By C. Bottomley
VH-1, August 6, 2003
Liz Phair wasn’t caught hiding Osama bin Laden or dating O.J. Simpson. All she did was make an album – a bright, shiny pop album that she called Liz Phair. But if you read the music press you would think the one time alt.rock queen had been found guilty of pop’s most dreadful crime. Even the New York Times declared Phair’s new record was “career suicide” – the sense of betrayal was that keen.
What exactly was all the fuss about? Phair’s sin was working with Avril Lavigne’s songwriting team the Matrix, and making an album that courted favor outside her longstanding college rock crowd. The singer’s landmark 1993 debut Exile in Guyville was flecked with idiosyncrasies, reveling in scratchy guitars and pillow talk so intimate it hurt. Her new disc finds her turning to the streamlined sound of big choruses and bright harmonies. Fans of the 36-year-old rocker must think she’s having a midlife crisis.
In a way, she is. Since 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, the former Chicago resident got divorced and is now raising a son on her own in Manhattan Beach, California. Beneath the new music’s bubblegum snap she’s chewing over what it means to be a single mom in the year 2003. The achingly pretty “Little Digger”, for instance, introduces her son to the strange men in her bed, while “Rock Me” finds her trying to woo a sk8ter boi with the lines, “Your record collection don’t exist/ You don’t even know who Liz Phair is.” Liz Phair smartly toys with the notion of seducing the mainstream audience at the same time, burying barbed lyrics like “I’ll make you love me” and “I can fake it forever” under the Matrix’s wall of guitars.
Her detractors have found plenty to suggest Liz Phair has gone mad in her bid for mass acceptance. “H.W.C.” advocates the nourishing virtues of sperm with all the delicacy of an American Pie gag. On “Favorite”, Phair likens her boyfriend (or maybe herself) to a frayed pair of panties. Those who thrilled to the explicit honesty of Guyville songs like “Fuck and Run” might listen and wonder, “What was she thinking?” Phair just hopes they’ll listen. During a rainy tour stop in Colorado, she spoke to VH1 about acid wash jeans, Jason Mraz’s hair, and what her son will think of the cum song.
VH1: How would the 15 year-old Liz Phair would review this album?
LP: The 15 year-old Liz Phair would have this going all day and all night! The 15 year-old Phair was very pop and very mainstream. Believe me, I walked into Oberlin College wearing acid wash jeans with flowers on ’em and had a Geraldine Ferraro haircut. It wasn’t until Oberlin got a hold of me did I make my way up in that [indie rock] social circle. I’ve got a little bit of social climbing in me.
VH1: What were you listening to when you were 15?
LP: Madonna’s “Lucky Star” was a big favorite. Grandmaster Melle Mel, the Police and some reggae maybe. I also listened to R.E.M. and the Grateful Dead, but I was very ‘lite’ musically at that point.
VH1: Tell me how you would describe the woman on the cover of your album.
LP: That’s probably how I am if I’m, like, being with someone sexually. There’s a guitar in front as a shield – I always need a little armor – but it’s defiant and it’s also very open. That’s one of my strengths, that I can be abnormally open in a less-guarded situation.
VH1: How are the songs being received on the road?
Liz Phair: The best part is the set holds together. It depends on the crowd sometimes. For a while I felt like we should get a groom side and a bride side – old fans and new fans – because they were kind of glaring at each other across the aisle. One side would scream, “Play ‘Why Can’t I?’!” and the old fans will be sitting there [calling for] “Divorce Song!”
VH1: You were aiming at a broader, more pop audience. Did you have to dumb it down and make your songs more universal?
LP: I did make it more universal because of the sound itself. If you knew me as myself, other than the “Liz Phair brand” that’s out there, I am a stickler for trying to fit in for where I am. Every time I go to a different city I’m checking out what they wear. I’m a chameleon like that. I don’t see why you would collaborate with someone if you aren’t going to let yourself be changed by it.
VH1: How did the experience change you?
LP: One of the things that sickened me most during this period of my songwriting is that cleverness was taking the place of truth. I can fall into cleverness without ever really challenging myself to get at what is really going on in my life. That’s the point I was at when I started working with [songwriter] Gary Clarke, which is how I met the Matrix. I’d be fussing around with lyrics and he would nail me right to the ground and be like, “What are you trying to say?” It would come flying out of me, almost like therapy. I realized I had been pent up for like three years writing these songs that were kind of clever and perfect in a funny way, but they weren’t really saying what was emotionally raw in me.
VH1: Are people missing out on the sadness on the album?
LP: That to me was the obvious part in all these people getting so upset about the sound and production style. I am not going to be writing the same stuff I was when I was 23. Even if I produced this through Brad Wood, who did Exile in Guyville, it wouldn’t be the same record because I’m not the same person. The only thing that hurt my feelings was that it didn’t seem that people really listened to what I am saying. A lot of the songs are really personal. Because of the style and way I put it, they weren’t hearing the what.
VH1: Is there any song that’s too tough for you to perform because of its emotional nature?
LP: I choke on little “Little Digger” a little bit. We haven’t gotten around to “Red Light Fever” but that will get me. So will “Friend of Mine” and “Good Love Never Dies”. We haven’t thrown out all the new stuff yet because we want to keep reassuring old fans that you’re here to see the same person moving through a life. We’re waiting until the audience seems to know the new record a little more.
VH1: You told Billboard that the chorus to “Favorite” “Makes me choke a little.” Do you turn it back around live?
LP: We haven’t played it yet live. It’s just saying the word “underwear”. We tried “lingerie”, but it didn’t fit and because it’s written about underwear there is no way of getting around it. It doesn’t bother me anymore because everyone has already said all the mean things they can possibly say about the record, so I’m allowed to own it a little more. They’ve already done the self-scrutiny for me.
VH1: Have you succeeded in corrupting your support act Jason Mraz yet?
LP: We haven’t even started yet! Tomorrow is our first show. But I’m going to rough him up. I’m definitely going to take that hat off his head and give him a hairstyle. You should see me on the bus with my guys. I’m like half band-mate and half doll. I cleaned someone’s fingernails and filed them last night.
VH1: What are you turning up in on the radio in your car when it comes on?
LP: You’d have to come hang out with me and we’ll do it. I just go through the dial. You’d die if you saw what I stop on. It can be anything and I mean anything. I’ll listen to the Spanish stations if it’s a good one. I’ll listen to anything. I love it because I discover stuff and rediscover stuff. I just discovered Jack fucking Johnson. I had heard the name and seen him on the charts but I had no idea what the song was. I was driving in Chicago, spinning the dial and I hit this song and I’m like, “Who is this!? This is amazing!” It was like the best song I had heard in a long time. The radio is literally my IV.
VH1: What was the last pick-up line you fell for?
LP: It wasn’t a pick-up line, it was playfulness. We were having a great lunch and bought this bag of lollypops from this kid who was selling it for like a youth club or something. In the middle of Santa Monica we began whipping the bag back and forth down the block. It was so hilarious and fun and obnoxious that I completely fell for it.
VH1: What will you do when your son comes home from school one day and says, “Mom, they say you’ve written a song called ‘Hot White Cum?'”
LP: I’ll probably giggle, and say, “Ah, yep!” If he’s going to be anything like his dad – which he looks to be heading that way – it’s not going to faze him. I’m sure he’ll have his issues but I don’t think that’s going to be what it means to be my son. It’s just going to be some embarrassing thing that he has to cope with for freshman year. Puberty is a nightmare no matter what happens. My first year of high school was a nightmare, and my parents did nothing but be the perfect little parents. If I had been like a normal, quiet, boring mom, I’m sure he’d have some other issue that would freak him out freshman year, like, “My dick is too small.” Something would agonize him all year, so it might as well be my song.
VH1: How do you think your episode of Behind the Music is going to end?
LP: I don’t think it is going to end. I’ll be back up when I’m in my 80’s. I bet you a million bucks it will end like: “And she’s now having her third child and blah, blah, blah…” I’ll look very retarded and suburban and be like, oh well, she’s over.