Chan Marshall isn't talking.
The reclusive, recalcitrant singer -- who records and performs under the Cat Power moniker -- has a new album to promote, a dream list of tour dates (including stops at New York City's Town Hall, the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, and London's Barbican Arts Center) and a new video directed by avant-garde auteur Harmony Korine, but, says her publicist, she's not doing interviews.
Factor in Marshall's reputation for uncomfortable, unpredictable performances (here in Memphis, she's departed the stage mid-set, in tears), and you'd be tempted to dismiss her as a real prima donna.
Yet anyone who wants to plunk down the cash for Cat Power's latest album, The Greatest, will have immediate access to her psyche. Recorded here in Memphis with a bevy of studio greats -- including guitarist Teenie Hodges, his bass-playing brother Leroy, and drummer Steve Potts, all known for their soul oeuvre, and guitarist Doug Easley, cellist Jonathan Kircksey, and arranger Harlan T. Bobo, mainstays in the indie music community -- the album opens the door to Marshall's soul via a series of song-sketches with titles such as "Empty Shell" and "Love & Communication."
"When I lay me down/Will you still be around/When they put me six feet underground/Will that big bad beautiful you be around?" she wonders on "The Moon," while on the title track, she muses, "Once, I wanted to be the greatest/No wind or waterfall could stop me," before dourly noting, "And then came the rush of the flood/The stars at night turned you to dust."
For author Robert Gordon, who helped assemble the band for The Greatest, the obvious comparison is Big Star's Third. "There's a lot of desperation, [but it's] also a party," he says. "That's why she came to Memphis and Ardent."
Gordon sees the session, which took place in Ardent's Studio C last May, as a landmark bridge-building exercise between musical styles. "She wanted a soul band, and she specifically asked for Al Green's rhythm section," he notes. "Other people would be leery about getting a great soul guitarist and a great indie rocker together because they might clash, but it ended up being a great group with a great leader. She had good instincts, and the result is distinctly Chan."
Although Marshall had worked with Easley and producer Stuart Sikes before (she cut What Would the Community Think? with the duo at Easley-McCain Recording Studio a decade ago), she didn't meet the rest of the musicians until hours before the session.
Teenie Hodges was immediately smitten. "She's such a sweetheart. We were introduced at a restaurant, and I could tell how shy she was," he recalls. "Our eyes met, and I told her I'd make her feel comfortable. We left and headed over to Ardent."
Marshall played the material for Hodges, using a guitar or piano, and then he transposed the instrumentation for the rest of the musicians. According to Sikes, there were no rehearsals. Instead, he concentrated on taking a musical snapshot of the process, which he describes as "natural, not belabored."
In just three days, Potts and the Hodges brothers fleshed out her skeletal compositions and laid down the tracks, leaving space for Easley, sax player Jim Spake, trumpeter Scott Thompson, bassist Dave Smith, keyboard player Rick Steff, and a string section to fill in the gaps over a two-week period.
"Every time she played a song and Teenie finished it, he'd say, 'Wow, it's so simple but it's so different,'" Gordon remembers. "Here's a guy who's written some great songs, and he really dug her work."
"I felt so comfortable the way it was done," Hodges says appreciatively. "Chan has her own style. Her songs are very deep, lyrically. They remind me of Bob Dylan. And I wanted to keep the music close to the way she wrote it."
While Hodges has co-written chart-toppers such as "Love & Happiness" and "Take Me to the River" with Green and backed legends such as Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and reggae superstar Toots Hibbert, he claims, "It's not always about record sales. I'm pulling for Chan, but as long as people hear the album and appreciate it, for me, that takes the cake."
This week, Hodges will put his money where his mouth is, when he, Potts, Smith, Easley, Steff, Spake, Thompson, violinist Roy Brewer, and background vocalists Archie Love and Queen Ann Himes join forces as the Memphis Rhythm Band. They'll make their debut with Marshall at the Gibson Lounge this Saturday night. Early next week, they'll head to New York for the first stop on a month-long tour that will culminate at South-By-Southwest in Austin.
"Again, it's all because of Chan," Gordon says of the combined commitment to pulling off The Greatest in a live setting. "She was so charming that no one wanted to miss the opportunity to do it again."