By Brian Baker
Gallery of Sound, June 2003
“It used to bother me a little bit 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 the 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 her stunning 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, each album has been an exercise in documentary songwriting for Phair. 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 saw the release of Whip Smart, her introspective response to the reaction to Guyville, while her marriage and pregnancy informed the sedate and reflective yet energetic whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998.
For the past five years, Phair has been largely out of the limelight, playing occasional shows but tending primarily to domestic life and sporadically recording. With the release of her self-titled new album, Phair serves notice that 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 a mother. Her reemergence as an available single woman is tempered with the realities of her parental responsibilities, resulting in material that ranges from the sweetly lascivious “H.W.C.” to the heart-wrenching “Little Digger”, a song that documents a meeting between a young son 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. “My friends cried when they heard that one,” says Phair.
One of Phair’s most difficult tasks with the new album was trying to apply some measure of consistency to songs that were 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 team (Avril Lavigne, Mariah Carey), Phair found a way to solidify 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. A lot of the stuff that I was excited by had a lot of energy to it, so it raised the bar. In the end it all seemed to come together naturally, and I felt great about that.”
Although Phair was very appreciative of Penn’s production for the album (his sessions are the most well-represented at five tracks), 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. “But I wanted the record to represent how I felt. I ended up going back and 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 and had my emotional landscape included.”
With that goal in mind, Phair sought out the help of Pete Yorn producer R. Walt Vincent (who produced two tracks and sweetened a couple of the band demos), and then moved to the hitmaking Matrix team.
“We needed some songs that could get on the radio, so I could have another go at the whole phenomenon of record making,” says Phair. “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]. Certainly, it doesn’t sound exactly like my stuff would by itself, but I didn’t mind that. I found that really thrilling. I felt like they gave me a boost, and I got to hear myself recorded in such a way that it 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.”