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Exile Gone Mainstream

Exiled from Chi-ville, Liz Phair goes for the score

Dark Light
On her slick new CD (and with help from the Matrix), Liz Phair makes a pass at the mainstream

By Gia Kourlas
Time Out New York, June 19-26, 2003

Liz Phair’s new, self-titled album ushers in a new sort of Liz Phair. The acclaimed songwriter, who released her indie debut, Exile in Guyville, in 1993, wants to be on the radio. So much, in fact, that she recruited the Matrix — the L.A.-based songwriting and production trio responsible for Avril Lavigne’s pop-rock sound — to produce four of the album’s 14 songs. Her album-cover look, which includes fishnets, an army jacket and cascading blond hair, is sexy in an artfully vintage way. So, yes, production values on this Capitol Records release are slick.

But radio-play issues aside, little seems to have tempered Phair’s obsession with sex. On “Rock Me”, she sings about having an affair with a man nine years younger. On another track, “H.W.C.”, she belts out, “Give me your hot, white come.” Now divorced from film editor Jim Staskauskas (they have a six-year-old son, Nick) Phair, 36, is playing the field — at least a little bit. Five years after her 1998 whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair calling from a hotel during a West Coast tour swing, spoke about her new sound.

Time Out New York: Why do you want to be on the radio so badly?

Liz Phair: All my life — and this has been my dirty litte secret — I’ve listened to the radio. I’ve always had this game where I don’t listen to one station; I flip until I find a song I like. I used to read all this meaning into it and make up dumb games like, “If he really likes me, then the next song that I hear will…” But the radio is a big part of my musical upbringing. So I want to be part of it. [Shouts] I’m sorry!

TONY: You’ve been criticized for turning against your indie audience with your new album. In one interview, you said, “It’s appropriate that they feel that way. Because what I’m doing is leaving them to go seek other people.” Isn’t that harsh?

LP: Well, that’s someone taking my words and trying to get a little controversy going on. Mostly what I mean is that it’s appropriate that people would feel wary and/or threatened by me seeking radio play, because indie has always been antiradio. It’s like leaving a relationship and saying, “I want to see other people.”

TONY: How do you prepare yourself for criticism?

LP: Honestly, I didn’t. I am really okay with the decisions I’m making. I’ve just reached a certain age when I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I’m going to make music that I really like. I did the best I could with this record. I wasn’t trying to make it one thing or the other — other than go to the Matrix for radio tracks.

TONY: You had to anticipate that the Matrix team, what with their Avril dealings, would come with some baggage.

LP: I did. Here’s what happened: We had the record, but there really weren’t any radio tracks. I thought, Frankly, I want my label to be as excited about this record as they can be going out, because it’s going to be a tough slog — I’ve been gone for five years. I want to be able to do things with my art, and one way is to get your name back in the high profile and kick up some buzz, good and bad. So the label said, “I want you to meet these people. They did the Avril song.” And I’m like, Well, I like that “Complicated” song. It turned out that they were people that I already knew as friends of friends. They weren’t some faceless machine hellbent on stamping out art. But because Avril’s been so successful, and because she claimed to have written her songs, there’s been a little shit storm going on.

TONY: She didn’t really write them?

LP: No. She didn’t. [Editor’s note: Lavigne is credited as co-writer on all 13 songs on Let Go.] I also know how hard I fought with [the Matrix’s] Lauren [Christy]. I’m writing with another 35-year-old mom. She’s really smart and opinionated, and she’s sort of like me!

TONY: You’ve said that a lot of what people don’t like about Avril is “the falseness of how she was marketed.” How much control do you have concerning how you are marketed?

LP: I have a ton of control, but it’s also about involvement. People have been marketing me for the last ten years; sometimes they’ve done a great job, and sometimes they’ve done a bad job. For the new record, I sat in the art department and flipped through old ’70s books and stickered all the pages that I was attracted to.

TONY: Your new image reminds me of French pop singers. What were you thinking?

LP: That was it. The pictures did turn out well. It’s kind of cool to be in the art department at a major. My image is a combination of that mismatched, layered European look with the indie kind of grunge. And then throw in the requisite sexy, and you’re done.

TONY: Is that how you dress in everyday life?

LP: I’m trying! When I work, I tend to get much cooler, but because I’m a mom, I tend to lame out and go back to my high-school roots, which are just preppy, boring Midwestern. But I definitely had style in my past; at Oberlin [College], we went to thrift stores and totally did it up, and it feels natural once I get back on track. Just like being onstage. Once I’m back out there, it’s like a flair I have hidden in me.

TONY: You’re a big shopper, aren’t you?

LP: Uh, I have a problem with clothes, yeah.

TONY: What designers?

LP: It’s like the radio. I’m just attracted to clothes that I really like. I’m not loyal. It’s terrible, but true.

TONY: Do you like shoes?

LP: [Sighs] Yeah, I do.

TONY: I’m sorry — I feel like I’m depressing you.

LP: No. I’m just imagining how this article is going to come out. [In announcer’s voice] She shops and she wants to get on the radio! She’s the devil!

TONY: What would you say if your son asked you, “Mommy, what does ‘hot white come’ mean?”

LP: I’d be, like, “That’s something that happens when a man and a woman make love, and it comes from the man, and it’s part of the man that contributes to making a baby.” [Laughs]

TONY: Do you feel sexier now than when you were in your twenties?

LP: I feel a lot better about my sexiness. I used to feel really vulnerable. I felt like men were coming after me in a bad way, and I would do things sexually that I didn’t necessarily want to do to be liked. I’m definitely having much better sex than I was then. I feel good about myself, and I only do things I want to do. You wanna go there? I watch porn sometimes, and I’m still looking at it going, That woman is so faking that! When are they going to figure out that that doesn’t feel good? Even porn stars are stuck getting it the wrong way! [Laughs] I feel like making some porn just to make it right.

TONY: Is there any word you hate more than sellout?

LP: Absolutely. Okay: Words I hate more than selloutBitchcontrol freak. Oh God, I hate lonely. That’s the single part that sucks. I don’t feel like a sellout. I feel bad for people who are all worried about it. I think they should relax a little.

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