into dodgy hellfire preaching will certainly never be hers. But Marshall, in her own way, is a believer. "I have faith, definitely," she considers.
"I do believe in a good side, you know. I sound like an idiot..." she sighs, the self-effacement that makes her music so mesmerically hushed regaining its ground at the last.
No you don't, I attempt to assure her.
"I know I do," says the creator of the year's greatest soul record, simply. "Because I am."
'The Greatest' is out now on Matador RecordsReuse content