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Who is Cat Power, and what does she contribute to music?

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Cat Power is the stage name of Charlen-Marie Marshall, whose name was later shortened to Chan (pronounced "Shawn"). Born in 1972 in Atlanta, Georgia, Cat is a singer, songwriter and guitarist who plays sometimes stark and always introspective music. She has fans in alternative and independent rock who are drawn to her vivid, sometimes raw lyrics sung in her feather-light alto voice and enhanced by her emotionally dramatic music-video and on-stage presence, all of which can be seen in "Manhattan."

Chan's father, Charlie, was a pianist who sang blues and "roots-style" music in Atlanta. Divorce separated Chan from her father as her stepfather moved Chan`and her sister to various cities, like Memphis and Greensboro, in pursuit of work. For music, Chan listened to her stepfather's collection of rock and roll records by Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. At 16, Cat left high school and moved to her father's home in Atlanta. At 20, following the death of a friend, she moved to New York and, borrowing a boyfriend's guitar, began to make up songs.

New York

Chan was alone in New York except for one friend, and her impressions of New York were of silence: "Everyone with their eyes down. It almost reminded me of the South, the stillness of everything." The stillness (born of isolation between individuals in crowds of strangers) was akin to the stillness that impressed itself upon her in her childhood in the South: "My main memory of the South, growing up, is visual; a still landscape, very beautiful. We had this old run-down graveyard behind our house. I remember running over a mud bridge through a tobacco patch in bare feet" (Steve Tignor, Puncture).

After learning guitar, Chan adopted the performance name of Cat Power and began performing, earning a reputation for a bluesy, slow rhythm, rock style. She was booked as the opening act for Liz Phair. As a result, Cat met Steve Shelley and Tim Foljahn of Sonic Youth and Two Dollar Guitar, who agreed to instrumentally back Cat for a studio recording session.


Cat's 1995 Dear Sir extended play (EP) recording was released on the Italian Runt record label. In 1996 Myra Lee was released on Smells Like Records. Critics were not thrilled with the backing of Shelley and Foljahn, but Cat's melodically low soulful voice and original songs impressed Matador Records. Matador released Cat's first full-length album What Would the Community Think? in 1996. The album garnered her immediate attention in alternative rock press and college radio play and led to a tour in support of the album, even though Cat admits to being uncomfortable in live performances, which may be one reason Cat's performances seem to be "on the verge of implosion" as Steve Dollar of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution expressed it.

Feeling unsure about a career in the music business after the tour and retiring for a time of hiatus, Cat returned with the release of Moon Pix in 1998. Moon Pix, recorded members of Australian punk outfit the Dirty Three, was a rave review hit for Cat even though, as she confessed to Brian Garrity of Billboard:

On Moon Pix I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what I wanted at all; everything was just impulsive and just making stuff up.

Moon Pix featured simple songs in spare, minimalist musical styling, like "Colors and the Kids" and "Cross Bones Style." Cat's Moon Pix tour included Australia and was followed by the 2000 album of cover songs, The Covers Album, that she had played on tour and to which she had applied her own musical interpretation, songs by performers like Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, The Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground, and Michael Hurley.

Source: Laura Hightower. "Power, Cat." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 30. Gale Cengage, 2006.

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