By Chris Mugno
StarPolish, July 9, 2003
Long a favorite of the underground indie rock scene (thanks to the circulation of her three Girlysound tapes), Liz Phair was catapulted into national exposure following the release of her stunningly self-assured, ground-breaking 1993 album for Matador, Exile in Guyville — a musical exegesis about the male-dominated indie music scene. That record was easily one of the most accomplished and successful albums issued by any artist in any genre during that year. It helped Phair gain both critical acclaim from her peers and the press, as well as a cult-like devotion from her growing legion of fans.
Phair followed up Exile with Whip-Smart, also recorded for Matador, just a year later, then waited four years before releasing Whitechocolatespacegg, also for Matador, in 1998. In the process, Phair established herself in the business not only as a dedicated artist, but as a iconic reference for other female artists looking to make records, remain honest and establish themselves in their music careers.
With her new Capitol album now in stores, the simply titled Liz Phair, StarPolish contributor Chris Mugno spoke with Phair about what she’s been up to, the new album, and her original and unique way of saying things.
STARPOLISH: I know that your album comes out on June 24th, so I wanted to start off by saying congratulations on the completion of the record.
PHAIR: Thank you.
STARPOLISH: When you went into the studio this time, did you do anything different than when you recorded albums in the past?
PHAIR: Not really (laughs). That’s the funny part. The songs came out a lot differently just because of who I was working with, but I am always the same type of being in the studio.
STARPOLISH: So you don’t take a different approach each time?
PHAIR: No. That is misleading. I just take it the same way that I take people, which is one-on-one. I just work out some kind of relationship with whomever I am working with. It’s the same as if I was speaking with you on this interview, or I am meeting someone like a producer. I just work out a relationship with them and we try to figure out between the two of us how we can get the best thing out of what the both of us know how to do. So that is my process. I am not technically minded.
STARPOLISH: Who produced this album?
PHAIR: A bunch of different people. Michael Penn did a bunch. Walt Vincent, Pete Yorn’s producer, did a bunch. I did a bunch with my touring band, and it says that I produced it, but really we are just recording together.
STARPOLISH: In what ways does the new album represent you in a different manner than your past albums?
PHAIR: I don’t know. That’s a hard question for me. I don’t really have a strong sense. I don’t take in my mind with me the “Liz Phair, The Artist” wherever I go. I am inside myself. I have the same process recording and writing, and I try to do my best in any given situation. I don’t have that self-overview. I think a lot of people feel [that], because I collaborated with a more commercially successful group, The Matrix, that it really affected the sound. But if I just put out this stuff with Michael Penn, people would have said that as well. I just think it’s a feature of me being gone for so many years and of my willingness to explore beyond a musical style or genre.
STARPOLISH: How long have you been playing music?
PHAIR: Oh God, since I was five or six probably.
STARPOLISH: Always playing guitar?
PHAIR: No, piano lessons. In the beginning it was just lessons. I didn’t like to practice so I would pretend to be playing a piece while making up variations on the piece. Then guitar lessons started about seventh or eighth grade, and I did that for a while. I just had a lot of music in my life. My parents listened to a lot of music. God knows summer camp was full of it.
STARPOLISH: I know that I am going to beat a dead horse with this, but I really want to get into the lyrical aspect of the way you write.
PHAIR: No. . . that’s good. That’s a new horse (laughs). “Why did it take you five years to put out the new record,” that’s the dead horse. That horse is so dead.
STARPOLISH: Well, I won’t touch upon that.
PHAIR: Good (laughs).
STARPOLISH: Everyone needs a break — to move at their own rate. If it takes you five years, then you feel comfortable after five years; there’s nothing more to it. What I want to know is why [you think] people have such a problem with the honesty and bluntness in your lyrics?
PHAIR: I think because of a couple of things. One is that I think women are still supposed to be quiet and pretty. If you are not going to be quiet and pretty, you should be a hellcat with nasty hair, and ready to kick ass like a man. So I think that fact that I am neither of them befuddles [people]. It means, “Oh no, now we are going to have to open new categories.” Also, American sexuality — [people already] like the status quo; they don’t want to have to incorporate new paradigms.
STARPOLISH: Don’t take offense to this comment, but you remind me a lot of Howard Stern because you say what everyone in the world thinks.
PHAIR: (Laughs) Can I tell him that when I am on his show?
STARPOLISH: Sure, please do. When are you going to be on?
PHAIR: We are still trying to get it. We haven’t slated it in yet, but that is definitely something that we’re hoping to do.
STARPOLISH: You remind me of him because you sing about things that people only think about or write in their journals. You are blunt!
PHAIR: That is exactly why music is a release for me. You don’t have to wear your socially accepted mask; you can expose things that are, during the day, exhaustingly repressed.
STARPOLISH: And you just answered my next question without me having to ask it. Isn’t the point of music to create art and have the security of release that every person needs to get by?
PHAIR: I think what makes American rock n’ roll what it is, is this undated thing — this underlining current of being able to step out and be a release valve for people. You’re supposed to push an envelope [in] one way or another. You’re supposed to do things. To me, that is what [this type of music] means. If you’re going to make rock n’ roll, either [push the envelope] sonically, lyrically or stylistically. . . just something. Expand the territory to let others come in.
STARPOLISH: Definitely — and I hope that you are not going to change for anyone. Based on others’ opinions, if you like it then listen to it. If you don’t like it, then don’t listen to it.
PHAIR: I love that attitude (laughs). That’s the point. It is only music. Let me make the music I like to make. If you don’t like it, then don’t buy it.
STARPOLISH: Once you start to follow guidelines for making music, then it becomes less interesting.
PHAIR: I think so. Where are the joy and the thrill then? It becomes a job. You are catering to peoples’ perception. I used to read all of my reviews when I was younger and I couldn’t even write a song at that point because I had so many voices in my head . . . “How will they receive that line, how will they hear that line?” That’s no way to make art.
STARPOLISH: Are most of your lyrics about yourself or do other peoples’ influences come into play when you are writing songs?
PHAIR: They are either about me or I inhabit someone else, and I look out through their eyes.
STARPOLISH: With song titles like “Fuck and Run” and “Blowjob Queen”. . .
PHAIR: That was me (laughs); “6’1″” is not. It doesn’t break down in reviewing [the songs] whether it be more or less, or dirtier or not dirtier. It is randomly patterned whether it is [from my point of view] or not. Like in “Only Son,” I spoke in the voice of my brother. There’s a song that I am going to put out soon called “Don’t Apologize,” and that is [written from] the perspective of my ex-husband looking at me. But it just sounds like I’ and You,’ so you wouldn’t necessarily know.
STARPOLISH: You have been in the industry for quite some time. Can you talk about your longevity as far as being an artist?
PHAIR: No, I can’t. I think sometimes some people just give up or they get disheartened or something. I am in it for my own personal reasons and for the reasons that some other artists may be in it for. That is why I take a long time in between records. I will let it go away, like the whole touring talk and dog pony show. And if I want to put more music out, and I miss being out there and being a little warrior, then I will start doing it again. I think the fact that my first record was so critically acclaimed helped. People still imagine that you will still have something to say. But I think part of it is the fact that I will just keep following through.
STARPOLISH: You have a very unique, indie sound — do you have an opinion on the indie versus the major-label dispute?
PHAIR: I’ve tried a couple of different times to get on an indie label, and I have also been on an indie and wanted to get to a major, so I’ve been on both sides of the coin — or rather the mindset. I think the problem with a major is that the machine dominates more than your personal career needs. You have to fit in with what this larger thing is doing, where as on an indie, you can tailor make your finances. You can spend as much as you want or as little, depending on how much you are going to earn — and you might receive a more rational reward. I am trying to explain the effort versus reward ratio, keeping a logical relationship between those two things is hard to do on a major label. A lot of bands work their asses off and nothing happens. A lot of bands are plucked when they are young and the world is dumped on top of them. It is more of a gambling sport. I am on a major label right now that feels like a really large indie. I am having my best label experience of my career right now, and it’s very nice.
STARPOLISH: Being on a major right now, you’re experiencing the freedom of an indie?
PHAIR: Mostly. But when they’ve made me do stuff, so far, it has been in my best interest and I, too, have been like, “Wow, that was really good.”
STARPOLISH: Not like these grueling interviews right?
PHAIR: Well, that is just a feature of the job — that is not something that they make up. The things that I have been forced against my will to do, that I am kicking, screaming pissed off about, it was usually because a person had a really strong vision and kind of pushed that one through. And when I have a really strong vision, I push that one through. They definitely respect me and I respect them; we don’t always agree, and I definitely don’t always win.
STARPOLISH: Since we are on the “being signed” road here, it seemed you got your start when the “Girlysound Tapes” were given to your friend, Chris Brokaw, and he made copies of them. . .
PHAIR: He and another friend, Te Wan Yu, made copies. Te made a bunch of tapes for people, Chris made a bunch of tapes for people, and they just spread. Then people made tapes off those tapes. The [tapes] went through this whole underground network and [became] very popular.
STARPOLISH: Were you mad at first because they took it upon themselves?
PHAIR: No, not at all. I was excited. It’s like when you do chain letters, and you start mailing them all over the country. I was like, “Wow!” It was exciting and really fun, actually.
STARPOLISH: Tell me about Matador Records.
PHAIR: Matador sold themselves, me included. This is how it really works: Matador is an indie and they sold themselves twice to major labels, and I went along with them whether I liked it or not. Then Capitol, under Gary Gersh, dropped Matador. For Matador to get out of their deal, they sold me to Capitol, [and Capitol] kept me. It’s really fucked up when you put it that way. I haven’t had any safe zone where I was working for over a decade. It all worked out okay, but it took a long time.
STARPOLISH: As I understand it, you used to have a problem with your growing popularity, and maybe that can explain why it took five years for a new record. Do you still get that feeling once in a while? Are there times when your popularity is just too overwhelming?
PHAIR: It depends on what you mean by popularity because I am peaking out at how much I am able to handle. I am pretty able to put it into a healthy perspective because of my mother, because my real priorities are solid. I am pretty able to flip and work, and to go “I’m working, I’m on it, I’m going.” I’m the breadwinner; I’m a single mom. I have a serious hardcore work ethic now, and a reason to do it. Hopefully my son and I will be happy and stay in our house, and everything will be fine in five years. I think what does get to me is that, as a writer, I like to take time off and I like to be the observer, and not the observed. When you do this kind of work, you are largely the observed, and that is a whole different thing. Occasionally I will see someone up on stage, when I am not working, and I will say, “Aw, I have to do that.” But I mostly get off being the art creator. I like living my life, and my work has enabled me to live a good life. Oh God, what am I answering for you here? I like to be able to do both things, but when I am out after working a record, being photographed and meeting a lot of people, I miss that time to just look at life and be an explorer.
STARPOLISH: After your album hits the streets, are you going back out on tour to support it?
PHAIR: I’m on tour right now, man. I am going to be on tour for a year.
STARPOLISH: Are you going to use a backing band or are you going out as a solo artist?
PHAIR: A band. Right now I am pretty acoustic.
STARPOLISH: I also want to congratulate you on playing Giant Stadium a couple of weeks ago.
PHAIR: I don’t know if you should congratulate me on that, it was pretty messed up day. Beck fell down and had to go to the hospital, it was pouring rain, those poor people had to stand out there, the whole fiasco of moving it from the field (Calverton, Long Island). They don’t let you bring umbrellas in there. What are you going to do, go around poking people with it?
STARPOLISH: Given your years of experience in the industry, do you have any advice for up-and-coming bands/solo artists?
PHAIR: “Just do it,” like the Nike commercial. Do it for yourself; get [your music] out there. Don’t wait until you think it is perfect. Put yourself in the blunt wind of scrutiny; just go there and you will develop. That is the same advice I give my friends who have already had successful records and are looking to put out the whole second-record thing. You just move through it. If you have a vision that you want to share, it’s worth doing it.