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Somewhere between the piano and stage left, Chan Marshall turns to the audience and raises her fists, flexing her slender arms like a prizefighter.
The triumphant posture, seen in concerts throughout the summer, has symbolized the new, confident and sober Marshall. The sold-out shows by the singer-songwriter — who performs under the name Cat Power — have been a revelation.
Backed by the 12-piece Memphis Rhythm Band, Marshall — once famous for stage fright and breaking down in the middle of songs — now struts back and forth, coos to the audience and sometimes even changes her wardrobe at mid-set.
Critics have hailed the transformation. And David Byrne, the former Talking Heads singer, wrote on his Web site that a June concert in New York was “one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.”
“I can’t even describe it. I’ve never felt this way before,” Marshall, 34, said during a recent interview. “I mean, the way I feel now on stage singing is the way I felt when I was 6 years old singing for my grandmama.”
Charlyn Marie Marshall (Chan is pronounced “Shawn”) was raised in Georgia and shuffled among relatives for most of her childhood. After dropping out of high school and moving to New York, she collaborated with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist Tim Foljahn.
After her first two albums in the mid-’90s, Marshall was signed to the indie label Matador Records. More discs followed, including 1998’s “Moon Pix,” 2000’s “The Covers Record” and 2003’s acclaimed “You Are Free.”
All the while, Marshall’s morose stage presence, with bangs hiding her eyes, seemed to only enhance fans’ appreciation of her darkly personal songs. At the concerts that ended prematurely with her crying on stage, many would try to comfort her.
Often, alcohol or pills — or both — had something to do with it. Filmmaker Vincent Gallo, who knew Marshall from years ago, happened by during the interview at a downtown Manhattan hotel and related the story of when he met Marshall.
Her finest record yetBefore she was a full-time musician, Marshall lived briefly in New York and worked at a copy shop in Greenwich Village. When Gallo, who lived nearby, came in one day, he says: “She had men’s shoes on, a non-matching set, and both of them on the wrong foot — but she wasn’t kidding. You understand? It was no joke. And I thought, ‘Oh, that girl is the greatest.”’
But his infatuation soon dissipated when the two went for a walk, and Marshall skipped into bars for shots of tequila. She was an alcoholic, it turned out.
It’s perhaps a not atypical tale of both how charming Marshall can be, and how she can disappoint. Alluding to her inconsistency as a professional musician, The New York Times wrote earlier this year that she possesses “a beautiful voice that is at times ineptly handled.”
But many believe her latest album “The Greatest,” released in January, is her finest yet. The disc, her seventh, has sold more than 100,000 copies and was recently reissued by Matador.
Recorded with Memphis soul legends such as guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges (who played with Al Green for years), Marshall’s mournful, sparse ballads are buoyed by soft horns, background singers and an overall fullness of sound.
Though Marshall wrote the songs expecting to play them solo, the collaboration with the Memphis band worked immediately. Hodges says: “It was like eating apple pie and ice cream — a la mode! It’s just that simple.”
He maintains the band’s support on stage has had a lot to do with Marshall’s newfound confidence.
“I can understand because I started playing at 12 years old and even today when I walk on stage, I’m nervous until the first eight bars,” says Hodges. “Only she was playing by herself, so I think it just lasted.”
‘In the bottom of hell’Just as “The Greatest” was being released, Marshall was bottoming out. Locked away at her home in Miami, she sank into a deep depression.
“I just wanted the best record release and to do really awesome shows — and there I was, three months later in the bottom of hell,” she says. “I couldn’t even count, just ... brain dead.”
Her friend Susanna Vapnek found Marshall in that state and promptly cleaned her up, tossed out her liquor bottles and realized that Marshall’s scheduled winter tour would have to be canceled.
“I would have killed myself,” Marshall says, had Vapnek not helped her and taken her to a rehabilitation clinic for a weeklong stay.
“I was so depressed for such a long time,” she says, explaining that she remained distraught from breaking up with the love of her life four years earlier.
Marshall says she’s now sober and will excitedly tell most anyone she meets. That’s not to say she’s exactly rigid now, either.
Over the course of a meandering interview, the ever-distracted Marshall discusses the particulars of Atlanta’s streets with a neighboring stranger, hops outside for a smoke, whistles at passing models and (beautifully) sings the hip-hop tune “I Feel” by the Hot Boys.
Though on record Cat Power is a lonely, resilient voice, in person Marshall is a ham. Despite no acting experience, she intends (seriously) to audition for “Saturday Night Live,” and has even hired an agent from Hollywood agency CAA.
For now, though, it’s back to the road, which next includes a short European tour. At those concerts, it’s likely that Marshall will again — as she often does — raise her cup of tea to the crowd and say simply and proudly, “Sober.”