By Ilana Kaplan
October 01, 2018 at 06:34 PM EDT
Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel

Chan Marshall has a tale for everything. The 46-year-old musician — better known as the singer-songwriter Cat Power — talks around her anecdotes with such meticulous detail that you feel like you’re a part of her story, a trait that has made her one of the most effusive indie-rock voices of the past 20 years. She brings the same narrative depth to Wanderer, her 10th studio album and first record since 2012.

“I wanted to create something that was minimal in balance but would remind me that each song is not a message but a totem,” she says of the new record. On her previous LP, the devastating Sun, Marshall faced industry pressure to appeal to a wider audience. But instead of giving in, she left Matador, the label she’d called home since 1996, and began plotting a new course. During that time, she also discovered she was pregnant; for seven months she remained on the road, until she decided to rent a home in Miami where she could set up a recording studio and have her child. She would eventually move to the Los Angeles-based 10K Islands, where she worked on the record with her old friend and engineer Jess Dominguez along with mixer Rob Schnapf.

Marshall’s attempt at balance on Wanderer stemmed from her own whirlwind experiences growing up. “I was in 13 schools for 10 years,” she says. Being transient led her to understand that, since she wasn’t bound to a place, she had to look for fleeting moments of stability. But at 22, Marshall started touring and continued traveling around without being bound to one group of people. Years later, those ideals would inspire an album title.

“I decided to call the record Wanderer because human beings direct me to planet earth,” she says. “I think that’s where we stand as human beings — we know the grave truth of reality of this planet and the corruption and gorgeous power of ecological beauty, and then there’s us and all that we don’t know.”

One thing Marshall has come to understand is her own personal journey, including her relationship with the idea of femininity, which she explores in detail on the new record. A self-professed tomboy, she’s developed a fascination for the concept of what being feminine really means — something that played into the first single “Woman.” In the song, Marshall confronts common obstacles for women in a male-dominated world. “As I’ve gotten older I’m becoming more voluptuous — my breasts, my hips, my back,” says Marshall. “As a teen, I always enjoyed my humanity rather than my femininity.”

For “Woman,” which she says “speaks for itself,” Marshall recruited the raspy backing vocals of friend and former tourmate Lana Del Rey, who brings her own ethos of femininity to the track. “I chose to work with Lana because she radiates balance [and] genuine feminine humanity; she generates this positive self-will within herself with meditation to stay grounded as a human.” But Marshall admits that she wasn’t as grounded as Del Rey in her confidence and femininity when she was her age. “My whole life, I always felt more vulnerable in dresses because of the social standards put on us as women,” she explains. “I think that’s why it was important for me to write ‘Woman,’ especially after becoming a mother.”

The record’s biggest surprise, though, is Marshall’s jazzy interpretation of Rihanna’s “Stay.” In addressing the track, Marshall tells a story about reconnecting with an abusive ex-lover from when she was 18. “When you know somebody for 25 years, you tend to omit certain memories just so you can have a camaraderie and companionship,” she says. After RiRi’s Unapologetic came out, Marshall was visiting her hometown of Atlanta where an ex was living. She pulled up to his house with “Stay” playing on the radio. “I remember I was so happy to see him and he said, ‘It’s my girl,’” she explains. “I thought he meant me, but he meant Rihanna. I just never wanted to hear that song again. It made me feel sh—y.”

Years later, after Marshall had her son, she heard “Stay” on the way to a karaoke bar. “You get hormonal after you have a baby, but that song came on and I was just balling in the back of the taxi cab, and I didn’t understand why,” she recalls. While she didn’t feel any connection to the ex she used to love, the song stuck with her. “I don’t know if it was Rihanna’s resonance or her voice — it’s like she’s vibrating on top of a razor blade when she sings,” she says. When she got to the karaoke spot, she played “Stay” 16 times, and later recorded a version of it for Wanderer.

Like the rest of the album, Marshall funnels her own memories into her version of the Rihanna single, emerging on the other side more grounded than ever. Two decades into her career, she is still the same powerful, poignant songwriter she’s always been — something she, somewhat surprisingly, is finally acknowledging herself. “I never really accepted that that’s what I do,” she says. “And I think [with] this record, after I had my child, I realized, ‘This is who I am.’”