By TIm Birner
New York Press (Volume 18, Issue 41), October 12-18, 2005
Liz Phair, the rocker who first gained acclaim with her 1993 album Exile In Guyville has recently come under attack as a sell-out. Much criticized for working with The Matrix, the record engineers who write and produce music for teen pop singer Avril Lavigne, Phair has said that her decision to go more commercial on her self-titled album Liz Phair was partly motivated by her financial concerns as a single mother. New York Press‘ Tom Birner asked her about this recent change in style, her follow-up CD Somebody’s Miracle — and much else — as Phair gets set for a gig here in town.
Birner: You tend to avoid two requisite emotions of ’90s alternative music — theatrical rage and sadness. Is that a result of your upbringing?
Phair: Maybe it was that English wit — we lived there for a while, so Anglophonic irony was pervasive in my home life. But Guyville, when I listen to it, is relatively sad.
Birner: You mean lyrically or tonally?
Birner: Cause the tone is kind of upbeat…
Phair: I try to stay free of confines. I don’t like being obvious. People felt the pop on the last record was obvious… knowing the way I am, singing a song that’s being broadcast in my gym, that’s subversive.
Birner: So you were doing that consciously to shock people?
Phair: No, it was much less conscious than people think. My natural exuberance, my obnoxiousness, my loud, Midwestern rock sensibility was not coming across in the Michael Penn work. I didn’t feel it was representative of my scope, emotionally. It just didn’t feel like me. And there was literally no more money — I was already over budget, and because The Matrix got these radio songs, all of a sudden the label’s like, ‘put whatever you want on,’ for which I’m eternally grateful. It was something I chased down — the best of all my little adventures in recording land. [The orientation of my new album] Somebody’s Miracle is much more intentional.
Birner: In a way, were you touched by the vehement protest of your last album?
Phair: I was kind of flattered, but it got old. For the most part, it was a deeply misunderstood move. People thought my making pop songs would change other material.
Birner: You mean the other songs would lose their validity?
Phair: No, that the songs I wrote myself would be rendered stupid and pop-driven. But Liz Phair was really a side job. It was… moonlighting in the pop world. I was a little cavalier about it. Like, ‘sure — why not try pop?’
Birner: Socially, Exile On Main Street is fairly innocuous… or at least the drug references are shrouded in metaphors. Guyville is so subversive, intentionally or unintentionally… what exactly was it a response to? Or was it a feminized version of The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street?
Phair: I answered Mick. In “Rocks Off,” I’m the girl who’s looking at him on the street. ‘What’s the matter with the boy?/He don’t come around no more…’ So on “6’1,” ‘You fall in bed too easily…’ I’m looking him up and down, see? I don’t ever take on Mick’s role — I’m either talking to Mick, about Mick, or examining what he’s talking about. It was a song-by-song response to this guy in my neighborhood who was much like Mick in his attitude. So, really, it’s just a teenage girl not being able to talk to the guy she wants to talk to. So she just talks to a song.
Birner: Have you ever met the Stones and talked to them about Exile In Guyville?
Phair: (laughs) I just did! [Somebody’s Miracle producer] John Shanks works at a studio in Hollywood where the Stones were debuting their new CD. He introduced me, and the sense I got was that they kind of thought I’d done something bad, and forgave me for it. And you can’t be casual or jocular with them; everything I said came out wrong, so I just shut my mouth. I couldn’t explain that I worship Exile On Main Street.
Birner: You have yet to match the praise of Exile In Guyville, your debut. How is that?
Phair: Earlier it hurt because it seemed nobody liked anything else I did, but I’m so far from that now. I’m very happy about having done Guyville and I’m very happy it’s such an acclaimed record. Have you ever noticed… wait — how old are you?
Birner: Are you single?
Phair: I have a boyfriend.
Birner: Then twenty-four. But I have the cynicism of a 50 year-old.
Phair: Well, when you get older you’ll find you need about a ten year gap between you and your rivals to not feel threatened by them. Guyville doesn’t threaten me… I feel hugely lucky. But I can’t make that kind of record anymore. I’m not that age anymore. My feelings have shifted.
Birner: And you had a kid to worry about…
Phair: Well, there’s definitely a part of me that is a responsible adult. Like any adult with a child — you better have a fucking income and a plan. I’d just been divorced and until that point, there’d been a man to take care of me. Even if I pretended I was independent, that really was never the case.
Birner: You mean emotionally or financially?
Phair: Financially. Rock and roll isn’t a salary. Every person I know who is my age and not in my business makes a lot more money than I do. You have to make yourself into a working entity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
People my age who don’t do that are basically immature, selfish shits. Besides, I could make a good indie record but it would be completely contrived, because I don’t live in that world anymore. I’d rather be authentic in my creative process, even if people hate it.