By Mark Brown
Rocky Mountain News, July 30, 2003
Liz Phair is annoyed.
Her latest album is out, Liz Phair, and receiving some of the most savage reviews of her career.
After a career of glowing reviews in the wake of 1993’s gritty breakthrough album, Exile in Guyville, Phair has been pummelled for selling out.
She collaborated with hit-makers The Matrix, went for a new, sexy, poppy image and sang bright, melodic songs about love and life. And for the most part, younger fans embraced the music and older fans were appalled.
It’s the same musical snobbery, she says, that led her to record Guyville.
She doesn’t mind so much the criticism of the music; hey, you can’t please everyone. She’s more incensed at critics – especially female critics – who demean her new sexy appearance at the unthinkably ancient age of 36. She’s fighting back, speaking out and sending a “Chicken Little” letter to The New York Times after it blasted her work.
It doesn’t matter whether critics like the material – she does, and she has a newfound confidence in her voice and her songwriting that makes performing a pleasure these days, taking her past her famous bouts of stage fright. She’s opening for Jason Mraz at the Paramount Theatre tonight and recently spoke to the News from her home in Los Angeles.
Question: Before you released Liz Phair, were you prepared for the polarizing effect it would have on your fans, or were you surprised?
Answer: “No, I figured. I knew there would be a reaction. I’m sorta pleased because I like it when a little controversy is stirred up. I don’t mind that. The people who like it really like it and the people who don’t like it are really upset by it. That’s better than ‘It’s boring, don’t buy it.’ At this late date, I’ve been answering questions about it for so long. I’m getting impatient. They’re losers.'”
Q: The first single, Why Can’t I, is as different musically from your previous work as anything on the album. Did you release it first to let fans know what they were in for?
A: “That wasn’t my call…. I’ve never been one of those people. Even when I did Guyville, I wasn’t concerned about style or sound. I just happened to work with Brad Wood, who very much cares about style and sound, and rightly so. He’s phenomenal. But that’s part of why I wrote Exile in Guyville in the first place. It’s that mentality, a rigidity, what’s cool and what’s not cool, that I was basically railing against with Guyville. So it’s kind of ironic – that mentality of rigidity, what is good music, what is bad music. ‘Do you know Mudhoney? Well, do you know Green River?’ That’s exactly what… burned me to write Guyville in the first place. It’s very conservative even though it’s in this subgroup that is supposed to be so liberal. It’s just Guyville all over again.”
Q: Fans of everyone from Elvis Costello to Paul Westerberg have cried ‘Sellout!’ when their music became more sophisticated and melodic – when what was happening was, they were really just getting better at their craft. Is that what’s happening with you?
A: “I’d say that about my singing. I’m much more interested in melody. I was into melody before then, but when I play them live it’s so striking to me that the early stuff is really difficult for me to sing live. It’s so low. It’s almost like talk/speak. It’s just almost like post-spoken word. (sings) ‘You’ve never been a waste of my time.’ There’s really something challenging about that. To me one of the things that has changed . . . is growing as a singer and enjoying that. This is gonna sound really New Agey; can you go with me for a second? It’s how you feel in the shower when you think no one is listening, how that feels. It’s not just about vocal cords. It’s about emotional comfort, too. I learned that what was holding me back as a singer was emotional, kind of fear or self-consciousness. I don’t know how to describe those feelings. Learning to sing out loud and proud actually changed my music, changed my outlook. It came with a whole life change after my son was born, but I sure as hell wouldn’t trade it back for all the reviews in the world. Singing is now a joy, a pleasure, and before I’d rather die than be onstage.”
Q: The opening verses of Extraordinary are classic Liz Phair lines. If they were done lo-fi on a guitar, older fans might be raving about it. Did you purposely recast your thoughts in a different musical context?
A: “I just write these same damn songs all the time, for 15, 20 years now. It’s a challenge; it’s a new creative challenge. I felt able to meet the challenge. I wouldn’t put them on the record if they weren’t my sentiments and enough of me lyrically and enough of me melodically. They were willing, The Matrix, utterly to their credit…. They were excited by that. They said: ‘Really? Great!’ I don’t think people come to them to collaborate that often. Often they’ll get these people who say, ‘Just churn us out a hit.’ So they were all excited about it – having me have a lot of input. When you’re younger, that seems more untrue and inauthentic. Once you know your voice and have your voice and have a confidence that no one is gonna steal anything from you, they can just add something. That’s just experience talking.”
Q: Do you see any sexism in the reaction to your image?
A: “I do see a lot of sexism. I was just looking through the paper and hit on one of those $9.98 ads. I see Jane’s Addiction’s there. How come someone’s not screaming about someone (Perry Farrell’s) age dressing like that? How come when he has low pants showing his belly hair and a vest with no shirt on – why aren’t people freaking out that he’s too old to dress like that? … I’ve incensed a couple of women – that New York Times woman with the way that I’m dressing, a woman at South by Southwest who was incensed by my (sexually explicit) song H.W.C. and actually implied I was a bad mother with it, or thank God I didn’t have a daughter. I’m sitting there thinking, wow, according to you, should we all button up and go back to our quiet wifely ways? Really, if you can’t imagine that a woman, after she has children or after a certain age, can still have sexuality, then what are you saying? Where does that leave you when you get older? It’s a scary thing. There are a lot of sexist undertones. But isn’t that great about my music? I seem to be this lightning rod for all these provocative questions. I don’t mind that.”