By Michael Parillo
iVillage, Fall 2003
Singer/songwriter Liz Phair has taken a beating for her recent self-titled LP, which many critics have panned as a self-conscious stab at mainstream acceptance. Why would one of America’s leading indie artists — a daring writer with a knack for crafting quirky lo-fi masterpieces — risk alienating her adoring fan base, just to put out a slicked-up “pop” album? Even worse, Liz has been blasted for enlisting the help of crack songwriting squad The Matrix, the behind-the-scenes team largely responsible for teen sensation Avril Lavigne’s sudden staggering success.
Well, Liz ain’t no Avril Lavigne. She can hold her own with The Matrix. In fact, “Rock Me,” a song they wrote together about a 30-something rocker having a steamy tryst with a much younger man, simply adds catchy hooks and blaring guitars to Liz’s typically snappy lyrics. Yes, she may have found her initial appeal as a shy, unseasoned singer with paralyzing stage fright, but now that Liz has earned the kind of success that breeds confidence, why not make a record that’s aimed at the masses?
It is strange to question the motives behind Liz Phair, especially when every recording musician wants to reach as many listeners as possible. As Liz explained in a recent phone interview, she has lofty goals for her music: “My big megalomaniacal plan is to allow women more expansive roles that are acceptable and valuable.” Make no mistake, though — this rocking single mom hasn’t settled into weight-of-the-world seriousness. Her mischievous sense of humor winks and sneers its way throughout her recent LP. It’s classic Liz when she sings, “You’re like my favorite underwear / And I’m slipping you on again tonight.”
This album is more aggressive than your older stuff. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. I had the desire to make music that had some “pounce,” as I like to call it. I used this record to jump-start my self-esteem. I had been through a couple bad relationships, so I kicked it up a notch to get myself up again. And it worked!
Also, you moved from Chicago to L.A. Those who want to interpret the changes you’ve made to your image and music might find it all in that fact.
Well, I think that’s true. In Chicago I had trouble explaining myself to people. I could never be both a good person/mom and a rock star. Like in the minds of Midwesterners they were antithetical. In L.A., I had a new joie de vivre. Lots of people do crazy things in the arts and are also upstanding citizens that pay their taxes and have families.
Here, I just do what I do. I don’t second-guess it. I just go. And it’s so competitive that you have to go hard. But I needed a chance to stretch my legs and run a little. That was the attitude that I took after moving — lemme show you what I can do, lemme see how far I can push it.
Speaking of your different sides, your music offers contrasting ideas about you. There’s the hot-rocker-babe persona, and there’s the smart indie girl, and there’s the nurturing mom. It’s almost like your songs reflect the fact that you’re a real person!
That’s so cool. I like that you said that. I don’t feel like a record is finished until I have all my sides represented. As a feminist I feel it’s important that I be allowed to be all the different things I am. I fight not to be put in a nice box where part of the things I feel are not allowed. Like, you’re the hot rock chick so you’re not allowed to be soft and vulnerable and sweet with animals. [laughs]
What you just said, those three things — that’s who I am. The only thing you’re missing is sporty nature girl: “Alright, okay — let’s go swimming!” But isn’t that great that you can tell who I am, and it’s accurate, from the music I put out.
When you write something like “Little Digger”, people will probably assume your son has had difficulty with the idea of you dating. And if that’s a true story, people might assume “Rock Me” must be a true story too. Are your songs strictly autobiographical?
I let myself do it all. Something like “Little Digger” happened. That’s very literal. Something like “Rock Me” hadn’t happened yet when I wrote it, and then it happened. Very literally. [laughs]
Sometimes I take the role of a man. I wrote as my brother on [Whitechocolatespaceegg‘s] “Only Son.” I let it all come through, because it’s fascinating to me what a song can do. It can encapsulate the past, it can prefigure the future, it can be empathetic with another human being, it can channel another human being…
Is it fun to think that you’re throwing a bone to listeners, making them wonder whether something in a song really happened or was invented?
Yeah, it is kind of fun. As much as my lyrics deal with very serious stuff that can be painful, I’ve always had that playful side. I grew up studying to be a visual artist. And in visual art, you throw the thing up on the wall and let people interpret it. It’s also about their reaction.
Speaking of being playful, what role does humor have in rock and roll? A lot of critics gasp at all your “dirty” lines while missing how funny they are.[laughs] I know — it’s so sad! It always kills me that people don’t see that side. I wish I were “ha ha” funny, but I’m more clever funny! Like “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Most people hear that song on [Phair’s debut] Exile in Guyville and just see it as spooky. But in the background there’s this obnoxious, drunk, ridiculous vocal, and that’s such a big part of it. I mean, girlysound, my earliest concept in music, was about speeding up the tape so my voice sounded high and little, and saying all these shocking, scary things in this little girly voice.
“HWC” on your new record would qualify as girlysound, right?
Completely. So would “Why Can’t I?” Here’s this song saying, Isn’t it great, we’re holding hands — but you’re cheating on your girlfriend and I’m cheating too.
Let’s go back a bit. What was your musical life like in and after high school?
In high school I would play guitar because I didn’t want to do my homework, basically. I started playing [whispers] very quietly, because I was supposed to be studying. It was something to release my mind from its bondage. Dreamtime.
I just wrote songs. I never played them for anyone, and I didn’t record them. Then later I was living in San Francisco and a friend dared me to send him a tape of my stuff. I always take dares — I have that kind of tomboy personality where it’s like, “Oh yeah?” ‘Cause I couldn’t play it for anyone. If I started to, I would stammer, stutter, blush — just complete lockdown. [laughs]
Then I basically ran out of money and my parents recalled me from San Francisco. I’m suddenly stuck, at the age of 22, back at my parents’ house in the middle of Chicago with no life, no job — nothing — living in my goddamn old room.
Whenever they would go out, I would pour myself a whiskey on ice, have a cigarette and blow it out the window, and sit and record these songs. I made a couple batches for the friend who dared me and another friend, and they made copies for their friends. I think to people they were some crazy chick’s weird songs: “This is some hot suburban chick’s diary!” And they became kind of a cult fave — not because they were so great, but because they were voyeuristically attractive.
And this is so bad… People would send me all this money. Like 10 bucks, in a letter, so I’d make them a copy. But I was so poor that I just spent it! [laughs hard] It became my income. It’s horrible. I’m so sorry, but I wasn’t quite as moral as I am now.
And then it got under the radar of the two heads of Matador, which is an indie label. They gave us some money and we recorded Guyville really leisurely. Whoever dropped by played something. It was so social. I thought we were just having a lark. Like, “This is my fall social season!”
That’s quite a story. How can the budding teenage songwriter follow in your footsteps?
My career happened so by accident that I don’t know if I have good advice. Don’t listen to anybody, because there’s so many times that I should have been over.