By Brian Baker
Amplifier, July/August 2003
It’s fitting that Liz Phair’s new album, her first in nearly five years, is titled after her own name. Actually, every album since her stunning 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, 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 saw the release of Whip-Smart, Phair’s introspective response to the reaction to Guyville, while her marriage and pregnancy informed the sedate and reflective yet energetic whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998.
“It used to bother me a little bit but it shouldn’t because it’s absolutely accurate,” says Phair when she considers 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.”
For the past five years, Phair has had plenty of opportunity to reflect on her comings and goings. She’s been largely out of the limelight, playing occasional shows but tending primarily to her domestic life and sporadically recording when time and circumstance would allow it. With the release of her self-titled new album, Phair serves notice that she’s back on several fronts — musically, sexually and culturally.
The two events that most sharply define Phair’s new album philosophically 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 responsibilites, resulting in material that ranges from the sweetly lascivious “Hot White Cum” to the deeply emotional “Little Digger”, a song that documents a single mother’s new boyfriend meeting her young songas he’s dealing with his father’s absence and his territorial feelings toward his mother. It is easily one of the most moving moments Phair has ever committed to disc.
“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. It’s the kind of subject that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it tackled in a song. I’m glad that, on this album, there’s still stuff that is a window in. That’s the kind of thing that music is so good at. It can articulate something that a lot of people feel but never quite put the words to it or they never quite put the emotion in a certain light. When it all comes together and it’s a song that felt like it kind of produced itself, it’s a really gratifying feeling. 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 at is a song rather than how raw it felt.”
“Hot White Cum” (listed on the sleeve art as “H.W.C.” to avoid overt controversy) is a different matter altogether. In typical nonmetaphorical Phair fashion, the song’s lyrics credit a lover’s semen for her clear skin and silky hair. When she previewed the song at the South by Southwest festival in March, a number of industry watchers and a few journalists were completely taken aback and, in some cases, offended by the graphically sexual track. Phair insists that anyone who was put off by the song probably misinterpreted it.
“I had to put that on, I really love that song,” she says with a laugh. “That’s something I really got taken to task for in a big way. I was so surprised but at the same time, I’ve got to say one of my problems in this marketplace is gonna be that I’m older. I’m chill with a lot of things that lots of younger women, including myself when I was that age, are not OK with. But for me, it’s a really empowering song, becausse that’s exactly how it feels when you’re having a hot, excellent relationship. It’s exactly the kind of thing that, in an ideal world, men and women would feel about each other. Take out AIDS, take out misogny, take out self-esteem, and you’ve got pure sex. Plus it’s part of my whole thing. I like to be provocative in a non-threatening style. That’s what I did on the first album with ‘Flower’, sort of sing in a singsong girly voice these filthy intimate things. I meant every word, as we all do in our own personal mental universe. I just kind of put them out there.”
In lesser hands, the heart-wrenching to cock-wrenching range between these two songs would divide an album into clearly visible camps and destroy any hope for continuity. But Phair has long championed sexual issues in her lyrics and she had little difficulty with reconciling her established sexual identity with her new availability and her more conventional and potentially constrictive role as mother. Given these extremes and her challenging new roles, Phair offered little resistance when her new album was tagged “the divorce album”. In fact, she was barely aware that the material she had assembled for it was telling that particular story.
“I was too deep into it,” she says. “It wasn’t until a journalist said something about ‘the post-divorce record’, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s it! That’s exactly it!’ It feels right to label it that way because that’s what it is. There was a good, long period after separating from my husband where I felt a lot of emotional negatives, like feeling nervous and scared to face the world unprotected. I kept at it and I got better and I started to feel really powerful again and really excited about my life and myself. I think that shows on this record, even though there’s some sadness.”
Sadness permeated a great deal of Phair’s life during her five-year hiatus. Beyond the divorce and its attendant issues, she felt the need to shift managers and then her label affairs flew into disarray when Matador ended its distribution deal with Capitol, who absorbed Phair’s contract. Phair tried and failed to negotiate her way out of the Capitol contract. None of the subsequent chaos was particularly inspiring to Phair’s generally upbeat creative muse. “I was in a writing state,” says Phair. “I could have probably put out a very depressing album in between but something about it didn’t feel right. The up songs didn’t have the power that I wanted them to — they felt clever and kind of crafted — and the down songs felt real but too many of them. In the end, it was just a series of me trying to get my life together, moving to LA, being single, trying to set everything up, friction with my manager who wanted me to stay indie when I wanted to play bigger music.”
One of Phair’s most difficult tasks with the new album was trying to rein in the material and apply a measure of consistency to a collection of more than 50 songs that had been recorded by numerous producers during a span of five years. The first sessions were done after she had finished touring whitechocolatespaceegg and were conducted using her tour band. After failing to obtain her release from Capitol, Phair hooked up with Pete Yorn producer R. Walt Vincent, which resulted in a number of tracks with Yorn providing drums and guitar. Still searching for something elusive, Phair teamed up with singer/songwriter/producer Michael Penn, a pairing that yielded a wealth of great material but still lacked the punch that she was seeking.
With tracks helmed by the Matrix team (Avril Lavigne, Mariah Carey), Phair ultimately found the radio polish she desired, and Capitol found the songs that made them believe in the album. With their needs covered, Capitol allowed Phair to fill out the album however she saw fit, which forced Phair to consider various ways to unify 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. “That’s why it ended up being such a rocking album. 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. It isn’t always true that at the end of a long process it’s going to pick back up in energy and have its own little life.”
A significant point of departure for Phair was collaborating on songwriting, something she had never previously done. Her first experience was a definite positive based on “Red Light Fever”, the result of her work with Gary Clark, cult legend and former Danny Wilson front man.
“I’ve always been loath to work with anyone,” says Phair. “I get really possessive and mistrustful. But this was different because they weren’t taking my songs and changing them, we were anew together. And he [Gary Clark] was such a lovely man. He’s so talented. I learned how easily and happily I can collaborate if the people I’m working with are really talented.”
With her reticence over collaboration at least partially alleviated, Phair felt slightly more comfortable working with the Matrix’s Lauren Christy later in the recording process. “With the Matrix, I was collaborating with Lauren, who is my age and a songwriter so it was actually kind of thrilling and exciting,” says Phair. “We’d argue and haggle and she’s got a lot of strong opinions but it was, for me, a very rewarding process.”
Although Phair admitted the work that Michael Penn produced for her on 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 of Penn. “His work is so beautifully crafted. He does landscapes. He’s a true painterly musician. I love it because it’s almost cinematic to me, and there are moments that evoke visuals for me and I love that style of his. I was hooked on working with him after I met him. But what moved me beyond that was that I wasn’t ready to give up everything I’d done, and he was very opinionated on which songs were were going to work on and which ones we weren’t. I wanted the record to represent how I felt. I ended up going back and needing to have the other material included so it felt like the emotional statement I needed to make. It had to be, 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.”
It was then that Phair sought out Vincent (who produced a pair of tracks and sweetened a couple of the band demos), before moving on to the Matrix team.
Phair’s plainly stated goal of working toward radio exposure has already drawn a fairly substantial amount of backlash from the critical community. In the wake of her appearance at SXSW, where she candidly discussed her desire to offer some potential radio hits with her new album and the use of the Matrix to accomplish that result, a number of writers attending the event wrote subsequent articles calling Phair’s judgement and motives into question. Phair doesn’t particularly understand the anger directed at her for doing something that artists both mainstream and indie do every single day as a matter of course.
“We needed some songs that could get on the radio, so I could put an album out and have another go at the whole phenomenon of record making,” says Phair honestly. “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. Michael’s stuff wasn’t quite there either. I was as trepidatious as anyone walking into it. 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.”
Phair instinctively knew that there would be some kind of negative reaction to this album in light of the uneven reception that has been granted everything after Guyville, especially given her stance on actively pursuing radio play. Even with the calculation involved in that decision, Phair is confident that she has not compromised her creative vision in that pursuit, but has merely employed people and techniques that enhance her songs and make them, or at least some of them, more attractive to radio.
She also admits that she has a tendency to create across a broader musical spectrum than most people have the perspective to detect. As much as she tries to insulate herself from her previous work at the time her new material begins to bubble up, she recognizes how everything she does effects everything else.
“I don’t know that I did that with Guyville From Girlysound, which is my early taped history,” says Phair. “It’s funny, if you don’t know Girlysound — which is hard to find; there are bootlegs, that’s how I have them — you don’t understand whitechocolate and this new one. If you’re gonna be a real egghead about it, you have to go back to Girlysound. If you hear Girlysound before Exile, you’ll see the threads that connect everything. It’s genius and it’s awful all at the same time. I’ll listen to my old records sometimes and she how I’m doing and it’s frustrating because you almost can’t do that. Your songwriting has evolved and your emotional topics are different. You can kind of parallel but if things are moving and clicking, this record will take its own shape and that’s what you want to achieve. At some point, you’re going to let go of anyone else’s consideration and everything.”
When all is said and done, Phair knows that much of what happens with her new album is beyond any real control on her part, outside of touring and promotion. With the release of Liz Phair, she has met her personal expectations for the album and now it’s time for the album to perform on its merits and sink or swim from there.
This would be a perfect time for frustration and recrimination to creep in for Phair, in light of the oddly hostile reaction the new labum has been generating and over her career in general. After all, Phair helped 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 she did. As bitter as she could be about it, Phair has no interest in playing that sucker bet in the least.
“I’m never ever bugged by that because I just don’t see it that way; that’s not my personality,” 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. I want to read about their lives, I want to listen to their stories, I want to watch movies made about women. I just want that. It’s exactly what I wanted; for lots and lots of women to come along and to have the pop cultural world filled with different female acts.
“What bugs me is that it disappeared again. It bugs me that our whole gender can be a trend. There should be different styles of female music that become popular. I don’t understand how women can be happening. The ‘chick thing’ is happening, and it’s ‘guy’ now. Let me make it clear; it’s always ‘guy’ out there. So, how come it isn’t always ‘women’ out there, too? Women have just as much to say, they’re just not given the chance to do it or when they do it, 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.”