Why Am I Addicted to Cat Power? An Enquiry in 10 Parts

12/05/2013 9:30 AM |

cat power live brooklyn masonic temple

  • Gretchen Robinette

I’ve begun earnestly considering myself addicted to Chan Marshall’s voice: I’ve listened (without exaggeration) every day (without fail) since the first time I heard it in 2005. On November 14, 2013, at her solo show as Cat Power at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, I got a heavy dose of it; the next morning felt worse than a hangover after a cocaine binge: sullen, listless, lackluster, depleted. For another fix, I wanted to drive to New Haven, Boston, Chicago, Omaha, Englewood, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to see every remaining show of the first part of this tour. Three weeks later, I still feel withdrawal symptoms.


Her voice is addicting for its tranquilizing effect—like numb calm in the nervous system after taking a stimulant—and its simultaneously visceral impact: resonance so powerful that it feels like a blow to the body.

November 14: Nico Turner’s haunting opening set (ghostly vocals crooning under moody electric guitar; the synesthesia between chord and color so vivid it brought to my mind psychedelic shades of blue, green, red, yellow, as delirious and spontaneous as Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes paintings)—her demeanor of cool confidence and shy modesty—was a seamlessly fitting counterpart to Cat Power’s mystique. She played until the stick of incense stuck in her guitar-strings extinguished, settling the space, cleansing the atmosphere.

nico turner brooklyn masonic temple opener cat power

  • Gretchen Robinette
  • Nico Turner

Chan back-stepped onstage for the first of two sets. Even after adjusting to the lights and sound system, she didn’t overcome her nervous edge: she shook her head back and forth, cringed, and apologized for some error that only she could hear. Yet whenever her voice did actually falter, she’d follow the false note to its most melodic conclusion, reversing each flaw into an idiosyncratic victory. Like in a Basquiat painting: errant brushstrokes, cross-outs, erasures, footprints, lists and manic scribbles are essential to its composition, its authenticity—its accidental and intentional perfection and imperfection.

Maybe Chan doesn’t realize that her fallibility is endearing. It suggests a mutual fragility, and tendency toward expressivity over complete accuracy, “the feeling,” as Jorie Graham calls it, “of being capable because an error.” The error evokes the ultimate pathos; she always seems to sing on the verge of weeping.

Roland Barthes—attempting “the impossible account of an individual thrill” he derived from listening to certain singers—wrote, “It is this displacement I want to outline… the encounter between a language and a voice,” which produced a quality he called “the grain of the voice”: “The grain is the body in the voice as it sings.”

The grain—displacement of corporeality to incorporeality—is autobiography communicated not in words but (more intangibly) in timbre. Its complexity and contradiction deepens simplicity into sublimity, and elevates sentimentality above melodrama. The grain of Chan’s voice tells the story of one who’s endured great pain yet remains optimistic, who’s crossed smoldering coals to guide me through a maze. Even singing on the verge of weeping, she seems equally likely to break into laughter.

9 Comment

  • I 100% share your sentiment but have yet to see Chan live…yet. I have my tickets for the Houston show and absolutely cannot wait. Thank you for making that anticipation rise.

  • Beautifully expressed. I adore her. I’m often compelled by a musical artist as much for their life’s demeanor as for their music–or at least, that’s what I think at the time, until I realize that I UNDERSTOOD their life’s demeanor through the music. What I read in interviews with them then pushes that understanding into words. I remember reading/hearing how Elliot Smith (who I’ve also listened to every day for this past year) believed that a song had to be imperfect to be true to the moment in which it’s performed, but also because there was more artistry in imperfection. I think there is also more humanity in that. Thanks for a lovely & original piece.

  • Perfect. After listening to her voice (and singing along, trying to make my voice sound like hers) every day since I first discovered her, then seeing her perform live, I was inspired to write something similar. Her voice does have an addictive quality, more than anyone I’ve ever listened to. I actually wrote a song about her voice today, and it’s not that I meant to… it’s just what happened…

  • Where are you getting these bootlegs? I’ve been looking all over for one.

  • ^ Vincent, I sent you a message on the CP forum weeks ago. You never replied back. : )

  • What a great read! Music, hers in particular, has kept me here. It’s been a rough year… Thank you, CP <3

  • Every time I think nobody else would get it, I realize I’m underestimating others who love Chan’s music equally. That review perfectly described my own feelings – as if the writer read my mind. Recently my addiction has moved backward chronologically, and now I’m hooked again on Myra Lee and Community.

    Love ya, Chan. You’ve been on my sleepytime playlist and running through my mind for I don’t know how long. Stay right there for as long as you like.

  • Thanks for the intelligent and beautifully written article. Definitely captures my experience of her songs, her performances and her being. Her performance in San Francisco was a masterpiece, building slowly from electric guitar, to piano and back to guitar, her playing and singing gaining in precision and elegance as the evening unfolded. She began Good Woman, but the guitar was not in the right tuning, she paused to tell us that, then after a few seconds changed the chords to suit her voice and it was beautiful. Wonderful to hear her solo singing all the songs I love so much.

  • beautiful article for a beautiful free spirit…I wish Chan was touring more often in France!!