By Mary Huhn
New York Post, August 10, 2003
Be careful what you wish for.
Ex-indie rock queen Liz Phair says she wanted people to be excited about the release of her fourth album — and they certainly are.
The record — called, simply, Liz Phair — has been critically assailed as everything from career suicide to evidence of a premature mid-life crisis (she’s now a 36-year-old divorced mom).
And she admits she’s having difficulty with people regarding her as a sell-out.
“When I do a rough interview, I go back and listen to my record,” she says in her familiar, sandy voice. “And I still like it.”
The girl who, at age 26, wrote and recorded Exile in Guyville — a sexy, cheeky, song-by-song respose to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street — hired The Matrix (whose songwriting and production have helped make faux-punk Avril Lavigne a star) for this record.
And she underwent a radical makeover, styling herself out like a sex kitten.
“I am equal parts dumb blond and scrutinizing intellectual,” she says.
Yet, Phair says, she came quite close to releasing a more typically brutal, honest record — inspired by the break-up of her last romance.
She had the material for it, but, she says, “I was sick of being fucking down,” and didn’t want to have to perform those songs night after night while touring.
After splitting up with her husband, Phair says she had a difficult “rebound” relationship which had “the highest highs” and the “lowest lows”.
“I was really angry with this guy,” Phair says. “I needed [to do] an ‘up’ record to get me up. It worked. You live with an album for a long time; I didn’t want to be down for that long.”
While her new album has a “parental advisory” warning, most of the songs are cleanly, expressly crafted for radio play. Just as Jewel’s remade herself into a more Britney-esque artist, Phair has become more like Avril.
She says it was a “business savvy” decision, partly due to her responsibility as the mother of a 6-year-old, and partly due to a very real desire to be a mainstream commercial successs.
Yet Phair understands if her new stuff doesn’t work for her long-time fans, who were enthralled with a foul-mouthed, super-smart, feminist rock icon. “If it’s not their thing,” she says simply, “it’s not their thing — but I like people to argue about it. People argued about Guyville. It wasn’t instantly accepted as a work of genius.”
If anything, the angry reaction of some longtime fans to this record — the first single, “Why Can’t I?” is a breathless romantic confession, and very un-Phair-like — bemuses her. “They are holding my own record against me,” she says. “It’s like they own it.”
She adds that this record may be truer to her real identity than ever her most fervent fans realize.
Before she went to Ohio’s infamously artsy Oberlin College and began smoking pot, she says she was just a “suburban chick”.
She admits to wearing acid-washed jeans and a “Lady Di” haircut. Once she decided that she wanted to be cool, she says she had to work at it.
Phair is currently co-headlining a tour with young singer/songwriter Jason Mraz and the Norwegian phenom Sondre Lerche, which stops at Roseland on Wednesday. Tonight she’ll headline her own show at the Bowery Ballroom.
When asked what her favorite moment on the tour has been, she replies with an embarrassed, “You won’t like it.” She goes on to explain that, at first, she didn’t want to tour with hot newcomer Mraz, but was talked into it by her manager.
Then, at a show last Tuesday in St. Louis, Mraz dedicated his hit “Sleep All Day” to her. “I screamed like a girl,” she says. “I did the cheesy stuff.”