November 29th, 2013 | by MARK STOCK Music | Posted In: Deep Cuts

Deep Cuts: Cat Power, "Manhattan"

Chan Marshall talks New York and Langston Hughes—or tries to, anyway.

     
Tags: Cat Power
music_catpower_3852MARSHALL - IMAGE: Stefano Giovannini

It seems it’s always been a two-way street with Chan Marshall. The smoky-voiced multi-instrumentalist behind Cat Power has nine studio records to her name, from cover albums that beautifully re-imagine songs we once thought untouchable to painstakingly honest original material that tends towards her bluesy Georgia roots.

Marshall is also prone to choppy performances and cancelled tours. Or, at least, she used to be. With latest record Sun as her witness, Cat Power seems more confident and collected than ever. The record is a triumph for multiple reasons. It was written, recorded and produced entirely by Marshall. When she presented a demo to a friend—“it was like sharing my diary,” she says—that friend said it sounded too much like the old Cat Power. So Marshall scrapped it and started over. Running off a sort of “I’ll show you” determination, she wrote poignant tracks about bullying (“Nothin’ But Time”) and self-preservation (“Cherokee”). And she wrote “Manhattan,” a piece about her beloved and ever-changing Big Apple hastily mislabeled “light-hearted” by many writers. Sure, the video depicts a giddy Marshall dancing on the streets and subways of New York, but there’s much more to this bittersweet track. 

THE SONG

THE WORDS

The hotel above and the street below
People come and people go
All the friends that we used to know

Ain't coming back
Ain't coming back
Ain't coming back

You say your heart has a rhythm
Well see you got your secret on
You say hey and nothing to hide
You and your secret life

Don't look at the moon tonight
You'll never be never be never be Manhattan
Don't look at the moon tonight
You can never be never be never be never be Manhattan

Your badge and your suitcase on
Your suit and your hair's not right
Cause nobody knows this woman by your side

It's not me you know, it's a useful woman by your side
It's not me you know, it's a useful woman by your side
Manhattan

See your heart has a rhythm
Well see you got your secret on
She say hey and nothing to hide
You and your secret life

Don't look at the moon tonight
You'll never be never be never be Manhattan
Don't look at the moon tonight
You can never be never be never be never be Manhattan

See your heart has a rhythm
You got your secret on
And you say you got nothing to hide
You, you, you and your secret life

You'll never be never be never be Manhattan
Hollerin' at me hollerin' at you
Hollerin' at me hollerin' at you

Liberty in the basement light
Free speech, lipstick and the moonlight
Howling to get me, howlin’ to get you
In Harlem, in a dark back room
Dancing to a different tune
Howling at me, howling at you

THE INTERVIEW

WW: Your newest record Sun comes off as more relaxed and conversational. Was it a more relaxed album to create?

Chan Marshall: You can tell with the production that there’s a whole lot more going on. All of my other records have been recorded in pretty much one day, two days. Short periods. As far as being relaxed, it took a while to make this all count. It’s relaxing to be actually recording the sound, but it’s definitely the hardest I’ve worked on a recording, ever. 

Is touring with something so self-created like this tricky? Does it feel like being a conductor or a director of a play?

Maybe subconsciously, but I don’t think of it that way. There’s no real room for error, I think, in that setup. And that is why I wanted the solo tour, because it’s just me, and there are no outside considerations. 

The song I’m interested is “Manhattan.” Does it have a backstory?

I’ve been living off and on in New York for a long time. I gave up my room three years ago to this girl, but I’m getting it back. It’s a new Manhattan now, you know. If you go there, it’s amazing how different it is now, culturally. A lot of people gravitated their historically, to this idea of America, for jobs, for industrial work. Traditionally, for immigrants, it was this entry point to the United States for freedom and all of this stuff that seems American, and I was taught at an early age of the importance of being American. So that song is basically a reflection of how New York has always been a prominent target for people of change. Now, going there, I find that it’s heartbreaking, truly.

When was it written?

Well, the chorus and the main idea came about in 2006.

How personal is this song for you?

It’s pretty personal, you know. As a kid from the south, I looked up to New York like you would look up to your uncle, or your dad. I had a great affinity for it. Moving there at 20 and to have my adult experiences in and out of there, especially being there as the poorest I’ve ever been, as a human, on my own. I really struggled. And then the climate changed, with consumerism and big money moving in...it became a place where, well, a lot of friends and artists moved away.

But it’s not just New York, it’s everywhere. We’re driving through fucking Idaho and I’m seeing these new developments everywhere and wondering where these people work. 

I think the song can be read a lot of ways, but it sounds like you’re defending the idea of New York, one that you’re really close to. 

Exactly. There’s a reason people go there. There’s this idea that is represented. And this idea that we can extend constitutional rights to everyone. That’s what our shit says! You know the Statue of Liberty says, "Give me you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," but it’s a travesty. When a whole city starts throwing out a couple hundred thousand immigrants, neighborhoods that have been around forever, where there’s rent control that kicks out an 85-year-old woman who’s lived in a building her entire life because developers want it. I think there’s a problem and it’s been overlooked. Whatever, I still love my country, I’m just complaining. 

I read that Langston Hughes was somewhat of an inspiration for this song. 

Yes, Langston Hughes was living in Harlem...you know what poem. Um, the one about the Statue of Liberty. Um, Google it! I think it’s called "Blind Men For Justice." 

Are you thinking about his famous quote, "Liberty! Freedom! Democracy! True anyhow no matter how many Liars use those words"?

No, I don’t quote poetry like you. [Laughs] No, I don’t know what it’s called but it’s beautiful and it captures how a lot of people feel. I think about New York City when they were building it, how they advertised it. You know, "Give us your weak! Your hungry!"  and duh duh duh. But people have to fight for those rights and they weren’t just handing them out back then. And I think Manhattan is like that. You can have a rally today, you know, but I’m starting to change my mind about New York. I’m starting to think about Detroit.

So I see Manhattan as a character in this song, more than just a city. One that can be taken advantage of, for good or evil.

Yeah, what I’m talking about is the Statue of Liberty and the culture of liberty— meaning, Wall Street folks can put their nose down on people, but the whole fucking point is not to make millions of dollars. It’s to smile, and have a handful of friends you know you can trust your life with. That is success. No matter how difficult it was, whether it’s on a physical danger level—like with junkies or robbers or things like that—or with having the shittiest job, you know, I’m just thankful now to have a job and an apartment.


SEE IT: Cat Power plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE 39th Ave., with Nico Turner, on Friday, Nov. 29. 7 pm. $35. 21+. 
 
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