Indie rock grew into a beast in the ’90s. There were inklings of its rise throughout the ’80s, but it found its surest footing in the first few years of the following decade. Independent labels were becoming more well-known, and underground artists began cultivating sizable fanbases. Growing from the often jangle-oriented college rock of the late ’80s to a more lithe indie rock sound (with notable exceptions I’ll grant you), the genre burst from its bare beginnings to start a slow but triumphant march to mainstream acceptance. Bands who had released looked-over debut records in the first years of the decade would go on to find themselves appearing on various prominent charts toward the end of the ’90s.
Among the wash of indie rock acts to come along and gain a fair measure of success then was Cat Power (AKA Chan Marshall), a musician whose work was intensely personal but grounded in nimble guitar rhythms and introspective narratives. With each subsequent album, her fame and notoriety grew, allowing her to tour and fill ever-larger venues with her confessional storytelling. Her voice was quiet but strident on those early releases, yet to find its full gravity but still knocking over plenty of emotional barriers and entrenched expectations.
Marshall was born in Atlanta in 1972 to Charlie and Myra Lee, although they divorced when she was young. Her mother remarried, eventually having a son named Lenny, and the family moved around quite a bit due to her stepfather’s job. She attended 10 different schools across the South as her family moved from city to city, often finding herself left with her grandmother. She wasn’t allowed to buy records when she was young so she immersed herself in the collections of her stepfather and mother, which included albums by Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Flag and The Rolling Stones.
She eventually felt the pull of the music and bought a ’50s Silvertone guitar but didn’t touch it for a year because she felt that it was more like a work of art than an instrument. After some time, however, she did pick it up and taught herself how to play. She began playing with a group of friends that included Glen Thrasher, Marc Moore, Damon Moore and Fletcher Liegerot for basement jam sessions that eventually led to their first booked gig. But they had to come up with a name. By luck, a man walked into the pizzeria where Marshall worked with a trucker cap that read “Cat Diesel Power,” and after kicking out “Diesel,” the band had its name.
In an interview some years later, she would think back on those early shows as times for the band “to get drunk and take drugs.” After a couple of friends became addicted to heroin, Marshall knew that she had to extricate herself from that situation, so she moved to New York City with Thrasher in 1992. Through his connections, she soon became entangled with the experimental music scenes there, often sharing a stage with bands like Man Or Astro-man? and God Is My Co-Pilot, with the latter band helping to release her first single, “Headlights,” on their own Making of Americans imprint.
During all this time in Atlanta and New York City, she had been writing and gathering ideas for the songs that would come to comprise her first two records. And it was during a show in ’92 where she was opening for Liz Phair that she first met Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, a man who would go on to perform on her debut album and produce her sophomore record. Recorded in December ’94 in a small basement studio in New York City alongside guitarist Tim Foljahn and Shelley, “Dear Sir” and “Myra Lee” were released 6 months apart. The three of them has recorded 20 songs in a single day and split them between these two releases.
In 1996 she signed to indie stalwart Matador Records and subsequently released her third album, “What Would the Community Think,” that same year. And while well-received, her greatest achievement would follow in 1998. But before that happened, she moved to Portland, Oregon and subsequently relocated to a farmhouse in rural South Carolina. And it was here while living alone that she experienced a hypnogogic nightmare, one that directly inspired her fourth record, “Moon Pix,” a collection of 11 tracks that she wrote mostly in a single night. She traveled to Australia in 1998 to record with Mick Turner and Jim White of post-rock band Dirty Three, and the resulting sessions saw her abilities as a songwriter evolve beyond anything she’s displayed before.
Across the length of “Moon Pix,” Marshall battled ghosts, cut open the heart of love and found her truest voice. It was stripped down, emotional but never lacking the necessary weight to connect with her listeners. Songs like “Cross Bones Style” and “Moonshiner” worked quite well as stark indie rock theses, with her voice detailing the ups and downs of the genre and finding both hope and despair in its leavings. Still, it was an elusive record, one that didn’t offer much in the way of simple answers or spiritual confirmation. Like any great piece of impressionistic art, the record was a series of subtly changing perspectives and ragged experiences.
Spectral piano lines and austere guitar arrangements lent the album a haunted visage. Without being overly self-aware or buried in its own sadness, she presented it as a gothic beauty, crippling in its grace, offering solace in various shades of love and heartache. Her voice was a fragile thing, built up from bad experiences, bitter joy and the hope of better things to come. “Moon Pix” wasn’t just an extension of Marshall’s thoughts (or the images from that nightmarish vision); it was her, each song a limb, each verse a vital organ. And within its depths, she found a release from the encroaching world, a place outside of time that could be hers and populated only by those she let in through the benediction of her music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.