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The Pop Life

On the Record: A Conversation with Liz Phair

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At 36, legendary alt-rocker Liz Phair is behaving like an Avril wannabe, her fans are up in arms, but doesn’t everyone in America want to be a pop star?

By Rob Brunner
Entertainment Weekly, May 30, 2003

The aspiring starlet knows what she wants, and like most aspiring pop starlets, she’s got a plan for how to get it. First of all, she wants to be famous. That’s a given. To do this, she’s tapped the Matrix — the production trio behind Avril Lavigne — who’ve come through with roll-down-the-windows sing-alongs that are begging to get blasted out of the car stereo all summer long.

Right now, however, what she most wants is lunch at the Santa Monica annex of the Ivy, L.A.’s famous celebrity dining establishment. She knows how to get that, too. “How’s your expense limit?” she asks. Reassured that her aspiring-pop-starlet needs will be met, she hops into her BMW and heads toward a plate of poached salmon and — so the plan goes — multiplatinum superstardom.

Liz Phair (Photo by Matt Jones)

Nothing unusual about this picture, right? After all, those chirpy teen-poppers panting on your radio — What were their names again? — occupied the same starting gate not long ago. For one, she’s a 36-year-old mother. She’s been making music for over a decade. And she’s responsible for one of the most celebrated documents of female empowerment and indie-rock songcraft ever recorded: 1993’s Exile in Guyville. So what the hell is Liz Phair thinking?

Quite a bit, it turns out. “I didn’t want to be some ’90s act that was great in my 20s and never did anything else,” says Phair, tackling an appetizer of crab claws. “People are like, ‘Don’t be commercial, then. Just be… Wilco.’ And that’s one way to live. But even when I made Guyville, I was hating indie then. The whole album was about how much I hated indie. I was sick to fucking eath of that snobbery. You know, I liked radio hits my whole life, including when I was cool. When Shakira goes [sings] ‘Underneath your clothes…,’ that works on me. So here’s your question in life: Do you acknowledge who you are even if people don’t like you for it? Even if people say, ‘That’s so lame‘? Should I pretend to be cool so that you will approve of me? After I had my kid, the revelation I had was, Life is incredibly short. I like who I am. And I’m just gonna like what I like and go for what I want to go for. It’s simple.

The result of this epiphany is the brazenly glossy Liz Phair (due out June 24), a naked bid for mainstream airplay that’s such a radical departure from her previous album — Guyville and its slightly less raw follow-ups, Whip-Smart (1994) and whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) — that it’s guaranteed to alienate a large chunk of her fan base. “I think it’s better to be talked about and hated and embraced — because a lot of people do love [the new album]. I like to be noticed. I don’t like to be boring. So it’s better to have people up in arms about it. I don’t like being not liked, but… I really like my record.”

It’s been five years since her last album, a delay caused by many factors: Phair’s breakup with film editor Jim Staskausas, the father of her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, after five years of marriage; a subsequent move from Chicago to L.A.; and a significant regime change at Capitol, her current label. Mostly, though, the struggles were creative. Phair had recorded far more than an album’s worth of tracks during three sessions over several years, including stints with producers R. Walt Vincent (Pete Yorn) and Michael Penn. Though Phair was, for the most part, pleased with those recordings — many of them ended up on Liz Phair — she felt as though something was missing. “[Label execs] were like, ‘It will be a nice record. It will be critically liked and it will be fine,” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘It’s way too much work to go out and promote a record to hear only that. I’m not leaving the box until you’re more excited than that.'”

Enter pop gurus of the moment the Matrix, who crafted Avril’s radio smashes and are now working with everyone from Britney to Bowie. They co-wrote and produced four tunes for Phair, including the first single, “Why Can’t I?” Their mandate was simple: Create hits. Guyville and Whip-Smart had both gone gold, but Phair was angling for a more explosive breakthrough. “Our manager met with her A&R people,” recalls Lauren Christy, whose Matrix cohorts are Scott Spock and Graham Edwards. “She had this beautiful record that she’d done with Michael Penn. It was stunning. But I think Liz felt it was jut a little mellow; it didn’t have anything that would grab you by the throat.”

“Oh, oh, evil! Go get a radio track, how awful!” Phair says in mock horror at the idea of turning to the Matrix. “May I say how great it was to work with them. They weren’t this faceless group of people who were going to do something to me that I didn’t want. I was looking for help. I was like… What’s a good analogy? What’s an environment that you need the appropriate ship to travel in?”

Um, scuba gear? “They’re your scuba gear for going diving. And you can say, ‘I’m not diving. I obviously don’t breathe underwater, I will not be diving.’ But I’m a real seeker of that nature, and it was a choice I made long before I met the Matrix. This is my thing: If I make mistakes sometimes, they’ll be my mistakes. My whole career up to now, I let other people make the business decisions. One of the biggest changes for me — which I think is a political act but you may see it as a cop-out — is I’ve taken more business control. I’ve educated myself. As a woman who’s basically been cared for by her father and then her husband and then her boyfriend, never really being independent, I think it’s important. I was talking to Pete [Yorn] at a party and he was like, ‘Well, isn’t it just about the music?’ I looked at him and I’m like, ‘Not for me anymore. It’s not.'”

And what happens if she does become a pop star? “That’s a good question,” Phair says. “What if it works? What if I become a platinum artist and everyone knows who I am? I like the fact that I can be normal during the day and watch the world, and then when I want to turn it on I can be the one who’s being looked at. But I want the other things that go with [stardom]. I want the financial security to stay in California. I’m responsible for my son. I want artistic leverage so if there’s cool stuff I want to do, people will greenlight it. I want a ticket to ride so that I can be creative for a lot longer. Otherwise, honey, I’m back in Chicago living with my parents.”

Spoken, oddly enough, like a real grown-up.

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