By Amy Zavatto
Gotham, May 2003
Watching an artist move from a beloved indie label to one of the big boys is like watching a plane with a loved one in it take off for faraway lands. You don’t really want them to go; you want them to have a great time; you worry about their safety; you’re a little jealous of their trip. In the end, all you can do is hold your breath and hope for the best as you watch them climb higher and higher into the atmosphere.
This June, after nearly a decade with Matador, Liz Phair will release her first effort with Capitol Records, simply titled Liz Phair. (“I thought I’d give everyone a break after Whitechocolatespaceegg,” she jokes of her last effort.) IT has the unmistakable sound of a musician trying to reach a greater audience — never an easy endeavor for a performer with a small but fiercely loyal fan base. Indeed, a few of the songs on Phair’s new album might make her old fans leery of the very clear and unapologetic pop influence. Initially it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to want to criticize her for “Why Can’t I?”, an incredibly catchy, yet very un-Liz sounding tune. But other songs, such as the heart-wrenching “Little Digger”, poignant “Take a Look”, hilarious “H.W.C.”, and even the table-turning “Extraordinary” show she’s still the same honest, talented lyricist we know and love — she just wants us to share. “Part of the album has elements that I always like to have; that you can couch difficult and impacting messages in listener-friendly terms. Like when I did Girly Sounds (her first 4-track recording) way, way, way back when, my whole thing was to say as shocking material as I could in the most non-threatening voice in our society, which is the babble of a little girl.”
On Liz Phair, the little-girl speak has grown into the voice of a strong, confident, independent woman finding her way through single motherhood, image-breaking confrontation, and hit-and-miss love. It has been a watershed time for Phair, leaving the comfort of her old label, ditching her manager, getting divorced (“He lives down the block, we’re still good friends.”), and raising a son, among other things. All of this change, though, gave her a new sense of freedom with the record. “I just wanted to take bits and pieces from everything that I’d done. You know, my favorites from each session so that it was kind of like a diary or a journal from a trip. To me, it doesn’t matter how big the production or how small. I like the memory of the experience. Outcome is not nearly as important to me as how it feels during the process.”
One particularly slow day during that process when she was recording with Michael Penn (who contributed his musical talents to several songs on the album), Phair scored a credit on Sheryl Crow’s wildy popular “Soak Up the Sun”. On a break, Phair went to play basketball on the studio grounds. When the slamming of the basketball against the backboard worked the nerves of Crow, who was recording next door, she stormed out to see who was making all the racket. “We were on Lilith [Fair] together and the spirit of Lilith is all about helping each other out. It was kind of like, ‘Will you play on my show? Do you have any eye shadow tonight? Who’s got the glitter?'” When Crow realized who it was bouncing around the court, she asked Phair if she wouldn’t mind singing backup on the song, and Phair obliged. “I think there’s a perception from the outside world that things happen because these people are in these rooms conniving how to take over the world,” she laughs. “If they only knew how banal and organic these things are.”
Her future, though, looks about as far from banal as you can get. Once you listen to Liz Phair, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. You’ll find yourself singing its songs in the car, in the shower, walking down the street. It’s infectious — indicating almost certain greater exposure for Phair. So, how’s she going to handle this newfound fame? Jetting off to Cannes? A rock star mansion in Bel-Air? Not exactly. “If this album does well, they’re going to want me to bang out another one, but I’d like to get married and have more kids. I’d like to have a career where I could take time off and come back. I would like to have that could be art when it’s ready to be made, like Georgia O’Keeffe. I know how näive that sounds and that’s not how the business works, but if I could pick a career to emulate…”
New Mexican artists aside, she’s ready for the kind of success a performer of her caliber deserves — and that popular music desperately needs. “There’s so much about my life that’s not what people think, but it’s so true to who I am. What they’re attached to I can’t sustain because [making Exile in Guyville, her breakout debut] was like an aberration. It’s not that it didn’t make great art; it did. But it was definitely an unhappy period.” Listen to Phair’s albums in succession and it is like flipping through a photo album. You see the meanderings, the mistakes, the hope, the hilarity, the irony, the fleeting thoughts, all of it. But for an artist who was at first renowned for her stage shyness, Phair has never been fearful of throwing it all down, and the critics need to be ready to meet her trademark honesty head-on. “I’m totally trying to [get new fans]. It’s a wall I really want to breakthrough. I’d like to hear more radio people like me, you know? There are so few documents detailing women’s lives. How they felt, what they were doing, what they lived. I want to be documenting it. I want other women to do it. I want us to be present in our lives. For there to be records of us and how it felt to be us. So I don’t care if you want to wear combat boots or stilettos. I really don’t care. I just want to be visible for posterity.” Something tells us visibility won’t be an issue.