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Liz Phair Interview

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Provocative songwriter gets grounded, but still rocks

By Rob O’Connor
The Sunday Paper, October 9, 2005

Liz Phair has written provocatively about her sex life, hooked up with trendy producers and posed suggestively on magazine covers galore. She’s taken flack for being too hip, too commercial, too forthright, too遥ou name it. Her fifth album, Somebody’s Miracle, is another solid collection of thoughtful pop songs enhanced by wide-screen guitars and bright, shiny production, one she claims began as a song-by-song response to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (much as 1993’s Exile in Guyville claimed to be a response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.) Edging toward 40, divorced and a single mom, Phair is less and less likely to become the pop star her record company envisions. The Sunday Paper chatted with her about her writing process, her state of mind and getting kicked out of the music industry.

Q So, when will you be doing a song-by-song response to Motorhead’s Orgasmatron?
A I’m getting right on that, thank you.

Do you actually write with such concepts in mind?
Not always. It’s a process I really enjoy. I obviously didn’t fulfill my intent, but I still feel like I came away with some benefits from having immersed myself in Songs of the Key of Life. I feel it centered my songwriting a little bit.

What does it do to the process? What changes?
I started in September looking at [Key of Life] and really getting into it and I started to find how deep and powerful it was and realized that I’d really stumbled on something. Obviously I knew a bunch of the songs off the record but I didn’t realize what a piece it was. I just started to write about it, taking notes and started to think about it. It’s a very exciting process for me, discovering another record. And I think in the end whether it had a significant impact on this record is kind of beside the point. Just as a creative exercise to get that deeply into someone else’s work is just very enriching.

How does it change your songwriting? Musically or lyrically?
I tried to change it musically and then I just realized I’m not that funky. It was not going to go anywhere. So instead of imitate, I just try to bring out parts of myself. Like I’ve always had a country bent, but no one really knew that because [her previous record label] Matador was keenly interested in my not expressing that. I think I let myself get a little country on this record.

What has your life been like for the past few years?
It’s been more grounded, more stable than the previous couple of years, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got my feet on the ground and my head screwed on right for the most part, and that shows. I’m sort of able to explore the bigger issues about life rather than the immediate things that are coming into my little universe.

So if songwriting is a cathartic experience and you’re more grounded these days, does that mean the songs are tougher to come by?
No, they’re different kinds of songs. I write 50 million songs that don’t really say that much. It’s hard to get the ones that have a clear, impactful meaning. It’s like your dreams. You remember them but they’re kind of boring. But every once in awhile you have a dream that’s impactful, that you want to tell everyone. That’s the one you keep.

So, the goal of this record is to not become too wildly popular?
I’d like to keep getting farther along. I’d like to make enough of a jump that I don’t get kicked out of the industry and not so much of a jump that my life totally changes. I’d like to keep growing and not diminishing.

Do you think you’ll get kicked out the industry?
I think people get kicked out of the industry all the time. I’ve got a child, so I don’t really want hard times. It’s a lot to ask of the industry to just give me a nice steady growth trajectory.

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