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10 Questions for Liz Phair

Liz Phair: “I don’t make music so that people will approve of it… I’m trying to live up to my own expectations of myself.”

Phair Game

Dark Light
about her musical departure, touring and living with geeks.

The New York Times, August 29, 2003

In June, singer and songwriter Liz Phair released her first album in five years. Here, she answers questions from readers about her musical departure, touring and living with geeks.

Q. 1. What’s changed most for you in the time between this CD and the last that affected your song writing?

A. Although I have a very consistent songwriting process (holed up in a room, or house, alone and agitated), I have gone through some changes in my life in the last five years that show in my lyrics. I think it’s stating the obvious to say that as you get older, your perspective changes and you find a different voice. I would hate to think of myself as still plagued at 36 by the same insecurities and resentments that colored my early twenties. Going through a divorce, and subsequently relocating to L.A. and trying to find my feet in the dating scene has tested my confidence and my self-esteem. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I think I went through some difficult, lonely times in the last couple of years and with this album, I really needed to kick my energy up a notch and sing myself into a better place.

Q. 2. Some of the reviews of your new album have the whiff of personal betrayal. Given that the new album is more commercial than your past work, you must have known there would be some hostile reviews, especially from the indie-rock elite, and you must have been somewhat mentally prepared for that. But have you been surprised or hurt by just how angry some of the reviews have been? Is it possible for anyone to develop skin thick enough to ignore bad reviews?

A. I think it is easier to handle bad reviews if you have the support of a solid family/friends network. I am truly sorry that some of my fans feel left behind by the direction my music-making has taken, but I have to be allowed, as an artist, to pursue my muse. Whether or not reviewers can conceive of the same person creating both “Guyville” and “Liz Phair/Backslash” with equal effort and intensity, it is a fact. What people perceive and what actually happens are often trains on entirely different tracks.

Q. 3. I was really interested by the contrast between the new album and the EP that you can download using the enhanced CD, (including “Jeremy Engel”, which I think is a fantastic song). I really like both albums, but I was struck by how much more the songs on the EP fit the sound and lyrical bent of “Exile” and “Whipsmart” and “whitechocolatespaceegg”. Did you write and record the EP songs first and then decide to shift to a totally different approach, or did the two sets of songs and production evolve together? And now that the album is out and you’ve had a chance to reflect on it, in which direction do you see your sound going?

A. The EP, “Comeandgetit”, was designed to appeal to people who wanted hear my more idiosyncratic material. I also wanted to have it represent sort of my shadow self; that the CD would be the bright, daylight side of my self, and the EP would be a darker, softer, more private piece. I like the image of a comet, with a big, burning ball, trailing darker, randomly attached material. I don’t think I make just music albums, I think I make personal statements which is why the attacking reviews get so up my ass about things. I do think they need more of a sense of humor, and maybe a little more wonder of life, if I might be so personal, back.

The songs were recorded at different times, not in a progression from less to more produced. All the way along I felt very free to experiment and let the songs evolve between each producer’s vision and mine. Half the thrill of being creative these days for me is the relationship I have with the people I work with and for. I have learned so much about recording and musicianship and vocal technique that everything feels new and exhilarating to me. I have no idea what kind of production I will be involved in for the next record, but as I continue to write, I like letting the songs be what they may, and I don’t categorize, or organize them yet in any way.

Q. 4. So, what is your definition of happiness? Are you happier these days than when you were writing/recording “Exile” (I suspect you are) or “Whipsmart” (maybe not)? What are you listening to that may influence your next bunch of songs?

A. I think I am a lot happier these days, but I think happiness comes in waves. Most of the people I love are healthy and in good places in their lives, and that brings me a lot of satisfaction. Those are the forward-looking times in life.

As for what my influences will be for my next record, I always listen to a combination of whatever is on the radio and whatever cool new CD’s my friends and industry buds give me. I am a musical recycle bin.

Q. 5. Your song “H.W.C.” is an interesting juxtaposition of graphic sexual description and a sugary pop melody. Am I reading into this work too much to assume you are making a statement about the openness of current pop culture, and possibly spinning that statement in a foreboding or negative light? Maybe it’s just another harmless sex anthem, but I’d love to know your thinking behind this song.

A. “H.W.C.” is definitely about juxtaposing a sing-song, innocent delivery style with way too sophisticated images. This has nothing to do with my sense of pop culture now, but a long-term interest I have had in seeing society’s perception of young womanhood tested. I used to make music under the name “girlysound” which was all about style contradicting content. I think this is a dynamic I continue to explore today.

Q. 6. How is life in Manhattan Beach? What made you move there? Has it been a big adjustment moving there from Chicago?

A. I moved to California from Chicago after I was separated from my husband so that I could be closer to my label and I wouldn’t have to travel away from my son every time I had to do business. I have a very good friend, she’s almost a sister. We grew up together, had children at the same time. She lived in Manhattan Beach and I moved there to be near to her. She was incredibly helpful to us and I am very grateful.

I like living in L.A. because I can be a rockstar and a mom and nobody thinks that is unusual. It’s nice to be near other people in entertainment, like actors, writers, composers. It’s nice to have a broad base of the business in town because you can get ideas from each other and experience other forms of creative work that inspire you.

Q. 7. I’ve been a dedicated fan of yours for 10 years. I still tell people today that you got me through high school. My question is about “Help Me, Mary” on “Exile in Guyville”. In it, you sing about a bunch of thieves who have stolen your home, control your stereo, and play you “like a pitbull in the basement.” I have always imagined Penelope from Homer’s “Odyssey”, tormented by her suitors who will not leave her and her son alone until she chooses one of them. I’m curious, however, if you would explain the real context behind this song.

A. Wow. That is one far-out explanation. You are published, non? The song “Help Me Mary” was written about an apartment I shared in Wicker Park with John Henderson, who ran the label Feel Good All Over. We weren’t together, he just let me move in with him in the hopes that we could make a record together and because I was recently recalled from San Francisco by my parents because I’d run out of money and was currently living at home, going berserk in the suburbs, at 23. All through that period, I felt frustrated creatively. These guys in the neighborhood, band types, music aficionados, were always telling me what sounds were good, what to like. I hated the way I never felt able to just be myself and be taken seriously. I was a girl they might like to date, someone who was supposed to admire them and follow their guidance in all matters of taste, conversation style, party etiquette. It was extremely oppressive. They all thought chicks were dumb. Or smart, but not smart like them. They would come over, leeringly drunk, and tumble into our small living room and be a nuisance. I would end up in my bedroom, practically driven away, just to get out of their geeky space.

Q. 8. How hard (or easy) is it to be a single mom and a rocker? And a sexy, openly sexy and sexual rocker at that?

A. I think it is both easy and natural to be a sexy person after you have kids. It’s really more of a question of do you have time? Did you get sleep last night? How sexy is your head after two hours of play in a sandbox? If you can rise to the occasion, then sex is almost better because you can recapture exhausted abandon, and you are pretty comfortable with the human body after giving birth. It is what it is. Enjoy it.

Q. 9. You’ve stated that performing music wasn’t your entree into the world of arts. Early on, you evidenced a bit of awkwardness on stage, but you seem to have conquered that. Because you don’t hit the road as often as most popular musicians, is it difficult to get your stage-legs back for each tour? How do you prepare, and do you find touring enjoyable?

A. I love performing for an animated crowd. I love the way it feels when my band and I merge and the song itself rises up greater than the sum of its parts. I used to dread people looking at me. I used to be so afraid of failing. After I had my son, I realized that the opportunity itself is the experience to focus on and live through, not the outcome. I’m not all Zen and shit, I just learned a different approach and it works for me. I look forward to playing for people and I’m usually sad to leave the stage.

This July, I have embarked on my first bus tour ever. I actually had a pretty bad case of bustraphobia, and a correlative case of dude-traphobia in the days leading up to departure, but after two Ambien nights and a whole lot of fluffy girl bedding and throw pillows, I have settled into my nest and it’s hard to get me into a hotel room on our day off. I miss my son, but I am having a blast. Our crew is hilarious, I have twin brothers in my band, what’s not to like?

Q. 10. Liz, your first couple of albums really spoke to me about being an adult woman in a way that almost no other artist, or image in popular culture, did. Songs like “Divorce Song”, “6’1””, “Support System” and “Jealousy” all laid bare true feelings and experiences in a painful, unapologetic and un-self-pitying way. What do you think the new album is conveying to young women today, and about your experiences as a person?

A. I think “Liz Phair/Backslash” is a record about finding yourself ok after getting knocked around. I think it’s a departure for me because I’ve never made a record that was designed to make me feel good again, so I guess I hope it makes other women feel that way about themselves when they hear it.

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