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The Phairest of Them All

After Her Dazzling Debut Last Year, Liz Phair Kills Again With this Month’s ‘Whip-Smart’

Dig This! Liz Phair

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A heart-to-heart between Liz Phair and Beck

When Liz Phair opens her mouth, ears prick up. Heads turn. Hearts beat faster. All for good reason: Phair struck the music world like a match, lighting the way for future derring-doers and heating up many a headphone with last year’s Exile in Guyville (Matador), her sharp double-length CD debut, which played like an inner travelogue, oozing sexuality and cutting to the complex emotional core. With Whip-Smart, her new follow-up, Phair continues to sling arrows through tired perceptions of just what’s expected of a twenty-seven-year-old woman singer. We hooked up Phair with fellow musical fire-starter Beck, twenty-four, an artist who’s reviled by critics who just don’t get it, who continues to baffle music-industry marketing teams, and yet who is absolutely adored by fans starved for something spontaneous, something creative. Here’s what they had to say.

Liz Phair chooses her weapon. Photo by John Huba.

LIZ PHAIR: Hey. How ya doin’?

BECK: Hello.

LP: What’s going on — have you ever done one of these?

B: No, I’ve never done this.

LP: Me neither. I figured I could bullshit with you.

B: Yeah, we can foist about.

LP: Where are you?

B: I’m actually in a very idyllic place right now. I’m on the front lawn of [K Records founder] Calvin Johnson’s house in Olympia, Washington, under a shady tree, and there are blue skies, and the flowers are all coming out of the ground, and punk rockers are all here throwing yoyos and making Polaroids, and there’s a punk-rock band in the basement banging away.

LP: That’s kind of beautiful. I’m taking Polaroids, too. I’ve got cover art due. I’m really into anything that you can take around by yourself. Like, anti-crew.

B: Yeah, anti-entourage. I got this little four-track [recorder] that’s battery-powered and you can just practically flip it into your jacket. So, where are you now?

LP: I’m way up here in the north woods of Wisconsin, just hanging out, on vacation.

B: You’re in an idyllic place, too.

LP: Yeah, I’m looking at a huge lake with water lillies all over it. We canoed yesterday.

B: Wow. We just finished a tour. I saw you in Chicago.

LP: That was pretty fun. How does it feel when people mosh to your harmonica solos? I think that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

B: At first it was hilarious. Actually, they’ve been mellowing out a little lately, ’cause at first they didn’t even know that I played acoustic guitar or harmonica and they didn’t know what to do.

LP: So tell me what you’re doing next. What are the huge plans?

B: The huge plans?

LP: The unrealistic ones.

B: Oh, the unrealistic ones. I’ve never been an ambitious person and I never really look forward all that much and just sort of roll along from day to day.

LP: Are you political?

B: No, I’m not really educated. I didn’t go to high school or college. I’m sort of ignorant and I made a conscious decision to concern myself with just music and make it simple, but I think there’s no way you can’t be.

LP: Well, don’t you ever postulate about the future? What do you think’s gonna happen next?

B: Well, there’s a feeling of helplessness.

LP: Why do you feel helpless? I don’t feel helpless at all.

B: I don’t know. I do sometimes. I mean, maybe less now, but when you’re eighteen and you’re just trying to make it in the world, trying to eat and survive —

LP: But look at you.

B: — and then you think of these massive problems and you just feel like, Wow, what could I ever… I mean, it’s beyond me.

LP: But if anything, you’re like a living example of a solution for eighteen-year-olds.

B: [laughs] Yeah, well, not everybody would agree.

LP: Well, you may not want to keep what you’ve got, but you’ve figured out how to get it, which is the fantasy of a lot of eighteen-year-olds. I love your songwriting. I love your lyrics, too.

B: Oh, thanks. I like your songs — your songs are great.

LP: I was addicted to your CD for a while. Once I could hear the words, once I was intuitively seeing them, I loved to sing to it.

B: Oh, cool!

LP: The words totally come out of my mouth and make me really happy, like I wish I’d said them.

B: Great, that’s the way it should be.

LP: Exactly.

B: It should just become your own song. That’s what I like about folk music. It’s just everybody’s songs and everybody can take a song and reinterpret it their own way and change the words.

LP: And everybody has a part in it. I think that’s when you get to the real meat of music — when it’s universal without being trivialized, without being compromised.

B: Exactly. Music’s become unhealthy. It used to be a communal thing. Now you go and watch a couple of people do it. I think that’s why all these kids start moshing, ’cause that’s the only thing that they can give back.

LP: Kind of an expression of the energy you give them?

B: Yeah.

LP: So, ask me a question.

B: Oh, O.K. Uh… I’ve never interviewed anybody.

LP: Don’t you ever interview your interviewers?

B: No, never. I always say really dumb things in interviews. At first I couldn’t believe that people would even take me seriously enough to interview me, so I used to say really dumb, random things.

LP: You’re totally lovable — for people who have creative tastes, I mean. I wish I could lie more spontaneously

B: I was having fun just coming up with monstrous lies. I don’t do it as much. I just play it straight more. Most of the time people don’t get it.

LP: I came to a kind of cynical conclusion that it didn’t matter what I said in an interview. It was whether the picture was good or not.

B: Oh, really?

LP: That they’re really gonna feel one way or another about what you say, but what will make them actually give a fuck to read it is whether they think you look intriguing. It’s a really carnivorous activity, reading through magazines like that.

B: Yeah, it is. You’re hungry and you’re eating through all this stuff, but there’s no meat there.

LP:There’s no meat, but there are implications, which you can then draw your own story from.

B: Yeah, I guess musicians should just make their own magazines and speak their own minds, dismantle the media machine a little bit. So, when’s your new record coming out?

LP: September 20th. It’s called Whip-Smart.

B: Is it a double album again?

LP: No, it’s normal. And I didn’t do any gimmicks. It’s your average, basic album.

B: My next album’s gonna be basic.

LP: I think that the sophomore one is like the true effort to set your soul straight. And then you can —

B: Move on.

LP: Exactly.

B: I tend to write most of the stuff while we’re in the studio.

LP: That’s a cool thing. I never let the guys hear the songs before we go in. Then each song gets treated like the first impression, because I think that’s so valuable.

B: That’s why four-tracks are so great, ’cause you’re writing it as you’re recording and it’s all unknown territory.

LP: Exactly. It gets so rote.

B: I think everybody should write each other’s lyrics.

LP: You think so? No way. I’m so protective of my mind. It’s my voice. I think that’s a women’s thing, though. That’s like having your voice and eating it, too.

B: I like sharing songs. Lou Barlow keeps threatening to do a rap thing with me. I want to have the indie-rock-rap band. You could be in it, you can rap. I think everybody should try it. Rap is liberating ’cause you can just spew it out anything, there’s no structure.

LP: I was just noticing my notes for creating a video. I write in rhyme, I write these cryptic little sentences that sound almost like speaking in tongues, but they make perfect sense to me. It’s almost like rapping. That’s how I write songs, too. You just listen to what your mouth is babbling and then you fit words to it. It’s phonetic before it’s literal. Anyway, I’m glad you’re having a good summer up there.

B: I’m thinking of moving up here.

LP: I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend thinking about where we want to live.

B: What’d you come up with?

LP: Um, we didn’t. I’m kind of like you about that. I make up my mind a million times, and then it just happens.

B: Right. It sort of has to just happen.

LP: Well, listen, I’m gonna go and do the laundry. Thanks for talking to me.

B: Well hang out sometime. And I’ll look for your new record.

LP: O.K., I’ll get somebody to send you a tape. They wanted to keep it really tight for a while. I don’t know why.

B: Keep it a secret. It’s a secret formula.

LP: [laughs] I feel like I’m selling Prell or something. Well, take care.

B: You, too. Bye.

LP: Bye.

By Beck
Interview, September 1994

Featured image by John Huba

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