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Liz Phair Interview

Girly Sound – Second Tape

Girly Chat with Liz Phair

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Liz Phair just released her debut record on Matador, and it’s simply lovely. I’m not going to talk anymore about it because there is already a review of it on another page. Liz is from Chicago and I don’t know if that’s important or not, but it is true.

AI: So, you made an album.

LP: A double one. You gotta do it. It’s the first album.

AI: Why was it so important to make a double album?

LP: I had to do it. Actually, John Henderson suggested that I make a second album to follow up my first, and I thought he meant “why don’t you make a double album.” And I thought that was a really funny idea. So I just sort of did it, and he was like “no! no! I didn’t tell you to do that!” I must have really wanted to!

AI: Did you write all of the songs for this, or… because I know some of the songs were on Girly Sound.

LP: No, no. I didn’t write any of this. I just keep writing, and I just keep compiling. Like when I made the Girly Sound tape, I just compiled the ones I thought went with a certain type theme, and that I was interested in. And then realized I could take this sort of personal theme level to a whole new dimension by really treating it like some sort of academic thesis, but a lot more fun!

AI: I noticed that some of the songs were on the Girly Sound tape.

LP: Oh yeah. yeah. I recycle old material.

AI: How was it working with a band?

LP: It was fun. Actually we just played our parts separately. I layed down the guitar, and then I would just tell them what kind of song it would be and what kinds of instruments we needed to do. And then they would go in there and figure out a part and then do it. It was more like collage work than really playing with a band. It was like… you know when you do those drawings and you do the first half and then… a collaborative effort!

AI: And it worked! So are you going to tour around with this on your own or are you going to bring people?

LP: No, I’m going to tour around by myself. I keep saying I’ll get a band, I know I need one, but like it just seems so hard for me to picture what kind of person I could possibly stand to be around. You know what I mean? It just sounds like a nightmare. I would rather die than tour like that. I would never ever want to do the kind of band on the road. That sounds like hell! I’m just not that type of person.

AI: But you’ve done a fine job of just doing it on your own anyway.

LP: Well, kind of. I did okay last night. I stupidly scheduled this show, because my friends asked me and I wasn’t thinking, after a whole day of shooting this video, which is really strenuous work. And then I had to play a show that night, and then I had to get up again this morning. I’m getting up and shooting more, and tonight I’m going down, when we finish this, to a meeting. It’s just crazy!

AI: You’re living the rock star life!

LP: I guess! It’s good to be busy.

AI: Do you have another job?

LP: No.

AI: What song are you doing this video for?

LP: “Never Said.” I figure that’s the most catchy.

AI: Yeah, you couldn’t really do it to “Fuck and Run.”

LP: Nah! Nah! I want to hit main rotation! I want a break through video.

AI: Yeah, so you can be on MTV’s “120 Minutes Buzz” or whatever it’s called.

LP: Yeah, or “Buzz Bin” or whatever it is, yeah.

AI: Well the Matador bands videos are getting on there!

LP: I fully intend to! And plus this is directed by a woman, Katie McGuire, so that’s really cool. I really like it. There were a lot of women on the set, and it just made for a really good time. I like working with women a lot. Or the ones that I’ve worked with. I mean I can’t make rash generalizations like that, but Katie’s awesome. It’s a really collaborative effort. I’m very pleased. She took every idea I had and used them!

AI: Well whose idea was it to jump in the lake? (she was telling me earlier how she had to jump in Lake Michigan)

LP: Mine actually. I get these shots in my mind, and that’s exactly what I need to see, but she is exactly the same way. So it was really like we just kind of reconciled our two shot lists, and worked around it until we came out with something, which is great. That’s how it should be. That’s the sort of professional way of doing it.

AI: Cool! And then we’ll be seeing it on “120 Minutes” and then you’ll be hosting the show. Don’t they have guest hosts or something?

LP: (laughs) Oh I would love to! That would be a gas! But I did learn I can’t stand getting made up. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. You have to use so much make-up for this stuff. It’s just caked on your face. It’s very unnerving to see yourself in film make-up. It’s ghastly, it looks like Halloween.

AI: Are you going for the look where you’re not really made-up?

LP: No, I just think that literally it’s a physical revulsion I have to having all this crap on my face. Plus it’s a little horrifying, I had to wear a lot of make-up, and I usually wear very little at all. I don’t have anything against it, I don’t have a big principle about it. But trust me, Alyssa, it’s like majorly caked on. We had to keep fighting with the make-up woman to take it down.

AI: Yuck! But you gotta do it! So, who are your musical heroes?

LP: My musical heroes…gosh, I don’t think I really have musical heroes. I don’t think I grew up with musical heroes. I never really idolized specific musicians. I wasn’t a kid who placed myself in that realm. I just liked what I liked. In retrospect I find that to be a strength, rather than a weakness. Through college I felt very bad because all the people I knew tended to be like avid collectors. I like to call them categorists. Whole classifications of this kind of music and the origins of that kind of music. What was important, and what wasn’t, etc. etc.. I just devoured whatever I came across. I don’t have a musical hero!

AI: That’s okay, you don’t need one. When did you start playing?

LP: I think I started taking guitar lessons when I was in seventh grade. I had been taking piano before then, and various instruments. I played recorder for a while before.

AI: Doesn’t everyone play that in fourth grade or something?

LP: Yeah, and I was in the choir and stuff like this. I started writing my own stuff because I was always rebelling against reading music, and I had a good ear and I could just imitate my teachers stuff, and they caught on really early. But I wouldn’t listen to reason so I began to write my own songs, and she finally just said that was fine and if I came in with two songs every week that would be great. I’ve been writing songs ever since I could remember. And going to camp, and singing all those songs, and making up your own, and stuff like that. It was just a part of growing up for me.

AI: That’s pretty young to start playing guitar and all. Most people pick it up like in high school.

LP: Yeah, I think that’s usually because they have this rock idea they want to do, and it was never that way for me. Music was something that I did because I did a lot of activities as a child that were to enhance my experience, you know what I mean? Like tennis and archery and all that stuff, and music was always a part of it. We always had a piano and my mother liked to play. It was just part of life. So it was really independent of rock. I think if anything, rock can be somewhat of a tainting influence.

AI: It sounds more like a Peter, Paul and Mary approach.

LP: (laughs) I remember like Peter, Paul and Mommy!

AI: Yeah, I had that tape!

LP: Yeah, totally!

AI: So what’s your own favorite song of your own songs?

LP: That’s like asking me to say what my favorite child is.

AI: I knew you were going to say that!

LP: I’ll tell you the song of the week that I’m really into. Of course it’s a new one. Specify. How about the album?

AI: Okay. The album.

LP: The album… my favorite song on the album… probably, it’s either “Dance of the Seven Veils” or maybe “Stratford-On-Guy.” Well, whatever I’m sick of at the moment. A lot of it has to do with what I’m playing on stage and what I like playing. I can only play set lists because I’m so uncomfortable on stage to begin with. I can only play set lists that that week mean something to me. It’s always changing. There’s sort of this cycle of rotation of the pleasure principle, like what feels good underneath my fingers in a weird way. That sounds really new-agey, doesn’t it?

AI: So I guess you’re coming out here soon.

LP: I am coming out there soon. I mean Matador doesn’t really know that I’m not a touring act. I’m breaking it to them slowly. I’m trying to give them video sales so they’ll calm down about the touring bit. Because they are very much a live band label, and I am so not a live band person. I vow to be good at this, and I’m almost hoping that if I just play enough live I can somehow wing it.

AI: Do you write your songs from personal experiences and things, or just from a general thing?

LP: It’s not that clear actually. A lot of people want to think that, and they want it to be really true and from the heart, and it is. It’s just to think that they are literal undermines my ability to create. I’ve been a creative person. Mostly what I’ve been my life is a visual life. I went through school sort of excelling at that, and then I majored in art history and studio arts in college, and that’s mostly my background. To me creating is what I can do with my brain successfully, and so it’s a combination of drawing from…I mean this is the old hat line, but it’s not really a line, it’s the truth when people tell you this. They’re not avoiding responsibility for what they’ve said. It’s like true, and it’s not. I can piece together in one single song three different days of experience or different situations. Or more or less where I can imagine the whole thing. Sometimes it just literally pops out of me. “Dance of the Seven Veils” came from I don’t know where. “Mesmerizing” came from I don’t know where. And those two songs came complete. So did “Fuck and Run,” I mean some of these just come, like from God. And it just springs forth and has a lyrical logic and meaning and really is true to my life. It like springs from your subconscious. And other ones take forever to write! I just recorded this one, “Carnivore” on a single for Jim Powers, and it took months to write. And it’s really good, and you wouldn’t know the difference. It’s odd.

AI: It’s just the nature of the songs. It’s like having babies.

LP: Yeah, yeah!

AI: Sure, why not.

LP: Well, I’ve never had one! They’re not that hard!

AI: Well, you have them, and then they’re there. So what are your future plans for the Liz Phair enterprise??

LP: I’m going to record another album for Matador. I’m in the process of bargaining for more money from them. They’re trying to get me to settle for less. That’s going to be another one off. I am commitment shy. As a human being I am commitment shy. It’s traceable throughout my whole existence. I really like these one offs, but they give you a lot less freedom because the money is so little. I mean, it’s no money, and that’s difficult. But Matador is very cool, the people and the principle, and so it’s worth it because you can have the freedom to do what you want. They’re not going to tell you what sells and what doesn’t, but you have to constantly be pulling favors and trying to get this done and thinking like what you can do for the littlest amount of money. And once you do this a couple of times it’s like anything, it’s really not about… good art is not made through poverty. Good art is made because you make good art. You can use 94 million, or you can use 10, 000. I really can’t stand the idea that people feel that once you start functioning at a higher financial level… I mean people do get lazy, that’s what happens. It’s not the money that taints them, it’s their weakness. And frankly, there’s a lot of hassles that I can live without that would allow me to be a lot more artistic. The quality of it would raise if I didn’t have to think about all this crap, if I didn’t have to constantly kiss ass to get something done I could just say do it this way. And that takes dough, you know what I mean. Hard, cold, fact! I’m 26 and you get tired. You just want to not deal with the little details. You just want to get on to the stuff that’s really important. But! Having said that, I must say, in no way do I feel doing this for Matador is a bad thing. I love it. I love being able to have them say to me, I mean Gerard says, “You know Liz, you can put out four track stuff and we’ll do it.” And I love that! Because that means I can do what I think is cool, and I did this album with a band, and I did it Stonesesque, and I’m very likely going to turn around and do something a lot more quirky, and insidiously catchy! And then probably I’ll turn around and do a hugely orchestrated billion dollar alum the next time. I like swinging the pendulum extremes. Seeing what you can do and still have people like it.

AI: But once you get them hooked in on the first thing, they’ll probably stay.

LP: Well, if I’m good.

AI: Exile In Guyville is good enough to do it.

LP: The next one has to be good too! You have to have time to draw from the songs that are already there, and I’ve used the ones that I love, and I don’t want to just draw from all the Girly Sound stuff. A year is not enough time to develop a whole new body of work like I had for Exile. I’m just hoping that I can pull it off. Lord knows I’m going to try!

AI: That’s always the good attitude to have!

LP: Yeah, totally.

AI: So what happened with Girly Sound? You made that and gave it to Tae, or how did that all work?

LP: Actually Chris Brokaw came out, I was living in San Francisco after I got out of school, the whole bohemian existence, it was great. We had a blast. Living in this huge loft with these excellent thespians who had a whole decadent nature, to which I succumbed rapidly. Great danes and bong hits and parties in the afternoon, and cafes, and we were writing plays and stuff like that. We were convinced that we would pull off great feats of culture here in the middle of what I consider a post academic wasteland. But, he came out, and I really loathed to play for people, and as I think I’ve stated, I really hate it, and I really hated it then. I was terrified to play my songs for someone. Chris heard them, he came to visit, he’s in Come now, he heard them and was like “Liz, Liz, you gotta make a tape for me, just make a tape.” And I had bought myself a 4 track and I had been playing with it, and I finally thought here I’ve done nothing with my fall after I graduated, and I have this hot shit degree and I’ve done nothing, and I know I’m not going to do anything really with it, so I just made him a tape and I sent one tape to him, and I sent one tape to Tae. And they just started dubbing. And that’s all I sent out. I sent out two. And the next time I sent out two. And they just dubbed them, and every other copy you can be sure came from an origin. There’s like an Adam and Eve. The rest are all dubbed.

AI: Now everyone has a copy.

LP: It’s insane! I can’t even imagine what kind of quality they’re in now.

AI: It’s not that bad. I think I have third or fourth generation.

LP: But can you imagine what Tae’s copy must be like? He taped it so many times! Who knows. It’s wacky. Do you think a Girly Sound tape could sell if I did that?

AI: Definitely.

LP: That’s what I’m thinking I want to do. I did this rock album because I wanted to make a rock album ’cause I wanted to do a double Exile In Guyville thing, but I really tried to warn people that the next one isn’t going to sound like that and they should be prepared.

AI: It’s the songs that count. And the songs on Girly Sound were just as…

LP: They’ll always be there.

AI: Yeah, exactly.

LP: Those are important. I can’t see making an album if you don’t have good songs. You just have to hold your head up and postpone it.

AI: Right. And the songs are good enough, and the production isn’t overly done and they stand out as is. So it doesn’t matter how they’re done.

LP: Cool, cool. Sista my sista! Go on! (laughs)

AI: So do it! Do it!

LP: I think I’m going to. I really want to! I need to get back to myself. Plus I don’t like the direction that it heads if you take that whole pop radio thing too seriously. I really personally believe that if I did Girly Sound in a way that I would do it now, after knowing a lot more about production, I think it could get played on the radio. People younger than I am are really into stuff like that, so I think it’s perfectly plausible.

AI: Yeah, definitely. So who’s idea was the record cover?

LP: Actually, it’s Nate Kado’s idea. Put it this way, we were at the Rainbow taking pictures because I’m doing some sequences for my video of me singing into photo booth pictures mouthing various parts of the sentence, which we were going to like flip in. It sort of fully didn’t come off so I’m going to probably do it in the next video. We’re just going to stick in some now. But I’ve been doing this for months, going to the Rainbow and doing some more photo essays as I like to call them. And he got me to take my shirt off while I was doing this and I went back into the booth and I had my big coat on and stuff, and then I brought out the product and we were all just sitting around and he was like, “This is the album cover! This is the cover!” I don’t know if you know him, but he has this brilliant sort of way of just being like, “This is absolutely…and this is so ’90’s! And we, Urge! If anyone knows what ’90’s are, Urge are!” I mean I don’t think that is particularly true, but he cropped it, he said, “You have to crop it exactly like this!” He has an eye which I think is damn near genius, and he was showing me how to crop it and he cropped it all up for me and I thought that was really cool. But it was an after the fact thing. I had taken the picture, and he just decided that it would make a great album cover.

AI: So was that the actual picture that is the cover now? So it wasn’t like you went back and redid it?

LP: Yeah, I just took them. I took a lot of them that night and he liked this one a lot. He just pounced on it. He was like “This is the cover! Lizzy this is the cover!” He probably bought me a double scotch or something. It was really funny.

AI: So did they have to crop it more so it could go in the stores? Or how much of the nipple was showing?

LP: The nipple is still there, but just barely. He cropped it that way. That’s Nate’s cropping. I kept it exactly. He spent literally ten minutes showing me exactly where to crop it so it’s like barely. I mean that’s what’s really tasteful about it. I’m topless, but it’s really just a hint of it which is so much better. It’s his cropping exactly. No, there was no concession made. That was exactly how we intended it.

AI: So it’s not like the P.J. Harvey thing.

LP: Hell no! It made sense to me because Exile In Guyville has that front back cover which I’ve been working with. Basically to do this album I’ve decided instead of…I hate when people hint that I might of ripped things off, they usually haven’t heard it, or taken only the cover. It wasn’t about ripping it off. A good thesis is to take the essence of any intent, and then to adapt it to what you’re trying to do or to use an equivalency. And to me the whole (Rolling Stone’s) Exile On Main Street cover having the freakshow on the front, and then having the band members on the back was really discussing the nature of performance and about where they were in their lives right then, having stumbled into fame and finding it. It’s just a different world. we all know that, but until I experienced it I just didn’t really get it. I didn’t get what it does to your personal life, or how it changes you. It’s like, you’re living the same life, and yet you’re not. It’s a different place. It’s very hard to explain. To me the freakshow wasn’t about “aren’t we freaks,” it was really more about… those performers on the front when you do think about it are people who often made themselves into this thing, like performance artists, as were the Rolling Stones. They were very aware that they were kids from wherever, and that this was something that they had created, and it snowballed. And so to me to have on the cover me in this performance pose, and then on the back have me in my little home staring at the camera like, riiiight, is exactly the same thing. The Liz of the performance, when I go into my performance head, and me on the back just like right in the cameras face, like I want to do when I am myself. I’ll just be like, ahh, come on! You know what I mean, like get over it! Like do you really think I walk around like looking like this? You know what I mean? Sort of like to poke fun at the fact that people totally believe this shit! People believe everything they’re handed. It’s intense! If they love these artists don’t they understand they’re artists? They’re doing this for you! They’re putting this on for you! Love them for that. Love them for their ability to entertain you.

AI: So that’s your idea of what the cover is then, and your response to this all.

LP: Yeah. Exactly. It’s all about artifice and reality, and games people play.

AI: Right. So, do you have any pets?

LP: Ohhh, I have a wonderful cat who a lot of my family members tend to think is really cranky and annoying. She’s half Siamese, she looks like a tabby. We’re extremely close, as I was with my dog who is now dead.

AI: Ohhhhhh. I’m sorry.

LP: I’m a big animal lover. I love my cat. I love her to the extent that I’m convinced that we have telepathy going on.

AI: I understand that because my dog and I are like that.

LP: It’s like I have telepathy going on with her, but like telepathy with an animal is really not that deep because our telepathy is comfort oriented or displeasured or something. It’s not like you’re suddenly learning secrets about the universe. You’re mostly just understanding “Hey, pay attention,” or you know, whatever it is.

AI: It’s always nice when people have pets and they understand how cool a pet is.

LP: Oh God! Animals, ahhhhh. I spent my life like…ahhh, animals are my favorite thing. Really, truly. I’m not just gushing for no reason. Great affinity I feel for the whole world of every animal. I think lizards are adorable. I was just down in Florida this spring and I’m 26 now as I keep saying, and I was still chasing lizards around and poking underneath the cacti. (laughs) And we were identifying all the birds. We went on this nature canoeing trip on (?) island, really woodsy. It was this little tiny creek but I pretended I was in the Amazon and I had my bird book and we just identified them all.

AI: Cool! That sounds like fun! So what are your hobbies?

LP: Well, music was. Art is. Reading is. Running is. Dancing is. Avid radio listening, and I rent movies like a crazed hound. Ummm, let’s see. I guess that’s pretty standard. I’d say I’m pretty standard. I don’t have any good weird psycho…I’m not into mass murderers, and I don’t collect obscure writers, and I’m not a record buyer. I would just say that I am a normal person with a really bizarre take on things. I live a pretty damn normal life, but I’m just really eccentric within it. I play with my cat, running around hanging out with my family. Anytime anyone can get me into trouble I’m bound to follow. Adventures are my biggest thing. God knows where I’ll be at any given time in the city.

AI: Half the articles I’ve read about you say, “She’s a brat from suburban Chicago.”

LP: That’s because Peter Margizach(?), stupid little crappy thing… well fine, let’s see. I was loved by my parents. They supported me, they encouraged me in a lot of things. I got a lot of attention from them. I’ve been successful at most things that I’ve tried really hard at. When I’m not successful it’s because I didn’t put any effort into it and I copped out. Let’s see, my parents are in the upper middle class bracket, but my father is a professor. I think I come from a good, cool, intelligent, honest family. And if they think that’s bratty because I literally believe in myself, and I believe in my ideas, and I believe in my friends and stuff like that, and I’m outspoken. I’m opinionated, I just say what I think. But I don’t think I say it without a knowledge of how it sounds. Whatever. I don’t care. That’s what I say to them.

AI: That’s cool. I was reading all that and I was thinking that that was so mean because they don’t know you.

LP: They don’t know me! People who know me like me, and I’ve really found that to be true. The people who I like, like me back. And I think you’re doing okay in your life when the people that you like and respect, like you back and respect you. You don’t have to worry about the people that you don’t. It would only be a problem if the people that you really liked and respected didn’t like you back. So, there you have it. Fuck ’em. It’s ridiculous.

AI: I was just going through some of the articles and going, “Oh, that’s so mean.”

LP: It’s just so dumb. They don’t like people which they perceive as having not had to take a really hard road. They like to champion the underdog, and I’m not an underdog. Never was, and I hope I never will be. But I’m certainly not indifferent to other people’s suffering. I’m very sensitive, and I’m very nice and I’m generous when I can be, and I’m definitely centered on myself. This is totally true. I’m in my own world. And that is just a fact of my brain. It doesn’t make me a shithead, it just makes me interested in myself.

AI: Most people are in their own little worlds.

LP: I was always a loner, I wasn’t a team player. Before people would have called me a little sort of brainy geek who was in her own head. And now that I’ve sort of gotten the whole thing down, now I’m a brat. So, whatever. (laughs)

AI: You can never win.

LP: Yeah. You can’t. But if you keep making quality music, they’ll listen. I’ll do my job well. I’ll put it this way. If you’re going to be called a brat, fine. Then you just have to continue to put out quality stuff. And I think in the end that will matter, and that will count for something. That will be like a counter balance to my flippancy.

LIZ PHAIR, Exile In Guyville 

I fell in love with this album the very first time I heard it, and now that I’ve listened to it over a hundred times by now I just love it even more. Liz Phair is the only artist in the world who deserves to have her official debut album released as a double album. There are 18 songs on this record, and every single one, and I mean every song is breathtaking. Liz Phair speaks to me in words that I can understand and relate to in much the same way many women understand and relate to Bikini Kill and their posse. I couldn’t imagine Exile In Guyville any different, it’s absolutely perfect the way it is. Liz Phair has a folk singers voice with a range wider than the country of Canada, and a super strong sense of how melodies should be puled together. She’s got perfect subdued rock songs with, “6’1,” “Explain It To Me,” “Divorce Song,” “Never Said,” “Johnny Sunshine,” and the super excellent “Stratford-On-Guy.” She’s also got beautiful acoustic songs with “Shatter,” “Glory,” “Dance of the Seven Veils,” and “Canary.” “Flower” sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber, and “Fuck and Run” is one of the best songs ever penned. Exile In Guyville draws you into Liz Phair’s world, and while it’s not always a pretty world, it is one of the most bone chilling and stunning places that you can wind up. (Matador, 676 Broadway, New York, NY 10012)

Interview by Alyssa Isenstein
Second Skin #5, 1993

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