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Phair is Fair: Eschewing ‘indie’ label, Liz Phair continues musical odyssey

Liz Phair says hits carry smaller songs

All’s Phair in love and music

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Liz Phair might have been the queen of indie rock during the early 1990s, but the singer/songwriter says she never felt entirely comfortable with that title.

By Spencer Patterson
Las Vegas Sun, February 27, 2004

Liz Phair might have been the queen of indie rock during the early 1990s, but the singer/songwriter says she never felt entirely comfortable with that title.

“I was definitely part of (the indie scene), but I was always at odds with it,” Phair said in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “There was always friction there.”

Last year that friction between Phair and the indie-rock community grew from minor irritation into full-on, Brillo-like abrasion.

A decade after hailing her debut album, Exile in Guyville, as a feminist statement of staggering proportions, many of Phair’s one-time supporters reacted to her poppy, self-titled fourth disc with shock and disdain.

Online indie news site, for example, rated the disc a 0.0 on a 10-point scale and commented, “It’s sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would be reduced to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop.”

The 36-year-old Phair, who says she stopped reading her reviews years ago, isn’t ready to give her critics the last word.

“It’s so funny when indie starts bashing me. I feel like bashing back,” she said. “Because I was completely indie. I knew that scene inside and out. I dated it. It was my neighbor. It was my roommate. So don’t even.”

Saturday night at 6:30, Phair plays the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. Young singer/songwriters Rachael Yamagata and Patrick Park are scheduled to open the show.

Though Saturday’s concert is billed as an all-ages event, parents of young Phair fans may want to do a bit of research before sending their children.

Phair is famous for her brutally honest lyrical content, and a handful of her best-known songs include significant profanity and adult themes.

“I make my music for people that are already sexually active,” Phair said. “I don’t mind if you’re 14 or 15, but I do mind if you’re 9. It’s frustrating, because my new record has a parental advisory sticker on it, which I was happy about, but pop radio is geared toward the super-young right now.”

Otherwise, Phair has no complaints about her latest album. She loves hearing the first single, “Why Can’t I?” the one with the hook that goes, “Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?” on the radio. And she is pleased that it earned a spot on MTV’s most recent Now That’s What I Call Music! hits compilation CD.

“I think it’s really fun,” she said. “It’s like infiltrating the fortress.

“I think everybody would love to have their songs on the radio. There’s not a soul out there who’s making music who doesn’t fantasize about a hit track. All of them have dreams of megalomania.”

In part, the indie community’s backlash over Phair’s fourth disc stems from her new association with the Matrix, a production team that has also worked with Avril Lavigne, Nick Lachey and the Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter.

The Matrix received co-writing credits for three songs on Liz Phair: “Extraordinary,” “Why Can’t I?” and “Rock Me.”

As Phair explained, bringing in the Matrix was Capitol Records’ idea after the label grew frustrated with the five-year gap between Phair’s third album, Whitechocolatespaceegg, and her new release.

“I don’t think I would have gone to the Matrix had I been able to get more money from the label for my own discretionary purposes,” she said. “But there was no way to get any more money from them unless it was for something that they thought they could make their money back on.”

Despite her initial reservations, however, Phair insists her collaboration with the Matrix ultimately improved her album.

“It was a light and fun experience that kind of added a splash of color to my record,” Phair said. “It was kind of like Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, a real punch. They’re so smart and so creative as people and as producers, and to me it was incredibly refreshing.”

Despite her recent brush with pop stardom, Phair said she still sees plenty of older fans among her crowds, mixed with her newfound younger audience.

Phair also continues to grow more comfortable with being onstage after battling considerable stage fright early in her career.

“My career started as sort of the opposite of most people’s performing career where they start with anonymity and work their way toward a fan base,” she said. “My first record came out before I’d ever been onstage, and it got so much attention that by the time I was onstage there was an entire room full of people scrutinizing my every move. So I had reason to be nervous.”

Phair said the birth of her son, Nick — now age 7 — and her Lilith Fair experience around the same time helped her overcome her fear of performing.

“Having my son changed my perspective on it all,” she said. “And the Lilith Fair was so big, and most people were there for other artists, that I just got to be onstage performing in my own little world. I could find my place in the music rather than in the eyes of the beholder.”

Those who don’t accept Phair’s new musical direction might take comfort in the Connecticut native’s plans to expand and reissue Exile in Guyville sometime soon.

In a rare industry blunder, the rights to that Matador Records release reverted to Phair recently, much to her surprise.

“Somehow it slipped through there and I own it,” she said. “It’s like the best thing ever.”

But Phair has been unable to locate the master tapes for Exile, which has delayed its re-release.

“They’re gone, and we don’t know where they are,” she said. “We’ve checked with Matador, and we’ve checked with Capitol and they said they weren’t there. So we’d have to physically go down to the warehouses, their storage facilities, and look through ourselves.”

As for the continued outcry from certain portions of her original fanbase, Phair said it’s time for them to follow in her footsteps and move on with their lives.

“I get it, but I just can’t believe they’re going to ask me to be indie when I haven’t lived that way for over a decade,” she said. “It would be so bogus, so fake.

“You know how you go through periods of your life where you’re like, ‘I’m not that anymore. I’m this’? Well, I just gathered up all those parts and said, ‘OK, we’re going to have to find a happy medium here.'”

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