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The Phairest of Them All

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After weathering the four-ear drought between 1994’s Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, it’s safe to say that ardent Liz Phair fans have developed a tolerance for album delays.

By Kurt Orzeck
ICE, June 2003

AFTER WEATHERING THE FOUR-YEAR drought between 1994’s Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, it’s safe to say that ardent Liz Phair fans have developed a tolerance for album delays. Still, few may have guessed that an even longer gap would separate her ’98 release from its successor, Liz Phair (Capitol), which arrives at long last on June 24.

Certainly, personal matters factored into the hold-up: she changed managers, experienced significant label difficulties and went through a divorce to top it off. But the recording process alone speaks for itself: upwards of 50 songs with four different producers over the course of five years.

“I was sweating every last decision,” Phair tells ICE, “and there was lots of tinkering afoot. We needled the mixes to death… I had piles of notes by the end. We recorded all the way through the mixing stage, redoing vocals. Now, there’s not an element of [the album] that I’m not aware of.”

Only 14 songs made the final cut: “Extraordinary”, “Red Light Fever”, “What Can’t I?” (first single), “It’s Sweet”, “Rock Me”, “Take a Look”, “Little Digger”, “Firewalker”, “Favorite”, “Love/Hate Transmission”, “H.W.C.”, “My Bionic Eyes”, “Friend of Mine” and “Good Love Never Dies”.

The first pair of sessions was held in Los Angeles after Phair wrapped up touring behind whitechocolatespaceegg. Roughly half the album consists of these demos Phair recorded with her backing band and for which she is credited as producer, including “Little Digger” and “Firewalker”.

“I did them for Roy Lott, who was President of Capitol back then [and is now President of Virgin],” says Phair. “After those two sessions, my manager and I were trying to get off the major label and get onto an independent — better payback ratio to effort, that kind of idea.”

Around that time, another Capitol shakeup transpired: Matador Records — the primary label behind the first three Phair albums — dissolved the distribution partnership it had established with the major in 1994. Capitol absorbed Phair’s remaining contract while Matador won the rights to every other release that had been issued under the multi-year partnership.

After Phair’s plan to leave Capitol fell through, she opted to record with R. Walt Vincent, who works closely alongside Pete Yorn. Phair was introduced to Vincent through Brad Wood, the touted producer who worked on every prior Phair release and also Yorn’s debut, musicforthemorningafter. Those sessions rendered “H.W.C.”, on which Yorn plays guitar and drums. Phair then recorded two sessions with Wood himself, though none of those recordings surface on Liz Phair.

Phair wound up reworking a great deal of the Wood sessions material with Michael Penn at the L.A. Capitol Records building after new President Andy Slater took office. She put a great deal of material to tape with Penn, including “Red Light Fever” (co-written by singer/songwriter Gary Clark), “It’s Sweet”, “Take a Look” and “Friend of Mine”.

Afterwards, Phair found that “we were still missing radio tracks. So we went to the Matrix and did four songs with them. After that, [Capitol] was so happy they got radio tracks that they said, ‘Put whatever you want on the album.’ So I did.”

“Extraordinary”, “Why Can’t I?”, “Rock Me” and “Favorite” were culled from these sessions Phair held with the Matrix, the red-hot team of Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards responsible for Avril Lavigne‘s “Complicated”. They share writing credits with Phair on all four tunes.

“I couldn’t have given up that kind of autonomy earlier in my career,” she says of the Matrix collaborations. “I would’ve been scared that the songs wouldn’t be mine. Now I felt like I was in command of my own abilities to share with someone else and not feel like I was being drowned out. I know how to stand up for what I want, and generally speaking, the people I work with respect that. It’s been a learning process, really exhilarating.”

Phair broke off her with her previous management firm after the Matrix sessions. She notes that “It wasn’t until the very end that I could grab all the songs from the different recording sessions, polish them up a little bit and put whatever I wanted onto the record.”

She exercised her artistic license with one song in particular: “Hot White Cum”, abbreviated “H.W.C.”, which follows in the Phair tradition of pitting stark profanity against a chipper melody: “My skin’s getting clear and my hair’s so bright / All you do is fuck me every day and night… Give me your hot, white cum.”

Song selection was a monumental task, given the wealth of material Phair had to choose from. She says that she “picked the ones where, within this context of big production value, I still felt like it was conveying what I feel. I like to make albums that have a song that represents each side of me, but when I finished, I had a lot of depressing songs. Over five years, I went through a divorce and some other harsh stuff, so if I put it out at any given time, that would have made sense. But a whole depressing record isn’t how I feel right now.”

“I had a very clear vision of how I wanted everything to end up, and for the most part I got it. It’s funny, because what I wanted to make five years ago was almost what I made, even though I’d forgot about it along the way. I gravitated toward the songs that have a band feel or a lot of instrumentation.”

The trove of leftover material will surface in various forms, beginning with online exclusives. The CD-enhanced Liz Phair provides access to a to-be-determined Internet-only EP featuring unreleased songs including “Jeremy Engle”. (Other enhancements include behind-the-scenes video footage and the “Why Can’t I?” video.)

Lastly, there has been some chatter about reissuing the critically hailed Exile in Guyville, which Phair addresses: “Can I tell you what’s holding it up? We’ve lost the tapes and we don’t know who has them, Capitol or Matador. I’m heartbroken. It’s obviously my most important work, plus I own it now, so it’s just horrible. But believe me, I’ll be digging through some nasty, dusty things with Brad on my arm. Or maybe I should reward whoever finds them with profits from the reissue.”

ICE Magazine | daily news flash
Thursday, May 29, 2003

Greetings! Welcome to the Thursday edition of the ICE daily news update.

Today and tomorrow we will deliver a load of excess material from our interview with Liz Phair conducted just last month. In it we discussed her new self-titled disc (Capitol, June 24) — her first in five years — and much more.

“We spent a lot of time on every single mix. I had piles of notes. We were messing around with ‘Love/Hate Transmission’, we were messing around with ‘My Bionic Eyes’… we did a lot of remixing on ‘Why Can’t I?’

“It’s funny because what I wanted to make five years ago was almost what I made [in the end]. I forgot about that along the way, and I’ve done this before. Right after Whip-Smart, I knew what I wanted to do for the next record and then promptly forgot about that. If you have an overriding impulse toward a direction, you’ll stay on that direction, and if you take a longer journey, the reason why it’s finished is probably because it all comes back together with that original vision.”

“What I really wanted to do for this record was have… it was kind of like a Fisherspooner idea, like an art concept. I wanted a fake-live recording so that what you heard was like if you were listening to a live show, but it was all done in a studio. The band elements could change each time. It was very loose. I naturally gravitated toward all songs that have a band feel or a lot of instrumentation or sound like a big-band jam. Whether your version of that would be sloppier than what my version is to me, because I’m a guitar-singer, that’s just what I am, me and a guitar. Every song on here sounds like there’s a band out there jamming with it.

“I look at an album as something different. I look at it as an art piece; I don’t see it as part of a music career. According to the music-career clock of touring, recording, releasing, touring, recording, releasing, I’ve always been an artist first. And I came from a visual arts background, so to me it’s not finished till it’s ready, till it’s what it should be, and you just know it, you just know in your heart it’s finished. And I just knew it.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for more words from Liz!

Kurt Orzeck
Managing Editor, ICE

ICE Magazine | daily news flash
Friday, May 30, 2003

Thanks for stopping by! Today we bring you the second of two installments in our Liz Phair overflow. Here she elaborates more on the recording of Liz Phair (Capitol, June 24), working with producers such as The Matrix and Michael Penn, and much more:

“The collaboration stuff was practically the easiest of all. What I do best is write, so when I’m writing with people, that’s where I’m most masterful. But when it comes to recording, sometimes that part I’m more ignorant about. So when I want something, I don’t really know how to say, ‘I want it to be this.'”

“The reason the record took so long and that there are these 14 songs is because I already went through the piles of all the other songs and picked the ones that mean the most to me. Each one has a different reason behind [why it was included], but they’re all standouts. If you heard the rest of the stuff, you’d know why.”

“We recorded all the way through the mixing. Because we kept doing re-vocals, because I went and picked a bunch of early demos, we had to re-sing ‘Hot White Cum’ and ‘My Bionic Eyes’. We were recording all the way through so nothing really stopped until the very, very end. Even two months ago [as of April 30], we were still fooling around.

“I didn’t want to leave off any chunk of me, any emotion that I tend to gravitate toward. Every person is a complex person and instead of making albums that are like a time period of one mode, I like to make albums that have a song that represents each side of me.

“I think they should do [a] vinyl [pressing]. They almost always do vinyl for me. I’ll badger them about that. Wouldn’t it be funny if we were to come out with some 8-tracks? For the five people in America that have 8-tracks?”

A fantastic weekend to all…

Kurt Orzeck
Managing Editor, ICE

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