By Aidin Vaziri
San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 2005
Liz Phair, a singer-songwriter still best known for her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, a feisty song-for-song retort to the 1972 Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street, is up to her old tricks. On her latest, Somebody’s Miracle, she takes aim at Stevie Wonder’s 1976 release, Songs in the Key of Life. Well, kind of. She tells us that was the original intent, but there was a change of plans. Either way, it’s an improvement on the Matrix-produced pop on her self-titled 2003 album. Phair returns to San Francisco for a show at the Fillmore on Nov. 8.
Q: This sounds like your big relationship album.
A: I think it is. It ‘s about my own relationship, just being in one. The last record was about being single. This one is about trying to grapple with love and how it can hurt and how it can last.
Q: Was this album really meant to be a song-by-song response to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life?
A: Yeah, but I never got to finish it. It would have taken me at least another year.
Q: I never understood how Exile in Guyville was supposed to be an answer to “Exile on Main Street.”
A: It really, really was.
Q: How do you respond to another album?
A: It’s really simple. I was using Exile as both how to structurally make a record and also using Mick’s lyrics to stand in for the guy I was involved with at the time. Whatever he said, I would do a song that refuted what he was talking about. It was like a conversation with that record.
Q: Give me an example.
A: “6’1″” was a response to “I hear you talking when I’m on the street / Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak” (from “Rocks Off”). Mick is basically running into a girl that he had a relationship with on the street and he’s on his way home from being with someone else, so I put myself in the position of being the girl he runs into. I wrote the song like, “You fucking dick, you fall in bed too easily.” So it’s like a conversation. It’s really fun to do.
Q: But how could you be mad at Stevie Wonder?
A: I so could have done it but it would take a Herculean effort on my part.
Q: Did any of the songs make it?
A: Yeah. My response to “Village Ghetto Land” is “Table for One”, which wasn’t the same thing but that was the heartbreaker on Stevie’s album and in that song there’s such an impressive contrast between the lyrics and courtly chord progression. I was trying to think what was the most devastating thing I experienced in my life, which was the alcoholism that ran in my family. That’s how I do it. It can be anything, my point of view.
Q: Maybe if you didn’t pick double albums to respond to, you would have actually finished it.
A: That’s the truth because once I got into it, I had a good eight to 10 responses and then I just didn’t have the rest. I choked on “Isn’t She Lovely”. For that record, you would want to have big soul-originating songs, and it was too big. But I tried to take with me that sense of trying to share experiences that were not necessarily flattering but still make a hopeful record. I took the ethos and applied it to my own work.
Q: Next time try responding to the Strokes. Their albums are only like 15 minutes long.
A: You know, that’s not a bad idea.
Featured Image: Liz Phair in 2003 (Photo: Phil Poynter)