By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth
Chart Attack, August 21, 2003
Former indie queen Liz Phair shocked her adoring — and in many cases, freakishly possessive — fans earlier this year when the press announced that the singer would release her long delayed fourth album this June, complete with tracks produced by some of mainstream pop’s greatest hitmakers. In contrast to the raw home-recording sound of Phair’s 1993 debut Exile In Guyville (which remains the most critically acclaimed of her four albums), Phair hired people like Michael Penn and, most offensively to Phair’s hardcore fanbase, The Matrix (the prolific songwriting/production trio responsible for Avril Lavigne‘s first three singles) to produce her new self-titled disc.
The reaction to Phair’s new radio-friendly sound has been mixed. Many of the fans (and critics) have vilified Phair for what they perceive as a sell-out and commercial radio has yet to fully accept the former indie smut-talker as an adult contempo staple (although I defy anyone to spend more than an hour in a grocery store or mall without hearing Phair’s Matrix single “Why Can’t I”). Amidst the controversy about the album — which is, in actuality, not that different from Phair’s last album, 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg — Phair herself doesn’t feel like she’s betrayed anyone. In fact, she finds it funny that so many people assume that the album’s production style comes from a calculated plan on her part rather than simple aesthetic shift.
“I like things that are obscure and I like things that are really popular. I go between the two and I don’t judge them next to each other — they’re apples and oranges to me,” she says. “It was really natural, although I was definitely questing after what excites me, which often can mean cooler, bigger, better. But generally speaking, it’s natural. Because I can write these insightful lyrics and I can be intellectual — I don’t always chose to be, but I can be — I think people think that everything I do is a really thought out decision. But I’m not that kind of person.”
Phair says that her decision to work with The Matrix was beneficial to both her label — who, obviously wanted a hit song or two — and her own vision. Phair first acquainted herself with the trio’s work in the same way that the rest of the world did — through Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”. Even before Avrilmania took full form, Phair knew that she wanted her songs to have the same kind of build and dynamic that won the Canadian teen so much commercial success.
“I was walking around Manhattan Beach and I heard [“Complicated”] coming out of a car really loud,” Phair says. “It was at a stop light so I got to hear a fair bit of the song and I was completely in appreciation of it. It hit me hard — I liked her voice, I liked what she was saying, I liked the song. I thought it was a fantastically written song and I was even kind of jealous. And that was just an honest appraisal of it. It wasn’t like ‘I will now make a million dollars by appropriating… whatever’ I don’t think that way.”
Even though the production on the record represents a stylistic shift for Phair, she still claims that when it comes down to it, she doesn’t really care about the studio aspects of the recordings — it’s the songs that really matter. If she’s still writing from an honest place, she doesn’t understand why people would care so much about the number of vocal tracks or guitar overdubs that ended up on the disc. If she’s going to be judged harshly, she’d rather be judged for the parts of the album that come from her own creative well.
“And to me, in my whole musical career, the part that’s really deep to me is the songwriting itself,” she says. “That’s when I’m most myself. And everything after that is an intrusion or an invasion. Anytime you work with any producer — I don’t care who they are — you’re putting your song through someone else’s machine. It’s going to come out differently. So, to me, working with the Matrix was no different than working with anybody else. It’s the same process and I’m a very process oriented person.”
With all the flack she’s deflected for her so-called new direction, it’s hard to say where Liz Phair will go next — she’d look like a fool if she tried to reclaim her indie crown at this point, and if fame and fortune doesn’t pan out for her this time around, her label probably won’t give her another go with someone like the Matrix. Phair claims that she’s not sure what kind of record she’ll make in the future, but as long as she’s making a record she likes, she doesn’t really care what end of the indie/mainstream spectrum it fits with.
“I’m not against [making another pop record] at all,” she says. “I never pre-plan like that. I’m not a pre-planner. I kind of follow the opportunity. And I enjoy not knowing. That’s what keeps it exciting and fresh to me — not knowing what’s going to happen.”