By Robert Sandall
Sunday Times, October 26, 2003
Imagine PJ Harvey recording with Pete Waterman, or Bjork co-writing songs with one of Simon Fuller’s stable of top pop tunesmiths. Weird, and not in a good way.
Well, in America this summer, the alternative-rock community was confronted with a similarly perplexing alliance. Liz Phair, a post-feminist singer-songwriter who has been feted — and burdened — with comparisons to Patti Smith, released an album (Liz Phair, on EMI) front-loaded with tunes co-written and produced by the Matrix, the trio behind the pop-rock teen icon Avril Lavigne.
Radio loved it, which was the point; reviewers didn’t, even in the poptastic UK, and maybe that was intentional as well. “Part of me likes to be provocative,” Phair says, unperturbed by another stinging rebuke she’s just seen in a London listings mag, previewing her first British show since 1994. “But I’m 36. I’m at the entrepreneurial time of life. If I were a man, I’d be thinking of starting my own business. I know it sounds unartistic, but I hate the way musicians stay ignorant about the business process and then fee abused by it. Fuck that. You listen, learn, participate and try to change.”
Feeling that her first album in the six years since her son was born “didn’t have enough exuberance”, she requested some expensive help from the most commercially attuned team in LA, “because I’m arrogant enough to think that I can write a good song with anybody.”
Enter the Matrix, and exit Phair’s impeccable credentials as a beacon for female musicians with a lot to say and not a lot of chords to say it with. Strange and oddly reassuring, too — for her to reflect now on how she acquired them, 10 years ago, with her debut album, Exile in Guyville. This suite of 18 songs, broadly satirical of male attitudes to relationships and titled in mock honour of the Stones’ magnum opus, Exile on Main Street, has become a sacred text in the canon of women’s rock.
Yet it too caused a huge row when it came out, she says, among her peer group in Chicago. Up till then, Phair had been a fringe member of the city’s underground rock scene, an art graduate more preoccupied with selling her paintings. “It was normal to me to write songs because at Oberland (sic) college everybody did. But I was hellbent on being a visual artist.” Somehow a tape of her music found its way to the fashionable indie label Matador; she was offered $10,000 to make an album.
“I suddenly became a pariah in my own neighbourhood, because everybody else had been working so hard, and I was just the girlfriend, this obnoxious suburban girl who dyed her hair blonde, couldn’t sing and couldn’t tune her guitar. They hated it that I had been singled out when they were the musicians.” When pressed, she identifies “them” as the followers of Tortoise, linchpins of Chicago’s renowned “post-rock” fraternity. “That was Guyville. They didn’t decorate their apartments.”
They were all very serious and studious about the musical process. And it was true, I didn’t know how to make a record. My boyfriend at the time was making fun of me, so I was like, ‘What’s the best record?'” On learning that the Stones’ 1972 classic was a double album, Phair thought: “Hey, I’ll do a double too, that’ll really piss them off.” What finally emerged was a collection of songs she describes as “an imaginary conversation with a person I totally loved but never had the confidence to take on. It was like skywriting in code.”
Aside from melodic freshness, the great thing about Phair’s songs — and the reason Rolling Stone and others once put her on the front of their magazines — is that she thinks and sings the unthinkable. This might mean poking fun at America’s unacknowledged obsession with social class on “Uncle Alvarez”, or enthusing, on “Johnny Feelgood”, about aspects of the sexual experience, like the rougher bits, that women are not supposed to enjoy.
Although she owns up to having been “raised on an aesthetic of drama”, rooted, she suspects, in being an adopted child, she doesn’t regard what she does as shocking.
“I’m of the opinion that however large your audience, it’s still your record in their room. I’m speaking privately.”