Chan Marshall isn’t ready for me. “Are you a journalist? Oh Jesus, oh Lord.” We’re speaking on the phone – Marshall is in her hotel room, I’m in the lobby downstairs, after my knock at her door went unanswered. “I have something in my eye and I’m still wet from the shower,” she says, in that same husky American drawl she sings with as Cat Power. “Can you come back in 15 minutes? I’m really sorry sweetie.”
Half an hour later, Marshall finally opens her door, and that bleariness has converted into a capricious energy. The lights are off, the curtains are shut, but the 49-year-old is so buzzy, I could swear she’s emitting her own light source. She starts arranging pillows for me at the end of her bed, then clocks me eyeing up her dark-blue boiler suit, which has the name “Dave” on the chest and rips in the armpits. “I know, I look like a monster,” she says, still thumping at the pillows, arranging a strange little nest for me. “It is what it is. It’s all I can fit into. Are you right-handed?” Left, actually. “Oh, that’s perfect. You can lean like this.”
I soon discover that linear conversation is not an option with Marshall. She speaks in elliptical thoughts, taking most of my questions as mood boards rather than things to be answered. Ask which songs on her new covers album she most relates to, and you’ll get a rumination on the God particle. A query about where she grew up eventually takes us to Marshall’s belief that “part of our consciousness has already become a cyborg”. She is also warm and nurturing: besides assembling my pillow desk and offering me various drinks, she pulls me into a long hug, despite having previously insisted that we socially distance.
It takes a certain kind of character to make music like Marshall’s. A sprawling mix of blues, rock and folk, it is as frank and impassioned as she is. Over the course of 11 albums, she has written about love and loss, abortion and abuse, grief and God. “I will swim / I will drink myself to death,” she sang on her distortion-soaked debut Dear Sir – a moment of pure poeticism but also the first hint at the depression and alcohol abuse that would come to plague her.
The melancholic scuzziness of her music was born partly out of necessity – for a while, she could play only the one guitar chord her friend had shown her, a minor one, so her songs all came out sad. It was partly innate, though – Marshall has a knack for distilling existential ennui into three-minute songs. In 1998, when she was 26 and had learnt a few more chords, she recorded what would become her breakthrough record, the vulnerable, critically adored Moon Pix. Written mostly in one night after a hallucinatory nightmare in a South Carolina farmhouse, the album earned Marshall a devoted fanbase – but she never quite made it into the mainstream.
Despite once being the face of Chanel – Karl Lagerfeld asked her to model after spotting her smoking outside a New York hotel – and duetting with Lana Del Rey on 2018’s Wanderer,she has always been something of a cult figure. “Marshall’s music will one day be spoken about the way we talk about Bob Dylan’s music, or Neil Young’s music,” wrote a New York Magazine writer in 2018, “but until then, she exists in the sweet spot between cult favourite and widely accepted genius.”
For the past two years, that genius has been put to more practical use – teaching her seven-year-old son Boaz to read, write and do maths during the pandemic. She had him in 2015, with a man she dated for a few months and has never publicly named. “Oh my God, my son is like a f***ing tiger, dude,” she tells me. “I think the universe sent him to me. I wonder if there’s some justification of when women have sons… Anyway. Anyway.”
No, go on. “Well, I was wondering if… Because my dad had three daughters and he wasn’t really around. He just came and went, as men often do. The world is their oyster. And it does something to the mother, right?” Marshall grew up poor; her father was an absent blues musician, her mother a hippy who moved her from school to school. “But then I have single friends that have sons, and then I have married friends that have sons and there’s this… I don’t f***ing know what I’m saying.” She sighs. “I think the universe sent me something that I always needed. A male figure that was dependable, protective, hilarious, gentle, wise.”
As well as the reading and the maths, she and her son would have music lessons together. “Record time and music time got a little more in-depth,” she says. “He’s just running around as fast as he can to Hüsker Dü.” Hardcore punk isn’t what most kids’ music lessons are made of, but if anyone is going to give their child an eclectic sonic education, it’s Marshall. In fact, Boaz need only listen to her covers for that. Some of her best songs were sung by other people first: her pensive, languid version of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, which omits the chorus entirely and transforms into something almost painfully introspective, or her sweet, fragile take on Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love”, which got a second wind when it featured in Juno six years after it appeared on 2000’s The Covers Record.
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Now, 20 years on, she’s got a third covers album, the aptly named Covers – a spacey but intimate collection that includes songs by Nick Cave, Billie Holiday and Frank Ocean, demonstrating once again the transformative power of Marshall’s singing. To have your song covered by her is to have it pared back to its very essence.
One of the best songs on the album is “These Days”, made famous by Nico in the Sixties, but written by Jackson Browne when he was just 16. Such world-weary lyrics for someone so young – “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them” – and Marshall’s voice, bittersweet as coffee with a shot of syrup, suits that malaise beautifully. “He was 16?” she snaps. “Bulls***.” She starts to click a pen. “Bulls***.” Click, click. “Are you sure? Are you sure he was 16?” Click, click, click. “Wow.”
How does she choose which songs to cover? “Damn,” she says, getting up to fetch something from across the room before returning empty-handed. “Music and words, they give us feelings that we can apply to our own memories. If a song touches you, you can read between the lines and find something for yourself. Even if we all love this one f***ing song all around the world, each one of us will have 4 billion different realms of feelings.”
Back on the bed, she raises one arm into the air as if she’s asking a question in class, and holds it there as she talks. “I have a million favourite songs. Everybody who has a brain in their head, with a heart in their body, loves music. Because humans, that’s what we do. And what the f*** is it? We have no idea what music is. Where did it come from? Oh we just put these sounds together and we sing along to stuff. Like, what? It doesn’t make any sense.”
It is magical that humans can just picture a note, I say, and their throat produces the right tone. “And whales,” she says, before making a long, loud whale noise. When she’s done with that, she howls like a wolf, tweets like a bird, purrs like a cat, and finally, to complete the several-minute performance, moos.
Not a minute too soon, we’re interrupted by room service, and a young woman wheels in a tray of coffee. “Are you from Africa?” asks Marshall.
“Ghana! Tina Turner has a house there. And Stevie Wonder. And Bill Clinton. What are you doing here? Making the money?”
“Yes,” says the woman, with a patient smile. “To get a better life.”
“And will you go back home?”
“Yes, I will.”
“That’s right,” says Marshall, wistful on the stranger’s behalf. “I would, too.”
Marshall’s own upbringing was a peripatetic one. Born in Atlanta, she grew up around Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina, before moving back to Georgia. It was there, according to another interview, that she got involved in the Nineties rock band scene. “Rock band?” she says. “Was I in the rock band scene?” That’s what I read. She described it as a time full of loss. “Oh yeah, it was. Everyone was poor. Except for the trust-fund kids.” What sort of crowd was she in? “I wasn’t in a crowd. I had maybe four friends.” Musicians? “No. A bartender, a shop girl, a photographer and an artist.” Was this before she signed a record deal? “Record deal? I never had a record deal. I just gave my music away. I never had a record deal.”
I’m a little confused. According to Matador’s website, she signed with them in 1996. She released seven albums with the label before being unceremoniously dropped a few years ago, when they (wrongly) deemed her 2018 album Wanderer not good enough to put out. They had implored her to give them hits, and she had tried – 2012’s poppier Sun was her first to reach the Billboard Top 10 – but it wasn’t enough. One executive even played her an Adele album for inspiration. She had never seen it as a business relationship; evidently, Matador did.
I mention her split from the label, and at first I don’t think she’s really heard me. “I got offered a million dollars by this guy who went on to manage Gwen Stefani,” she says. “I never told anybody this. I told a couple of friends in my life, but never told a journalist. He said they would buy my  album, What Would the Community Think, from Matador. And I was like, ‘F*** no. Because those are my friends.’” I see. So that made it especially galling that they dropped her?
“It’s one of those things,” she says, clicking that pen again. “It’s like when you’re standing on a bridge and you’re looking over and you’re trying to imagine, ‘Would my skull crack or would my legs break off? How far is that drop?’ And then you see someone that you f***ing know 30 feet away, lifting their f***ing leg over the bridge and you’re on the f***ing bridge at the same time. And you call out their name and pretend that you don’t notice that they’re trying to jump off the bridge.”
At this point, she abandons the second-person pretence. “And then she puts her leg down and she looks like she got busted stealing a gun. And she looks at me and her face starts to change. I just grab her. ‘It’s OK. It’s OK. I was here for the same reason and it’s OK.’” An uncharacteristic silence hangs in the air. “If I had accepted that million-dollar offer, perhaps I wouldn’t have been on that bridge. And she wouldn’t be my friend to this day.”
Marshall’s mental health has often been a precarious thing. Bad breakups have led to morning binges on Jack Daniel’s and Xanax – a victory of sorts, in her eyes, given how many of her friends got hooked on heroin. Around the release of her seventh album, The Greatest, she had a psychotic breakdown and was hospitalised, and throughout the Nineties and Noughties her live shows were erratic affairs. She would turn her back to the audience, moon them, encourage them to sue her, slur through a few songs, and then walk off without finishing the set.
Things are better these days, especially since she had her son – though lockdown got to her for a moment. “I broke down one afternoon,” she says. “I think it was month six. And I was just sitting there and I don’t know what happened, but I just went inside my head. Boaz was playing with his toys and running around. I don’t know what happened, but I just started crying. And I had my head in my hands. And I was just kind of quietly sobbing. He stops whatever he is doing. He’s like, “Mom, mom, mom. It’s OK, mom. Everything’s going to be OK.’ And I just looked at him and I said, ‘I know. I know.’”
She tries not to dwell on the bad stuff, just like she doesn’t dwell on turning down a million dollars. “I don’t regret the things that I’ve done,” she says. “No one f***ing told me, ‘Don’t do this, because look, this s***’s gonna happen.’ No one has a key. No one knows anything. We do the best we can.”
‘Covers’ is out now
If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email [email protected], or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.