By Doug Elfman
Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 27, 2003
For 10 years, Liz Phair has been a Bob Dylan for Generation X. She was the queen of independent music. But on June 24, she became a heartbreaker of rock critics and music purists.
She put out a pop album.
Imagine Dylan trying to sound like Justin Timberlake. That’s analogous to how many critics view her fourth album, Liz Phair. She doesn’t just sound like Avril Lavigne, she used Lavigne’s producers, named The Matrix, to “popify” some songs.
This is such a shock to music insiders that people such as bassist Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes brings up Phair, unsolicited, in an interview about his band:
“She’s even acting and looking like Lavigne. I wonder if it’s a scam. I thought it was interesting a couple of years ago when Garth Brooks put out a rock album under a pseudonym. So Liz Phair should have put out the same record, but called herself something else, like Buffy Teenybopper. That would have been cool.”
Phair, 36, and a divorced single mother, has responded to criticism in part by saying there’s no reason she shouldn’t be famous like teen Lavigne.
A New York Times review poked Phair with a knife: “Exile in Avril-ville”. That’s a play on Phair’s 1993 classically hailed debut disc, Exile in Guyville.
Phair wrote a letter to the editor at The New York Times. The letter read as a short-short story starring Chicken Little. The moral was that life should not be so thinky that it can’t be enjoyed.
In this interview, Phair explains her new direction in another way. When she writes a song, “I’m not thinking in terms of production,” she says. Her new sound reflects the ideas of producers who were available to her, just as her previous, independent sound reflected the moods of producer and friend Brad Wood.
“I just work with whomever is there,” she says. “The fact that I worked with Brad Wood shaped my whole style, but it wasn’t my style before that.”
Phair says she loves her new, poppier songs, especially when she sings them live, because they “are easier to sing. They’re more challenging, too.”
“They’re easier, because they’re in my range, and they’re just melodically acrobatic?” she says. (You can hear the up-speak, question mark in her breezy tone.) “I know (fans are) kind of staring without the connection yet, but it’s such a joy for me to perform them that I’m kind of showing off more.”
She is not abandoning her previous songs. She loves them in a different way.
“The old songs are harder to sing, because they’re low and guttural, and it’s not so much of a pleasure to perform that aspect of it? But as I sing them? I feel like we’re creating this little cinematic picture between us — the audience and me. And that’s really pleasurable, because I know that those words really impact the audience.”
Onstage and in interviews, Phair says she feels more confident now that she has been “tested a lot”.
“Going through a divorce, and especially being a single mom and moving (from Chicago) to California, that was a big deal to me. This might seem cluelesslike, but I never really expected to have to take care of myself? Let alone (raise alone) a child, as well — the realities.”
Her higher confidence level is a change from 10 years ago, when the Village Voice named Exile the year’s best disc.
“I really wasn’t used to being scrutinized. I’d never imagined myself that way growing up. The whole thing about putting out Exile and then having it be this success, at least critically — the exposure, I wasn’t prepared for at all. I’d never even performed live. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to do. I hated it.”
Compared to single motherhood, she says and laughs, performing seems like a pleasure, not “invasive or scary”.
People who meet Phair are often struck by the fact that she doesn’t seem like an indie queen. Singer Pete Yorn — who recorded an EP with Phair; it may be released soon on his label — says he expected Phair to be dark and dour. But she seemed like a sorority girl to him.
Phair laughs when she’s told this.
“I know, everyone expects that, but I can’t help that,” she says. “I suppose if I were (dark and dour) before, it was probably all the pot I smoked when I was 24. It made me paranoid and bleary-eyed. But since then, I don’t know, it’s better to be happy than unhappy.”
Embracing happiness was the point of her letter to the Times, she says.
“It’s just a record. Try to enjoy it, the music. Whatever anyone puts on, I try to enjoy it. Whatever culturally I go see — a movie or something or whatever — I try to enjoy it. I want to enjoy it,” she says. “It’s not one of the unpleasant categories of life.”
Songwriter Jeff Trott — who invited Phair to record with Sheryl Crow — says Phair was so upbeat and flirtatious in the studio that all the men in the room thought they had a shot at her.
“Yeah,” Phair says and chuckles at Trott’s line, “I’m very bad like that. But I’m also, like, the wall. Like, I’m very flirtatious at a shallow level, but people who I actually hook up with are few and far between… I’m very, like, impish and kind of fun-loving.”
Phair’s fun-loving spirit doesn’t fit into the rock world. She was reminded of this during a recent photo shoot with rock stars.
“I was, like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ I was so excited to be there,” she says. “And we were laughing — my publicist and I, afterward — because it didn’t go over very well. I had to keep dampening my enthusiasm.
“People in rock and roll are supposed to be aloof and cooler,” Phair says. “And I’m really not like that at all. I’m, like, ‘Whoa! Waah!'”
No matter how Phair comes across personally, her lyrics have been deep, wry, intelligent and poetic. She often sings in other people’s points of view. In “Only Son”, she sang as if she were a terrible son looking back at his bad wake.
The new album doesn’t have “role-playing” songs on it.
“I had this real desire to make a statement on my own,” she says.
Even so, Phair says she thinks her new songs are still aware of other people’s perspectives.
“‘Red Light Fever’ is all about what this guy is feeling. It’s all about that. And so is, like, ‘Extraordinary’. It’s all about this man’s perception of me, which I’d like to change.”
Phair recorded songs with various producers, but they didn’t make the album. Some of those vault songs will be used for a new album that will be released relatively soon; this album was five years in the making.
“I wasn’t dying to hit the road again. So as long as the label wasn’t pressuring me to finish, I would just take whatever money they would give me and just keep recording,” she says. “I’m not going to always be like that.”
For now, Phair tours. She sees only one serious drawback.
“I’m a very bedroom-y person,” she says. “I like my room and I like nesting, and it’s hard to imagine living with, like, 10 other guys while moving” in a tour bus.
Maybe she could write a song about touring with men?
She’d rather not, she says lightheartedly. A poetic dash escapes her: “Do I want that song? Aren’t there more Sundays to get songs out of?”