By Duncan Clark
Dose, November 8, 2005
When Liz Phair joined forces with Avril Lavigne producers The Matrix for her self-titled fourth record in 2003, legions of fans cried out in pain and confusion. This wasn’t the same Phair they’d always loved, right? This was polished pop songwriting that, at least on the surface, seemed stripped of the intimacy and self-awareness that drew her fans close and made Exile in Guyville and its successors so distinctive.
But, as Phair points out, there were only four songs on Liz Phair that were co-written — and three on Somebody’s Miracle, Phair’s new record. And fans seem far more comfortable with the 2005 CD.
“I think the overall effect feels different because I had more to do with the co-writing this time around,” she says. Songwriting is a very personal thing to Phair, 38, but explaining how she does it isn’t so simple.
“Had I the answers … I would have written the book, and you’d be interviewing me for the genius book I wrote. I don’t even share my songs with anyone until they’re done.”
What changes when you co-write a song instead of writing solo?
When I write with someone else, I never stress about control. I feel very satisfied with my own songwriting and then, when I go in to work with someone else, I tend to think less in terms of “what can I get for me out of this,” but, “what can we do together best to make a song be born.” I go in fairly egoless, just looking to see what we can create.
What’s your process when you’re working with another songwriter?
Usually they’ll have a melody in mind, some chords and vocal melody, or they’ll just play some chords and I’ll start singing along to the chords and coming up with a melody. Then, you get down to what sounds like a chorus, what sounds like a verse, and then you write the words into those things. The real hard part comes when you figure out what the song is about, it takes on some definition, and then you have to go back into all the parts and make everything aim towards that message.
How does writing solo compare to collaborating?
It’s such a different experience to write with someone else. I prefer writing on my own, because it’s more rewarding start-to-finish. But sometimes it can also be harder to break out of ruts on your own. They both have advantages.
Do you take a little something from everyone who you write with?
No. I don’t, and that’s why I enjoy doing it. I’m stuck in my own little personal world over here with songwriting. I always write in the same way — it’s really fun for me, so I don’t worry about it. I was a completely autonomous little songwriter. Nobody had any influence and they still don’t — I’m like self-sufficient little machine — it’s like therapy for me.
You do sing to yourself a lot.
Yeah, I do.
Do you find you understand yourself better once you put your life into a song instead of just going over things in your head?
Yes — it finishes the debate in a way. You can learn a lot about yourself when you put it down into song form. To materialize all those fears and thoughts and hopes and dreams, it gives you something objective to look at, to mull over. You can pull it out of your head, put it in your hand and then look at it.
Where do you write your best songs?
I always write when I’m by myself, usually in my house or in the back of the bus, or maybe at my parents’ house. I have to be alone to write.
At Lollapalooza in Chicago this summer, you trotted out a collapsable guitar that you said was a good tool to help you write anywhere.
I’ve been sitting in airports sometimes when a flight’s delayed playing on that. Usually I use someone else’s cellphone to call my cellphone and sing the melody into it. I’m always checking messages for things that I need, and then I’ll go to saved messages and hear my song and think, “Oh yeah, that one. God, I gotta do something about that one.”
What song came first for Somebody’s Miracle?
I don’t know. You know what, I’m so not organized. It’s all an organic mess in here. … I’d have a different profession, I think, if I were organized. It’s just a big, nebulous mush. And out of that mush emerges pattern and form, and it grows differently than people expect. People think there’s a formula or process, or something you can rely on. For me, at least, it’s more organic than that. I throw a bunch of seeds in the ground — some grow, some grow faster, some grow bigger, some are tomato plants, some are marigolds and then I pick the best one. And then I’ll say, “Oh, looks to me like this season was all about orange.”
Liz Phair’s creative output extends past songwriting. “I write stories, I write my dreams, and I read a lot of books. I’m a kind of writerly person.” And while she doesn’t keep a blog, her newest outlet is a three-month-old podcast called Uplands, available at lizphair.com.
“I love it, it’s my favourite thing right now,” she says. Following an 11-minute debut episode featuring two live tracks and a chat with tour-mate Cary Brothers, Phair’s sprinkled some of her own short fiction into episodes two and three. She’s aiming to put up a new podcast every Friday.
“This is my avenue for complete, free expression. I just love the fact that I’m just making something.”
“I just love how it’s open-ended. Who knows what the hell it’s going to be every week.”
To subscribe to Uplands, copy http://lizphair.com/podcast.xml into your podcast software, or download the MP3s at lizphair.com.