Liz Phair (2003)
Liz Phair (2003)
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Liz Phair Speaks

Liz Phair: Exile in Popville

Shining Some Glory

Dark Light
Former indie rock queen talks about her new album and new look.

By Spence D., July 3, 2003

July 03, 2003 – Within the annals of modern rock and roll, Liz Phair is a bona fide legend, a cult hero who rose up from the suburbs of Chicago to stake a claim for womanhood during the brash, male dominated era of indie rock.

Her unadulterated lyrical forthrightness on Exile From Guyville coupled with her raggedy, urgent singing voice, and her off-kilter guitar spasms made her an instant hit with the easily jaded rock crowds of the early ’90s. Add to that a distinct dislike of performing live (she was notoriously stage shy back in those days) and the myth surrounding Phair kept growing and growing.

In fact, the mythology surrrounding Phair these days is so thick that when she recently released her fourth studio album, simply entitled Liz Phair, it was met with mixed reviews abroad because it presents the world with a different woman altogether.

The post 2000 Liz Phair is a 36-year-old hottie, a newly divorced single mom who seems to enjoy prancing around in shorter-than-short-mini skirts, torn t-shirts, while a sexual poutiness adorns her face in a manner that puts most pre-pubescent Britney wannabes to shame. Top it off with the fact that the bulk of her new album was produced by Avril Lavigne’s hitmakers The Matrix, and well, you’ve got a brand new Liz.

Yet while her new album isn’t quite the edgy, trend setting endeavor that her debut was, it is the type of record that not only sparks debate, but sheds an interesting light on how the world views a thirtysomething rock and roll mom (they don’t view her the same way they would a thirtysomething rock and roll dad, that’s for damn sure).

Phair has “survived” a slew of scathing interviews and reviews, many of them attacking her career shift, accusations of selling out abound, and many question her new fashion sense. As can be expected, Phair often finds herself on the defensive, but there’s also a faint hint of weariness in her voice, almost as if she’s tired of answering the same questions over and over again.

However, lurking underneath the lightly defensive exterior Phair reveals herself to be pistol quick with a sense of wit and undeniable charm. She’s totally the kind of chick that you’d want to hit on if you met her at a party: smart, attractive, opinionated, yet comfortable enough in her own skin so as not to be terribly high maintenance.

At least that’s the vibe she exuded over the phone line when we spoke recently.

IGN: How ya doin’ Liz?

Liz Phair: I’m great, how are you doing?

IGN: I’m cool, considering that I’m working. You know, it’s not like I have the rock and roll lifestyle like you.

Liz Phair: Oh Puhleeeze! I’ve been working non-stop, including weekends for months. You wish! In your dreams!

IGN: Hey, when you sell your soul for rock and roll you gotta do the dog and pony show, you know sit through a gazillion interviews, tour, all that mundane stuff that gets tacked on to your life once you start putting your art out there for mass consumption.

Liz Phair: [laughs].

IGN: So, I’ve been sitting her agonizing over what the hell we’re going to talk about since you’ve pretty much answered all the accusations of selling out, going through a mid-life crisis, the desperate attempts to re-invent yourself, alienating your former fans…

Liz Phair: We could talk about the music?

IGN: We could, that’s true. The one thing I gotta say about it is that it’s not as edgy as your earlier work. I mean I found it to be rather slick.

Liz Phair: Well it’s not as edgy and it is slicker. Both of those things.

IGN: Well, you know how you go into something expecting one thing and when you don’t get that, it’s not so much that you’re disappointed, it’s just that you don’t really know how to react to it.

Liz Phair: That makes sense, I understand that.

IGN: Personally, for my taste in music, I think the tracks that you produced are the strongest on the album.

Liz Phair: Well thank you.

IGN: You’re welcome. But that makes me wonder why you didn’t produce more of the tracks.

Liz Phair: ‘Cause I like the other stuff. I like the other sounds, too. I’m someone who likes a lot of different sounds and I’ve always been that person. Like if I’d just worked with Michael Penn, we’d be having a discussion about his sound. But I’ve always enjoyed working with all different types of people because for me it’s all about the songwriting. On this record there were more competing interests in my mind in terms of singing. Like I really am into singing right now. So a lot of the stuff I did was based on the love of singing and wanting to have songs that I could really sing live and enjoy. That’s part of it, too.

IGN: Now I saw you perform some of the new songs in Austin during South By Southwest this year and even though they sound really slick on the album, they sounded really raw live. Will your live renditions now be the same, you know with just a 4-piece band and a rawer, edgier sound?

Liz Phair: We’re putting together a fuller band, but until we get to a point, financially, where we can afford more people to flesh out the sound, you know we’re still opening for people. I’m gonna keep opening for people until I can get the right equipment. When we do special shows we get a back-up singer and she helps a lot with the chorus stuff and making it fuller and more beautiful. But I think what I’m into is kind of the whole package. I mean you can look at it as like yeah, ‘You’re just selling this record.’ But that’s not how I feel about the live show. I’m basically pulling from all my material. And that’s what I think when I’m out on stage, I’ve got four album’s worth of material of different production value and I’m kind of trying to find a band that can allow me to change between those different things, you know, and still have it come off. We may not reach the production peaks that we have on this record, the fullness and stuff, but we’re probably not gonna reach the really kind of scraping, small sound of some of the old stuff either. We’re gonna be in the middle with some flexibility.

IGN: When it comes to live performances there always seems to be two camps, and I’m talking about both artists and fans here. The first wants the live show to literally recreate the album to a ‘T’. Then there’s those who feel that the reason for going to a live show is not to hear the album as it was intended because you could’ve just stayed home and listened to it on headphones and saved the thirty-five bucks…

Liz Phair: [laughs]

IGN: Where do you fall? When you’re performing do you want it to sound like it did on the record or are you more for changing it up as much as you can while still retaining the original feel of it?

Liz Phair: I’m more for, like it’s a different thing. Live is different from recording. And I definitely, as a fan, I like to hear the songs that I really like, you know what I mean? The hits. I like to hear the hits when other people play live.

Like I just went and saw Wilco in Central Park and I was like ‘Okay, okay, waitin’ for “Heavy Metal Drummer” song,’ you know? [laughs]. But as long as I can sing to it, I don’t really care as a fan. As long as I can sing to it and they don’t not hit their high notes, I’m into it. So I think for me, the experience of going to see a band live is not to recreate exactly what you get, but it’s also not to disappoint in the sense of letting them enjoy their favorite songs. So, it’s somewhere in-between.

IGN: I recently saw Peter Gabriel and when he dipped into his hits it just felt and sounded like he was doing it because that’s what the audience expected from him.

Liz Phair: Well so what?

IGN: Yeah, I guess…

Liz Phair: I think you purists have got to chill out a little bitty bit.

IGN: I don’t know if I’m a purist…

Liz Phair: [laughs] You sound like one. I mean aren’t you glad to be seeing Peter Gabriel live any way?

IGN: The point I was trying to make was that his new material sounded fucking amazing live, but when he dipped into the hits they just sounded lackluster, as if he were going through the motions.

Liz Phair: He’s probably more excited about [the new stuff]. It’s probably closer to what he really feels right now.

IGN: Well that’s what I was driving at, is how do you deal with the ghosts of the past. Especially since you’ve been dealing with your ghosts a lot in terms of the new album. You know you’ve been defending the choices you’ve made on the record and trying to… how do you deal with those ghosts?

Liz Phair: Well, they’re my ghosts. It’s not like I’m being haunted by someone else’s stuff. They’re mine and I love all that material. I mean I feel really wealthy, in terms of when I get out on stage, having so much to draw from. There’s songs I can’t even remember how to play that I can whip out and be like ‘Wow, we’ve got a live act! I can break out “Crater Lake” or something.’ I can break out all these different songs and I’m pretty excited about that. I think that will help with dynamic. I mean all I can do really is do what I like, you know what I mean? I can’t sit and second-guess. Frankly, I’m not willing to sit and second-guess what everybody else [is thinking]. I gave that up years ago, long before this record, long before the last record. I gave up that superego over my shoulder of trying to please everybody and give them what they expect, you know? It’s just not possible and it kind of stunts the creative process for me. So what I do is that I go out there and I try to think what I would enjoy as a fan. And what I would enjoy is that you gotta play a lot of the favorite songs. That’s what people really want. They want to be able to sing along, they want to recreate those feeling they had when [they first heard the music], [they want to reinforce] their attachment to it. So I think that Peter Gabriel should have soldiered through his old material. I don’t feel that way about it, but I think that’s important to do. But it’s totally valid too, to try some stuff, like I’d like to try some stuff that isn’t even out that I’ve got sittin’ around, you know what I mean? So I think it’s about balance and also energy and dynamic of energy.

IGN: Okay, forgive me if I’m completely off base her, but it sounds like when you are performing live you have a mentality of giving the people what they want, to an extent.

Liz Phair: No. No. Give me what I want [laughs].

IGN: Okay, give you what you want in terms of ‘I’m a fan, when I go to a show what I want to hear are the hits.’

Liz Phair: No. You’re not listening. Listen, listen, listen. When I go I like to hear the hits, but I also like to see people do experimental stuff that seems raw and fresh and like something just happened there that night. It’s a balance between the two. That’s why I was just talking about breaking out new material and how when Peter Gabriel was excited about new stuff he’s doing, it sounds more to you energetic or more ‘Whoa! Some alchemy just occurred.’ It’s a balance between… I’m just… I’m not… it’s gonna be really hard for you if you want to pin me down into like one little blurb, because the worst things that interviewers do with me is that they pick one thing that I say and forget the rest of the context. You can’t do that with me. I’m the most slippery human being alive, ’cause I like highbrow and lowbrow and all sorts of things in-between. I don’t make a distinction between… I don’t identify myself with one thing or another. And that means in the live act, too. Like, we always play “Divorce Song”, how about that? I love playing “Divorce Song” and I love seeing the reaction of people when I do. But I know that I’ve got to play “Divorce Song.” Do you know what I mean? And I’ve got to play “Fuckk And Run” and I should probably break out and play “Johnny Feelgood” and I play “Polyester Bride”, I play “Alvarez.” I play some stuff like “Supernova”, we’re never gonna play a show without “Supernova.” There’s just certain things that you [have to play]. I know people like Michael Penn, who doesn’t like to play his “No Myth”. And that’s sort of what I’m speaking about is that I would always play my hits because when I go to a show I like to see that. But I don’t find that deadening at all and I don’t feel that that’s like part of the show where I’m compromising or anything. That’s a good show. That’s how to put on a good show. You’ve got to do a little bit of all those things.

IGN: But the key is that you’re still happy with the material and you’re still excited about performing it.

Liz Phair: I don’t have any songs of mine that I don’t like. Not a one. I’m not kidding.

IGN: Then you’re lucky. I’m sure there’s tons of musicians out there who are completely tired of some of their back catalog. That’s always seemed to be one of the most tiresome aspects of your profession is that you have to go out there and play the same songs over and over again.

Liz Phair: But it’s different people [every night] and their energy. I think if you’re not gonna get involved with the audience, yeah it would be deadening. But I tend to get pretty involved with the audience. Their energy feeds me. So I want us all to experience something. So it may be the same damn song, but each night it’s totally different in my mind. I mean you’ll always have a song that comes off not fresh, but it’s not always the same song. It’s just maybe, I don’t know, you’ve got an itch on your left calve and you’re freaking out or something. You don’t even know. People read all this stuff into it. It might be ‘Oh my God, I think my voice isn’t gonna make it in this song’ and then I’m sitting there an obsessing about that [laughs].

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