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Phair Fires Back

Exile in Whinerville

Don’t Tread on Liz

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Liz on Avril, the Matrix, and her critics

By Colin Devenish
Rolling Stone, July 17, 2003

Liz Phair’s self-titled fourth album ignited a critical firestorm when it was released last month. Appalled at the notion of their indie-rock darling trading in the album’s original producer Michael Penn for the Avril-spawning Matrix team, critics slammed the record. The New York Times went as far as accusing Phair of “career suicide.”

Phair responded by firing off a mocking letter to the paper, but then she also began offering the anti-Matrix faithful a free, stripped-down five-song EP online.

Is Liz Phair trying to have it all ways? Of course.

Are you surprised by how much this record upset some people?

I think I feel bad for them because I wanted them to like it. I wanted them to have enough flexibility to say, “Well it’s not what I expected, she’s never going to make Guyville again but the tunes are kind of catchy and I can enjoy them.” I didn’t intend to hurt anyone, and I wasn’t trying to make anyone upset or let them down. I just made a record that I really like, and I worked pretty hard on it. I’m the kind of person that likes all sorts of music — I just want to hear really good music and I don’t care what it is. I assumed, I guess too much, that other people feel that way. Music is art and can be enjoyed at many levels for different reasons, but I think for a lot of people it was like I was in office and had an affair. There was a sense that a scandal had happened.

I read your response to the Times review. You were heckling the writer for reporting on a tempest in a teacup.

That’s exactly what I was trying to do. If she’d actually known me or researched better what’s going on, I don’t think she would have said some of the things she said. I think she got the record, was a big fan of Guyville, and I don’t think she really knew Whipsmart or Whitechocolatespaceegg especially well.

With “H.W.C.” (Hot White Cum), it seems like you know that people aren’t going to be able to deal with this title, the song or the subject matter, and that that’s what’s good about it.

It kind of is that. I didn’t write that for that reason. I wrote it completely sincerely like I do pretty much everything, and I really thought it had a catchy tune and I just liked it. Every time I played it for people, generally speaking, grown men had a lot of problems with it. And I kept looking at their reactions and for years I’d be like, “OK, OK, we won’t do it.” And then finally I started to think, “What the hell? My girlfriends love it.” Younger guys were like, “Yeah, do it, if you can get away with it.” And these older guys would be so uncomfortable, so I thought, “Oh yes, this is going on the record.” I’m not talking about murdering anyone — I’m talking about being in love and having great sex.

At what point did you realize you wanted to work with someone besides Michael Penn?

I just could tell that he tended to like my more serious stuff and he wouldn’t let me make a fool of myself, and I really needed to make a little bit of a fool of myself. He’s very intelligent and he really is one of those people who can discern and appreciate the subtle emotions in lyrics and sound quality and stuff like that. I’m sloppier — I paint with a bigger brush. I have moments of great insight, but I also have moments of just giddy energy or just inappropriate anger, so I was looking for more spontaneous stuff.

What made you choose the Matrix?

What they did with Avril was enough to get my attention, and even my envy. Like, “God, I really like that ‘Complicated’ song. How come I don’t ever get to make songs that are blasted out of cars?” That’s one of the things I’ve always done my whole life is drive fast and play music loud. I’m kind of a rube that way. What I love about music in general is that feeling that makes you stamp through the sunroof — I’ve done that before when my boyfriend’s driving. That’s exactly what it is to me, that feeling when something like Steve Miller comes on and your butt is going and you’re like “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” It’s your song, and it’s extremely exciting.

What did the Matrix bring out in you?

A lot of what they brought out of me was musical and vocal. Lauren, because she can sing wonderfully, she would push the melodies into these places that I would have been afraid to do. It’s like fireworks or driving a really fast Porsche. It’s top-of-the-line song structure, and it was really exciting to graft my DNA with theirs and to see what we came up with. And I understand if people out there are super, super hungry for my particular breed of songwriting. They may feel like, “How can you give four songs on this record to somebody else?” And I’m beginning to understand that they were waiting for this pure nugget. All I can say was my plan all along was to release different music all year long in different forms and different ways.

How would a song like “Extraordinary” sound if you had been left to your own devices?

I wouldn’t have written that song. There would have been no “Extraordinary.” It would have been some other stuff. I get sick of myself too. I hear my songs all the time. It’s exciting to do different things and reinvigorate my enjoyment of what I do.

I was talking to Michael Penn about your choice to work with the Matrix and he said it was “very Liz” — that you kind of look at it like performance art.

That’s exactly it. I think I make records for different reasons than people think I make records, but he’s absolutely right. I have a real life I take very seriously, but it has nothing to do with the music I make. I came up from a visual arts background, and music was just something I did for my own pleasure. It is like performance art. Everything I do, the press machine, the promotional stuff, going to radio doing all this stuff, to me, they’re all moments where you go out and get your rock on. I’m not like other people I know who literally bleed music.

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