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Interview: Liz Phair

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At 36, Liz Phair has a long creative life ahead of her. But she already knows at least three words that will appear in the first paragraph of her obituary: Exile in Guyville.

By Josh Tyrangiel
Time, June 30, 2003

At 36, Liz Phair has a long creative life ahead of her. But she already knows at least three words that will appear in the first paragraph of her obituary: Exile in Guyville. The 1993 album was the definitive feminist-indie-rock manifesto and one of the most influential discs of the ’90s. On classics like Flower, Phair used her low, wry voice to bridge Gloria Steinem and Candace Bushnell and capture the dynamics of being a thinking woman who likes sex. Guyville didn’t sell much, but it cleared an airstrip for everyone from Alanis Morissette to Lauryn Hill and created a Phair cult that exists to this day.

Actually, it depends on what day you’re reading this. The expiration date on the cult could well be June 24, when Phair’s self-titled fourth album hits stores. “This is a pop record, dammit. I make no apologies,” says Phair. “It’s got guitar hooks and lyrics you can scream in the car. Hate me if you want, but nothing would make me happier if my songs got blasted from pop radio all summer. That’d be just great.”

The midcareer move from indie idol to Avril Lavigne wannabe is in part financially motivated. Phair is a single mom with a 6-year-old son. When she turned in the original material for her fourth album to her record label, Capitol, there were polite nods and a sales prediction — “Goldish,” recalls Phair, or around 500,000 copies. In the cruel calculus of the record business — in which everyone gets his cut before the artist and a majority of singers owe their record companies money — gold barely pays the bills. “It takes me a long time to make a record, and I burn through a lot of cash and a lot of energy,” says Phair. “To hear that it’ll be [only] O.K. successful brings you down.”

As Phair struggled to make her album more commercial, an executive suggested she try writing songs with the Matrix, the team behind Lavigne’s ear-bending debut. Phair was hesitant. “Mostly it was the name the Matrix,” she says. “Why would you want people to think of you as the evil, all-controlling, delusional architecture of the universe?” It turned out that the Matrix — Scott Spock plus husband-and-wife team Graham Edwards and Lauren Christy — was named in an homage to the womb (no one said it was a great homage) and that Christy was a thirtysomething mom too. Phair was won over. “You go in, and they have the music pretty much written. And it’s so exciting. You can feel the structure of an excellent song. Where they go with the bridge — I don’t know — it’s both effortless and soaring.”

Phair mostly stuck to her own irony-laden voice for the lyrics; on Rock Me and Extraordinary the subjects are, respectfully, stupid teen fascination and the desire of a woman in her mid-30s to be fascinating to stupid teens — “I want to play Xbox on your floor,” she sings. Longtime fans will get the humor even though they may resent being cast aside like last year’s game console. Teens, meanwhile, will wonder how Mrs. Robinson got into their bedroom. The Matrix songs on Liz Phair sound like sugar-coated contemporary pop, but they feel all wrong. Pop is equal parts attitude and sound; when the attitude is neediness, the sound is of people running away.

None of this seems to faze Phair. “I don’t expect my album to be everything to everybody,” she says. “It’s just one kind of record, and you should have many in your collection. It’s also not my entire artistic statement. It’s the fourth record. There’ll be a sixth and an eighth.” It’s anyone’s guess who she’ll be singing for by then.

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