Cat on a hot-lit stage

Chan Marshall is not having any fun. Touring is hard enough, says the enigmatic Southern singer-songwriter, who performs as Cat Power. And interviews are a challenge in themselves.

Nonetheless, she says she's ready to face the press. "It's important to make sure that the questions are answered - instead of someone being biased, someone being lazy, someone being judgmental," says Marshall (whose first name is pronounced Shawn), backstage at the hip rock venue The Casbah. Those "someones" are interviewers, like yours truly.

In the weeks before the February release of "You Are Free" (Matador Records), her fifth album in seven years, Cat Power was puzzled over by critics in Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and news-papers nationwide. Her act is stubbornly removed from the manufactured sounds of the corporate music industry. Her music and lyrics are minimalist, haunting, and beautiful - comparable to nothing else.

Since Marshall first independently produced CDs "Dear Sir" and later "Myra Lee," which she recorded with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley in the mid-'90s, she has attracted a youthful following. All her songs are infused with a naked emotion and an artful tension.

"[I try] to make the song, the way it's supposed to be," she says, explaining what she tries to achieve during performances. "That's the only thing I understand about it." Her channeling of musical traditions, from blues and American roots to hip-hop, seems to take her into the realm of inspiration.

Critics seize on Marshall's perceived media shyness, coupled with her legendary performance anxiety. Highlights of Marshall's career include reports of stammering fits and starts during shows, profuse apologies, breaking down on stage while her band mates exit in disgust, pausing to scream or to read a newspaper, and walking off mid-performance.

Marshall insists that her art, as well as her recent celebrity, has been arbitrary. She bought her first guitar, a Silver Tone, from a friend because she liked its look, even though she couldn't play it at the time. "If my friend hadn't been selling a guitar - if he had been selling a typewriter, maybe I'd be a writer right now," she says. "Or if he had been selling an easel or, like, some paint brushes, I'd probably be a painter."

The name Cat Power was also a fluke, coming to her when she spotted a "Cat Diesel Power" cap while working at Fellini's, a pizza place in Atlanta, in the late 1980s. In 1991, at age 19, she moved to New York. There, some friends signed her up for a gig at CBGB's in 1993, she says, without her permission. She describes doing the gig reluctantly, and coming home to a message on her answering machine asking her to open for Liz Phair.

As for meeting Mr. Shelley, she says, "He was, like, this famous guy that I didn't want to talk to.... Because he was famous ... I didn't trust it, it just made me uncomfortable."

She has posed for a series of Gap ads, done fashion spreads for New York Magazine, been photographed alongside Catherine Deneuve, and become a muse for top designers such as Nicolas Ghesquiere and Marc Jacobs. Well-known rock musicians Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder back her up on the new CD. Presumably Marshall has become more comfortable with being in the spotlight.

Or maybe not. A question about whether her feelings about rock-star fame have changed puts an abrupt end to the interview, and Matador Records apologizes that she has now refused to grant any interviews for the rest of the tour.

Outside The Casbah, meanwhile, more young people are gathering, four hours before the curtain. Jeff Coffman has come 60 miles from Dana Point, Calif., to see Cat Power for the second night in a row. "She's not like any other performer I've ever seen," he says. "She kind of trails off during songs." But emotional "high points" make her shows worth the trip, he adds.

The show Coffman sees is understated, soulful, inspired. And uninterrupted - apart from a few onstage apologies from Marshall.

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