By Barry Harrington
Penthouse, April 2004
Liz Phair is back — and her return has caused a fury. The former angry indie queen broke her five-year hiatus by releasing her eponymous fourth album; Liz Phair is the fastest-selling disc of her career with the Top 10 Billboard hit “Why Can’t I?” and its Top 10 MTV and VH-1 video. (The song was also featured on the sound track of DreamWorks Pictures’ Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, starring Kate Bosworth.) Phair is now a pop icon, appearing on MTV specials, at festivals and award shows, and touring North America and Europe. Thinking-women’s rock has never looked or sounded so good. The only people complaining are Phair’s fans.
She gathered her fiercely loyal, even cultish, fan base with her stunning debut, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, which was not only one of the nineties’ most influential albums, but the winner of the Village Voice‘s 1994 “Pazz and Jop” critics’ poll (an honor not presented to a woman since two decades earlier, when the recipient was Joni Mitchell). Two highly acclaimed albums followed: 1994’s Whip-Smart (featuring the radio hit “Supernova”) and 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg. Her trademark songs — ultracatchy alternafolk with dark and sometimes explicit lyrics — wowed a generation of intellectual music fans who idolized her smart rock and even described her as a rock-chick version of Sylvia Plath.
But detractors were never far behind. Even as she took over as the literati darling, and while she opened the door for such acts as Alanis Morissette and Hole, many accurately pointed out that the album sales failed to match the hype. Still others attacked her performances, saying she sang in annoying nasal tones; others felt that she only had the success she did because she posed for risqué photos (indeed, she bared her breasts on her first album cover) and was, truthfully, a damn sexy young woman. Declining sales and mishaps led some to believe her iconic status was all for naught, that perhaps she’d been overestimated after all. Phair played some Lilith Fair dates, married, had a son, divorced, and survived a major post-divorce relationship. When she returned to the scene with her new album, her long-time fans were shocked and even angry at the mainstream effort.
It’s not as if Phair came up with a clunker. Her new album is a solid work of pop rock with literary merit. The record is hook-oriented and ever sexual, not in a smutty way, but in her signature method of viewing sex in the larger context of relationships and, dare one say, the human condition. Who else but Phair would place the line “Here we go, we’re at the beginning / We haven’t fucked yet but my head’s spinning” into a Top 10 hit? Other songs similarly ooze sex and sensuality. “Rock Me” is a humorous take on seducing a decade-younger man who is too young to know who Phair is. “Favorite” playfully compares her lover to her favorite undergarments (“You feel like my favorte underwear, and I’m slipping you on again tonight”).
But credit for the truly earth-shattering new sound goes to the album’s producers, who include Phair herself; Michael Penn (a solo artist who has been compared to Randy Newman, Lennon-McCartney, and Todd Rundgren; he’s also produced the Wallflowers and Aimee Mann); and the famed songwriting group the Matrix (Lauren Christy, Scott Spock, and Graham Edwards), which produced and cowrote four of the 14 tracks.
Phair has not had the success she desired with the enhanced portion of the CD, which takes the listener to the video, LizPhair.com, and comeandgetit, an internet EP. The EP comprises the balance of Liz Phair-era bonus tracks — five additional songs that are witty and direct and possess a less commercial feel. Though it’s a tremendous addition to the CD, not many have downloaded the essential extra. According to fans, there are technical problems accessing the files on Windows 95 and XP; others complain that there should have been instructions for how to burn the EP to disc.
But Phair isn’t fretting. Her best and brightest moments lie ahead. Her North American and European tours went well enough to spark a second North American tour in larger venues, which kicked off in Los Angeles at the House of Blues and then hit major markets, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. She appeared on NBC’s hit series American Dreams in March, portraying sixties pop singer/songwriter Jackie de Shannon.
Penthouse caught up with Liz Phair on tour to find out how the change from indie priestess to pop star has affected her — and what Phair’s elusive stardom has cost her.
How are you handling this blowout mainstream success?
It’s strange that it is such a big deal. My experience of songwriting and performing hasn’t changed. I’m working harder than I ever have worked, but it’s weird to me to have, for the first time in my life, a charting song, and this furor in the press. There are other changes as well. We’re touring on a bus for the first time, and things are going well. It’s weird to me how I’m… I guess it’s just a feature of being older now, but I’m not emotionally impacted by all of this, either the good news or the frenzy over the new album.
Do you have anything to say to the indie purists who are bashing this new album and the new you?
You know what, I don’t. Because I kinda respect what they do, and my career wouldn’t be the same without them; there was a moment when the relationship was useful. But there is a difference between the people who bought my first record and the ones who sought me out about it. They were so needy. I wanted to get away from that audience. It was a double-edged sword. Some people thought the record was shit and that I was hyped, and said so. Others were sooooo needy; the record meant something intense to them, and suddenly I was some symbol in pop culture. That overwhelmed me. As much as I was in their clutches, Guyville was about being in their clutches and wanting to get out.
I do have one thing to say to them: Stop using Guyville against me. Because when it came out, you all didn’t like it either. I remember. It’s new wave to them now, because they were young and survived, but I hate people who say, “Guyville was a masterpiece, blah blah blah.” There were indie purists back then who, before they decided Guyville was a milestone album, said “She dyes her hair blonde, she comes from the suburbs, she has no right to get all this attention, it’s just that she dresses provocatively to get noticed, and that’s all.” There really was a huge controversy about that record too. They were not happy about that album at all. But I do think that the purists serve a purpose. They are literally like the hounds on either side of the mountains of hell; they guard those artists who are young, who aren’t ready to be on commercial labels — aren’t ready for the realities of it — and need an environment to be nurtured in. And they are a boon and blessing to artists — like myself — who need a space to create their own music free from consumer concern.
How do the older material and new songs mix live?
We push them all together. Some nights it works phenomenally, and it shuts everybody up right then and there. Some nights it’s different. It depends on the crowd. If it’s an “old” crowd, the new stuff doesn’t quite go across. But I’d say 90 percent of the time it works beautifully. Anyone who knows the new record also knows whitechocolatespaceegg. And the older fans who are at that show, that town, probably are more amenable to the new stuff because they don’t know it, they are kind of smiling, and I think that’s great — I really feel that’s a hardcore old fan.
Tell us about your experience writing “Well-Made Song”.
The thing about the Matrix stuff that you can’t deny is that it is very good songwriting, whether it’s your type of songwriting or not. Played live, it can strengthen the set, it can really pick up the set. A lot of my old stuff is very “low” sounding, like it’s driving at you, plodding even. So pulling out the melodic pieces in the set, it gives you a lot of power [and theatricality]. And if you place the songs in the set list just right — which is hard to do — using different guitar and key changes, it’s a powerful dynamic. I’ve been very happy about how the tour is going so far. People are very receptive, and very nice. I was afraid of losing the old fans and figured maybe we’d just get new ones, but the mix is exactly what I want. For a while, the old and new were at odds with each other. There was an interplay amongst the audience themselves, the new fans patiently listening to the older material and then screaming for the new songs, while the older audience was acting as if they were saying, “You don’t know her real songs.”
How does it feel to have so much new success with the album, the tour, and MTV?
We’re kinda like the little engine who could. We haven’t taken off, we’re just building. I would prefer to take off completely, but we may not; I may not be that sort of an artist. I may be a builder. It could be like Coldplay — just low, low, low… and then — breakthrough. You never know. We do keep rising. We’re definitely moving forward slowly, and that’s better than falling back.
How was it working with the Matrix?
It was great. I loved it! I think I felt confident enough — it might be harder if you were younger and you hadn’t yet established your songwriting trade and had to relinquish control. For example, Lauren is smart and quick. She’s sort of like me: feisty, 35, two kids, a pop star — a hot little ticket, if you know what I mean. I had the best time ever with her. And I felt equal to the task [of co-songwriting]. It was a stimulating and exciting use of my talent. But I don’t look at it usurping what I do on my own, and I don’t imagine that it confines me. It’s worth a try. The Matrix are amazing songwriters: they’re very talented, more talented than people would like to think.
Would you share your secrets to songwriting? How did you cowrite and/or coproduce?
Graham would just stand there with a guitar and say, “We’re going to play you three or four songs we’re working on.” Their ideas were, for instance, a rough verse and a rough chorus, maybe with two or four chords, some basic structure. Then Lauren would introduce some melodies that she was thinking about, and I picked the songs that I heard that I could work my own words and melodies for. And then they’d run into the room and put down a rough bridge and chorus.
Lauren and I would go back to her house and lay on the bedroom floor with a couple of pens and continue writing. The Matrix were more writing in their song range. That’s what you’re hearing on the record. I’m more into words and singing and constructing bridges. Working with me is like working with artists without egos. It’s like mating: You have to combine for the goal of the result. There was no “I like my idea better.” Though a couple of times [Lauren] wanted to go in a direction that was not me. I couldn’t do that. I had to work honestly.
Is the new album your favorite one? Which album is most personal?
All my albums are. The new one, I suppose, is “the divorce album”… But do I have to spell it out for you? Like, [sings] “I was just divorced and that’s why I’m so horny now.” I mean, I did go through so much. And all that experience is in this record.
Tell us about sexing up your image for the new album.
I’m not sexing up my image!
Yes, you’ve always been sexy.
I have always been very open. It’s honesty. I enjoy posing for provocative pictures… I don’t know why. To me it’s an expression to pose, a visual art. I started my career as a visual artist. So I enjoy the visual aspects of photography. What’s wrong with a little tasteful erotic photography? It’s art. My God, my first album cover had a photo of me with my nipples exposed. Tone, themes, behavior, good music, and art — all have been a constant from the beginning. I’ve always manipulated my image.
The song “H.W.C.” is classic. I love your voice, sweetly and whimsically singing explicit lyrics like “All you do is fuck me every day and night,” and “It’s the fountain of youth, it’s the meaning of life, so hot, so sweet, so whet my appetite! Give me your hot white come.” It’s informative — and good — to hear a woman’s perspective on really desiring come.
The song is about how a woman feels about being really in love and having great sex. “This is what my body needs — give it to me.” In love, in a truly healthy relationship, come isn’t taboo because of AIDS or “good girls don’t” or whatever. It’s part of what you want. Women understand the song and friends insisted I put it on the record. Girlfriends cried, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Male record executives were, “Oh, I don’t know.” But the women understood. It’s about women’s empowerment. Why can’t a girl be empowered and sexy? I wrote it about being in love with this guy and the sex was going great. I was more comfortable with myself, and it wasn’t about him just doing me but me doing things to him, and my feeling much more comfortable with sex than I ever had before. Now I was in control of the sex as much as he was. I wrote the song about how I felt. It’s all about feminists’ right to reclaim wanting. Wanting the come.
How do you feel about the new technology you’ve used lately, like the Internet EP?
It sucks! It’s not getting the exposure to meet its potential. Not enough people have downloaded the EP bonus tracks — have they just not heard about it? To those out there listening: Download the Internet EP! To me, it is clearly part of the new album. It’s the rest of the set, as a free download. It’s part of the record.
We like the new material. Don’t let the bastards get you down.[Laughs] I’m just playing honestly. But I think the different sides of the music can coexist. While I put m new feelings about several things on one album, I’m still noticing the difference between old and new.
It’s a great dynamic, Liz. It works, and makes total sense.
It does to me.
Featured Image: Liz Phair photographed for Penthouse (Photo credit needed)