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: Hey. How ya doin’?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Interview, September 1994
Featured image by John Huba