By Melissa Ruggieri
Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 4, 2004
Liz Phair takes her reading seriously. So seriously that she’ll verbally wave off a publicist attempting to end an interview so that she can talk books for a minute.
“I just finished Winter’s Tale [by Mark Helprin]. It was just so well-written, but I hated the ending. Everyone keeps telling me that I have to, have to, have to read that freakin’ Da Vinci Code, so I guess that’s next. What about you? Are you reading anything good?”
Not really, I tell her. Just the new Joe Eszterhas memoir, Hollywood Animal.
“Ew. I can’t stand him,” Phair says. But her interest piques once she hears snippets of those naughty Sharon Stone stories.
Yes, Phair is interested in celebrities, even though she is one herself. Our talk came a few days before last month’s Grammy ceremony, a celebration she planned to watch at home, “just to see what everyone is wearing…. I’m as bad as anyone.” She was also willing to dish on the breast flash of the year, that belonging to Janet Jackson.
“I missed the halftime show, but I watched it a million times on KCLA. I know about wardrobes. There’s no way that pink [bra] would have stayed. It’s hard to shock Liz Phair, but I was like, wow, I would never do that!”
Talking to Phair is a bit like having a tete-à-tete with the nicest sorority girl from college. But as much as Phair, a lifelong Chicagoan who moved to Los Angeles four years ago, likes to girl-chat, she’s also ready to defend herself.
Her fourth album, a self-titled pastiche of melodic pop, some serrated guitar work and a dab of dance, caused an intense controversy among stalwart alternative-music fans. Phair, after all, inspired busloads of girls to believe in the power of smart, unbridled feminist rock with her critically adored 1993 Exit in Guyville. Her 1994 follow-up, Whip-Smart, didn’t stray from the unique stance she applied on Exit, which is why so many longtime fans felt betrayed by the slicker pop sounds on Liz Phair.
The album has moved about 312,000 copies, according to SoundScan. The first single, “Why Can’t I”, nuzzled its way onto Top 40 radio and movie trailers — a first for the previously noncommercial Phair. So what’s the problem? Why do so many people feel so betrayed?
“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m an amazing lightning rod,” Phair says. “With the emo-core thing happening and male singer-songwriters getting on the road, people felt like I had jumped ship. I felt like there was a confident, intelligent woman on the radio.”
“But, hey, I’m fun to write about. Let’s be honest. I don’t care about [the negative publicity]. It kept me in the press, but sure, I’d rather the reviews be great.”
Something mentioned in nearly every criticism of Phair’s album was her choice to work with the production team The Matrix, known for creating catchy, poppy tunes – see Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” and Avril Lavigne’s hits. What often goes unmentioned is the handful of other producers on the album, including Michael Penn and R. Walt Vincent, primary knob-twiddler for Pete Yorn.
“Out of everyone I worked with, The Matrix are the only ones with commercial leanings. I worked with them because we were out of money, and I didn’t think the album had the excitement and exuberance I wanted and [the record label] would only pay if I worked with a big production team,” Phair says. “I would love to work with them again.”
Even though Phair is plenty busy with her tour, which wraps April 4 in D.C., and being a single mom to her 7-year-old son, she found a few spare minutes to venture into acting.
On March 14, Phair will guest on NBC’s American Dreams — the show that takes contemporary music stars and time warps them to the’60s — as Jackie DeShannon, of “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” fame. (Trivia note: DeShannon also co-wrote Kim Carnes’ 1981 smash, “Bette Davis Eyes”.) The experience, to quote a Phair song, was nothing less than extraordinary.
“I sat with her in the makeup trailer – it was the first time they had the actual artist there — and I felt like I was sitting across from myself. There’s about 15 years between us, and I could see myself like that in 15 years, with people going, ‘Guys, do you know who Liz Phair is?'”
Huh. Sounds like the intro to a good book.