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If I Were President: Liz Phair

10 Things That Drive Me Crazy

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Hitmakers reveal the building blocks of songcraft

Liz Phair has amassed so much critical acclaim that her press booklet includes a table of contents! She has graced the cover of Rolling Stone and topped both The Village Voice and Spin “Best Album of the Year” lists for her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville. Her latest disc, whitechocolatespaceegg [Matador], once again displays her singular style of country-tinged guitar playing, lyrical candor, and a deep, sultry voice (which she occasionally forces so low that the notes become frog-like). But, while Phair isn’t afraid to let rough edges poke through her productions, the catchy melodicism of her songs makes it hard to wrench her CDs from your car stereo.

“I love it when a song just flows out all at once and takes you by surprise. It’s almost like recording a dream while you’re awake! ‘Girl’s Room’ happened in two seconds, as did ‘Perfect World’. When a song comes to me all at once — that gift from the muse — I have a tendency to leave it alone and not try to polish it too much.

“Then, there are songs such as ‘Big Tall Man’ that are an amalgam of different songs. The bridge on that song, for example, is from an earlier, much slower song that I recorded on a 4-track. I just stole the riff! I wrote the verse chords while I was in the studio, and the first verse has five lines, while the last verse has four lines. I have a really strong tendency to disobey structures.

“‘What Makes You Happy’ was written in pieces too. There was a verse, a chorus, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a different bridge — I swear, there were like 17 different parts to that song! Over the years, I kept changing it and trying to edit it and get to the essence of the song. By the time I got around to recording it, I had remade the song entirely from what it was originally about. It took about six years to finally find that song!”

“I typically write progressions visually on the fretboard — and also tactilely. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh, this is a G, A, D chord progression,’ I’ll look at where my hands physically rest on the neck and kind of reach my fingers around to find other chords. Otherwise, if I have a chord progression that I like, and I don’t know what to do next, I’ll think, ‘Is this low on the neck? Well, then I’ll jump really high.’ I try to keep the changes real contrast-y. Either that, or I’ll just kind of crawl around like a spider with my fingers on the fretboard.

“I saw the chord sequence on ‘Fantasize’ as a four-chord descent, over and over again in a cycle. But then I got bored, and I didn’t know what else to do. So I stopped at the one chord, and visualized the progression like a deck of cards. You have a Jack, Queen, King, and an Ace, and you keep laying them down Jack, Queen, King, Ace. But all of a sudden you go Queen, King, Ace, Jack right in the middle of the song — as if the sequence got stuck and jumped a step backward or something. I’ll do conceptual nicks like this to break formulas and inspire new directions. I’m really brainy about my songwriting on the guitar — but in an ignorant way.”

“There were a lot of songs that didn’t make the album. Some of them were really bad, and some of them were good. It’s like seating a dinner table — there’s only room for two insurance salesmen. You can’t have three. That’s how we ended up sorting out the album — we went through and paired everybody up. It was interesting to see that we’d have two songs like this, two songs like that, and so on. The balance of the songs on an album has to be maintained, and by doing your ‘seating chart’, you can tell if someone doesn’t belong at the table.

“But sometimes you play a song and feel it so strongly that you go, ‘God, this has to be on the album!’ And that emotional attachment usually works for determining whether a song is good enough or not. You have to go through all your songs and decide if you still feel anything for them after a number of months — or a number of years. The ones that don’t make it are probably duplicates or triplicates of things you’ve written since. And they’ll seem like a letter you received from someone a long time ago that doesn’t affect you anymore.”

“I’ve got a littered backyard of old songs out there rusting — a whole library of unfinished songs. But there’s always a part you can go steal. I’ll be working on a new song and realize I’m writing a chord progression I’ve already written. It’s like, ‘Wait, where’s that from?’ And I’ll remember this old song, and it’s such a rush to have — like out of nowhere — a song come back that was almost finished. Sometimes that will give you the energy to complete it.”

“Recording is the weirdest thing about being a songwriter, because it stops the songwriting process. It freezes that version in time. You don’t know what the song could have become if you had kept going, but stopping may be the merciful thing to do.”

By Kyle Swenson and Michael Molenda
Guitar Player, September 1998

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