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An Extraordinary Interview

Phair morphs from indie darling to pop princess with latest album

Ladies first at Kiss concert 2004

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Liz recently came LAUNCH’s studios in L.A. (the town in which she now resides, having moved from her famous home base of Chicago), where she performed acoustic versions of “Why Can’t I” and “Extraordinary” before sitting down to chat with LAUNCH executive editor Dave DiMartino about her controversial career. Here’s what she had to say for herself.

By Dave DiMartino
Yahoo! Music, April 25, 2004

When fiercely independent and outspoken singer-songwriter Liz Phair first emerged in 1993 with her watershed debut album, Exile In Guyville–a lo-fi, track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, and a refreshingly bold and frank commentary on the battle of the sexes from a uniquely female point of view–the album was heralded as a diamond-in-the-rough masterpiece, and Liz was declared a visionary and revolutionary by male and female critics and indie rockers alike. But three albums and 10 years later, Liz has returned with a very different effort, Liz Phair, an unabashed and blatant bid for mainstream pop stardom, featuring songwriting collaborations with Avril Lavigne producers/masterminds the Matrix. And while fans of her earlier indie work might be appalled by this about-face (or at least a little disappointed), there’s no denying that hit singles like “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I” are damn catchy powerpop confections.

There’s also denying that Liz–a little older and wiser than your average pop diva, at age 36–still has something to say, even if the context is different. She’s still exploring sexually and emotionally charged subject matter–whether it’s younger men (“Rock Me”), underwear collections (“Favorite”), dating as a single mom (“Little Digger”), or the beneficial properties of certain bodily fluids (“H.W.C.”). And in a very different but still compelling way, by doing so within the confines of Avril-esque pop tunes, she’s being just as subversive as she was on Exile.

Liz recently came LAUNCH’s studios in L.A. (the town in which she now resides, having moved from her famous home base of Chicago), where she performed acoustic versions of “Why Can’t I” and “Extraordinary” before sitting down to chat with LAUNCH executive editor Dave DiMartino about her controversial career. Here’s what she had to say for herself.

LAUNCH: Did your album get the reception that you wanted?

LIZ: Um, I don’t think I ever really think about that. I mean, I think about it, but I don’t design my record to get a certain public response. I knew I was gonna get in trouble with a lot of, um, sort of “alternative” critics. I warned my publicist about that, and she said, “I don’t think it’s gonna be a problem.” [laughs] She was underplaying it. I’m like, “I think it could be problem,” and she’s like, “No, the record’s great, it’s gonna be fine.” And then she’s like, “Well, if there are bad things, what do you want to do?” And I just told her that I wanted to just talk to the critics. I really didn’t care if they liked it or not; I would talk to them, and kind of work them through it, so to speak. So that was really interesting. I didn’t really anticipate the polarizing effect that this record would have because of my past career–that a lot of people were holding on to the sense of me as I was in the early ’90s, and that there was gonna be this kind of dividing line between people who were into what I was doing now and people who wanted me to be the way I was when I was just starting out. And it was funny, because I think where I went to college, we’re trained to be provocateurs. Like, a lot of my friends who are in the entertainment industry as well, who went to school with me, are also lightning rods for controversy. So I realized as this record came out, there would be, like, glowing reviews in People, and then lacerating reviews in the San Francisco Daily or whatever. And it was so funny because I thought, you know, I didn’t anticipate this, but this is so me, you know? Getting in trouble. Always getting in trouble.

LAUNCH: When did you know that you would get that reaction?

LIZ: I knew that collaborating on songwriting would be difficult for a lot of people, because was known very much, for my independence and the fact that I wrote these quirky songs that were not typical structure, not typical sound–you know, really original stuff. Like, I kind of developed my musical style in a vacuum. Even though I listen to a lot of stuff, the way I wrote was in my bedroom, really privately. It’s still the way I write, actually. But collaborating this time around helped me a lot, because I was stale. My songwriting style was stale. My songs were clever, they were wordy, but there was no real meaning, there was no real emotional truth to them. And they were kind of making me sick, actually! [laughs] And so when I started working, I tried songwriting, and the first time I tried it was with this great guy, and we just holed up. Every time I write songs, I find out how alike songwriters are. They take a little private space–it was either the bedroom of a hotel, or the bedroom of the producer that I was working with–and we all just like to sit, find a pool of sunlight, and just hang out there and get really intense about it. And it opened me up to the issues that I was going through, in a way that I wouldn’t allow in my own songwriting. They kind of challenged me. They were like, “What are you really trying to say? What are you saying here?” I remember crying a couple times, and just feeling. I think good art happens on that edge between comfortable and in a lot of pain, you know what I mean? Like, there’s something about being taken out of your element, or being: You’re really creative when you’re in an environment that you don’t know how to handle. So collaborating was like that for me. I think that was one of the reasons why I knew I was gonna get a challenging reaction.

LAUNCH: Why did you work with so many people on this album?

LIZ: Well, it’s a sampler sort of record. Whitechocolatespaceegg, the record before this one, was also that way. It’s just a facet of me being an adventurer, and I like to work with different people. The core of what I do is me and a guitar, or me and a piano in a room, and anything beyond that is window dressing to me, to a certain extent. I’m not one of those people that’s heavily invested in anyone’s style. My identity has everything to do with me and my instrument. It doesn’t have to do with what production style I use, or how many people played on it, whether it’s sparse or grandiose or whatever. And I’m social, frankly. And, I love to work at [producer] Walt [Vincent]’s place and get that whole vibe with Pete [Yorn] coming down: super-casual, still kind of indie. And then I also love the big Matrix experience. It’s all experience to me. Like, the hours and days that I spent with Michael Penn in the top of the tower at Capitol were so much fun. We would go up on the roof, I’d run around and poke my head in the offices. I’ll pay money, my recording advance, to have an experience when I make music. I think a lot of people are just focused on the end product: “Give me the song, give me the record, let me go do this.” And for me, every day of my life, I wanna invest in it. So I really I collect experiences, more than I collect awards or accolades.

LAUNCH: Do the Matrix, as artists, have a conflict because they are criticized for their hit-making ability, yet as artists themselves, they want to maintain artist integrity?

LIZ: I’m not gonna speak for them, but I can sort of guess at it, because of what they’ve said. I think it is a little weird, because I can remember after some of the press that came out that was critical of my working with the Matrix, [Matrix member] Lauren [Christy] would joke around, like, “I didn’t know if we were gonna get beaten up!” They’re aware of that. They are awesome people, they’re so intelligent. I’ve said this a million times, I think they’re poorly named, you know. Their name represents the bad machine world in a movie. But they’re so much more creative than people give them credit for. They’re artists. They all have written their own songs. And they’ve all been working for a long time. And I think it was a surprise that they branched out to work with an artist like me. They took a risk. And they’re taking more risks. It’s something they’ve done because of how successful their songs became. I think they thought to themselves, “Well, OK, we can’t just keep doing this mass-marketed stuff. That’s just a slam-dunk in the top 10 every time. What kind of risks can we take? And by working with someone like me, or [up-and-coming singer-songwriter] Keaton Simons, or whomever, they mix it up. They challenge themselves. They were excited that I was gonna bring a lot of my own stuff to the songs, that I was going to question and say, “No” and “Add this.” It was exciting to them. They need that kind of stimulation. They don’t wanna just sit in a vacuum. They wanna grow, they wanna feel like the artists that they are. An, yeah, I think they could’ve felt vulnerable when my record came out. But, thank God they took that risk, ’cause we both got what we wanted: I got a platform so I could bring the rest of my baggage to the mainstream, and they got that sense of challenge. “Wow, you worked with Liz Phair! What was that like?”

LAUNCH: When do you think you’ve grown the most, artistically?

LIZ: You’re probably gonna hate my answer, but I see it all the time. I see it on each record. When I think of my music career, there are these tapes that are floating around. They’re called Girlysound and they’ve never been officially released, but a lot of bootleggers will make copies, thank God. Thank you, because I don’t have the tapes, you know! [laughs] So I see my career as spanning beyond what’s been officially released. I see my songwriting as going a lot longer than that. And if you heard Girlysound compared to Exile In Guyville, which is my second record, here’s these underground tapes that I did while I was at college and stuff, and then here’s Guyville and my first record. There’s a huge difference between that sound and Guyville, and Guyville‘s what I’m officially, publicly known for, but before that I was doing these kind of bubble-headed, bizarre, funny–but still talented–songs that were a lot poppier, with just embarrassing lyrics. Really embarrassing stuff. I would rip off whole choruses from other songs, and rewrite “Wild Thing” about a girl who shopped too much and was a man-eater and how she never actually got punished for it. She was having a great life. Just stuff like that. So there’s my artistic growth, I hope, and I challenge myself to do this in between every record. You can’t have artistic growth unless you’re facing new situations, unless you’re pushing yourself in some way. And I always do that…maybe to a fault. I’m always throwing myself in environments that I’m not comfortable in, in order to stretch.

LAUNCH: What do you think new fans will think of your older music?

LIZ: Well, I’ll tell you, I’m counting on people caring enough to investigate who I am and where I’ve come from. And anything that I can do to promote that, I will, because one of my biggest aims is to clear out the mainstream a lot of artists that don’t really have anything to say–especially the female ones that are just kind of “created” and they’re not expressing anything really personal. That frustrates me because I think music should always be like the Joseph Campbell hero experience–like, someone goes out somewhere and learns something new and brings it back to you, and here it is. Like, “Here’s my experience, put your feet in my shoes and walk my mile,” that kind of thing. So I like the idea that if I reach an audience that’s never heard of me before, that they would become curious about this person and they would kind of explore how I’ve arrived here. Because I think even though I have a top 10 single, it was still a song with some complicated issues inside of it–buried, secretly. And I think we can use that in the public eye. Everything’s so controlled these days. I don’t know…I have a penchant for infiltration, I guess.

LAUNCH: You’re subversive?

LIZ: Yes, I’m subversive. [laughs]

LAUNCH: If this latest album was your first album, do you think it would it have earned you the following that you have from your earlier work?

LIZ: No, I don’t think instantly–when you hear my single, especially, “Why Can’t I,” that you’re gonna register what I’m about necessarily. I think that’s a great song, sort of extraordinarily catchy; we all walk away singi ng it after we perform it, and I think, that’s my “hi,” my “hello.” Like, when you meet someone and say hi, you don’t necessarily come up and spill your guts out to someone or reveal everything you’ve got right away. And I don’t know that the attention span of the audience is what I think it is. But even if everything, as we were just talking about earlier, is heading toward pleasing advertisers, I still think people who enjoy music are looking for a story. They’re looking for somebody that they can identify with. And hopefully, if you like the song, you get the record. If you get the record, maybe you download the EP. If you like that, you start thinking, “Well, that doesn’t gibe. Look at this kind of dark, freaky song, and look at her single!” Haven’t you ever done that, like picked up the Fun Lovin’ Criminals ’cause you liked their song, and then you get deep into it and they become alive for you? They become an entity and a story. It’s like a novel. And that’s the way I love music, so I hope to create music like that, where you can kind of go deeper, as deep as you wanna go.

LAUNCH: How much was the artistic side of yourself present during your maternity leave?

LIZ: Well, I’m unusual in that I did not grow up as a performer–I’m more of an artist–so I can spend lots of time happily making music without necessarily needing to sell it. I think of my career as very split: There’s introverted times, where you’re writing and you hardly go out and you’re just really deeply lost in thought everywhere you go, and then there are extroverted times once the record’s finished, when it’s time to make the video and do the photo shoot and be amazing. Over the years, I’ve gotten good at flipping from one to the other. In between the records “Liz Phair” the “performer” or the “rock star” was kind of hibernating. I like to live life, I like to go out and not be the one that’s being looked at, I like to be the one that’s looking at other people. And that’s not common right now. A lot of people that you would see on LAUNCH the opposite; they’re the people who just wanna be in front of a crowd. And I’m the other way. I’m pretty happy off-camera. Like, it takes me running out of cash, really, to get me back on the job! [laughs]

LAUNCH: Is it true that in the early days you had a lot of stage fright?

LIZ: Ooh, it more than rings true. It was a fact–a very unpleasant fact of my early days. Because, like I said before, I didn’t grow up a performer; like, the last thing I wanted to do was get up in front of the class in high school. I remember, I had a roommate–this is a good story–I had a roommate, John Henderson, who’s sort of in the music business, and he’s a genius but a little cantankerous. He was my roommate at the time, and we got in a huge fight because he wanted to produce my record, and I didn’t want him to do it. So we had a falling out. And I ended up making it with our friend, Brad Wood. And when that first record came out, he knew how scared I was of performing, how I had no experience at all. And he just was laughing. I can see him now, sitting on the sidewalk laughing his ass off, saying, “You’re so in for it. You better start practicing now!” People would come to my first shows and literally have to look away, ’cause it was too painful to watch. It was like the Ice Capades where people fall down a million times. I couldn’t perform! [laughs] I was shaking all over. I would be sick to my stomach for weeks before. It wasn’t until I had my son and took a couple years off and went out on Lilith Fair into these 25,000-person arenas that I got over it, because there was nothing I could do. It was so overwhelming, and half the people didn’t know who I was, so I learned to own the stage for myself. And it didn’t matter. And since then, I’ve grown. And now I really do bring in the audience. Like, I have no stage fright, and I enjoy it. I’m connecting to the people. I like to put the lights on the audience, so I can see their faces. But it was a long journey. Everyone’s asks how I got over my stage fright. It was just practice, practice, practice. It was brutal.

LAUNCH: Your background is such that it must be kind of awkward for you to reconcile doing all the publicity and marketing for your record, when your indie roots contradict that behavior.

LIZ: It is a pain in the ass, we running around. I try to see people as individuals; it’s the only way I can get through it. Yes, I’m not happy about having to schmooze and glad-hand and do all that stuff, but the thing I do that saves me is I connect to an individual person. Then I can look at them and I don’t feel like there’s a great divide between us. You know, they’re working in this office, and I’m working on the road. I’m usually patient about it, because we all gotta do what we gotta do. So I will meet at least one person everywhere I go that I really connect to, and that’s how I do it. Even when we do autograph-signing lines, sometimes by the time I’m finished I feel either psychic or dizzy or nauseated, because I will connect each person that comes up to me, even if it’s two seconds. I’ll make that little Vulcan mind-lock. It gives you such an agile brain for connecting with people.

LAUNCH: Some of your latest material is pretty risqué. Are you going to have any trouble singing those songs live in 15-20 years? Is that a youthful statement that won’t fit someone who’s approaching 50?

LIZ: See, I’m glad you asked me that question, ’cause I have this little soapbox I like to stand on about this–especially with some of the criticism I got with this record, ’cause I’m not really that young, you know. I’m 36. I was surprised how people didn’t want me to dress in a sexy manner, because it was unbecoming to a woman of my “late years,” or whatever. And it made me think about it. I’ve always written songs to be provocative; those, like, “dirty” songs are basically a way for me to express my dismay at finding out society really doesn’t value a girl’s voice. A girl’s voice carries no authority. And what I would do is I would sing in a really sweet way–that was what Girlysound was all about. It was a girlish sound, but hiding these really aggressive lyrics. It sounded kind of like something in The Wizard Of Oz, what you think normally about a “girlish” sound, and then the lyrics come in and just backslap you. And I loved that! So I think as I get older, those songs will still mean that to me. They’ll still have that meaning of going against the establishment. And frankly, they’re funny! If you can’t find the humor in them, then you don’t have a sense of humor. But also–this is the end of the platform–I think women should own their sexuality all the way through their lives. I don’t like the way it’s taken away from girls when they’re young. They don’t get to learn about sex, ’cause people are always worried, saying, “No!” or “Don’t!” or whatever. They can’t explore it, they can’t learn what they like. And I don’t like how it’s taken away from older women who have finished the childbearing years. Because, you know, it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you have a baby. That’s what society says to us: that our sex drive should only be in the service of procreation. You know what I mean? But no, our sexuality should be all throughout our lives, all the way through. So when I say that I’m gonna be comfortable at 50, I probably will. And it may look scary to you, but I’ll probably be doing it anyway!

LAUNCH: With your son, how will you introduce him to your more racy songs?

LIZ: Well, I’m super-sensitive to that. I think that’s a really good question. I already went on that path long before I had a child, so there was nothing I could to erase that past. And I decided to continue, because it’s sort of part of who I am. I think the way I look at it, and I don’t have problems with the parental advisory stickers. I like to know what my son’s digesting. I’m happy to have labels that mark you a certain way. I know that that gets in the trouble–I mean, distribution gets called into it. But it’s so hard to be a parent–a good one, anyway–that the stuff that I do on a daily basis with my son is gonna have so much more impact than my songs will. He’ll be embarrassed by me for some reason anyway. Even if I had never written those songs, when he’s a teenager, he’ll be mortified about my sexuality or by the car I drive, or whatever it is. I know I was that way about my parents, and they did nothing! They were, like, untouchably good, and smart, and together. So I figure, at least this way, he’s gonna know what to be pissed about, or upset about! [laughs] It’ll be, like, song number 11. Like, he’s gonna go to the therapist and just bring in the CDs. But I think with parenting, people like to look at the overview, at how you “scarred” your kid. They forget that it’s more about how you raise your kid, ’cause every single day you’re putting in effort and time and wisdom. That carries so much more weight than whatever little thing is gonna freak them out for however long. They’re gonna be freaked out anyway–their hormones are going wild. So let them do it, and be a good parent anyway. A good parent lives their life responsibly, and in a way that they love their lives. I don’t wanna burden my son with the legacy of my regret for anything.

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