By Steve Baltin
Performing Songwriter, July/August 2003
To call Liz Phair’s debut in the music industry auspicious is an understatement.
She was an unheard of singer-songwriter when Matador released her debut album, Exile in Guyville, in 1993. And that anonymity lasted about as long as one might expect from a brazen, gifted artist who chooses, as an opening salvo, a blow-by-blow response to the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street.
It was a move that could have been career suicide for someone who didn’t have the guts or talent to back it up. Phair, however, proved she was not lacking in either.
Her subsequent releases may have lacked the shocking edge displayed on Exile in Guyville, but the Illinois native has remained a smart, literate songwriter who, over the years, has evolved into a gifted craftsperson. That side of Phair is displayed prominently on her new self-titled album. From the bouncy opening track, “Extraordinary”, to the whip-smart “Love/Hate”, Liz Phair is well worth the five-year wait her fans have had to endure since 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg.
And if Liz Phair reflects an artist who is more mature than when she came into the music world with a cockiness that even Mick himself would have had to smile at, there’s little doubt that the brash artist of Exile in Guyville is still in there wielding her Fender guitar and acerbic pen. Likewise, though she is 10 years older and a mother now (addressed so eloquently on the heartfelt new track “Little Digger”) who has moved from Chicago to the idyllic Southern California town of Manhattan Beach, there’s no question she is the Liz Phair that fans fell in awe of a decade ago.
She will obligingly go on for hours when it is time to discuss the science of writing, but when asked questions about the new album or the process of making music, she matter-of-factly states, “This is the boring stuff.”
It may be to her, but certainly not to her admirers. Then again, one word no one has ever associated with Liz Phair is “boring”.
What was the span of time these songs were written over?
Five years, which surprises even me. I do that thing where you write part of a song and then it morphs later into something else. I think that I wrote it at that time, but actually it had seeds a lot earlier. I consciously went back and brought back stuff from different sessions rather than just go with one current version of everything we had. Some of the moments were cool, and it made me feel like I got my different experiences down on the CD. It was like my road record. You may not know when that song was recorded or who was on the track, but I do, and it means a lot to me that they made the cut.
Are you a pretty prolific songwriter?
I’m very prolific, and I don’t know what to do with myself, ’cause here in Manhattan Beach I don’t have a recording setup. In Chicago I had this little third-floor nook, so to speak — a little skylight and I had my little recording stuff set up. Here, I write these songs, and I don’t know where to put them down. I have this hand-held conference mic-type thing. I’ve got no really good setup, and songs are probably getting lost left and right. I think I write, generally speaking, a song or two a week, if I’m writing. Like right now I’m not writing because I’m just gossiping (laughs). I usually go through, like, a two- or three-month stint of writing. Also, time can be taken up with revising songs I already have.
You’ve always been closely associated with the Chicago scene. What prompted the move out to L.A.?
I moved out here for work. I felt like if I was going to have any shot at all I needed to befriend my label and figure out how the whole thing worked. I couldn’t be like the seedless artist running around, “This is my music.” I wanted to get in the fray, figure out what’s going on. So that’s what I came out here to do.
Chicago was great because I had a lot of friends — great for writing, bad because anytime I wanted to do anything I had to fly, and I felt like I was missing opportunites with movie soundtracks and other things because you’re not available if you’re not there.
You worked with a variety of different producers on this album, ranging from some of pop’s reigning hit makers to Michael Penn. What did you get from working with different producers.
To me, I’m very involved. I’m more experienced so I can go slow, see what they have to offer and not be so fearful that someone’s going to get in my work and mess it all up, ’cause they sometimes do, but it won’t kill me if they do it. I’ve seen songs recorded so many different times by now. It used to feel like someone killed a child every time they recorded a song that wasn’t right. Now I can see that I’ve got all these songs that have been recorded four or five times, never even got the right version. God, “Red Light Fever” on the record, six versions of it — it’s hilarious.
So how do you finally pick the one that works?
You just pick your favorite: Which has the moment? It’s all about moments. Which has the light? Which one feels alive?
“Extraordinary” is such a great opening track. I was surprised that it was not the first single
You and me both. There’s a long story about that, which I’m not at liberty to go into. If there’s a god in the world, it will become a single. It’s the message I wanted to send out. I’ll write these songs and later on I’ll realize that they were sort of prefiguring the events of my life. So I thought, “I’m going to write one about what I want my life to become.” There was this guy that I was interested in, and he was high-profile, and he has many high-profile women. It’s that feeling where you feel you should connect with someone and they’re not quite feeling the same way. The reason I want to talk about it is it’s kind of funny to me; it kind of worked, like a little voodoo. I haven’t completed the mission, but I think it’s because it’s not the first single.
What about “Little Digger”?
I remember recording it with my friend over in Silver Lake, and I couldn’t get through it ’cause I just started crying. By now it’s calmed down for me, but some of my friends hear it, especially the moms, and they just start crying.
It was about having Nick walk in when I thought he was asleep. It was the weird nightmare thing where he was like, “Who’s that?” even though he knew the person. It was just this total moment where the ramifications of all my actions with my husband, with this new person, suddenly just crystalized, and I could see his point of view. It was so profound; it was one of the most impactful moments in his early life.
You do what you do in that conscious part of yourself, and just try to struggle through, get everything the way it should be, search for your happiness, try and just survive. And then his life, this little life… and up until then he’d been such a baby so I just didn’t get it. And I wouldn’t necessarily change what course of action I’d taken in my life, but it was a big, impactful moment where I realized his life, his eyes, his history, his view, and it was huge to me. I tried to articulate that. In fact, I spontaneously sat down and it just came out.
What do you think got you to this point as a writer?
I used to make up stories — I was always in a dream world. I was the girl in class looking out the windows, singing. And as soon as anyone put me on an instrument — I started on piano — I didn’t want to learn the notes, I wanted to write songs. I would tap out little things; I always wrote little stories. I was born that way.
Where was the break between learning piano and writing your own stuff?
Because I had to practice whatever piece I was supposed to be practicing, I’d twist off a variation of it. So I was kind of ripping off any girlie sounds… I do a lot of that. I’d take “Wild Thing” and do my own version of “Chopsticks”. I would always just take songs and morph them into my own. It stems from having to work on someone else’s piece as a student and being bored by that, so I’d kind of spin off whatever. I was taking my fingers somwhere else down the road, but I’d start with whatever the chords had been. I always felt much liberty in taking other people’s work and changing it.
Name a book that’s been a big influence on you.
I read a book when I was a little girl; I think it was called Down a Dark Hall. It was a girl’s book. And the girl was living in a school or whatever, and she would go play piano at night; she had to go down the dark hall at night. But in the end what happened was the music was being written through her. She was like a vehicle for the music to be written.
Do you ever look at something you’ve written and think, “Where did that come from?”
Yeah, what is that? Is it your past lives? Is there a you inside of you that’s coming out? I don’t live in the trippy world, but if you actually want to get down to it, when you channel that feeling, they [songs, lines] do determine themselves. There are different ways you can look at it — sometimes you’re crafting, and then it’s you; and sometimes it’s just flowing and you don’t determine it. And exactly who is that back there? Because there’s a logic all its own? Your dreams don’t follow suit, they may have a very compelling subject person, but they don’t tidy up in a neat little ball.
Do you have any theories on where that might come from?
I kind of feel like there’s more than one little entity in there, and sometimes it’s a very sophisitcated thing that wants to craft for its own purposes, using maybe your life and experiences, but it’s got points it wants to make. And sometimes I feel that it’s more like a gentle, help-you-understand-things presence, ’cause it feels impersonal sometimes. It feels almost like I’m being rushed along. It’s almost as if that presence is seeing my life and wants to make use of it, but isn’t particularly nuturing. Almost like a male presence and a female.
I’ll go all the way with this and take it to science — and say that we’ve hit on the sort of male/female presence, possibly. If your brain is as sophisticated as many people believe, your early experiences of father and mother could set off in you different superegos that grow and develop along with the part of you that has to deal with your sensory influx. And that these superegos could grow and develop into sophisticated parts of you as well, but each trying to please different frames of perspective. And that’s where they’re coming from.
The channeling thing we’ve discussed is almost like writing on drugs.
I feel like drugs are just like the act and practice of writing. It’s just a way, a key to get you in there. Sometimes I feel like if you use too many to get to the zone, though, the person — the commander-in-chief — it gets annoyed. It’s like, “You’ve exhausted me.”
It’s almost a way to rub the bottle and get the genie to come out. That to me is the gateway to get to that consciousness.
Having said that, though, many people say that they can’t write when they’re on drugs.
I can. But here’s what I can’t do: capture and wrangle the ideas that come flying down the pike. They come too fast, so I can’t flush out one. It’s that same enthusiastic beginning, no follow-through. It’s almost like accessing the library and not being able to read or check out any books. But I do feel like when I do channel… it does feel not like some kind of mushy subconscious emotion; it feels like there’s organization and sophistication, almost as if someone’s playing with you. Maybe I’m schizophrenic.
As much as we’ve talked about the “channeling” or guiding force, there’s still a lot of hard work involved in writing.
Yeah. Don’t you feel like it’s a little bit like your parents? “If you want a car, you raise half the money and we’ll chip in the other half.” It feels like the same sort of mentality. Like, “If you don’t do your work, you’re not going to get the prize.”
You mentioned dreams. What was the most memorable dream you had recently?
There was this one pre-9/11. I wrote it down, then I told it to Aimee Mann because I was working with [her husband] Michael Penn. My other dreams make sense to me, but this one is so bizarre and so vivid I just kept thinking, “I really don’t get this one.” I think I’ve asked people what my dreams mean maybe twice in the last five years, but this one really bothered me.
It’s about this little apartment, and I was sort of walking around outside it first. And thse two Arab men had done something that was shameful, like they had done something to innocents who were helpless.
Then I was in the apartment of the Arab men with their wives and families. They were in shame at what their men had done, and this one young, beautiful wife of one of the guys had to actually be locked up in the closet; it was like stairs going to nowhere. She had to be shut up in this place with this kind of melty black mask on her face, and she was so upset that she couldn’t get out.
I wanted to leave the apartment, so I kind of struggled my way out and came upstairs. I saw my friend Cindy there, and she said, “Liz, you almost missed the wedding. We’re about to go get married.” I followed her out into this field, and I saw this plane coming in really, really low. I was just kind of watching, as Cindy was talking to me, and I was like, “THat’s going to crash. That’s way too low.” I started looking at it and it was like this big, heavy jumbo jet coming in, and I grabbed them and said, “We have to get inside right now. This thing is going to crash.” We ran back into the apartment, and as we were running the thing crashed, and giant fireballs came pluming out toward us like in the movies.
So we waited until everything was safe, we went back out into the fields, and there was like plane aneurysm stuff around. I watched people help each other recover after the explosion in kind of a daze. And then I saw another plane coming in low and I was confused, like, “Is this the same plane? It can’t be another plane.” And I was looking at all these people and thinking, “That is going to crash. Is something wrong with the airport?”
I got that panicked feeling again and I turned around and started running back to the apartment, and I was so sad because the people who were still out there helping each other with the injuries didn’t know it was coming. And that’s where my dream ended: with me running as fast as I could, feeling the heat when the explosion started happening.
It was a weird dream. My theory is that if there’s such a thing as foreshadowing of any kind, I was pre-dreaming about the emotional impact that I would have, because when I saw the Twin Towers, I just kept looking at those plumes of explosions. I felt like I was pre-dreaming not the events, but as if I had watched the thing and had a dream after that.
I couldn’t interpret it any other way because it had no meaning to my life at the time.
It’s amazing what the mind can accomplish.
That’s why, in my ripe old age, I don’t do a lot of drugs or drink: I’m fascinated with trying to see what I can see.
Liz’s Current Listenings:
- How to Work Your New BMW Instructional CD
- Cleaning Disc
- Shrek Soundtrack
- Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Moby Dick (book on tape)