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10 Burning Questions with Liz Phair

Phair-minded: Liz talks

The Timeout Chat Show

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From Exile in Guyville in 1993 to her self-titled ’03 realease, Liz has charted the course of cool and provided us all with a soundtrack for our own rebellions.

By Eric Neel, March 11, 2004

We’ll admit we get a little jaded around here about interviews. Another sit-down or phone call with another famous athlete or actor? Ho hum.

But when word came down that we were getting time with Supernova Liz Phair, the halls and email chains were buzzing with excitement. From Exile in Guyville in 1993 to her self-titled ’03 realease, Liz has charted the course of cool and provided us all with a soundtrack for our own rebellions.

Now, over the course of 10 Burning Questions, she tells us what inspires her, how she does it and what she’s hip to now, including (surprisingly enough) the mainstream.

1. Which is the better gig: Rock star or mom?

Phair: Mom. It’s not even close. Apples and oranges. I can definitely live without being a rock star.

How do the two affect each other on a day to day basis?

They clash horribly. They don’t help each other out at all. I’ve found that being a rock star and being a mom are in direct opposition to each other. It’s really annoying. (Laughs) They just absolutely contradict each other’s needs. You got to be a flipper — you flip, flip, flip from one to the other.

2. What’s the difference between a great rock song and a great pop song?

A great rock song… we were watching School of Rock the other night, and it’s hilarious because it’s actually right, you know. A great rock song has to do with breaking rules. For me, it needs that element of social change or something. A great pop song is really more about like soaring with the soul, like oh, wow, it’s more about playing with your emotion. It doesn’t need to break rules; it’s more like comfort food. A great pop song makes you feel great, but it doesn’t make you question things. I like each of them for different reasons.

3. If you could try any profession other than your own, what would you try and why?

Could I be really good at it already? Oddly, it just sprang into my head, but I’d like to try horse racing or horse jumping, I think. (Laughs)

Which, you know, might not clash with being a mom at all, right? Yeah, it could happen right in between school hours!

3a. Were you an athlete growing up?

I played sports, but by the time I got near high school, everyone was so good, I kind of turned toward individual things like track and cross country. I went to camp, too; played softball, tennis, swam, archery, the whole camp thing.

Who were your idols

I didn’t really have sports idols. I remember, though, being impressed with Pele and Nadia Comaneci.

4. What was your favorite part of that early stage of your career? And what was your least favorite part?

My favorite part was that I really had no job. I was living by selling my artwork. I was a visual artist, and I just made art all day and played guitar, and it was so much fun. I’d either draw, paint, or play guitar, and go out at night and mooch dinner and a beer. It was great.

The worst part, oddly enough, was how quickly my music came to the attention of the nation. I didn’t enjoy that at all. This time around, I’m having so much more fun because I intended to get attention, whereas the first time around it was a shock. I thought maybe 1,500 people would buy Exile in Guyville, if I was lucky. All the photo shoots were hell. It was horrible, and I had no experience at performing.

The last thing on Earth I ever wanted to do was get up in front of people and play music or speak, and suddenly it’s my job. And everybody’s watching, and they’re all writing about it? It was hell.

How did you get past those feelings?

It took damn near a decade. Usually, people work for a decade toward that goal, and they’re ready for it and hungry for it. I was supposed to be a visual artist. I made the record because I was tired of dating musicians and I thought, “I’ll show you!” I never thought it would become my job. I never thought it would become my career. It took practice. I had to play live a million times and just, like, keep at it. It was a very slow, annoying process. It was not like “Chutes and Ladders”. There were no ladders. It was like roll a three, move ahead three; roll a five, move ahead five; no shortcuts.

5. You had a pretty sarcastic and funny response to the way your most recent record was reviewed in the New York Times. What made you speak up like that?

Because it’s my family’s newspaper. We live and die by the New York Times; my parents do and all their friends and everything. I don’t mind if people bash my stuff in other publications, but for some reason when (Meghan O’Rourke) like came into the house, in the Sunday New York Times, I was like, “Honey, that is way too close to home!” (Laughs)

I was basically defending my poor parents and all their friends. All their friends reading it and not knowing how to read between the lines and not knowing that this woman was like a total dolt. I was just like, you know, uh-uh, You can’t have the New York Times, we own that! (Laughs)

6. You’ve never been afraid to include edgy, sometimes profane stuff in your songs. Has that felt risky every time or has it gotten easier over the years?

I never think about it when I’m writing, and I don’t think about it during the recording process. I grew up being a visual artist where you’re allowed to; you almost are supposed to be provocative. That was my training. It’s usually after the record is in the can, and it has been mixed and mastered, and I start to think about it being shipped out, and I think about people perceiving it, and I start to get like cold sweats at night like, “Oh my God, what did I do now?!”

I think the point is, I don’t write the songs to be provocative, I write them to be expressive of a facet of my personality. And, like I said, rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to push boundaries and expand everybody’s horizons. In a way, I’m writing for women who, you know, aren’t going to go there, but they’re going to say, “Oooh, she said that?!” and maybe they’re going to go farther than they would normally.

7. A lot of people said that you changed your image with your last record. Did you feel that way?

I wasn’t really trying to change my image, but I was conscious of trying to get a little more elbow room to be a little less of the sort of Guyville persona that I have. It’s been a good eight or so years since I was really a part of the independent music scene, you know, going out at night and stuff. Being a mother, it just isn’t what I do any more. I needed to be part of the community that I live in now. I needed to reach the audience that I probably am (a part of now). I needed to reach me, you know what I mean?

I think people forget that an artist goes out and lives a life, and things change for them, you know. When you make music, you’re speaking to people that you relate to. Back with Guyville, that was my whole little indie scene, and then after I became a mom. Well, one of the most interesting things about being a mom socially is that from now on, it’s not just going to be about who you like as a person, it’s going to be who on your block has a kid the same age, and you’re going to find things in common with them.

It’s like being back in junior high; you’re going to be friends with the people who are in your class. So I became more mainstream and came out of my little box of like, “Oh that’s so uncool” or “I would never hang out with that person.” You build bridges to people that are very different than you because you have children in common. And I think it’s a fabulous thing, really, a really life-affirming thing, and I guess I want my music to reflect that more.

8. As a listener of other people’s music, tell me about a song that moves you or blows you away every time you hear it.

There are so many. There are even so many that aren’t that old. There’s this guy who’s touring with me, and I swear I’m not advertising for him, but his name is Patrick Park and he sings this one song, “Thunderbolt”. It just kills me. It’s like… it kills me. There are so many. I think every day I have a song in my head that kills me.

8a. Who are the musicians you look to for inspiration?

These are my worst questions — when you start listing. I have no lists, I have no hierarchy. I’m a woman, and to be honest, I think that makes you unhierarchical. I’ve got a field around me of all the songs I’ve ever loved and all the musicians I’ve ever loved. Asking me to go out and pick one, it’s like, how would you know? No one is higher than anyone else. It’s just like a field of flowers. It’s always random, what I would tell you.

But you know who I think doesn’t get enough credit are people like Carly Simon or Madonna. Those grand mamas need more credit. Carly for her lyrics, and Madonna for her giant, wide, swath or road for us all to travel on, you know?

9. Were you excited to have your song “Extraordinary” hooked up with the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament?

Totally, because it’s about empowerment, especially for women. I see the song as about everybody, men and women, because it’s about a fair universal feeling. It’s about how we all kind of have that desire to be known for our special qualities that are never… we never get a chance to be the hero, to show people what we can do.

In women’s basketball, I get the feeling that they’re, you know, actually showing people. And that’s a great thing. I’ve always admired sports because athletes know when to celebrate a win, and they know how. And they know how to channel their hopes and fears. And they know how to cry when they lose. It’s very childlike in a way, and it’s very heroic. They put all this effort into a goal that they might not achieve. It’s kind of epic. Very Greek.

10. What’s your take on whether or not women should make themselves appear traditionally attractive in order to bring attention to their sports?

I mean, if they wanna, go for it. If they don’t, who cares? If they want more attention and more bucks coming in, they’d probably better. When I was in college, I wanted to make the world bend to me. I would say: “This is wrong. You should change.” (Laughs) As I got older, I realized you only need to move the rock, the big giant boulder, a little bit in your time. You just need to push it a little bit, the big rock of prejudice and double-standards and all that kind of crap.

I allow myself to be as comfortable as I need to be in order to still have a happy life, but I still want to push the boulder. I would say, you’re not catering or giving in if you want to advertise yourself the right way for this time period. It’s a choice. And the whole thing to me about feminism is, bottom line, it’s about choice.

It doesn’t matter what decision you make. It’s the fact that you, as a woman, are entitled to make the decision, that someone isn’t making it for you. That’s the bottom line. If it’s pressure from management, that’s not feminist. If it’s something they want to do, or some of them do, and some of them don’t, that’s the whole point.

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