Recording Cat Power
In 1998 Melbourne native Matt Voigt was working as an assistant engineer at Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios. When he got a call asking if he’d come in to record an American woman over the next week or so, like any other offer of engineering work he blithely accepted. In the next 5 days he’d record, produce and mix the seminal Moon Pix, a record that was a landmark for one of rock’s most compelling yet awkward stars. MARCUS TEAGUE reports.
Chan Marshall fully delivered on the promise of her debut two years later when she released her magnum opus Moon Pix, a true masterpiece of emotional shading and compositional clarity. Recorded in Australia with her friends from the Dirty Three, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, the album continuously impresses with complex, deeply expressive arrangements that manage to be nostalgic, even sentimental, but still strikingly contemporary, without ever feeling contrived. From the heavy backwards drum loop of the plaintive opener, “American Flag,” through the flute trills of “He Turns Down” and the raindrops of “Say,” there’s a boldness, a willingness to try all sorts of stylistic innovation without fear, that results in dazzling variation between songs even as the album overall feels satisfyingly cohesive. A big part of the cohesion comes thanks to Marshall’s unique singing voice, which is sexy and resigned and rough all at once, an immense world of joy and hurt lying behind it like life beneath the surface of a lake. – epitomic.com
Matt: The day before New Year’s Eve I got a phone call in the afternoon from the studio. They said “This American lady popped into the studio and wants to do an album…can you start work on New Year’s Day?” And I said “Fuck no not on New Year’s Day. (Laughs) Let’s do it the next day.”
I’d worked at Sing Sing for six or seven years, just as one of their in-house guys. I knew nothing of Cat Power except that she wanted to record on New Year’s Day and that was out of the question. I didn’t know anything about her at all, so we organized to start on the second of January. I turned up and met Chan. She got her guitar out and I said “Ok let’s set a mic up…what do you wanna do? And we just started recording.
What were the circumstances of how she came to be at Sing Sing in Melbourne on New Years Day?
I found out later that she got a record company advance and was travelling. And I think she spent a lot of the money on her travelling. She ended up in Australia cause she was friends with the Dirty 3, and then realised “Oh my god I’ve gotta provide the record label with an album… what am I gonna do?” So she turned up to the studio and was you know, “Give me 4 or 5 days I need to do this album”. And the Dirty 3 were going to help her out.
How did the first few days go?
So it started off and she came in and said “I want a backwards drum beat.” She had a Beastie Boys cd or something like that in her bag and I can’t remember which song it was, but we got one of the drum beats and flipped it around backwards. Cut it up a bit and put a drum beat in there, just some random thing. And she goes “Oh ok that’s cool” and then she started recording American Flag on top of that. And it was very loose…but I think that was part of the charm.
Was she playing and singing at the same time?
And this was in Sing Sing South?
No Sing Sing Richmond, the main one. We had a little amp in one room, her sitting in another room with a microphone. I think it was an M49 valve microphone. And I had a lovely Fairchild 660 compressor on there, going through a 1073 Neve Mic Pre. And it just sounded beautiful. She sang and it was like “Oh my god.” She’s got a creamy voice.
What was your impression of her as she began?
She was fine, a lovely lady. Very emotional. We would do takes and she’d just start crying in the middle of a take. And she’d say “Stop, stop, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” and I’m like “It sounded great!”
What was she crying about?
I don’t know, she just gets upset. I think she’s very hard on herself and…I mean with her voice you hear all the emotion that she puts in to her singing. She just feels it a lot. But I didn’t intrude. Accept her for who she is and that’s fantastic and I’m recording it and I’m here to make her happy and that’s it.
She’s well known for being a somewhat shambolic live performer, and I guess some people have wondered whether it’s partly her ‘schtick’?
Not at all, that’s just her. She’s just very emotional. I found it unusual that she would stop and get annoyed with herself. I didn’t understand why because she sounded so good. But it wasn’t mine to ask why, it’s mine to support her and just tell her that everything’s alright…lets do another take cause it’s sounding great.
Did The Dirty 3 come in after she’d done her parts?
I think they came in on the second day. Chan laid done some guitars and vocals and then Jim came in and did some drums just on top of those. And there were another two songs I think where she did it live with Jim and Mick and we got a bass player (Andrew Entsch) in playing double bass. And we did 2 songs live that way with them and they were great. Easy to get along with, just in and out.
Were they maybe looking after her in a way?
Jim did help her a lot in organising the whole thing, you know he introduced her to the studio. I think they also did a whole lot of demos before they came in down at Jim’s house in his bathroom. And actually one of those songs got on the album, and that’s Peking Saint. I think he also helped with a few suggestions on parts and song structure. But mainly it was Chan.
On Crossbones Style…
That was a funny one. She did the guitars for that but because she doesn’t play to a click, and sort’ve does her own thing….she wanted Jim to come in and play drums on top. Jim’s gotta just follow her as best he can. So sometimes there were bits where he’d go slightly out of time because Chan was sort’ve moving around (timing wise).
Is that why there’s a lot of delay and reverb?
In the mixdown process we decided we were going to try some delay on the drums to sort’ve funk it up a bit. I’d wind in the delay sometimes on the drums when it started to get really out of time.
So though it came about because of a mistake really, it ends up making the song sound quite…
One of the things that’s interesting about this is that Moon Pix for her was really her breakthrough record. And that song and that video were the reason why. At what point did you come to understand, if at all, her background?
Towards the end of the session we had a conversation about “Where did you write the songs, and y’know what’s that song about?” And she said that she had just been in Mexico. She’d found inspiration and had written pretty much most of the album there in a week. At least that was my understanding. Some of the songs are about her say, meeting God. And will God let her into heaven.
Did she seem very religious?
No, no I think she just had an epiphany. About life. And maybe she had a lot of Peyote I don’t know (laughs). It’s Mexico!
Did she record anything that didn’t go on there?
There was one song that we tried to record that I thought was fantastic. But she had real trouble doing the vocal for it because it was so different to what she was used to doing, the way she was singing. Because it was a different meter from how the song was originally intended. So that was one that I thought was fantastic but she never finished.
In the mixing process, in the first or second song I was asking “Ok so how’s it sounding to you?” And she’s going “Good but um…it’s kind of…” And she couldn’t put it into words. So she grabbed a piece of paper and just drew a circle. Round and round in a circle so many times. And I was like (pause) “Ok cool” (Laughs) So I took that as meaning it’s too compressed. So I backed off the compression a bit and just made it a little bit more open, cause I think I’d wound too much on there. It sounded more open, more dynamic. And she was happy.
Did you follow the album once it came out?
It was such a whirlwind 5 days and then the album was whisked away. She disappeared and went back to New York and I think I was a bit nervous. I mean I didn’t have any copies of the mixes I did for myself. And I thought “Oh god I don’t know what it’s going to sound like.” I think it was mastered in Sterling Sound in New York and they did a fantastic job, and afterwards Matador sent me a couple of cd’s. And I loved it. Thought it sounded great.
Have you paid her much attention since?
I’ve seen her a few times in concert. Really love her in concert. I saw her in New York, I happened to be over there and she was playing a gig. I was lucky enough to drop my name at the door cause it was a sold out performance, and someone spoke to her and let me in which was nice. Caught up with her backstage
And how was the show?
It was great it was classic Cat Power. A room packed full of people that wee really silent and ready to hear what she had to say. She performed well, I think she stopped one or two songs and started saying “I’m sorry I’ll start that one again.” But y’know it’s a moment in time and it’s a performance where she captures her feelings and expressions and that’s that.
What’d you learn from the experience?
That it’s not about me it’s about the artist. And I kinda learnt to not be too hard on mysef. Cause I could see her being so hard on herself and it was unnecessary cause it was great. And we all tend to be a bit hard and a bit down on ourselves sometimes and you’ve just gotta try not to be. Because chances are you’re not so bad.
Since making Moon Pix Matt has gone on to work with the likes of Kiss, The Dirty 3, Powderfinger, The Living End, Warped, Augie March, Deloris and Black Level Embassy, as well as a stint over in Turkey working with traditional musicians and the odd cheeseball pop singer. He continues to work at Sing Sing and locally.