By Brian Baker
Cincinnati CityBeat, November 5, 2003
“It used to bother me a little, but it shouldn’t because it’s absolutely accurate,” says Liz Phair when asked about the perception that her art mirrors her life. “I make albums to chronicle my life and times, and my emotional states. They’re a diary of where I’ve been and where I’m going.”
With Phair’s stunning 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, each album has been an exercise in documentary songwriting. Guyville served as a simultaneous celebration and indictment of Chicago’s boy’s club Indie Rock scene at the time, as well as Phair’s powerful sexual manifesto. The following year she offered Whip Smart, her introspective response to Guyville‘s reaction while her marriage and pregnancy informed the sedate and reflective yet energetic whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998.
Since then, Phair has been largely out of the limelight, playing occasional shows but tending primarily to domestic life and sporadically recording. With her self-titled new album, Phair serves notice — she’s back musically, sexually and culturally.
The two events that most sharply define Phair’s new album are her recent divorce and her expanding role as mother. Her reemergence as an available single woman, tempered with the realities of her parental responsibilities, results in material ranging from the sweetly lascivious “Hot White Cum” to the heart-wrenching “Little Digger”, a song that documents a meeting between a young son simultaneously experiencing his father’s absence and his mother’s new boyfriend. It is one of the most moving moments Phair has ever committed to tape.
“I think that’s probably the best song on the record, just in terms of being something that, for the rest of my life, I’ll look back on with a lot of pride,” says Phair. “It really flowed out of me spontaneously. My girlfriends, especially the moms, all called me up while they were still crying, like (sobbing) ‘I just wanted to say …’ I couldn’t play the song without crying when I first wrote it. It was awhile before I could see it as a song rather than how raw it felt.”
One of Phair’s most difficult tasks was applying some measure of consistency to songs recorded by numerous producers over a four-year span. With tracks helmed by Michael Penn and R. Walt Vincent, demos with Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg touring band and a handful of songs produced by The Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Mariah Carey), Phair solidified several different recording periods, production processes and sonic directions to make a cohesive whole.
“I had to decide what I wanted to do with it all,” says Phair. “A lot of the songs that I really liked rocked, and I had my favorite small ones, but I didn’t want to bring the energy down too much. It all seemed to come together naturally.”
Although Phair was very appreciative of Penn’s production (five of his tracks made the cut), she began to feel less invested in the album’s sonic philosophy. “He’s a wonderful man and very unique,” says Phair admiringly of Penn. “I ended up needing to have other material included so it felt like the emotional statement I needed to make. Otherwise it felt like his record. I needed it to feel like my record, and it wasn’t going to, unless it was kinda sloppy, a little louder and a little more obnoxious.”
With that goal in mind, Phair sought out Pete Yorn producer R. Walt Vincent (who produced two tracks and sweetened a couple of band demos), and then employed the hit-making Matrix team. “We needed some songs that could get on the radio,” says Phair of the decision to use the Matrix, which upset some of her longtime fans. “That’s a choice I made. I wanted to get on the radio, dammit. I’ve been trying and my stuff isn’t really radio stuff. I was as trepidatious as anyone walking into (the Matrix). It doesn’t sound exactly like my stuff would by itself, but I didn’t mind. I found that really thrilling. I felt like they gave me a boost, and I got to hear myself recorded in a way that felt heroic, and I felt really proud to blast it out of stereos. I’ve never had that experience before. It was like driving a very fast, expensive car.”
Phair’s frustration and recrimination would be understandable in light of the oddly hostile reaction to the new album and over her career in general. After all, Phair helped to soften the ground for confessional female singer/songwriters a decade ago and, so far, hasn’t properly reaped the rewards for all that Indie plowing. As bitter as she could be about it, Phair has no interest in playing that sucker bet.
“I’ve never been bugged by that because I don’t see it that way,” says Phair. “If I have a political aim in my work, it’s that I want to see a lot of women out there in the world making art. Women have just as much to say, they’re just not given the chance to or when they do, it doesn’t resonate with men so of what interest is it? There’s all sorts of reasons why it is the way it is, but in terms of everyone who came after me, so to speak, I came after a whole lot of people, too. If in any way my emergence gave a big push to other women to go out and do it, that’s exactly what I wanted. The money thing doesn’t matter. I love to have money like everyone else. I’ll work for money, but it’s never what gets me passionate. Otherwise I’d be a much better moneymaker.”