By Keith Daniels
SuicideGirls, November 2003
Liz Phair has always made a point of choosing the bed in which she lays, only this time the bed is king-size and the quilt says “Rock Star” in giant letters. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Since the release of her 1993 classic Exile In Guyville she sporadically flirted with a more mainstream, radio-friendly sound on its follow-ups Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, albums that met with more or less the indie success of Guyville, but clearly not the radio reception she wanted. So, in typical fashion, she went all out: hiring the production team the Matrix (most famous for engineering Avril Lavigne’s biggest hits), as well as Sheryl Crow-producer Michael Penn and contemporary singer-songwriter Pete Yorn to help her make an album that would put her in the charts. That was the plainly stated goal, and it’s safe now to say, “Mission accomplished,” as the video for its first single, “Why Can’t I?” receives heavy rotation on MTV and VH1.
The unanswered question is: does an artist have a duty to fulfill fan’s expectations? Perhaps inevitably, the new album, ironically titled Liz Phair, carries few of the Phair trademarks fans of Guyville loved: the occasional bum note, the sparse production, the cynically clever lyrics, but the hipster backlash and negative reviews are irrelevant, because this album wasn’t made for people who read reviews. It was made for the mall-kids who were in kindergarten when rock critics the world over were swooning over her debut:
Keith Daniels: So what have the last three months been like for you?
Liz Phair: Kind of like Outward Bound for grown-ups.
KD: [laughs] Like boot camp.
LP: [laughs] Yeah, but more fun. Well, maybe boot camp’s fun, but Outward Bound would have to be really hard and tough. It’s been really great – great memories. I love extreme things like that that you do with your life that not a lot of people do.
KD: Do you mean that in the sense that you’ve learned a lot?
LP: I never toured on a bus before. Believe it or not, I always flew. The guys would take a bus [laughs] and I’d be flying. The camaraderie… but I was really scared. I had massive bustrophobia before I went out. So I was anticipating it to be not much fun.
KD: Was this when you were on tour with the Lips?
LP: The Lips… actually I flew that one, but that was really fun too. They were amazing to be on tour with, and then this last one with festival people and Jason Mraz.
KD: I saw you in Oklahoma City with the Lips, and I thought it was kind of sweet that you seemed to still have a little bit of stage fright.
LP: [laughs] I know! My sense of awareness is very heightened. You know how the smaller woodland creatures seem to be vibrating at a faster rate than the bigger ones? That’s what I’m like. [laughs]
KD: The response to this album has been really interesting. You could almost make some sort of art piece with all the reviews.
LP: Why don’t you? That’s a really good idea.
KD: [laughs] You were doing art before you had a music career, so is that how you look at these sorts of things? From a detached point of view?
LP: Completely. That’s just my training. My mom was an art historian, and then at Overland [(sic)], because of the political environment that I was in, it was a very challenging, stir-stuff-up… Music, to me, was so colored by my art interests and my art education. That’s what I majored in, art history and studio arts, and that’s how I see it. To me, it’s exactly like that. Someone should get all the clippings and put them in some sort of cool order. Then I’m thinking to myself “Add photos and it’s a coffee table!” [laughs] I definitely view life through that lens.
KD: There’s a song on the new album, “Love-Hate”, where you talk about the rhetoric that you hear when you’re young and in college: “What’s good for one oppresses the other” Judging from that song, you sound like that sort of thinking turns you off now. Did that always turn you off?
LP: No, I was very into that thinking. I was very much into didacticism. I really gravitated towards that, and I really moved through it to a more multiple perspective. I see things now more holistically, and it so does kindof turn me off. [whispers] I think, honestly, it’s like age too. If you’re not that way when you’re twenty-four there’s something wrong with you, or you’re an old soul or something. That’s a pivotal thing to go through.
KD: Like the saying, “If you’re not a democrat when you’re twenty you have no heart, and if you’re not a republican when you’re forty you have no brain.”
LP: Okay, I’m with that. [laughs] I’m with that. My parents also say, “politic with the left, and party with the right,” which I hold as well. I think that’s right, or at least it was right in my life. That’s what I learned.
KD: Now, it seems to me like you like you’ve been trying to get more commercial ever since Whip-Smart, so why were people so surprised by this record?
LP: I have been doing that. I have been moving in that direction. What I thought, it’s kind of the curious part to me – and you’re not going to believe me – but it’s kind of lucky, because my record could’ve come out with a fizzle. It could’ve been, “Oh, Liz Phair’s got a record out. I just love her.” You know what I mean? That could have been my release, or it could’ve been big trumpets blaring and nothing. The fact that there was this shit-storm of negative press and controversy… I really think, and I can’t tell you why, the people who had just bought Guyville, and never really cared other than they knew I sort of had a career up until now – they started writing about it. Maybe it’s the age of people, I don’t know what it is, but I definitely felt a lot of people… It became a good story to write about. Writers need a good story to write about, and sometimes there’s not that much out there. “Let’s jump on and weigh in!” I was reviewed three and four times in the same publications! They’d be arguing with each other. At first I was like, “Holy crap! What’s this? This is scary,” and then I started to realize it wasn’t about me as much as it was everyone writing to each other, and weighing in their opinions in the eyes of their peers. I remember that from Guyville. It was the exact same thing. I was like the content of an argument, a forum for people to weigh in on Guyville. “She’s not indie, she dyes her hair blonde!” I remember that so well.
KD: It reminds me of the song “Little Digger” on the album. “My Liz Phair is mine…”
LP: [laughs] That’s funny. It puts it down in the infantile pose, doesn’t it?
KD: I’ve read that Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg each sold less than the one before it. So did you feel like there was something that wasn’t working?
LP: That’s not actually true.
KD: Well, what I read was that Spaceegg didn’t top 300,000.
LP: But Guyville didn’t top 300,000. Period. It got to about 250.
KD: I apologize.
LP: That’s ok. It’s a little known fact. It kept selling steadily, and that’s what brought it to gold. It didn’t go gold until I was already putting out Whitechocolatespaceegg. So that was six years later. They’ve all sold, more or less… there’re probably differences, but not big ones. The big difference would be having a 250,000 selling record, and then you had a platinum. They weren’t big jumps. They all just kind of puttered along there. They just had wildly different perceptions.
KD: In the past you’ve been known for songs that were very conflicted, but on the new album you sound much less so. Was that a by-product of trying to make this album more radio-friendly, or do you really feel that way? Are you happier now?
LP: I really am a lot happier, and I’m a lot less conflicted. I’m much more comfortable with who I am, and I don’t have a lot of the choking issues that I had before – or at least not with the frequency that I had before. It’s much better inside here, [laughs] than it was when I was twenty-six.
KD: You’ve described this album as a “win-win” situation for you in that, if it did well, it did well, and if it didn’t, that Capitol would let you go, and you could go back to making little indie records. How has that played out so far?
LP: I don’t know yet! It’s still going. So far everybody at Capitol is really happy, and they’re anticipating a good end-of-the-year onto a second single. We’re just starting to plan the video, so it’s certainly not an over ball-game yet, and I don’t know. I don’t think they would drop me, but I bet I wouldn’t have to go for it again. I also think the good thing is that I could probably do some writing, and get someone to publish it… with a name that’s been bandied about pretty highly.
KD: What would you write about?
LP: I don’t know!
KD: Your life story? Fiction?
LP: I don’t know!
KD: [laughs] So just the idea of writing at this point.
LP: Well, I mean, I write poems, I write stories, I write my dream, stuff like that, but I would consider writing reality too – or sort of a mesh. The tour, or whatever, or what it’s like to be a rock star and a mom. I could do that too. I dunno.
KD: What’s going to be the next single?
LP: I think it’s “Extraordinary”.
KD: How do you feel about coming back and competing, or being in the same arena with, girls who are following in your footsteps?
LP: I don’t really see it that way. I don’t think what I did was this emblematic thing. I think it was symptomatic. I think a lot of women were doing that then; mine just struck the right tone. So I feel like it’s been a collective expression of the female voice, that’s been moving been moving for the last… I don’t know, however long. What’s weird to me, and [makes me] happy, is that I like the fact that I’m up in the charts with Hillary Duff, because I think you need me. It’s not really a whole world if the only thing that’s really palatable is a young girl that’s just… that’s not challenging you. For the world to look like the way I want it there’s got to be all things. There’s got to be a lot of women doing different things and being valued for it, so I like being up. We need some old chicks! [laughs]
KD: [laughs] You’re not old! Ok, let’s say a sixteen-year-old girl hears “Why Can’t I?” on the radio and she goes out and buys your album, and then she buys all your other albums – what do you think they’re going to think?
LP: Half of them will probably be like, “Ohmigod, she so couldn’t sing back then,” [laughs] and some of them will be like, “I’m unhappy and she knows me.” So it’ll be both.
KD: The song that follows immediately after “Love/Hate”, where you’re talking about all this didactic rhetoric, is “Hot White Cum”. Was that sequencing purposeful?
LP: It was very purposeful, but probably for different reasons than you think. I’m kind of putting together a meal, and I needed a palette cleanser. [laughs] That’s my kind of palette cleanser, because I think whenever you get a little preachy, or you get heavy-handed with the terminology, it’s nice to just lighten things up – and remind you that serious thinking is one thing, but a hella good time is another.
KD: You’ve always said that you were a feminist, or that you had strong feminist beliefs, but have you always found the “anti-sex” faction distasteful?
LP: A little bit, but at one point I too felt like a victim of sex. What I’m trying to do, and some fan told me this after a show in Minneapolis. She said, “I want my daughter to listen to your music,” and whenever I hear that I’m both really flattered and a little afraid, y’know? I was like, “Really?” and she said, “Yeah. I want her to be proud of being a woman; not afraid.” I thought that was so great, because if I could state any political aim – that’s my feminism. I think the anti-sex thing that [some] feminists have been associated with is a valid stance to take, because since I was eleven I’ve been approached for sex by guys. All the time. You just feel this unrelenting, and a lot of it can be inappropriate, kind of predatory-ness that really makes you close up inside about your own sexuality, and have really weird things about it. So at one level I think it’s important for people who experience that to have it validated by authority… don’t I sound just like a feminist? What happened to me is that as I got older and stronger inside I wanted to fight for girl’s rights to express their sexuality, and enjoy it and relish it. So I’m fighting for that end too, and I think that was sorely missed by a lot of the feminists. It was taken up in the ‘70s, the whole Free Love whatever. Even though it ended up being kind of one-sided in favor of guys, there was a lot of merit to the idea behind it, which is: it’s natural, you own it, get out of it what you want, make sure you come, make sure it pleases you. Stuff like that is not taught to young women. It’s all about “Don’t get pregnant,” “Don’t get VD,” “Don’t get called a slut,” “Don’t get used and not called back.” It’s all these don’t, don’t, don’t, don’ts, and nobody is explaining what the dos should be. The dos are “Get yourself a steady boyfriend. Bring him home to the family. Take him on vacation. Love each other.” That’s what it should be.