She quickly became the unwitting fantasy object for both rock critics and music fans obsessed with the hypnotic and often inscrutable nature of her work. And for the first time I could perform without feeling like I had to be of two minds. The guys in the band were holding me up out there, you know? I almost said, “for a girl like me,” but I’m 40 years old now. RACHEL: Your transformation as a performer has been such a cool thing to witness. I basically spent every dime I had saved on that place. When I start writing, it’s like you have a hammer in one hand and a homing device in the other, and then it’s like, Now what do I do? Lyrically, I usually work at a piano and just try and get into a kind of trance and play a part over and over and wait for something to come to me. MARSHALL: Oh, well, there’s this beautiful Langston Hughes poem about the Statue of Liberty—or that mentions the Statue of Liberty. It’s basically my homage to him, and to this weird idea of what liberty actually is. Maybe it’s because of the culture that you sprang out of—the whole early-’90s Matador Records indie-rock thing. RACHEL: Having spent the past few years in between Miami and New York and Los Angeles—or touring—where do you think of as your home?
(She is one of the few vocalists who can tease abject heartbreak from a line as cryptic as “Yellow hair / you are such a funny bear.”) But the release of in 2000 propelled Marshall into a more mainstream arena. When I perform alone, I often feel like there’s this need. I felt like I had their respect as people, as friends. I felt protected for the first time, which is really important for a woman like me . When I see you play now, it actually seems like you’re having fun. Before, seeing you play live was so nerve-wracking. RACHEL: I love that you get to indulge all of these different creative impulses on. I was doing tours intermittently during that time, and we would play some of the new songs, but it still wasn’t what I had in mind. Meanwhile, I’m touring to make money, and I’m in a relationship that is starting and stopping and starting and stopping. Long story, but I end up playing in Paris and I wind up working in a studio there called Motorbass. You know, it’s hard, and often I don’t get a lot of stuff done because we end up just talking about UFOs and spirits and shit like that. RACHEL: We’ve known each other for almost a decade. I can finally go to a gay bar now and not get carded. And then it’s like, Well, I have to fucking do something . I kept thinking about the man in Manhattan, and the history of that word.
But Marshall, who has struggled with substance abuse and psychiatric problems, is also singing to her troubled younger self.
"I'm putting, like, a recycled aluminum-foil crown on her head. No one taught me how to do that except my friends and, like, my dog and the birds and the clear water from the mountain.
She's a toddler when her parents divorce, and she and her sister live with their mother, Myra Lee.
Born in Atlanta, Marshall first emerged with her debut album, (1995), during the golden age of the mid- ’90s Alternative Nation, her minimalist compositions as emotionally harrowing as they were beautiful. RACHEL: On your last few tours, you’ve worked with two excellent backing bands, an experience that allowed you just to sing. But I saw you play just a few months ago and I almost felt like I was watching a completely different person. And having those musicians backing me really helped because those guys are my friends. I wanted a place where other musicians could come and we’d all have a room—including myself—and space to work. So much of the time it’s just like, I really don’t want to be here. I just want to buy a bag of Oreos and get into bed. That’s how a lot of the digital music on got started—me just sitting at a machine and thinking, I might as well fucking press this button and see what happens. RACHEL: There’s a beautiful song on the record called “Manhattan.” You haven’t lived here in a long time, but the place obviously still weighs heavy on your mind. RACHEL: Despite your Southernness, I always think of you as being a New Yorker. Those were my college years on the Lower East Side. Over the phone on a hot day in July, Marshall is poolside (in almost every interview, Marshall's love of water and pools comes up) in Brooklyn. She speaks with a warm, Southern lilt and a husky, hushed awed-by-life tone as her emotions swoop between stark recollections and hazy, dreamlike musings: things she'll never forget, things she can't forget, and surprise at how far she's come. When she sings ― well, that voice, with its lived-in, smoky worldliness, that's the voice inside all of us that's seen and knows too much, but still wants to finds beauty in the world.There's something very vulnerable about Marshall ― that's a large part of her draw, really, as Cat Power ― that makes her fans, music critics, and journalists root for her.Be it after a show she was too drunk to get through, or her breakdown in 2006, or the talk of drugs and suicide, everyone ― including Marshall herself ― feared some kind of tragic end was inevitable.But with her new album, Sun, the first in six years, Marshall might finally be ready for a fresh start.