By Vendela Vida
The Believer, Issue #3, June 1, 2003
Notable Alumni of New Trier High School:
Rock Hudson, 1956 Academy Award nominee
Liz Phair, recipient of 1993 Spin Record of the Year
Donald Rumsfeld, 1954 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Semifinalist
Chick Linster, 1965 World Record Holder, consecutive push-ups
Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, was released in 1993, and was followed by Whip-Smart in 1994 and whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998. Her new album, Liz Phair, will be released this June; it’s her first album in five years. In her candor and her anger and her unmistakable style—no one’s voice sounds like hers—Liz Phair is one of the best songwriters we have. She’s as literate and sensual as Lucinda Williams and has the kind of beautifully controlled rage that Aimee Mann has perfected, yet Phair hasn’t gotten much credit lately. For those who want to criticize her, she gives plenty of bait for them to munch on: Phair never officially studied music (she was an art major at Oberlin), and for a serious kind of singer she’s taken up some unlikely offers: she’s modeled in ad campaigns, and has had small parts in not-great films. And now, with her new album, hay will surely be made of the fact that not only is this her most explicit album, but three of its songs were written and composed with the help of the Matrix, the Los Angeles-based songwriting and production team that helped Avril Lavigne create some of her hit songs.
But still and nevertheless: who else tells stories the way she does? Her songs unfold like short fiction, full of detail and nuance—as opposed to the vague and repetitive poetics we accept as songwriting—and are perhaps even more believable because they’re sung in her trademark monotone. Her song “Love is Nothing” on whitechocolatespaceegg contains a scene in which a man is telling a woman about all the friends they have in common, and by the time he figures it out, she finds herself yawning. And yet, Phair is never judgmental of her protagonists’ love interests or friends; nor do the protagonists of her songs, who are mostly young and female, judge themselves. The lyrics to “Chopsticks,” the first song on Whip-Smart, tells the story of a woman meeting a man at a party, going home with him, and having sex while watching TV. After the night is over and he drives her home, she admits that secretly she’s timid, but she’s not regretful. That the lyrics are spoken to the tune of “Chopsticks” isn’t a juxtaposition as much as it is a statement that going home with someone you’ve just met is as routine and familiar as the notes to a clumsy song we all learned how to play as children.
Almost as much has been made of Liz Phair’s appearance as has been made of her candid lyrics. The CD of Exile in Guyville featured a photo of Phair exposing her nipple, and almost every photo of her seems to present a very different person. Phair herself sings in the first song on Exile in Guyville: “And I kept standing 6’1” / Instead of 5’2” /And l loved my life / And I hated you.” Phair seems to relish that one can readily alter appearances; it’s as simple, she implies, as changing one’s outlooks and affinities. The cover of Phair’s new album features a photo of her seated on a chair, with her hair entirely covering her face. If there’s a portrait in the closet showing her aging or altered, the photo seems to tease, this is the closest we’ll get to it.
LIZ PHAIR: You know what I think is a really good song?
THE BELIEVER: What’s that?
LP: I think the National Anthem is a really genius song. It’s so radical if you think about it. It’s about war; it’s truly, authentically about people who are in the midst of a very scary situation. It’s really inspiring. It’s got an intense melody; it’s not structured. Think about it: [Sings] “Oh say can you see, by the…” They probably lost half of the men they knew yesterday in that battle. “What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming.” It was beautiful. It’s so moving if you think of it as real. If you don’t just take it as what you hear at sports games, but rather think about who’s involved in singing it. Is that flag still there, and all that it means? And that’s that moment. They’re not saying, “What a great flag we have. In battle we follow it.” They’re actually bringing you into it. Cut into the middle of the movie after the big-ass battle. Imagine Hollywood doing it: it’s their big last brawl and people have lost their brothers and they’re weary and in the trenches and it has symbolism and the flag is the symbol for it. It’s just such a moving, brilliant song. It kind of awes me because I don’t think anything I ever write has that kind of intensity to it. Okay, so I had a bad night with a guy. It’s different than fighting for your life next to your brothers for a symbol, for an America that doesn’t even exist yet. It’s just a dream, and it’s embodied in a piece of cloth. It’s so intense that you come up after this battle in the morning, just at the crack of dawn, where you’re sort of gathering the losses and trying to figure out what really happened and how you feel about that. Is it worth your life, or your brother’s life, or these peoples’ bloodshed for this thing that’s just a symbol? And then the melody goes soaring up to a point you can barely even reach and I appreciate that because I think the song itself should be a struggle to make you realize what you’re singing about. It shouldn’t be an easy toss-off song, and it does that without seeming to. I think it’s a brilliant song.
BLVR: Would you ever do a rendition of it?
LP: I’d be scared out of my mind, but I’d probably do it.
LP: I’m worried about writing these days. Maybe [contemporary writing] has been bad for a while, I’m not sure. I’m picking up books and they just don’t encourage me.
BLVR: Do you have a particular example, or are you just finding a general trend?
LP: … I’m sorry—I’m distracted because I have a big black eye. My son gave me a giant black eye. I can’t believe I have a black eye. I’ve never had a black eye before.
BLVR: How did he give it to you? With his fist or elbow?
LP: With his head, actually. It was a head-butt. Maybe I should sign him up for soccer. He was playing with Lego pieces and… something happened. Then overnight the giant egg-size lump sank into the upper eyelid, so now my upper eyelid is swollen and black. It’s gross.
BLVR: Did you put a steak on it or anything?
LP: I put ice on it all last night, but I don’t really know. I’m waiting for my dermatologist to call me back. But he’s not a Hollywood dermatologist, so he doesn’t really care. I’m pissed off. I want to move to the Hills so when I call a dermatologist I can say, “I’m a singer; I have a black eye,” and they’ll be like, “Okay, here’s your K shot.” It’s a drag. I have to go to a movie premiere tomorrow.
BLVR: And everyone will think you’ve been tossed around.
LP: Or worse, that I’m getting eye-lift surgery or something, but only in one eye.
LOOK AT ME
BLVR: There’s a Dorian Gray reference in your new album.
LP: That happened before I was reading Wilde, oddly enough. But I’ve been reading his books and just laughing at the social commentary. I also read Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. She’s a great writer.The book has kind of a complex plot. [Look at Me was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2001.The novel’s protagonist is 35-year-old Charlotte, who works as a model until her face is disfigured in an accident.] [The sound of a small voice away from the phone. It’s Nick, Phair’s six-year-old son.] Nick: Where are my jewels?
LP: Your jewels, I don’t know baby. They’re in a bag; you’ll have to find them afterwards. Or they’re in the car. [To interviewer] Sorry.
BLVR: There are some similarities between the two of you, you and Egan. For instance, your protagonists aren’t perfect, but they’re likable.
LP: Well, you usually don’t create a negative protagonist. You don’t create someone unlikable in the guise of a woman unless she’s the usual hustler. Jennifer Egan’s character was hilarious because she did the wrong things, thought the wrong things, and was manipulative.
BLVR: In MFA programs, short stories have to be within eleven and twenty pages. Within the first two pages of a short story you have to dignify a character, which is basically giving them some flaw that allows the reader to like them. You see this a lot in writers like Richard Ford, writers who give their male protagonists divorces or alcohol problems in their past. I think you dignify all the personas and emotions you include in your songs, and I wonder if you think that it’s because you’re being just brutally honest, or because you’re actually trying to render the persona wounded in some way, and thus more empathetic.
LP: I think when I create an album I’m doing that consciously, but when I make the song I think it’s natural. I spend a lot of my day—I wonder if everyone does this, too—trying to be as fluid as possible in all situations. That means smiling, flattery, showing up, trying hard, whatever it is that makes things go smoothly. Underneath that, of course, you have all sorts of different feelings about what you’re doing, where you want to be, and how you feel about your life. Songwriting and writing are a way for me to vent. Like, before, I had to vent about my black eye. It’s just my little vent-thing, and for me, songwriting is the way to come home at the end of the day and say what I can’t say normally. I think you could write a successful short story without dignifying the character.You could have it unwind at the end. You could do it differently, but I think that’s just a rule of thumb to help people who may not understand how to write the quickest way to touch somebody.We all look to writing or creative arts to dignify our own character as we come home at the end of the day and feel like a shallow worker bee.We look to writing to allow us to open up and feel what we’re really feeling.[Phair’s call waiting goes off; she takes the call and returns.]
BLVR: Was it the dermatologist?
LP: Yup. There’s nothing. He told me to ice the heck out of it. Do you know how much that hurts? Do you hear this? This is the sound of the ice block! [Sound of the ice block]
BLVR: What does it look like? Is it blue or is it black?
LP: Shall we take a look? [Goes to mirror] It looks like I have really heavy fuscia black eye shadow on. And it looks like—you know the Faye Dunaway too-high eyebrow thing? It looks like that, because the swollen eyebrow has pushed the other one up about half an inch. It’s gross because you can see the pocket of blood right above the lash-line. I wish I had saved the fuscia eye shadow from last summer because then I could do the other eye and match. It would look really ugly, but at least people would—actually, I don’t know what they’d think.
BLVR: What about the song “Extraordinary” on your new album? How did you write that?
LP: That’s a co-write with my friend Lauren Christy, and Scott [Spock] does the production on that.There’s a team of three people [the team is called the Matrix] and she and I came up with song structure, more or less, and melody, and kind of hammered out the words.That was really exciting because she’s a songwriter herself, she’s my age. She immediately invited me. She’s like, “Should we just do this back in my bedroom?” I was like,“Yeah, that’s a great place to write, how absolutely perfect.” And it was fun. It was really fun, and we kind of fought cause I wasn’t going to sing a song that didn’t feel like it was mine. She’s pretty strong willed herself, so it was a very exciting experience making a song with someone who is a peer. Same age, same sort of take on life, and there we are in a bedroom with our notebooks out, kind of fighting over lines and trying to help each other, trying to push the song along. It was like a window inside someone else’s writing process. I had a lot of fun doing it and I love that song. It’s hard to explain; a lot of people from the outside are like, “How could you write with someone, how could you do that?” I think those are people who don’t write. It’s a really different experience, and produces a different kind of song. Of course it’s radio friendly because that’s the main point. But it’s no less authentic in the way that we did it, because we did it the same way I do it.
BLVR: In your bedroom.
LP: And there were three other people helping, and they each have their own area of expertise so the song comes out really big-sounding.
BLVR: Like the National Anthem.
BLVR: With that song’s grandness, it’s also the topic. It obviously covers all the big issues: war, triumph, defeat, hope. I’m wondering, do you every consciously try to paint on a bigger canvas? How do you decide how big your canvas will be?
LP: I think for me, I’m not good at—I do try to paint on big canvases. I’ve got so many songs you guys will never hear, that are just not good, and you have to try to make a statement. Things like “Love/Hate,” you’d think that was a song where I tried to make a statement, but it really wasn’t. It was off the cuff, and that’s why it works. Even though it’s a big statement it’s not neatly laid out for you. It’s kind of bizarre, but I think I can only draw on things I’ve experienced.
BLVR: Do you think it’s the emotional honesty behind it?
LP: I think so, or whatever source I’m drawing from— I can do songs from a male perspective, for example. On my last album, there’s a song about my brother, called “Only Son.” It’s about what he’s gone through and what his pains are. If I’m not close to it, I can’t do songs with a great scope.That’s one of the reasons we worked with other songwriters on this record, to try and find something that had a broader scope.
BLVR: I guess that’s one reason I like the song “Shane.” I like that it’s both bedroom-sounding but also addresses broader issues, like the Gulf War. I was talking about this a lot with Susan Straight. Do you know that writer?
BLVR: Her point is that the great social novel is actually located in the more domestic scenes, or bedroom talks, or household matters—these are the actual social situations that tell as much about the state of the world as would, say, a conversation held on an eighteenth-century battlefield.
LP: Well, that’s the whole thing, women’s lives and experiences aren’t valued, except by other women. I try not to chip away at the same old block, but it’s true and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I want my experiences recorded, I want to put them out there and everyone else should too. That’s why Jennifer Egan’s novels excite me so much. I really feel like she’s an example of someone who doesn’t give a crap about the fact that she’s just a woman writer. She’s totally not interested in the roles that even people who have written great novels, who are women, still kind of play into. I just read Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative. [The Bondwoman’s Narrative, written by an ex-slave, was unearthed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and is the only known novel by a female African-American slave.] It was a chilling and fascinating novel. It was very feminine in its interests and the social goings-on in the house: dressing, catty social commentary, and classes. It was very recognizably a women’s novel, and at the same time, how many things from that era do you have that record what really went on and what it was really like? A man could dismiss it, saying that it doesn’t tell anything about the real issues of the day.
SAN FRANCISCO AND THE GRIFT
BLVR: You lived in San Francisco after school for a year. What did you do?
LP: We fucked around. In San Francisco it was all kernels of ideas, but nothing ever happened. It’s funny, because I look back at that time as such a fun time, so social. Now everyone’s doing what they set out to do. I also recorded my first songs in San Francisco. I was such a grifter. Not a grifter, what do you call it? I mean parasite, but it had more panache, it did. I always enjoy trying to get away with stuff. It’s a big thrill for me. And in San Francisco my friend Nora and I would go out in the morning with no money and just go to cafés until we pounced on someone. We got lunch, or they bought us lunch. And we’d move from there through their social world until we found dinner or a party. That’s something that I love to do. It is sort of a job. I don’t know what you call it—social whoring maybe. One of my friends from college had this theory that all you needed to be in this world was fabulous and you could just skate through it as an artist, that there was supposed to be the youngest and most fabulous in any circle and as you got older you had to find an older circle. It’s like that movie Impromptu. It’s so funny. It’s about George Sand and Franz Liszt and their circle and the wealthy landowners would invite them—is the right word grift? It’s a hobby. It’s like hunting: it’s a sport.
BLVR: Do you still do that now?
LP: I do it all the time—like when I went down to South by Southwest. It’s such a feeling of accomplishment. Kind of like Swingers, only less pathetic. Well, maybe as pathetic, but it’s that’s what it’s about. It’s like an art piece: your evening, or your entire weekend. Whatever it is. I think that’s a very late–twentieth-century thing.
BLVR: There are characters in Oscar Wilde who do that, too.
LP: Absolutely. There you go. It’s a problem. It’s obviously something that needs to be addressed. The worst part is you never become the wealthy landowner or anything. You’re never anything more than that. You’re a charming grift. It’s wrong because I pray every day that I’ll become financially savvy at some point and start a business or own something that. It’s not my forte. I’m just a charming sponge.
LEGOLAND AND ONWARD[Phair and her son Nick had recently returned from Legoland—the one in Southern California.]
BLVR: How was Legoland? And why do you go there every Easter Sunday?
LP: It’s only the second year running. Because Nick is a Lego maniac; he loves Legos. It was so cute to see him there. It’s like watching someone who’s still really thrilled about their job go to a convention. Like my friend Nina, who’s a Ph.D., submitted a manuscript to Medievalist. She would go—she goes to these conferences and says it’s hilarious to be with a lot of other illuminated manuscript specialists.
BLVR: How does having split with your ex, with whom you worked closely and shared a life, impact your music, your new album, your life…?
LP: I don’t think it impacted me nearly as much as the guy I was with after my husband. I had a long relationship after that and I worked closely with him.That was by far more up and down and disastrous in the end than my marriage was. It wasn’t the right two people, but we are reasonable and we parent together. Whereas the relationship I had after my marriage,I don’t know what that was, but it was definitely kind of damaging to my self esteem. It had a lot of impact, plus it was some of the more fun times I’ve ever had. It was very rocky, up-and-down craziness. I had to fight hard, and I’m not super happy with where I am romantically in my life because I feel like I fucked up. I feel like I have made big mistakes and now I’m sort of at the end of my thirties, not married… I want to be with someone—I have a really good sense of who I am and what hurts me. Let me put it this way: In your twenties, what’s wrong with you is often a source of private shame. In my thirties now, it’s just who I am. It’s just where I am and what I’m struggling with. I have my good points and my bad points and that’s what these are. And my new album, in my mind, is kind of a statement to say you can be fucked up and still enjoy living. You can have an awareness of what you’ve gained, what you’ve lost. I feel like when I listen to it—cause you do these interviews and sometimes people like [the album] and sometimes they don’t and they say things to you and I always try to hear what they’re saying and address it. I don’t fight them or tell them they’re stupid, but if I listen to the record myself, I can just relax and be like, “They don’t get it.” ’Cause it really feels like me. It’s got some nods and winks and self-conscious moments here and there, but by and large that cover is pretty much what’s going on with me. The musical moments on this new record meant a lot to me while we were recording them. I think that when people hear big production they think, “She’s fallen victim to concerns of commerce.”What I hear when I hear the record is,“Do you remember that day, how amazing was that?” I picked moments. I picked all the songs that made me thrill from the last five years of recording. The moments where I was like, “God that was great, that song came to life right then, I’m going to take that version.”This is a long, roundabout way of saying I think that it’s a reaction to being married, trying to fit into roles I don’t fit into, living alone, but also feeling like I need to be this way.
Vendela Vida is the award-winning author of five books including And Now You Can Go, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and The Lovers. A founding editor of The Believer magazine, she lives in Northern California.
Featured Image: Liz Phair illustration by Charles Burns