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On the Record: A Conversation with Liz Phair

Sells Like Teen Spirit

Return Of the Exile

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It must be cool if she does it

By Jonathan Valania
Magnet, June/July 2003

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to point out that Liz Phair and I have a history. We used to be involved. She doesn’t know about this — in fact, we’ve never even met — but Exile In Guyville, her 1993 debut, was a plenty intimate encounter, frank and revealing in the way I’m guessing females talk to each other in the ladies’ room. I was smitten. Whip-Smart came along the next year, and things got a little stale between us. We drifed apart, and I hadn’t heard from her in four years. Word through the grapevien was she got married, had a kid. Then along came the Lilith-friendly, built-for-triple-A-radio Whitechocolatespaceegg, and I realized what different people we had both become. Another five years went by. I heard she was single again, living out in L.A. and raising her six-year-old son, Nicholas. Ten years out of Guyville, Phair is trying to pull herself out of the where-are-they-now? file with the new, slick Liz Phair (Capitol). Three producers worked on it, including Michael Penn, Pete Yorn pal R. Walt Vincent and those “edgy” Avril Lavigne confectioners known as the Matrix. The album has its moments, but for the most part, it sounds overcooked, forced and utterly insincere. Listening to it is like looking at an old prom-date photo and thinking, “I used to be involved with this person, but for the life of me, I can’t remember why.” When we chatted on the phone recently, Phair was so flirty, smart and sassy that I was soon reminded why I had gotten mixed up with her in the first place. This is a terrible thing to say, but I really hope this record falls flat, Capitol drops her and she returns to her roots as a DIY diva a la Aimee Mann. Guyville has been such a lonely place without her.

What have you been doing the last five years?

I’ve been living my life. I know it sounds so lame, but I got separated, moved to California, and being a mom and trying to get tight with my label and recording and trying to get an album that had all the elements that i wanted. Writing more songs. Just doing what I do. I didn’t feel an anvil hanging over my head.

And the next thing you know it’s five years later.

Yeah. Oops.

Can I ask how old you are now?


On “Good Love Never Dies”, you say something during the instrumental passage: “I like watching you out there. It’s comforting.” Can I ask who you were addressing?

I was actually addressing Walt (Vincent). He would always be standing at the door (in the studio) smoking. You could see it from the vocal room. I liked to have him with his back to me, just a male figure standing there smoking. Because sometimes when you’re singing, it’s a lonely place… And it’s relatively personal what you’re trying to sing about.

And this was something you just said off mic, but you decided to keep it?

Yeah. It kind of summed up the record for me. I feel like I’m trying to head off into life and I’m undergoing something that personally has been very hard for me: taking care of myself. I’ve always had a male figure in my life taking care of me. The real painful thing the last couple of years has been not having that. It’s caused me great stress, like I have trouble sleeping at night about it. But it’s also a life lesson that I needed to go through, because I hate handicaps like that. It seems weird or weak or something. Something about that line was a coming to terms with maybe being on my own, but it’s also nice to have, ’cause he had his back to me and I just saw him framed in the white light, just standing there. It’s more like you don’t have to go so far and be independent. You can be independent and still get by with a little help from your friends.

Are you prepared for the fact that someday you’re going to have to explain to your son that “H.W.C.” (a song title on Liz Phair) means “hot white cum”?

I think my philosophy on parenting is all about the day-to-day; how I interact with him, how I teach him, what I play with him. I’ve never been the kind of parent who sets up these large, sweeping doctrines about life. I don’t have big, overarching morals to throw out there. It’s more about being considerate and being kind and not lying and talking about how you feel. I’m sure he’ll be like, “Oh my god, my mom.” But I don’t think it’s going to be traumatizing — no more than adolescence is for anybody. It’s much more important that he sees a happy, healthy grown woman. If I were to change it because of my son, I think I’d feel like those North Shore cop-outs that I grew up with who just repressed their sexuality.

Did you just say “North Shore cop-outs”?

That’s what I said. Where I grew up (in Chicago), there’s a lot of very conservative people who absolutely believe you should repress certain things about human nature. And they’re probably right at some level, but I’m an artist and it’s my job to go places other people don’t.

If things had turned out differently and you weren’t Liz Phair, singer/songwriter, what do you think you might have been?

My fantasy is to be the wife of a nice-yet-wealthy man who has a house on the East Coast, and I have my own visual-artist studio in the garage or something. And we have a couple kids and he works a lot, so I have time to myself. I don’t know, is that terrible?

Seems to me like that would be very easily attainable for you. Maybe after this article comes out.

Yeah, well, help me out here.

Is there a favorite record in your collection that you wish you had made?

Are you gonna hate me?

I don’t think I could, Liz.

Exile On Main Street. I grifted that off a guy I went on a couple of dates with this fall, and I hadn’t heard it since I made [Exile In Guyville], really. It makes my soul soar. I don’t know how to explain it.

You used to say Exile In Guyville was a song-by-song response to Exile On Main Street. I was always under the impression that was just bullshit and people bought it.

Oh my god, no. I absolutely took it dead seriously. I sat around with stacks, like hundreds of pieces of paper — you have to remember, I was stoned a lot. I was a twentysomething no-job. I hung out playing guitar all day. I had all this education, I thought analytically and someone had made a dare. I think an ex-boyfriend was like, “Well, why don’t you do a double album? Why don’t you do Exile On Main Street?” And it fit perfectly with what I was pissed about at that time: that no one thought that I could do anything of any value in the musical sense. So I just thought the bigger the mountain, the more motivation I had to climb it. I still have that problem. I had little symbols, each song would be listed, and I would do the songs on Exile, the one with the little symbols next to them, there was one with a kind of asterisk, I can’t remember. That was a pop song, and then a long, wavy line meant a slow song, a cross was another kind of song, a rocker was diagonal lines sort of like on Charlie Brown’s shirt. The symbols went so far as to be both in terms of musical style and also content, like if it was a depressing song about sorrow or angst or something, there was an arrow pointing from the top-left down to the bottom-right.

So you put them all on little index cards that you kept arranging?

Yeah, I went nuts with it. I can’t tell you. We would go into the studio, and I’d be like, “You have to have this big guitar solo three-quarters of the way through because that’s what Exile On Main Street has.” And the lyrics had to be an answer or my equivalent. It had to either be putting him in his place, like if he was talking about walking down the street, and he’s talking about he’s mister footloose and fancy free, doesn’t meet anybody who gives a damn. I had to write a song about how much pain you could cause someone with that kind of attitude. Or I’d write my own song about walking down the street, being footloose and fancy free and not giving a damn. It either had to be the equivalent from a female point of view or it had to be an answer kind of admonishment, to let me tell you my side of the story. No wonder it’s such a good album — I put so much into it and uninterrupted attention, it was like a doctoral thesis.

I’m sorry I ever questioned your intentions.

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