Cat Power on Her ‘Sings Bob Dylan’ Album, and Meeting the Man Himself

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Chan Marshall — a.k.a Cat Power — is one of the most distinctive singers of her generation, emerging from the indie-rock scene of the early ‘90s to become a unique artist fusing a multitude of styles that range from rock to folk to low-key soul, in a long string of albums that alternate between originals and covers.

Raised in Georgia, Charlyn Marshall (Chan is a childhood nickname that is pronounced “Shawn”) relocated to New York in the early ‘90s and was adopted by the city’s indie-rock community, releasing a string of increasingly strong albums. A sultry and deceptively powerful singer, her popularity peaked in the mid-‘00s with the critics’ favorite and NPR icon “The Greatest” and the following covers collection “Jukebox,” but she’s released albums every few years ever since, with her most recent collection of originals, “Wanderer,” arriving in 2018.

Her latest move, however, was an unexpected one. A 2022 offer to perform at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall inspired her to perform not her own songs but instead covers of the entire setlist of Bob Dylan’s legendary concert at the venue in 1966, during his embattled first “electric” tour. Backed by the musicians who soon became The Band, throughout the entire global trek he faced boos, catcalls and abuse from folk-music purists who felt he’d betrayed them, and would not embark on another tour for eight years. A recording of a concert from earlier in the tour became the first widely distributed bootleg of the rock era: Titled “Great White Wonder,” it was mistakenly labeled as being from the Royal Albert Hall show, but was actually recorded in Manchester ten days earlier; a professional recording of the concert was finally officially released in 1998, complete with quotation marks around the “Royal Albert Hall” to note the mistake. Confusing matters even more, Marshall says her inspiration to perform those songs came not from the 1966 set, but rather Dylan’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall a year earlier, captured in “Don’t Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker’s legendary documentary of the singer’s 1965 U.K. tour. (Got it?)

Be all of that as it may, Marshall’s concert spawned an album and now a tour that is winding its way across North America and Europe through August, with a gig at the equally prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York that took place on Valentine’s Day last week. At the show, she plays the album — and only the album — in its entirety, with her musicians faithfully following the 1966 arrangements but Marshall taking considerable, although respectful, liberties with the songs’ melodies. That approach is in itself unusual for her, as most of the covers she’s recorded in the past — which range from Billie Holiday to Frank Ocean to “New York, New York” — are so drastically rearranged as to be almost unrecognizable, which ironically is something Dylan himself has been doing with his songs on tour for many years.

Variety caught up with Marshall two days after the Carnegie Hall show and discussed the album, its inspiration and her history with his music, and the times she’s met the man himself — as well as some tidbits about the album she’s currently working on — in a wide-ranging conversation. An edited transcript appears below.

How have the shows been going?

Every one’s different, you know? There’s different emotions that pop out, and you never know which song is going to be a grand slam or which one’s going to be a total stinker. So it’s hit or miss, but it feels generally good, because I can tell that people are genuinely happy to be there.

I definitely did not hear any stinkers at Carnegie Hall the other night.

I’m very honest with what I do!

How exactly did this project came about? When you got the offer to play the Royal Albert Hall, how did that lead to covering the live album that people thought for years was recorded there, but was actually recorded in Manchester?

Well, the point was to bring that show there. I had never set foot in [the Royal Albert Hall before], and to have an opportunity to play that venue, after being a young, heart-filled 20-year-old madly in love with the artist and his craft. When I saw “Don’t Look Back”… you know, to get an offer to play inside that building, of course, I want to play that record. I wasn’t even going to record [the show] initially, so to be able to record it, release it and all of a sudden have a tour, I’m so grateful.

Did you see a lot of similarities between that venue and Carnegie Hall? They’re both very stately and legendary theaters.

I had sung twice before at Carnegie Hall, once for a David Bowie memorial concert and another when Patti Smith’s daughter, Jessie Paris Smith, [staged a 2017 benefit for her foundation] Pathways to Paris, when Trump removed America from the Paris Agreement for climate change. So I knew how it felt to play there — and I actually don’t believe I even looked up either of those times [due to nervousness], I just did my work and left! But this time was different, obviously. I kept thinking of Billie Holiday — she sold out Carnegie Hall 22 times, and she sang covers all the time herself. So to be able to sing Bob Dylan’s songs there made me very emotional.

Your band’s musical arrangements in those songs are very faithful, but you seem to find new melodies in them. How does that happen?

Because I’ve been singing a lot of these songs since I was little — I’ve been singing harmonies with all the greats since I was, like, four years old. So I’m still doing the same harmonies I used to do, but Bob’s not singing. That’s basically why the vocal melodies are different.

That’s really interesting — it’s like you’re harmonizing with him but he’s not there.

Right — you can’t hear [Dylan’s] recording, but I can.

On your previous covers albums, you completely reinvent the songs so they’re almost unrecognizable, but these are relatively faithful and straightforward, even with those new melodies. Why is that?

I’d like to offer a gentle, graceful, respectful presentation of these songs — we don’t have to fight to sing them like he did, you know, with people booing him and shit, even though we might be on the same page about what the lyrics make us feel and the personal anger we may have against society with these songs, but we feel empowered enough to have an open conversation about them. But that’s why it’s not, you know, all punk rock [arrangements], like “We gotta hammer them!”

But I also wanted to offer grace and dignity to the songs, because Bob’s still on the planet with us. I saw him in Glasgow three nights before [she recorded her Royal Albert Hall concert], and I can tell you it was the most beautiful I have ever heard his voice.

When did you first hear Dylan’s music? Did it come from your family or did you find it yourself?

It came from my mom and stepdad. My grandmother raised me till I was about five — I was very sick when I was born, I was in an incubator, but I made it, and she took me to her house. I learned to read very young, when I was three, because she would read the Bible every night before bed, I would follow her finger and listen to her say the words. She’d start cooking and say [thick Georgia accent], “Oh Charlyn, why don’t you go to the record player and get that Johnny Cash record, ‘Jackson,’ would you play that, honey?” Or “Oh, Charlyn, get that Elvis Presley record and put that ‘Blue Moon’ on,” or “Go get that ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ Hank [Williams] record.” So I was already, like, working in music [laughter] very young. It was so fun, she taught me to cook and we’d sing the songs together. I loved her, she was like my mom.

But then one day my [actual] mom came to the front door, “Hi, baby,” and went past me, ran her fingers through my hair, and went back into my grandma’s bedroom. And I was like, holy shit, I’ll bet that’s my mom. My life was forever changed from that moment. I moved into a funk band’s apartment where she was living — Mother’s Finest. This was the mid-‘70s, she was young, and there was that lifestyle. There were a lot of people around all the time, a lot of parties, a lot of bands, a lot of DJs, guitar players, afros, disco, people stoned, with all these children running around. And there were records, records, records, records, records, all kinds of music on all the time.

When I was a kid, the holy grail for the white people was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. And I noticed that whenever Bob Dylan would come on, there was a lot of commentary — nobody ever really said anything bad about the other people that I mentioned [above] or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. But Dylan made people fucking get into it, they’d bicker and argue about his lyrics or whether he could sing or whether Neil was better. So I learned from a young age that people had a lot to say about Bob, they had feelings and opinions about him. That made me think about him more, because these were real conversations, and what the hell were they talking about? I learned about critical thinking from a very young age because of those discussions.

Do you find that you’re discovering new things in his songs as you interpret them?

I get asked a lot what’s the most difficult song to sing, or what’s my favorite. It’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” because it reminds me of a sort of fuzzy memory of childhood, where you were free in your imagination. But it also is the hardest song and most emotional song for me to sing because it is a testament to having faith in a fucked-up world. And then I was thinking that “Imagine” by John Lennon feels like the nail in the coffin, where the faith is lost, and we can only have hope now.

But new things? No, it’s still the same, this classic, frozen moment in time. I just find a more visual enunciation, because I’ve never really sung all the songs before. When I sing “Visions of Johanna,” I see this Joan of Arc type of woman, mythical to his wish: “If only if only there could be someone that would come into my life, who speaks my language, who can be down with people, who I can make love with and be happy and fun and friendly?,” a cool chick that he could fall in love with and there wouldn’t be any games and just be really genuine and true. That’s just my personal translation — we all have our own interpretations of what Bob’s songs mean to us.

Have you met him?

Of course! I met him in 2007 in Paris. I was going to be flown [for a photo shoot] by this French luxury fashion [brand], and my stipulation was if they’d get me tickets to see Bob and meet him. And when I met him, it was me and him and [disgraced “Rosemary’s Baby”/”Chinatown” director] Roman Polanski — I had seen him on the way and grabbed him and said, “Bob would really want to see you again.”

Anyway, since I was like 22, I had been asking [Dylan’s manager] if I could open for him, but I never got to. This was years later, Bob walks up, [nasal imitation], “Hey man, how you doin’? Where you livin’ now? You’re lookin’ fine!” And Roman’s so sweet, he’s the kindest man. So then Bob shuffles up, face to face, looking at my feet, and his eyes slowly go up to my eyes and he says, “I got all your calls” [about opening for him] (laughter). But the rest of it was just what are you doing here, are you recording, is your band with you — it was like meeting an old friend.

I was supposed to meet him again the next year, but [it didn’t happen], and I never saw him again until the three nights before I played Royal Albert Hall. He just happened to be at the same hotel. It was like 12:45 [a.m.] and I was standing outside smoking a cigarette with [bandmembers] Henry [Munson] and Eric [Paparazzi], and they were like “Chan!” “What?” I thought was a ghost behind me, but coming down the sidewalk was motherfucking Bob Dylan, wearing a hoodie and a COVID mask. I was standing on the steps and he walked up them, “Hey Bob, it’s Chan from Cat Power,” he looks at me, “Good to see you!,” very small embrace and then up to the hotel. My friends were fucking flipping out.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m halfway done with my next album. It’s called “Opus.”

What’s it like?

Oh, it’s sad, it’s really sad. I haven’t figured out what’s going to be yet, but it’s going to be really, you know, typical Cat Power: sad but triumphant, anthemic, beautiful.

Who are you working with?

Me — it’s all Chan.

Entirely solo?

Yeah, entirely. Well, right now. I can’t speak any more on it because I have to do the next step, which is the other half, which is a different something. I’ll just say it’s something I’ve never done before.

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