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Liz Phair brings provocative spin to new album

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An indie queen’s mainstream exile

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Liz Phair figures she’s creating her image on her own terms this time around.

By Mark Bialczak
The Post-Standard, February 13, 2004

Liz Phair figures she’s creating her image on her own terms this time around.

So, the rock singer isn’t shocked by the image on the cover of her latest disc, Liz Phair, in which she sits splay-legged in a short skirt, hair tousled, with her guitar between her legs.

And wearing her song-writing hat, Phair’s created songs that tackle relationships at the basic levels.

“Sex definitely sells,” Phair says during a recent phone interview from her Los Angeles home, where she’s awaiting a trip to meet a movie producer —- for Disney, no less. “But that’s not why I write dirty songs. I write dirty songs because I like to be provocative. Back in the day, it was political in its aim. It was trying to seduce the listener by using this adorable little female voice that you would never have imagined trying to subvert you.

“Then you shock them with the content,” she says.

The Phair who’ll do her surprising Saturday night from the stage in Syracuse University’s Goldstein Auditorium certainly isn’t a little girl anymore. Her breakthrough debut disc, Exile in Guyville, turns 11 years old this summer.

Exile in Guyville was a personal statement,” she says. Nevertheless, she’s come a long way from the “five- or six-year period of writing in my own room” for those songs, which she recorded as a response to The Rolling Stones’ classic album Exile on Main Street.

Now, Phair is a 36-year-old divorced mother of a 7-year-old son.

So, what’s she doing with the provocative poses and more-than-suggestive lyrics?

“Playing with people’s perceptions of what womanhood is,” Phair says. “The photographs are an adaptive response to the trauma I had with my first album, when everybody wanted to put me in next-to-nothing clothes. I wanted to take control. I wanted to flip the switch. I come out there with my own sexuality.”

Musically, Phair says she was happy that the producing team The Matrix, known for helping send Avril Lavigne to the top of the pop charts, weighed in with four songs for this, her fifth album.

“It reinvigorated my studio process,” Phair says. “Liz Phair was a exciting step for me in the studio. Before, there were always control issues. Now, I could calmly make my own decisions.

“As soon as the Matrix songs were there, I had to reconfigure what I had on the record. Not all that I had done would fit next to a Matrix song. Never in my life have I said, ‘I want to make a record.’ I let them happen as they happen. I like to ride wild horses. Part of me is a thrill junkie,” Phair says.

And, yes, Phair says she did get a thrill when she listened to the finished product. She reiterates that to her, the downloadable songs that come with an Internet key when you purchase Liz Phair should be considered part of the package.

“In my mind, if you don’t get the downloaded EP, you don’t have the whole piece,” Phair says. “In the disc, you have my fully cloaked and fabulous self, then (on the downloadable songs) you wind down into this scary side.”

You didn’t even have to buy Liz Phair to get a taste of the disc.

The first single, “Why Can’t I?” received extended radio play on pop stations everywhere.

In that one, Phair sings about the inevitability of hooking up with a guy who’s dating somebody else.

She says it, indeed, was a shock to her system when her “dirty” lyrics are being sung by really young children. The message is just, she thinks. “Ideally, it’s how a woman should feel about sex,” she says. “There should be no feelings of victimhood, really.”

“Only when it hits the 9-year-olds … I didn’t realize it would hit that far. I thought it would be 14- or 15-year-olds, and they were already sexually aware,” Phair says.

So, she says, a show at Syracuse University should be just about perfect, demographic-wise.

“I see 9- or 10-year-olds at my concerts, and that aggravates me,” Phair says. “Come to my radio shows (with your kids), not my nighttime shows. I don’t want to change my shows around (because children are there).”

And no, her 7-year-old son does not get to hear Liz Phair.

“He never cared much for mommy’s music,” Phair says. “I thought when I was pregnant, I’d sit and strum my guitar for my new infant. From Day One, though, he’d cry and push my guitar to the ground. He never wanted any part of it. We listen to the Shrek soundtrack. Mommy likes that one, too.”

Maybe someday her son will be able to watch Mommy on the screen.

On March 14, Phair will portray 1960s singer Jacke DeShannon on the NBC TV series American Dreams.

“It’s a creative process. It’s fun,” she says of acting. “I spend time laughing with my manager. I tell him ‘I only want one day. No more than five lines.’ I’m not trying to ruin anybody’s movie.”

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