By Charlotte Robinson
Venus, Summer 2003
From the time she burst onto the radar with her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair was a target for sensationalism and controversy. While her sexually frank lyrics raised eyebrows and her fusion of singer-songwriter sensibilities with lo-fi production earned her critical acclaim, her sudden fame prompted a legendary backlash in her hometown of Chicago. Meanwhile, the well-off adopted daughter of a prominent Winnetka, Illinois, family found herself pigeonholed as the potty-mouthed poster girl of a new generation of angry young women. Overwhelmed by the attention, Phair did little to promote her second album, 1994’s Whip-Smart, then took four years off, during which she married and had a son, before releasing whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998.
Now divorced and living in Los Angeles, Phair is coming back in a big way with a self-titled album, her first in five years and the first for a major label (Capitol). True to form, Liz Phair has already become the subject of controversy in the music press — but this time, it’s because Phair has recorded the slickest, most radio-friendly album of her career. Producers include Pete Yorn, Michael Penn, and The Matrix, the team responsible for teenybopper Avril Lavigne’s hits. As Phair tells it, though, her motives are not purely financial. She wants to gain a larger audience to make her voice heard and hopes to use the career momentum to further her other artistic endeavors, like selling her short stories, “and express myself in more ways than just what sells on a radio station or MTV.” A single mother, writer, recording artist, and actress (she appeared in the 2002 indie flick Cherish and hopes to, like Lyle Lovett, “show up in really cool movies and just be kind of quirky and just have a couple of lines”), Phair has been keeping busy despite her extended absence from the spotlight. In a phone call from the West Coast, Phair discussed Chicago’s early ’90s music scene, the impossibility of pleasing music critics, and her desire to hear more female voices in our culture.
How did your interest in music develop between taking piano lessons as a child and getting into indie music at Oberlin College?
It was always something that I enjoyed doing because I was artistic that way; I loved the medium of songwriting. Basically I started writing songs because I didn’t want to practice my pieces for my piano lessons [laughs]. I started this lifelong trend where I’ll take one song and kind of hum it into another because I’d start practicing that one song so my mother would hear me in the other room, then I’d sort of diverge, [laughs] go off and create my own thing. Then in college I had this little thing called Girlysound that I did — I’d take other songs and kind of bastardize them. I think a lot of my college experience was musical because it’s such a renowed conservatory attached to the liberal arts side. There were just bands everywhere. I can’t even believe it now, but there were like four or five bands playing every campus party. It was just everywhere.
You actually studied art at Oberlin, and when you came back to Chicago you were selling charcoal drawings and living in Wicker Park and that’s when you were sending out the Girlysound tapes to people. What were those days like just before you got signed to Matador?
Well, actually it’s a little chronologically confused because right after school I went to San Francisco and started doing the Girlysound stuff and when I got home I recorded it all and sent it. So I was living at home then, I was out of money, I hadn’t moved down to Wicker Park yet. It was through these Girlysound tapes that some guy I met who had gotten a copy offered to let me share his apartment and pay half the rent. That’s how I moved down to Wicker Park and he was going to make me a big star [laughs]. I’ve got to laugh about it now, it’s so funny. He actually introduced me to everyone in the whole Rainbo/Wicker Park scene. He introduced me to Brad Wood and I started working with Brad.
That guy was from Feel Good All Over?
Yeah, John Henderson. That was just a little segue-way, but I guess the Girlysound stuff had already reached the ears of Matador or had come close to it so that by the time Hendy and I had a really big fight and I didn’t want to live there anymore, I went to Brad and was like “Let’s record the record anyway,” and I was like “Who should I call? Who’s the best indie label?” and he was like “Call Matador,” so I did and they had heard of me, so they were like, “Here you go, here’s 10,000 bucks to make a record.”
Once Exile in Guyville came out, it got a huge amount of attention for a debut album, and there was a lot of backlash in the Chicago music community. What was it like living under that kind of pressure?
I just got out. But can I tell you something funny? I just interviewed with a guy for Billboard right before this one who’s a Chicago music critic — the same old Chicago-seriously-hardcore-music-critic-type person. The hilarious part now to me, the irony is they’re now upset about the new record and want me to be like the old record but it’s the same people who at the time were upset about the old record and hated me for making that record and hated me for getting the attention for that record and now that record is to them the touchstone of the good old days and they’re mad at me for making the new record. I’m like, [laughs] do you realize, do you see the pattern? It’s funny. Do you know what I mean? Because they were pissed. Everyone was pissed. I remember getting practically — I don’t know what you’d call it — gang-banged at a bar one night. Everyone just ganged up on me at the Rainbo because of some snafu with Spin because they had [Chicago Reader critic Peter] Maargasak do my… I don’t know why they do this, but it’s the bane of my existence, I swear, they pick people who don’t like you already and then use them to review you for the national magazines.
The funny part about Chicago is I do not get what everyone’s so pissed about. I really don’t. I don’t understand why Chicago has to have this air of sort of indie snobbery or something. I don’t get it. It’s a problem, especially now that I look at it from this perspective, that they were furious about that record and now they’re furious that I can’t remake that record. It’s like, what do you want exactly? Because that didn’t work then, and this doesn’t work now, and you can’t please them, really — unless you’re Wilco.
Do you think that kind of backlash and getting all that attention at a young age has had an effect on decisions you’ve made subsequently?
Well, it definitely made me not like the music industry very much. It definitely gave me this feeling of “Well, why would I want to participate in my career?” Because with Whip-Smart, I didn’t tour for that. In the art world, which is really where I came from, you were critiqued and criticized, but it wasn’t this kind of mob mentality. It was different. You were criticized and you went on and you were still a part of the group no matter what you were doing.
There was something weird about that period, the effect it had on me. I remember thinking about the times around Guyville as being a period in my life. I certainly didn’t enjoy it. I was too thin and I smoked too much pot, I was generally alienated from the people I grew up with, I was kind of cowering in my room at home or going out at night, I wasn’t in my best frame of mind. I kind of look back at my indie days in Chicago as a problem. I hate to do this, but it was unhappy for me and I couldn’t be an artist in Chicago. I kind of feel like they should do something about it. Or maybe not. Maybe they like being the way they are, and that’s fine and that’s great. But I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people flocking to stay in Chicago who are artists. That’s always been the classic thing about it — all the artists who are successful leave, but there’s a reason. Because if you’re berated for trying to spread your wings, that’s not a good thing.
Since whitechocolatespaceegg you’ve been through a divorce and moved to Los Angeles. What else have you been doing in the past five years?
A lot of it was just trying to get a name back in the business, trying to get a good rapport with the people I was going to be working with, trying to understand what the business is itself so that I don’t feel so much like a pawn, try to get the best music I can get. I’ve been writing a lot. I wrote the whole time. Truthfully, just being a mother — especially a divorced one — can take up a hell of a lot of your time. You can’t imagine how much stuff there is to do for his school, which I am woefully inadequate in doing. I’ve been really pretty damn busy; it’s just that because of the change in executives at the top of Capitol — I went through three different people with the last record — it’s been weird. And there was a period when I wasn’t doing anything because we were trying to get off of the label and that didn’t work, so that was sort of a waste of six months. Then we just went on and recorded more. And then I recorded with Michael [Penn], then after that was finished I felt like I was still looking for something different. And then we recorded with The Matrix and then came pulling all the different things. I was really given free rein to make the album whatever I wanted it to be. So I went back and just picked all my favorite moments from the last five years of recording, like all the songs I thought really came together and kind of got me off, so to speak, that I felt were what I wanted. A lot of those were demos, actually, so we had to go back and rerecord a vocal on them because they were demos. Demos you record really loosely, but that’s why I like them as opposed to the more polished stuff. I liked having stuff that had some wild animation to it.
You’re talking about stuff being less polished, but this album sounds more polished than any of the ones you’ve done in the past.
No, I mean compared to The Matrix stuff. I meant having stuff on the record like “Love/Hate”, “Firewalker”, “Same Old Guy”, “Hot White Cum”, and “Good Love Never Dies”. They probably do sound to you way more polished than the other stuff, but that’s just the nature of many years of recording. It just happens that way. I don’t know how to explain it. Working with larger groups of people, feeling like I’m able to still stay on top — I used to talk about that all the time, especially with the live show, I couldn’t have a band that I couldn’t surmount because it would feel like I was getting run over by a train. But the longer I’ve been in the business the more comfortable I am saying what I like and I don’t like and directing a bunch of people. So I feel more comfortable working with bigger ensembles and still feeling I’m getting out of it what I like, so it doesn’t sound like their music, it sounds more like what I like. The earlier stuff, we were new to it, or I was. I couldn’t wrangler that many things. Brad certainly added a lot of the sophisticated touches, but we were partners. If I didn’t like it, we didn’t do it. That’s still the truth for me.
So you feel like this album sounds different not because you decided to go in a different direction so much as you’ve always wanted to make an album that sounded like this and now you have the ability?
That’s close. I think I’m less conscious of it. I’m a process kind of person, and in my world — which you can grade as more or less successful in the product that it produces — I seek out challenges, that’s what I get off on. I like challenges. I like going where I’m afraid to go and see not only if I can survive it but do well in that situation. I do it all the time, like in sports, or in hiking, or in diving, or whatever. And I take that attitude to music as well, and not so much to songwriting, because I really still write the same way, just on my guitar by myself, other than the collaborations. It’s just a feature of, if I’m afraid of something I tend to head toward it and try to master it a little bit, or try to do well in it. Working with lots of people and the live show was something I was afraid of and collaborating was something I was afraid of, and as I got older I felt more able to do it. I just naturally gravitate toward things that threaten me and try to conquer the fear. And I find it thrilling, because then I enjoy it. That’s sort of how I arrive where I arrive.
What was it you feared about working with more people in the past?
That my voice would be taken away from me. It all goes back to being a little girl at the dinner table and having things to say and not feeling like I could say them, not feeling called upon in class, being afraid to speak out. It’s a fine line — you could easily squash me if you wanted to. You’ve just got to go above the level of my comfort or my expertise at any given point. But [this time] I felt comfortable in bigger circumstances. As much as The Matrix stuff may be shocking to people that still listen to Guyville, it’s been 10 years since I made that, and I’m 36 and a mom and I’ve been in the business a long time and stuff that we did together — like “Extraordinary” especially — it’s so me. It’s really very me. It’s like a way of saying — to a booming backdrop [laughs] — a way of saying somethign I needed to say. It was really fun for me to do that. It was really fun for me to collaborate and feel like my voice was still what was coming through.
Do you think your past records did express your voice, but it was just your voice at that point in your life? Or do you have any regrets about the way those were recorded?
No, I love the way they’re recorded. I love the way they are. There’s no ideal that I’m striving for. I mean, I’m just kind of following my intuition, so to speak. When I look back on this record probably in 10 years, I’ll really, really be able to call back up the whole time period when I was really hustling and bustling, that period of your 30s when you’re doing your career. I’ll probably be able to call that up really clearly and that’s what I feel when I listen to the old stuff. Even when I listen to Girlysound, there’s good songs and bad songs; Guyville is pretty good, there’s not that many songs on there that I’m like “Ouch,” but certainly the singing kills me. I can barely listen to it sometimes; I’m like “Uh, God.” That may be what other people love about it, but I don’t love that I can’t sing. What I hear in my voice on Guyville is fear of actually letting the noise come out of my throat for fear it’s goign to sound bad. It’s kind of constrained. So I hear that and as much as I love the records, I have things to say about them. They’re all kind of like diares; they’re like where I was then. They’re like picture books.
Your voice sounds so much better even since whitechocolatespaceegg. Did you take voice lessons or spend time practicing?
If I tell you, you’ve got to try to believe me. It’s about getting over a fear of singing. Do you know that feeling when you’re in front of people, and maybe at home you can sing really well, and then you’re called upon to sing in front of people, or even speak, maybe you have to read your writing in front of… I don’t know if you ever have to do something like that, like read a piece out loud in front of people, and suddenly you close down and you’re like “Nnaarrrrarr” and you’re frustrated because you can’t produce that unselfconsciousness? Other than the fact that I don’t smoke and drink much anymore — just because I’m a mom I can’t, like I’d love to, but there’s not that many times in the day when I could be messed up [laughs]. You have to be ready and available in case anything should happen. You can’t really check out anymore. But I’ve spent my silver years, in my 30s, kind of trying to… that’s part of why I act, is to get over… you know, let people look, let people hear, and just try to kind of respect a performance.
I want to get back to talking about the new album. The song “Little Digger” is the only one that seems to deal with your divorce and the most personal song on the album. Most of the new songs don’t have that confessional tone that your past records had. Have you abandoned that kind of songwriting or was it something you consciously decided not to go into on this album?
Do you mean like the quirkiness of my personal day-to-day inner existence kind of thing? Is that what you mean?
I suppose it’s not possible to tell how much of it was really you and how much of it was your singing as a character…
That’s what I think the danger is. When I first made [Guyville], my manager, the last time I said this in press, I was nearly slaughtered by everyone around me, like “You’re fucking up, don’t ever say that in press again ever!” but I’ve always been a character writer. And a lot of this stuff that people took as the blurting of someone who didn’t know better was totally conscious and it wasn’t just the blurting of someone who didn’t know better. I’m not going to say which songs but there are songs that people take as absolute fact that bear no reality, bear no connection to… you know, I lost my virginity at 19, well 18, but almost 19. People just think that I say stuff and I can’t create and I felt very underappreciated, which I shouldn’t obviously, I got a lot of acclaim, but I felt like no one got that I could completely create, that I was a fiction writer. That was why it was so hard for my family, because everyone took it as basically a chronicling of my youth, like someone who doesn’t know better, like an idiot savant. But I was always trained in the arts. I knew a lot about how to create something.
I think it’s natural, like the confessional stuff, it’s hard for me where I am in my life right now, because when you’re younger, you have a lot more time to go. If you want me to write about washing the dishes, I could, or the laundry, or going to school conferences, or driving an hour in traffic, I could. There was a friend of mine who said maybe I could be the American Beauty of rock music, maybe that’s what I could paint as a portrait. The trouble with getting older is your life is not an adventure as much as it is a series of responsibilites. And I cannot escape that fact and like myself. I fucking hate it. I fucking hate adulthood like everybody else does. It’s a bitch. And someone’s got to be this age and push the world along, because we just have to, and if I didn’t do it I think I’d feel like a loser compared to my friends who are kind of having to do it, so that’s why I do it, but that’s not necessarily what I want to put into a song. And as much as maybe “Friend of Mine” doesn’t sound confessional to you, that song rips me up, and “Red Light Fever”, everyone who knows me knows who that’s about. It’s more confessional than you may think, it just may not have the hallmarks of the Elliott Smith style, but for my age and my life, I’m definitely mindful and attempting to be as… I don’t know, I think “confessional” implies vulnerability and the vulnerability may not be as apparent on this record. Is that a better way to put it? It’s a good question. It’s a good thing to think about.
I think some of the songs I wrote that were more vulnerable just weren’t very good songs. That can happen, too. A lot of the stuff that I wrote, I’m thinking of a couple of good songs right now, thaere are a bunch of songs that didn’t make the record that will come out on the Web site or will come out in some other form. We’re still kind of arguing about what that form will take because I don’t feel like giving away a bunch more songs for no extra money. It’s frustrating, the way the system is. It’s like anything I do just goes back in the pot, so it’s a little frustrating — I kind of don’t know what to do with that. But I do feel the need to put out some of the smaller, more intimate songs.
It’s interesting that you were talking about the perception that these songs were about you rather than you making a conscious effort to write about a character, because I hear that a lot about hip-hop artists. There’s this perception that they’re just singing about their lives. If Ice-T sings “Cop Killer” that means he wants to kill cops because he couldn’t possibly be enough of an artist to put on a mask and be this character. The stereotypical perception is that creating a character is white male territory. It’s a racist idea, that a hip-hop artist wouldn’t be creating a character.
I’m totally down with that. I absolutely feel that it says more about the people perceiving it that way than it does about the people creating it. It says more about how a young woman is looked at in our culture, especially then, in the early ’90s, them being incapable of that kind of tongue in cheek or that kind of many-leveled play. Where I went to school there were brilliant young women — and men. We accepted the fact that we were all capable, however successful — I’m not saying it was always great — but you’re capable, you’re very sophisticated, more so tha you would think. I think it’s true. When you think about Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or something, I think we all like to believe — and I want you to believe — it’s really me talking. But I think if you say those two names, everyone could imagine that. It’s frustrating that women like PJ Harvey or other women who write stuff are not considered cut from the same cloth. It’s totally sexist, I think.
It’s interesting you mention Polly Jean Harvey because Rid of Me came around the same time as Exile, and it seemed like the two of you opened a lot of doors for female artists in the early ’90s. In a lot of instances, lesser artists have come along and reaped some of the benefits from the doors that you knocked down. Do you feel that way and are you trying to reclaim a little of the due you didn’t get at the time?
I’m not really, I’m so not. My many motivating factors, some of which are questionable, but they’re not those — all I want in this world — no, that’s not true, not all I want — but one of the main things is for the female voice to be just as important and ubiquitous as that of the male. That’s just what I want. I just want women’s experiences and their artistic productions and everything to be just as valuable and worthy of scrutiny as men’s. That can be good women, bad women, stupid women, smart women — I just want it to be an even playing field because we’re all having a life experience right now. Historically that paucity of art from the female perspective, it leaves me with no real history. It frustrates me. I just want that to change. I just want, when people look back at the early 21st century, that they’re drawing from both sexes’ experiences without thinking about it and they can pick and choose what they think is good and what they think is bad.
So many times you look at Greek poets, or Syrian female poets, or whatever they are, and they weren’t all putting out phenomenal stuff. Like I just read The Bondwoman’s Narrative, that Hannah Crafts novel. It was a freed slave woman and she wrote a novel. And it’s not genius but it’s so illuminating and it’s so important for me as a woman to read that. I just gulp it down and I think there just should be more output of all different kinds coming from women so we can pick and choose without having to think, “Well, we need to have three female perspectives.” So I really don’t care and the reason I tried to make my album appealing to more people than just indie was because I want to be consequential. I want to be in this environment that the record business is in right now. I want to be an active member and I want people to have to sit up and take notice. I don’t want to be tossed aside again as some phenomenon of the early ’90s. I want to be a lifelong artist. It just so happens right now that to do that, in my circumstances, I had to kick up a little shit storm. I just had to, otherwise I would have just… I don’t know where I would have landed. I personally can’t live with that. I’m trying to kick down another door.
That’s something that Courtney Love brings up a lot, on the one hand the idea that the indie community can be a supportive place for women artists, but why don’t you want to reach a larger audience? Why should women be ghettoized into an indie scene?
Because you’re not allowed to be Limp Bizkit if you go mainstream. If you’re female, you can’t be nasty. You can’t be whatever you want to be. You’re facing a much tougher wind that will pare you down to something more acceptable. You’re forced into tinier slots, I think. And I’m trying to still make it through a slot with most of myself intact. But a lot of people don’t choose to do that because they don’t want to feel that wind. It’s not a pleasant wind. It’s not something that it’s fun to go against, that kind of friction. I think a lot of women want essentially what I want, which is to express themselves. So if you stay indie you can do that in whatever way you choose — I mean, I would argue, having been in indie, that’s not necessarily true either. It’s not really this utopia, at least it wasn’t when I was there, and what I see of it now, God. Trampoline’s like all male [laughs]. Other than Peaches, I haven’t heard anything really striking. There’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but whatever comes into my zone is usually male, even if it is indie. It’s still the same old story and let’s be honest, for the next however many hundred years it’s probably going to be more or less the same old story. Things aren’t going to change that rapidly. But I think everyone does it their own way and I respect anyone if they’re just making an effort to express themselves, male or female.