Phair Chance: Liz Phair aims for a hit at all costs
By Mark Guarino
There is no doubt the album stirring up the most controversy this year is the self-titled fourth album from Liz Phair.
To understand the heat, you have to go back to 1993. That was the year of “Exile in Guyville” (Matador), Phair’s song-by-song response to “Exile on Main Street,” the Rolling Stones’ classic exercise in sexism and hedonism. The album proved it wasn’t just men who could write swaggering rock songs about sexual conquests — the grimy production and frank lyrics immediately put Phair on the map and subsequently helped launch more commercially successful stars like Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos and other postmodern feminist rockers of the alternative era.
In Chicago, Phair was considered a rising star of the city’s active alternative rock scene. But as years wore on, she failed to live up to the expectations heaped upon her. After a marriage and subsequent divorce years later, Phair moved to L.A. to raise her son and work on music. The result is “Liz Phair,” her first album in five years. Since everything from the alternative ‘90s long became the mainstream, it should have come as no surprise that Phair hired hit-making producing and writing trio The Matrix to help carve out a bonafide hit. They did the same for Avril Lavigne except that Phair, at 36, is at an age considered ancient by commercial radio standards. She’s taken considerable hits for the highly-glossed makeover but she insists in a recent conversation, “it is the same me.”
What follows is an edited transcript of our talk.
Q: Has songwriting gotten easier or more difficult as you’ve gotten older?
A: I think it’s easier and more difficult. I don’t have as much time to do it as I used to so it’s frustrating to me. Because often what I really need to do is I go to try write song and I can’t. Like that gives me a headache, actually. Because that’s always been my tool for venting. And so I definitely feel a little constipated that way. The other thing is, over the years I became craftier at songwriting. I can sit down and write one if you said it’s time to write one I could write one. The difficulty is when you get good at technique, are you really scratching underneath the surface? Are you actually getting into the zone where your subconscious comes into play. That is more difficult because your day is more plotted out for you, so you may only have two to three hours to write something, but can you actually access that feeling in the allotted time?
Q: So in a way, you have to find ways to trick yourself.
A: Yeah, I usually switch instruments or collaborating was one way to do that. Sometimes when I travel I take my guitar because a new environment will help me or when I’m home with my parents around a piano. Yeah tricking yourself, throwing yourself off balance is the best way to do that.
Q: It’s well known that before this record, you wanted to leave Capitol altogether. Why?
A: There was that whole romance with putting it out yourself. You only have to sell 100,000 to make the same amount of money … that seemed more appealing to me. You didn’t have to do the whole rah-rah dance just to sell the same amount of records and I’d actually have the same profit margin. It just made more sense. I wanted to be an entrepreneur in my thirties. It appealed to me as it does to a lot of people in their businesses. I wanted to strike out on my own. I think I’m actually lucky I didn’t at that time because I wouldn’t have landed the way I did. I don’t think the independent system wasn’t set up that well or that I was ready to move through it. I think later on I will definitely be ready to move through it. But right now, the way Capitol is, I really like everyone at Capitol. I feel understood there and supported. It worked out for the best at the time. At the time (Capitol President) Andy Slater wasn’t in power yet and it was pretty pitiful.
Q: Was it Capitol that wanted you hooked up with The Matrix so you could get a radio hit?
A: No, not at all. It’s funny, people have that perception. It was not at all the label saying “do this, do that.” I just randomly recorded with people over the years. (“Liz Phair” co-producer) Michael Penn — Andy found him for me and set me up with him. Then I still didn’t feel I had … the thrashiness that I like. But there was no way to get any more money from (the label), we already overspent. My A&R person came in and said “I think we can get money but we have to work with someone established so that (Capitol would) feel they’re getting their money back.” And I’m like, “fine, great, who, what, where, I want to go meet them.” The Matrix were the first people I met. And I liked the Avril (Lavigne) song (“Complicated”). It was not off-putting to me the way people think it should have been! (laughs) I heard that and thought “(expletive), I wish I had written that song.” So I opened the door and there was Lauren (Christy), her husband Graham (Edwards) and I didn’t know Scott (Spock). I had met (Lauren and Graham) before. I couldn’t believe my luck. I said, “are you kidding? This is The Matrix?” (Christy) was my main collaborator and she’s my age with kids but she’s spicy and saucy and opinionated and strong. I knew it was going to be great.
Q: How did you meet them before this point?
A: I had met them through (songwriter) Gary Clark. I had been working with him writing songs a year before. I met them socially and we really clicked. We had a lot in common at the time because she worked in music and had been a songwriter and singer and had kids the same age as my son. And we just instantly clicked. I loved them and I thought they were wonderful. I had no ideas what they did for a living.
Q: We’re only talking about four songs. What was the process in writing them like?
A: It was fast. They work fast. They have melodies and chords and they’ll play a couple of different ideas for you and you can pick one that sounds like something you can latch onto and sing if you’re hearing words. So I picked a couple and Lauren and I, we made a rough demo of the chords … and then we ran back to her bedroom just like I do and sat down with little notepads and played it again and again. We wrote exactly like the way I do it only there was another person there. It was kinda cool.
Q: Did they push you to do new things?
A: I was eager to. It’s hard to explain. From my perspective, I had a wealth of songs. If you wanted a Liz Phair song, I had a ton. I wanted something, like, different. I was excited to try on a new skin. I didn’t feel like I didn’t have enough and had to be helped. I thought, “god, I’m so frickin’ sick of writing the same (expletive) song a million times.”
Q: You’re saying you were bored with writing songs and here was a chance to write a big radio hit.
A: Yeah. That’s pretty much it. And I didn’t see it as cutting into any of my identity or what I do in any way. I write a couple (songs) a month. I’ve been writing a whole lot. It was more like something new to do. Like as you move through your career, you try different things. It was kind of like a new experience that reinvigorates you.
A: When this record came out, it kicked off a stream of bad reviews that became pretty personal. Did that hurt you?
Q: What’s really creepy to me is that now there’s articles on how I’m not hurt by the articles and how I should be hurt by the articles. It’s becoming really twisted and masochistic. Like people have got to chill out. They really, really, really have to turn out the lights and get a good night’s sleep. It didn’t hurt my feelings. I was surprised and kind of anxious. Like “holy crap there’s a (expletive) brewing.” I knew it wouldn’t be a “Guyville”-like record. I was excited to do something different. I didn’t realize how upset people were going to get. I kind of had a feeling like a lot of things came together to make that story blow up the way it did. I think a lot of people who didn’t buy “Whitechocolatespaceegg” suddenly got back on the bandwagon because they saw an opportunity to write about something. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. My goals are entirely independent of that kind of criticism. I have my goals I’ve set in my 36th year and they’re very different things, partially due to being a mom partially being grown up and partially being savvy about business. I’ve never worked my ass off before this year. I took it upon myself to be responsible and to find out about everything the label was doing. I was involved in making the website as good as it could, the art as good as I could. I really threw myself into the quality and it’s not their type of quality but I’m very confident it’s not schlock we’re selling. If they’re rejecting it, I can only help but feel that it’s fitting because I don’t want to be what I guess they want me to be. If that’s what it would take for me to say “god, you’re so right, let’s go back into the mindset that I had when I was 20.” It’s like (expletive) you, are you high? (laughs) I fought really (expletive) hard to be the person that I am right now and I’m a lot healthier than I was then. I’m a lot more connected with my family and old friends. Things that make life worthwhile and valuable, I’m much more connected to and I wouldn’t give that up, no matter what they said. No matter how much mud they sling, there’s no way in hell I’m going back to a self-destructive life.
Q: What determines your future? The success of this record?
A: By the kind of songs I make. It’s troubling because even now I see record forming that isn’t like this record either. I’m like, “oh god I have to go through this all over again?” And just as the indie people got mad at me, next the business people will get mad at me because I’m not turning out the product they expect. It’s going to happen all over again for different reasons. But the truth is, if you’re really making music from the place you should be making music, you have to follow it. It just goes where it goes.
Q: Part of the criticism of this record is its overt sexuality. There are songs about flings, about dating men much younger than you — the thought is, why is a woman who’s36 pretending to be 16?
A: I am dating younger guys. I am single and having those I am having those kinds of encounters I haven’t had in decades. So it’s really kinda real. Like it’s not made up or a stance. It’s reflecting what I’m going through. It scares me, kinda. It makes me get the weird feeling that I used to get sometimes when I’d think about witch hunting, like, “that was possible? Like, wow, they really did that? Like slavery was possible?” I’d get that unsafe feeling when I heard stuff like that. “Like wow, it’s possible to be publicly flogged. It’s possible to get that done to you just for living your life.” I would much more prefer it if I stayed married and was on my third kid and was still making music. We’d all like our lives to be a certain way. This is the way my life is. I am trying to move from a bad place into a good place. Part of that process may look awkward, certainly at 36. I’m kind of finding the best of it because I figure I will settle back into relationship soon, so I’m going to take this year to kind of mess around and have some fun with it, especially being on tour I can’t get serious about anyone anyway. And I think there is some sexism in it too because … like, what is the acceptable form of women’s sexuality — after procreation? Are you allowed to be sexual if you can’t have a child or is it unseemly and what does that mean? It kind of brings out historically creepy questions.