By John Serba
The Grand Rapids Press, March 14, 2004
Liz Phair certainly knows how to provoke people.
In 1993, the frank sexuality of her debut album Exile in Guyville thrust her into the spotlight. The lo-fi, fiercely independent record garnered piles of critical acclaim within indie-rock and mainstream circles, and she became one of the most important feminine figures in music since Madonna.
Ten years later, her self-titled fourth album was released. She worked with production team The Matrix (who worked most notably with teen rocker Avril Lavigne) and put together a slick, pop-friendly record. She followed it up with a series of suggestive, scantily clad photo shoots — prompting critics to cry foul and wonder what happened to the Liz of old.
But ask Phair about the intentions behind her latest album, and one realizes her confidence in her work remains steadfast.
“I’m very at peace with (the album), and I pretty much was all the way through,” she said, calling from her California home. “I was spending more of my time reassuring my parents, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.’ I felt like I was reassuring critics, who would get on the phone and have an antagonistic tone in their voice.”
“It did get brutal. Nobody likes to go through four hours of interviews with hostile reviewers. But they were so obviously emotionally twisted about this, it was easier on me because I sort of could see that they were hurting,” she added with a laugh.
Phair openly admitted that, “Style, for me, is something you play with, not something I identify with.” Which explains the evolution of her post-Guyville work: Selling 200,000 copies of the debut resulted in a production upgrade for 1994’s Whip-Smart, which boasted sexy hit single “Supernova”; and 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg featured a more mature sound.
So it’s no surprise Phair is more concerned with the lyrical messages of her songs than the sonic means by which they’re conveyed. And in the 10 years between Guyville and her latest record, her voice understandably has changed; she has experienced motherhood (which helped inspire whitechocolatespaceegg), marriage and divorce, which have toned down the deadpan irony inherent in her words.
“There is a bravery to just saying what you really feel as plainly as possible,” she said. “That’s what I was doing with this last record. It was all about emotional truth, and I would sacrifice other things for that because, as you get older, that’s what you come to value.”
“Yeah, Guyville is amazing, and encoded with cryptic meaning and references to literature and all sorts of groovy stuff….” She trails off.
“Before this record, I was writing for it, and the first sets of demos were very clever, and they were, like, ‘Liz Phair songs’. They weren’t very true. They didn’t actually push my buttons. I’ve gotten really good at that sort of clever song, and it really depressed me.”
So when Phair’s record label, Capitol, plunked her down with songwriter Gary Clark, she was forced to honestly confront her feelings, and she learned to convey them more directly in song.
“I realized that, because I worked with someone else, I wasn’t allowed to bull (expletive) myself, and I wasn’t able to just sit in my processorial rut,” she said. “I had to re-learn myself, so I became very open to collaboration because of that.”
Still, Phair remains a strong feminine figure in a primarily male-dominated music business. Where Madonna’s ultra-provocative work in the ’80s and ’90s broke down artistic barriers for women, Phair hopes her songs will do the same for the next generation of female singers and songwriters.
“I think it’s healthy — to provoke a reaction usually means there’s a nerve that’s underexposed,” she said. “You can hate (Madonna), and go ‘Ugh, the Sex book,’ but she made so much more room for us underneath her to do whatever we wanted. She took the heat for it, and we didn’t have to. That’s always going to come when you expand definitions and expand roles.