By Amanda Petrusich
The New Yorker, April 18, 2021
This June, after months of pandemic-related delays, Liz Phair will finally release “Soberish,” her seventh album and the first in more than a decade. Since 1993, when Matador Records put out “Exile in Guyville”—Phair’s full-length début, and still one of the funniest, richest meditations on sex, self-actualization, and human relations I’ve ever heard—she has been a beacon for women attempting to navigate the cloistered, historically male universe of indie rock. It feels reasonable to say that, without Phair, who turned fifty-four this week, the genre may not have opened up to artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Mitski, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and others. “Soberish” combines the candor and scrappiness of “Guyville”—it often feels just as spontaneous and elemental—with the emotional sophistication of a person who has seen some things.
I recently spoke with Phair, who Zoomed in from her home in Southern California. Her blond hair was gathered into a ponytail, and she was wearing a piece of her own merch: a pink, slouchy sweatshirt featuring the words “Hey Lou” and a yellow banana reminiscent of the image that Andy Warhol lent to the Velvet Underground, in 1967, for the cover of the album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” “Hey Lou,” the first single from “Soberish,” is a loose, jangly rock song that imagines a conversation between Lou Reed and his wife, the musician and artist Laurie Anderson. In it, Phair skewers the idea that genius and unpleasantness are hopelessly entangled, and that every great artist has a built-in excuse to be a jerk: “No one knows what to think / When you’re acting like an asshole / Spilling all the drinks / Talking shit about Warhol / Again,” she sings. I told Phair that the banana was a perfect choice as an accompanying image for the song, but it seemed that her younger fans—who stream most of their music and aren’t routinely exposed to cover art—might not make the connection.
“Isn’t that crazy?” she said. “It’s like in ‘The Matrix,’ when the world dissolves. Bits of data are disappearing. It’s almost as if the collective unconscious is getting dementia for people that are our age.” She continued, “I used to take comfort in the knowledge that, if it was on the Internet, anyone could find it. But that’s not the case. I blithely thought that all my past work, all my past interviews, all my past performances would still just be there. When I tried to search for them, so much of it was gone. It sucks.”
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
It’s really good to see you.
You, too. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening!
“Soberish” is your first full album of new material since “Funstyle,” from 2010. It’s not as if you’ve been dormant in that time—there’s been a book, performances, reissues, other recordings—but what did it feel like to be back in the studio again?
It was wild, because I was working with Brad Wood, who produced “Exile in Guyville” and “Whip-Smart,” and part of “whitechocolatespaceegg,” so I was going back in time in a strange way. There was awkwardness in the beginning, in terms of reconnecting. It was a slow reëntry into working together, a bit of a push and pull. The mandate that I set out for us very early on ended up being exactly what we got at the other end, which is a huge triumph as a creative person—to actually arrive at the destination that you set out for yourself.
What was the vision that guided you?
It was such a specific mandate—it was very clear, which gave me a lot of faith. I wanted to use the sounds that we had used on “Guyville,” but with the added complexity of me now being fifty-plus years old. And I really wanted it to feel distinct from other work that’s coming out. I remember when I first heard André 3000—I was driving in a car and I pulled up to a stoplight and someone was blasting it out of a car window. And it was like [mimics record-scratching noise]. You know? Like, “What is that?” It was so distinctive.
So I wanted [this album] to be reminiscent of the old stuff yet more complex than that, and I wanted all the songs to feature unorthodox arrangements. None of them could be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, double chorus, out. Or verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out. Whatever it was, it had to be experimental—but it couldn’t feel like that. It had to pass you by without you ever knowing that I’d done something radical with the arrangement. It had to feel hooky and easy to listen to. “Guyville” sounded so different from other stuff that was coming out at the time. How do we do that again as us, thirty years later? Those were all the mandates. It was like Luke shooting that final kill shot into the Death Star—it was that narrow. It took a lot of subtraction. We’d do a song and strip away.
Where and when were most of these songs written?
They were mostly written over the past two to three years. I wasn’t pulling from the distant past, which is interesting, because I usually do. There are three songs that are five years old, maybe? But it’s a pretty young record in terms of how recently it was written. Some of [the recording] was done remotely, after we delayed the release of the record [because of the pandemic]. That was my choice. I wanted to do that—I didn’t want it to come out into darkness. It’d been ten years since I made a real album. But it’s really hard to put something on a shelf. It feels wrong. There’s a timeliness, there’s a freshness, a sense of where the Zeitgeist is going. I added some lift to the album because I was trying to imagine what state of mind we’d be in at the end of the pandemic. The Trump years really got me down—it was hard to fight that depressive element that kept showing up again and again. But I think we fought it pretty well.
In some ways, it feels like the perfect moment for a record like this to appear. On the East Coast, we’re in the midst of that really odd, halting, awkward transition from winter to spring. There’s one day that’s really warm, and then it gets cold again. Same thing with the pandemic—people are starting to get vaccinated, yet it doesn’t really seem over. Instead, it feels as if everything good is very close, but we don’t quite have our hands on it. There’s a lot of optimism, but a lot of lingering melancholy, too.
I think of “Soberish” as an album about the transitional times, not the peak in-love times and not the peak single times, but the transition of falling in love and the insecurity and vulnerability of that, the tumultuousness of how one minute you’re telling all your friends you’ve got a new guy, and the next minute you’re, like, “It’s over. I don’t even . . .” And then it’s back on again. That kind of bullshit. When you’re breaking up and you’re pretty sure it’s over, but you still love each other, or you still had sex, and now you miss them, but also you know it’s over? That’s where “Soberish” is—it’s a transitional, emotional record.
“Soberish” also feels like a pretty apt description of how many of us spent the first few months of quarantine. Sometimes you’re clear-eyed, and other times you’re just out of your fucking mind. How did that word come to symbolize this collection of songs?
In a literal way, it means the state that I’ve been in while dealing with the pandemic and Trump and what it took to survive—I couldn’t quite take reality straight on. But, at the same time, it’s more expansive. The cover has the intersection of Sober Ave. and Ish St. It’s a crossroads. It’s an in-between state. Maybe you’re technically sober, but there’s still something you do compulsively, that you flip back and forth between in your life. “I’m gonna be this person! No, I’m not, fuck that. No, I’m gonna be this person! No, fuck it, I’m not gonna be that person.” It’s about all those things that are neither one nor the other, and we toggle between them. We stand on that street corner so many times in so many different ways in our lives.
How do heartbreak and songwriting intertwine for you, if at all?
So much. They intertwine so much. You know how we have secret wishes about ourselves, like I wish I had curly hair instead of straight hair, or whatever it may be? I wish I could write those great “I’m in love and this is amazing and we’re gonna go on forever!” songs. But I turn to creative work when I’m trying to figure something out. People have been asking me about self-care a lot, and I feel too old to answer that question because I’m, like, “What’s that?” But I realize art-making is my self-care. It’s what I do when I want to say something to someone but I know I shouldn’t call them, or I want to readdress something but it’s just too far in the past, or I want to secretly tell someone how I feel about them but not actually tell them to their face. For whatever reason, I feel this sense that the mail needs to be delivered. There’s stuff in me that needs to get out of me and go to its destination, and I can’t settle unless that’s the case. Songwriting—writing in general—really allows me to take all that turmoil and uncertainty, the hesitation, missed opportunities, the things I desire and don’t have the courage to reach for, and sing about them or write about them, and then somehow the universe feels served. I’m actually doing what I’m supposed to do as I move through life. It’s a way of cleaning my subconscious closet that adds to the world, rather than just remaining toxic and unhappy and making other people unhappy.
Have you been riding out the pandemic mostly in Los Angeles?
Yes. I have been in this house. Boy, have I been in this house. It’s a nice place to be. I can see the ocean. I can walk to the ocean. There are much worse places to be, but, boy, have I been in this house.
As someone who has spent such a significant chunk of her life travelling, has this time scrambled the way you think about domesticity and domestic spaces, or the idea of time, free time, work time, all of that?
All of that. My son lives with me, so he and I were together, thank God. He was so much fun and so helpful, and really chill about the whole pandemic thing in a way that I wasn’t. He has a breathing issue—he has asthma, from reactive-airway disease—so I was on high alert about making sure he didn’t get sick. This house became a fortress. There were times when I felt like I’d been thrown back into the nineteen-fifties. “Fuck this, I didn’t sign up to be this hausfrau person who just does the drudgery. Fuck this!” But then there were times when I was really pleased with the pace of life. We now know what birds live around us, and we now look at the ocean on different days, and we know what color it is, and what weather is coming. There’s a beauty to life in a slower lane that I came to appreciate. But it was also this sense of it not being by choice. I struggle with my authority feelings.
Well, you very deliberately chose a life that was not explicitly or exclusively domestic, and I’m sure you made sacrifices along the way in order to have that—so, of course, it’s brutal to be suddenly thrust into it.
At first I was, like, “What am I doing?” Like, is this this giant conspiracy to put me back in the house, as a woman? I think most women feel a sense of uncertainty about our roles. And, if they get changed, it can cause anxiety—or at least it causes me anxiety. I remember that so distinctly from being pregnant. I started acting out because of it, in ways that were self-destructive in the extreme, because of my fear of being put in a role and not being able to escape it. This time, it was the whole world, though. I feel for all those guys who had such pride in, like, their professional life. They’re freaking losing it too, you know? Because the dog walks into their Zoom, or the kid walks into their Zoom, and it’s not professional. There’s a sense that we all went back to college and everything is D.I.Y. all over again. It’s a little humiliating! You know it is. It’s a little humiliating.
There’s also been a total dismantling of whatever walls we may have put up between our personal and professional lives. There’s a bizarre intimacy to Zoom sometimes. I’ve felt that acutely as a professor who is currently teaching online—like, “Oh, that’s your childhood bedroom. And you are looking at the dirty coffee mugs in my kitchen, and here comes my cat.” Whereas, normally, we do this in a very anonymous and neutral classroom in a campus on Washington Square Park.
Do you think we come to know one another better because of it, or do you think it just begets more questions?
I don’t know. I think there’s some inherent distance to a screen, which mediates contact in a particular way. But, on the other hand, like you were saying earlier, everyone has been so broken down by this experience—there’s a certain vulnerability that we’re all bringing to the table now, a tenderness that I think we’d all got really good at burying before.
Do your students feel that way? Or, because they’re so young, do they not even notice that anything changed?
I think this has been incredibly disorienting for them. When we all log on, my sense is that we’re genuinely eager to talk to one another, and to be in a classroom, even a virtual one.
[Zoom cuts out.]
Auspicious timing! Sorry about that. I changed locations, so maybe the Wi-Fi will be better now.
The old switcheroo of the rooms! I know that one. I was so glad you were having difficulties, because I feel like I’m always the one with the target on my forehead. “Hang on, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta move!” I’ve done interviews crouched down by the top of my stairs—completely crouched down, not moving, like, “O.K., can you hear me?”
Thank you for your patience. I will admit that it somehow feels like a personal failing when the Zoom cuts out.
I’m right with you. I made Andy Richter sit there for fifteen minutes while my son and I were bitching at each other, completely failing to connect. And then, in the end, we didn’t even get the audio.
Speaking of home, “Sheridan Side,” one of the new songs, is a very earnest and beautiful catalogue of Chicago landmarks, running from the universally accessible to the more personal and idiosyncratic. What’s your relationship to your home town these days?
It’s a place that has very dense, almost neutron-star-like memories for me. Everything related to Chicago feels very impactful—extra-rich with nutrients. Too much salt and too much sugar. Everything’s concentrated. I had really happy times there, and I had really sad times there. It’s where I spent a lot of my formative struggling time. A lot of selves have lived in Chicago. I’ve been a lot of people in that city.
That’s unusual for me. Usually, I will move and be a person there for a while, and then move again and be a person there for a while, but there’s one person per place. Even in L.A.—I don’t feel like I’ve changed that radically in the twenty years I’ve been here. But, in Chicago, my life and my circumstances changed a lot. I didn’t know any musicians, really. I just went to concerts. When I got into music myself, I brought my angry Oberlin self, my college self, to it. Those two worlds did not mix at all. So, for me, there’s a turbulence in Chicago. I can look to the semester that I took off from Oberlin and went to the Art Institute, for instance, and how lonely and weird I was then. Or I can look at my preppy self in junior high and think about my Fair Isle sweaters and duck boots and my wide-wale corduroys, and the person that I was. I can look to Lincoln Park and the mom that I was when I was first raising my son and trying to be this perfect mommy type and do everything right and cook and be married. Or the person who got famous and lived in Wicker Park and was a polarizing figure in a very tight music scene.
So there’s all these different selves. “Sheridan Side” is actually very personal. It’s about one particular on-off relationship that spanned much of that history—a skipping-stone relationship. Sheridan Road is an artery. I would either drive up to see my parents, as an adult, or I’d drive down, as a child, to go party. Sheridan Road was always something I had to contend with. Travelling it feels like travelling through time. Sometimes driving a certain road can bring back so many different memories.
I wanted to talk to you about how your relationship to your voice has evolved over the years. You sound so good on this record.
That makes me feel so good. I have to hand it to Brad. He’s a careful editor—he makes sure we have what we need. I’ll sing it as many times as it takes. Sometimes it doesn’t take many times. He prefers off-the-cuff Liz, which you hear a lot. I had got used to really performing, and Brad would be like, “No, just hold the mike and tell the story.” I loved that. I was, like, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—that’s the “Guyville” Liz, that’s the person who just shows up, grabs the mike. So there’s a lot of that on the record. I don’t think of myself as a singer—I think of myself as a storyteller who sings. “Soberish” owes a lot to the stuff I used to listen to in my Walkman when I first had the ability to move through my environment curating my own sound, my own musical escape.
What was on those tapes?
There was R.E.M.—that was a big influence. Bowie was a big influence. The Furs, the Specials, English Beat. The Go-Go’s. Some of that stuff’s cheesy—I can’t lie. I’m not even telling you the cheesiest stuff right now. There’s a whole section of my music fandom that I never really put on a record. A lot of the songs I know all the words to are not cool songs, but the stories in them made me the songwriter I am today.
You have such a unique vantage on the music industry, having been active for three decades, having worked with both indie and major labels, having watched as the record business was forced to remake itself more than once. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen or felt since you released “Exile in Guyville,” in 1993?
There’s been a huge shift toward inclusivity, and there are many places at the table. I assume that’s because of the technology—people can create their own albums at home with just their own software. There was a gatekeeper mentality that we all had to live under in the nineties, both on radio and at labels. There was a real sense of hierarchy and a real sense that, if someone else gets it, you don’t. So you’re fighting it out to get that spot, and you’re sucking up to the people who hold power over you. You had to be conniving to truly trick the system. It was tougher and it was rougher. And it was certainly not politically correct—there were a lot of tradesies going on. Like, if I go out to dinner with you but I don’t let you make out with me, will I still get the job? That kind of bullshit was just par for the course.
Then the whole thing dropped. First, the majors got less and less adventurous—the pointy tower of gatekeepers became even steeper to climb. Then came the big acts of the two-thousands—Britney Spears, the big boy bands. That was depressing, because you’re like, Well, what am I? I’m down at the bottom of the hill. They only wanna pour money on stuff that’s gonna sell millions of copies. But, lo and behold, in this sort of less-money, less-competitive area, so many more flowers sprang up. It was almost like composting. There were these huge acts that were popular, and they were raining down shit in their wake, and we were taking those little opportunities and making the most out of our gardens.
Then, all of a sudden, Guyville turned into Girlville, and there were just women everywhere, making their own artistic statements with their music. I have yet to encapsulate it in words correctly, but there’s an authorship that these women bring, a formalized presence. It all feels thought out from start to finish, and it feels as if they were in control of that. We were in control of nothing. Now there are all these artists and musicians who are reaching out to one another, and holding on, and saying, “We’re the powerful ones, down here—we don’t need the high peak.” What has happened on the ground has been breathtaking to me, and it has made me want to work again, made me want to be out there doing it, being part of it.
In “Horror Stories,” your memoir, you write about working with a producer who I presume is Ryan Adams, though you deliberately don’t name him. You do write, “I’m afraid that, by writing this, I will lose professional opportunities.” It seems to me that women are still plagued by this sense that they’ll be punished, in one way or another, for being frank about their damaging experiences with men. Do you think that’s changing?
It’s like the ocean—I never turn my back on the ocean, and I don’t turn my back on the patriarchy. I would not get too comfortable, personally. We may be living through a wonderful time for women, but it may change again. I know for a fact that a lot of the business decisions that get made are as simple and as stupid as “I know this guy. I like this guy. Let’s work with this guy. This is my pal. This is my friend.” Or “I want this hot girl.” Decisions are still being made that way—they’re just even more private. I do not get the sense that we have, in any way, forestalled the verticality of money and power. I think it’s better—the sense that, if women don’t fight one another, we’ll help one another. And if we can connect with our fans directly that affords us some power. But I never, ever . . . I don’t think in my lifetime I will see . . . What am I trying to say?
I think you’re saying to be vigilant. And I think you’re right. We’ve certainly witnessed a kind of performance of equality, or a performance of wokeness, but who knows if that means anything.
That’s what I’m trying to say.
Both as a songwriter and on a more personal level, what’s been different about making a record in your early fifties versus your forties, thirties, or twenties? Can you see a demarcation in terms of how your writing has changed?
One thing that sucks about early-fifties writing that I can’t seem to get past is that, the older you are, the less things appear to you in black and white. The less things seem certain as good or bad. I can’t even just fully be mad at someone. Because I’m, like, “Well, they’re probably really unhappy right now.” And then I start to think about why they’re unhappy. I think I’m getting aged out of being rock, in a way. To be rock, you’ve got to go, “Fuckin’ A, this is what the fuck it is!” I don’t have a lot of that anymore. Time and experience has burnished me. I’m gentler on human beings, and I’m less sure that I know better than you. I need the songs to express the truth of my inner soul, and my soul has wisdom, and it has patience, and it has room for differing opinions and differing viewpoints. It has perspective. I miss being able to point the finger and be, like, “Fuck you!” You have to own that—you have to believe it. You can’t fake that.
You were forced, in a way, to spend so much of your early career advocating for equality for women within indie rock. I imagine it’s been sort of triumphant to watch things start to change. But are there other feelings in there, too?
It’s surprisingly triumphant. My feelings about it are surprisingly pure. I don’t have bitterness. I think I had a pretty good deal all the way. I don’t feel bitter about how I was treated, and I don’t feel too ashamed of the way I behaved. I love the new landscape. I feel very, very excited and happy. It’s the world that I’d wished we lived in then.
Featured image by Phylicia J. L. Munn for The New Yorker