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Fame & Fortune: Rock singer Liz Phair

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Phair mixes introspection, youthful vigor

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Million-dollar ideas versus financial realities

By Larry Getlen, October 25, 2005

Liz Phair has spent the last few years as one of rock music’s ultimate enigmas.

She roared out of the gate in 1993 with Exile in Guyville, a blunt, raw, sexual, lo-fi recording that was a song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. It attracted a die-hard following for her candid take on female sexual power, but her status as an indie goddess turned into both a blessing and a curse.

Subsequent records carried her legend to varying degrees of success, depending on whom you asked, and then she shocked her fan base with a 180-degree change of course. Her self-titled 2003 Capitol Records release was as slick as Exile had been untamed. It bore the stamp of Avril Lavigne’s producers, and the cover photo featured Liz naked, covered by only a guitar. The radio-friendly CD was a blatant attempt at commercializing her appeal and sent the indie music world into an uproar of condemnation.

Now, Phair has a new CD, Somebody’s Miracle, which scales back the production and takes a step back toward stripped-down songwriting.

Bankrate spoke to Phair, now 38 years old and the mother of an 8-year-old son, about the twists and turns of her career, and how the die-hards refuse to let go of the past.

Bankrate: You’ve taken flack, from people who loved Exile, for how your music has changed as you’ve grown older. But you’d think that they’ve aged, too.

Liz Phair: The indie zeitgeist for that time is gone; it doesn’t exist anymore. What frightens me is that people can’t see the value in the indie scene as it exists today. They still want it to seem like the indie scene of yesteryear.

Bankrate: Death Cab for Cutie’s album just came out on Atlantic. If you needed proof that indie was dead …

Liz Phair: (laughs) It’s dead now. I remember talking to them. I stopped by the set of The O.C., and Death Cab for Cutie was on, and they were talking to me about being on a major label. I asked why would you guys wanna be on a major? I’m stuck in a contract, but you’re not even in a contract. But they really wanted to be on a major. And you gotta give it to them, they’re just going after what they want. People who don’t expect human beings to go after what they want are bad people.

Bankrate: You mention being stuck in a contract. Do you wish you were on another label?

Liz Phair: No. My label works really well with me. I think I have a better deal than they do. They’re gambling that I’m ever going to pay them back what I owe them. So I think I’m benefiting from being on a major label right now, but it comes with a price tag. They need singles. It’s not an option for me not to deliver that. I really look at my label as a business partner. Look, I’m old enough. I’m the same age as they are. I’m not looking at them as these big authorities who are making me do stuff. Sometimes I make them do stuff. So I think I’ve really been lucky. They can drop me at any time, and they wouldn’t be financially wrong to do so. It’s a tough world out there.

Bankrate: Does it matter to you how you’re perceived in the music business now?

Liz Phair: It does, but not as much as I think people would like for me to care. It matters to me because I am, of course, hopeful that people will like the music I make, because I like it. Plus, I want to give people something. I have the most honest intentions. At the same time, though, there are also my job worries if it’s not well-received.

Bankrate: In New York Magazine, you said, “I’ve spent so much time scheming on how to make money — I’ve read The Tipping Point three times.”

Liz Phair: I do that all the time. Don’t you? Don’t you sit there with your million-dollar ideas? I think home ultrasound would be a really good idea. What I’d be selling is the software. Check this out. You’d stick the program in your own home computer, and it would be like a shower gift for women. You could get it at the pharmacy, because when you’re pregnant, you do a lot of going to the pharmacy. You rent the paddle, you buy the gel and you have the software that allows you to ultrasound your baby at home, anytime you want. But of course, you’d need to absolutely approve the safety of that, which would cost a billion dollars. But it is a great idea.

Bankrate: Are we just talking, or are you really looking into this?

Liz Phair: No, we’re just talking. I’ve been bugging my dad for years to get into a business with me, but no, we’re just talking. I don’t want you to take me that seriously. But to me, business can be creative just like anything can. Like cooking can. I think people have a really narrow view of what an artist is because they don’t have a life. They just live in a hovel and they just make music. That’s silly.

Bankrate: Are you at the point where you have to think about something else to do one day?

Liz Phair: I definitely have to keep a job for myself, no question. I have to look at how I can evolve. As you get older in this business, it’s harder unless you build up your touring. There are financial realities — it’s not in any way, shape or form a safe or gentle trip for an artist. And I wasn’t so great at saving my money, and I also didn’t figure out that you should put out a record every year for financial reasons. I was very cavalier with it . I never expected to have to be the real wage-earner for my family. I didn’t expect to be divorced. I was a victim of a lot of internal prejudice I had myself about a woman’s role. I had to learn the hard way that it’s really up to me. You can’t really be just a wife anymore. Households require two incomes.

Bankrate: Are you investing in real estate and stocks and stuff?

Liz Phair: I’m not investing in real estate at the moment. This area is so ridiculous. I can’t move my son out of his school district because he needs to be where he has his friends. But I am invested. I have an accountant, and he has me balanced close to what my monthly budget should be.

Bankrate: So now that you’re at this point, do you do a better job of saving?

Liz Phair: I do. I’m not gonna tell you it’s fun.

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