By Chris J. Walker
Mix, November 2003
The mid- to late ’90s saw a blossoming movement of young female singer/songwriters, who mostly sang sweet, introspective songs of loves won and lost. One artist who stood apart from the pack, though, was Chicago-based Liz Phair, who always had a harder, indie-rock sensibility that was in stark contrast with the top sellers of that era, such as Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole and Sheryl Crow, but never showed the aggressive tendencies of Courtney Love, PJ Harvey or Juliana Hatfield. Instead, Phair was closer in artistic temperament to early Beck: acerbic and coolly humorous, but with a strong veneer of sexuality on top.
Unlike Beck and some of the others mentioned, Phair never became a household name, instead remaining a cult favorite who garnered heaps of accolades from music critics and considerable exposure on MTV. Her CD sales were respectable, but never amounted to the blockbuster numbers her label and industry types projected. Then, she purposely lowered her profile after getting married and giving birth to a son at the end of 1996. Two years later, she released her third recording, whitechocolatespaceegg (Phair’s description of her baby), which was mildly received and ushered in a period of the singer focusing on her home life.
Fast-forward five years later to 2003: Phair is now divorced and a single mother. Throughout her career, Phair’s personal life has always served as source material for songs and, undoubtedly, she had plenty to draw from when creating her recent self-titled CD. However, in the spirit of being an indie artist, she doesn’t always do the predictable. The results are a varied collection of songs that weigh heavily on the lighter side. “I’d just come out of a real heavy relationship and I just wanted to lighten up and make some more upbeat music,” she commented during a radio interview in late June 2003. KCRW, the Santa Monica, Calif., NPR affiliate, was broadcasting a live performance by her band during its well-known Morning Becomes Eclectic program, long a magnet for acts somewhat outside of the pop mainstream.
“The funny part is that I just rolled with what was going on at the time,” Phair continued. “Every song on the CD was recorded at a different session. Over the five years, I worked with different producers and we never really had a plan. We just recorded whatever songs we happened to think were the best at the time.” That kind of “seeing what sticks to the wall” methodology led to her working with a diverse group of producers that included multi-instrumentalist R. Walt Vincent, the highly successful Matrix team and fellow artist-turned-producer Michael Penn.
Actually, Penn produced an entire CD for Phair, but she and the label opted to intersperse tracks by other producers and scrap his mix. Understandably, Penn was somewhat miffed by the politics and creative maneuvering, yet he also says that he understands the decisions and wishes Phair much success. “The story goes that Liz delivered the record to Capitol and they thought it was good and would get good reviews, but they felt it wouldn’t be a smash,” Penn comments from his L.A. home studio. “So she went back in with the Matrix and I just figured that none of that stuff [that he and Phair did] would come out.” In the end, though, Penn has more production credits than anyone else on the CD, including the Matrix and Phair.
Prior to Penn becoming involved as a producer for most of 2002, Phair had made a batch of demos with Vincent and pop songwriter Gary Clark. From listening to that body of work, Penn sensed that Phair was trying to find a balance between her own idiosyncratic material and more structured pop that didn’t come as naturally to her as a writer. “I took her songs and tried to find ways of doing them that appealed to what she was trying to do,” the producer recalls, “and also how I felt they would best be served.” To keep costs down and to accommodate Phair’s spur-of-the-moment creativity, he did most of the work in Capitol’s Pro Tools room. If drums or guitars were needed, they booked short blocks of time at Sonora Recorders, Sage & Sound and Sunset Sound.
While recording Phair’s CD, she and Penn discussed how they wanted to texturally shape the work on a song-by-song basis. Penn would normally go through sounds and beats, and record the backing musicians. Phair would occasionally work with the players and mostly preferred to come in later and listen to what had been done and then do vocal overdubs. Penn comments, “The one that I’m most proud of, which didn’t show up on the record, is ‘What You Can’t Have’. It was a song she wrote with Gary Clark and I heard it in a way where it didn’t have a standard trap [drums] set. We made this cool, groovy loop thing out of the sounds of arc welders and other stuff. It created this enchanting vibe that was unusual and really worked. Basically, it was done in the spirit of what just sounds good, with no consideration whatsoever of marketplace or recapturing former glory.”
In contrast to Penn’s organic and intuitive approach, the Matrix producing team — Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards — brought a more overtly commercial perspective to the undertaking, focusing primarily on constructing appealing and accessible melodies and lyrics. On the surface, it might seem unusual that Phair would be attracted to a group of producer/writers best known for their work with Avril Lavigne, Ricky Martin and the Backstreet Boys, but Phair noted, ““It was just as exciting and rewarding as any other recording experience. They are really wonderful and talented people, as are R. Walt Vincent and Michael Penn.”
From the trio’s homey Decoy Studios located in the San Fernando Valley, Spock describes the Matrix philosophy: “Whether it’s Liz Phair, David Bowie or whoever we’re working with, we try to hold up a magnifying glass and magnify the coolest things about an artist so that it’s accessible to lots of people, not just a small market. And we try to write good songs. That’s all we’re about, really.”
The Matrix team felt that the five songs they wrote and recorded with Phair complemented the body of work she had previously done with Penn; in fact, they all thought what the duo had created previously was beautiful. Christy remembers the listening session, which set the course for the Matrix’s work on the CD. “Liz said, ‘My only worry is that it’s a little bit mellow. I’m just in a mood to do things that will shake things up and not be so passive.’ So we knew straightaway not to hit her with any mid-tempos or things like that; just uptempo stuff. She was open to it and ready to do something fun.”
When working with Phair, the team would play around on guitars and piano, throwing around ideas until there was a general consensus. From there, they’d refine the songs and start putting down tracks. Generally, the Matrix likes to build everything around the vocals, so they often have a raw vibe initially. “The drummer plays to the singer so he can really feel where to pull back and to lift up at the end of bridge,” remarks Christy. “The same goes for the guitars, which Graham does, and then we’ll have Corky James come in to supplement.” Despite the layering and the Matrix’s vocal harmonies, Phair’s singing is by far the tracks’ most distinctive feature. Christy stresses, “We’ve worked with a lot of singers, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who’s who. Liz’s voice doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. It has a huge character, and I think she’s underrated as a singer. She has quite a range and is truly an indie poet.”
Similar to Penn, the Matrix did their own recording (to Pro Tools/Logic Audio) and production, with drums produced at House of Blues Studios in Encino by Krish Sharma. However, when it came time for mixing, Phair chose Serban Ghenea at Windmark Studios in Virginia Beach to handle nine of the 14 final mixes, with Tom Lord-Alge doing the remainder at South Beach Studios in Miami. Ghenea, originally a Canadian guitarist, came up under the guidance of R&B producer Teddy Riley and is adept at melding different styles. “A lot of times, this happens,” he explains from his new studio. “If you’ve got a bunch of producers with very different approaches and sounds, it’s nice to get one guy to make it all flow together into an album package. You can tell a Matrix song the minute it comes on; they got a signature that’s really cool. To be quite honest, I didn’t know who all of the producers were [for Phair’s CD].”
“Everything was well-recorded and pretty easy to work with,” he continues. “But these days, [the recordings] may sound simple, but there’s 50 to 60 tracks going on.” Ghenea, who’s worked with N.E.R.D., Jill Scott, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Faith Hill, never met or spoke with Phair, Penn or Vincent, but he did go over some minor points with the Matrix, who, unlike Penn, were happy with his work, which utilized a slew of Pro Tools plug-ins. He says it wasn’t necessary to talk to Phair; he just mixed by feel, as he’s accustomed to. Ghenea also recently worked on Jewel’s new CD, which is as much a departure for her as Phair’s.
It was a long and, at times, hard road bringing the Liz Phair CD to life, and not all of the critics have been kind: Some have accused her of pandering for commercial gain; others loved the new style and attitude. Phair looks at the whole thing as an extensive learning experience: “The cool part about being an artist is that you get to work with a lot of different people, and you’re creative. I love the recording process, because in your creativity, you come into contact with someone else’s. You learn from each other, change and develop something new between the two of you. That’s what really excites me.”