By Ben Lee
Interview, July 2003
A decade after the release of her seminal album, Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair has achieved every possible definition of success—personal, critical, musical—save one: commercial. And now that she’s overcome her career-imparing stage fright, she’s ready to go on tour promoting her first album in five years. Fellow rocker Ben Lee find out how she intends to conquer the pop charts.
BEN LEE: Liz! How are you?
LIZ PHAIR: I’m great, how are you?
BL: I’m okay. I’ve decided that once every five years, I’m going to interview you. Then I’ll put out a book of our conversations when we’re both senior citizens.
LP: Let’s keep it up until we have a little blue hair. Can I just say that I have not stopped talking about how great your show was at the Sundance Film Festival.
BL: You shocked me by jumping on stage with me, because you are notorious for getting stage fright. Have you conquered it?
LP: I think so. I can’t say I don’t get nervous, but I really kind of enjoy performing now.
BL: What changed?
LP: When I first came out with [my first album, 1993’s] Exile in Guyville, I had never really performed. I just wasn’t prepared to stand up in front of all of those people. But after I had my child [in 1997], for some reason I stopped taking things so personally.
BL: When we first met, I remember you saying that pop success was exciting for you. On your new record, you worked with the Matrix, who are professional songwriters. Was that a conscious decision to find a way to work within the system?
LP: After my last record [1998’s whitechocolatespacegg], I needed to decide if I wanted to try to compete commercially. I’m competitive, so I don’t like to feel marginalized by the people who sell a lot of records.
BL: You’ve gotten a lot of attention because your lyrics can be so sexual. How much of your work is about shocking people, and how much of it is about what goes on in your living room when you’re writing?
LP: When it’s me in my living room, it’s pretty pure, and then what gets recorded involves more people, and it keeps escalating from there. Take a song like “Little Digger”, which is on the new record, but is actually a song I’ve been working on for a few years. When I first wrote it, I was embarrassed to even play it for anyone. But as the years went by, it became something that’s not that personal for me anymore.
BL: You take an almost male attitude toward rock ‘n’ roll and sexuality which is similiar to your attitude about mainstream music.
LP: That’s exactly what’s exciting for me — the idea of infiltrating the male structure and affecting change from within. I grew up with a lot of brothers and male cousins, so I had to worm my way in to get heard. But that’s sort of what excites me.
BL: Have you done any videos for the new record with pyrotechnics and stuff?
LP: No. You know what really bugs me about my videos? When they can’t figure out what to do, they just have me change clothes five times. It’s always like, “Here’s the plan: Let’s make Liz look cute, and then she’s gonna look cuter.”
BL: When Exile in Guyville came out, it seemed like people were making amazing records in their bedrooms all the time. How do you feel when you look back on that time?
LP: It was sort of like Revenge of the Nerds, where people with different perspectives, the underdogs, became the heroes. Now, in music, it seems more like the popular crowd suppresses anyone who is different.
BL: I carry a flame for that time.
LP: It’s an eternal flame. But it’s definitely raining.
BL: There are so many female artists around now who have been inspired by you. Do you feel maternal toward them?
LP: I probably had some impact, because everyone keeps telling me that I did. I like to feel like I’m coming out with something to try to make room for other young women to make their art.
BL: You’re a cool human being, Liz Phair. Take me on tour with you!
LP: I’d like to tour with a bunch of people where it’s just them and their guitars. It would be like Lilith Fair — only everyone plays alone, and it would be competitive.
BL: The whole audience could get scorecards and a clap-o-meter.
LP: That’s what we really need. That’s the spirit.