By Bob Mehr
Harp, November 2005
The Peninsula Hotel is an elegant, bordering on ostentatious, spot in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. As the concierge and desk staff scurry about attending to the needs of their pampered clientele, Liz Phair strides purposefully from an elevator and begins scanning faces in the lobby looking for Harp. Fresh from a late-morning workout, she extends a hand and heads into the hotel’s airy restaurant lounge. Compared to the sharply dressed investment bankers conducting high-powered business lunches, Phair-decked out in a mini skirt and peasant blouse-cuts a conspicuous figure.
The now L.A.-based singer-songwriter is in Chicago for a sold-out three-night acoustic stand, back in the city where she launched her career with the definitive distaff rock of 1993’s Exile in Guyville. Following a five-year hiatus in the late ’90s/early ’00s, during which she raised her son, got divorced and moved to California, Phair resumed her career a decade on from Guyville with a polarizing self-titled album in 2003. A mish-mash of tracks collected over the years-variously produced by Michael Penn, R. Walt Vincent, and most notably teen-pop hitmaking team, the Matrix-the album was by Phair’s own admission an all-out effort to get radio airplay. Branded a sell-out by some, cleverly calculating by others, her standing among the indie press and large segments of her longtime fanbase plummeted. In exchange, she developed a whole a new audience, earned a top-10 single, and enjoyed her best year financially — yet, somehow failed to sell appreciably more records than before.
On the current tour, Phair, accompanied by her boyfriend Dino Meneghin, has been mixing a selection of old favorites, obscure b-sides, and songs from her forthcoming LP, Somebody,s Miracle. The album isn’t the return to Guyville-era form old school fans were hoping for, however. With writing and production work from John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer) and John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge), it’s instead a continuation of the gloss pop direction of Liz Phair. Risible in spots, inspired in others, the album is nothing if not proof that Phair is completely willing to shed her indie queen reputation.
In conversation, Phair is softer and more human than the careerist vamp she’s often been portrayed as. Perhaps more than anything she reveals herself as an artist who is keenly aware of the economic realities of the music business, and one prone to try new things, even when they’re not in her best interest. For now, her label, Capitol, seems to banking on the fact that she can make further inroads into the mainstream. But at 38, Phair is a realist: she knows if she doesn’t make a dramatic sales jump with this record that she’ll likely be back in the indie ranks before long. Her future in the music business, her contentious relationship with critics and the albatross of her first album are clearly on her mind as she chats with Harp for the next two hours.
I’ve just been going through this massive press packet that your label sent over.
Some light nighttime reading, huh?
You’re a pretty candid subject. I almost feel like there’s nothing left to ask you.[laughs] Well, you don’t know my shoe size.
Let’s start with the last record, Liz Phair. How do you view the whole project now-was it a success or a failure?
That was my best working year ever. I got the farthest commercially, made more money than I had in a long time, had the best touring year of my life. There were a lot of things about it that were good for me, but the sales never reached even close to what we’d hoped for. So it was a failure in that sense. Capitol [Records] were the ones that were hit the hardest. For them the sales are the thing, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And, of course, the critics went crazy taking shots at me, so it was a failure in that sense too. So it was a mixed bag, good and bad.
The record was a conscious effort on your part to have a commercial success. Why didn’t it do as well as you thought it should?
Who knows? Seriously, who knows? One possibility is that it’s just not easy to sell someone like me on the general population. The irony of the whole thing is that all my records basically sell about 350,000 to 400,000. And yet, with most of my records I didn’t have the year like I did last year personally. In a way, it benefited me the most — in terms of touring revenue and my profile and publishing — and just being able to stick in the game and go on for another record.
See, you have to understand that before [Liz Phair] came out, the way people were looking at me was like I was completely over. And now I’m not over. Sure, it should’ve sold like 700,000. I think that’s a number that would’ve felt nice and solid, like “Wow, that really made a jump for you.” But yet I did make a jump in a lot of other areas. I’m beginning to look at my career differently now. Like maybe it’s more about the live show than it is about record sales. The problem with thinking like that is you can always get dropped, that’s the thing hanging over your head.
Everyone talks about the Matrix’s involvement in that record, but originally that record was supposed to have been an album of songs produced by Michael Penn.
I wouldn’t have been happy if I’d put it out before we had all the Matrix stuff, ’cause I wouldn’t have been able to add all the other songs that I did. I would’ve just had the Michael Penn record, which didn’t feel like me either.
Did it feel like Aimee Mann?
It just wasn’t… I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for that look on me. I didn’t want to wear that suit of clothes all year. It’s hard, but I keep trying to explain my perspective on it.
Last time, I could’ve easily not had the Matrix songs on there. I guarantee it would’ve been a worse year for me financially. I would’ve had to have moved ’cause I wouldn’t have had the dough — I took so long between records I wasn’t generating any income. I owed some back taxes I had to take care of. So, yeah, I could’ve put out the [Penn-produced] record, and it would’ve been just another blip. And I would’ve been dropped and it wouldn’t have been my record anyway.
It just seemed better to go for a bold attempt to get some freedom. I was trying to lasso something higher up, ’cause I was feeling squeezed, like “get me outta here!” I dunno, there’s really no point in talking about this ’cause it doesn’t matter to people what I was feeling like on the inside or the reasons why I do things.
Your manager at the time was trying to convince you not to make a really commercial record though, right?
He didn’t want me to have a radio hit. He was like, “It will ruin your career.” I listened to him for like two years and nothing was happening with my career whatsoever. And I kept battling, because I really wanted my songs to be played on the radio — I’d never had that — and I listen to the radio all the time. I was never a record collector, I was a radio listener. I just wanted to try and achieve that.
So, I thought about it for a long time, and I listened to him for a long time, and I just stared to feel sad. Something inside me was just getting defeated. At a certain point you have to make your own decisions. And I’d always rather make my own mistakes; I chafe really badly when people are telling me what to do. My father says that I make everything as absolutely hard for myself as I possibly can. It’s kinda true.
Ultimately, I decided that, yeah, maybe it will be the end of my career, but my career’s not going anywhere anyway and I would rather be competitive. I don’t regret it at all. I got to be part of things I wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Well, the singles from the album certainly exposed you to a new audience. Like pre-teen girls, right?
Oh man, I’ve got the nine-year-olds by the hook! It was totally surreal having little girls in the audience. The last record was all about moms and daughters liking my music at the same time. I didn’t know what to do with them. It was like “No, no no, don’t you see the parental advisory sticker on the album?” But I’m like the Ya Ya Sisterhood, I can bring all the generations together. [laughs]
You had a certain kind of commercial success you’ve never experienced. But did the negative critical response to the album strike you as being unfair?
To be honest, if I were them I would’ve done the exact same thing. I’m sure I would’ve treated me the same way they did. It’s a curse and a blessing, ’cause I get everybody’s perspective.
Some people want me make to make Exile in Guyville every time. You know what? I understand that. I want to see Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy every time — I want to see her do You’ve Got Mail over and over. But that doesn’t mean I have to do that with my music.
You took what seemed like an unusual amount of abuse-some of it pretty personal — from the press. How do you deal with it?
I totally don’t have a problem if you don’t like the music. Sometimes, though, you can’t help but feel like, “Hey it’s just music, dude!” You know? I don’t understand people who take things that personally. I’ve never been one that looked at music as my identity. But I still talk to and like and am happy to see people who gave me bad reviews the last time. don’t have some hang-up where I can’t be badly reviewed. I’m a live-and-let-live person, generally.
It just seems to me that what I’m doing now, at my age and this point in my career, is just making music that I really like and putting on good shows. You don’t have to buy the CD, you don’t have to come to the show. But we’re all adults now. I’m not foisting some great hoax on America. So just chill out and let me just do my business.
But maybe the reason for all the critical invective is because people feel like they’ve been burned by you. Like they feel the self-titled record is the real you, and the Liz Phair of Guyville was the hoax?
All you gotta do is check out the Girly Sound tapes, which came out before Guyville. And those are like ridiculous pop songs too-very quirky, very poppy.
Guyville was just the sound that I had at the time because I worked with Brad Wood. I’ve never said, “Oh my sound is this.” I’m not identified with a sound. I’m identified with my guitar and my voice, that’s it. Everything else, if you’re gonna call it a hoax, fine. It is a put-on. It is me trying out different production styles. Guyville wasn’t my production style or my sound, it was me working in the situation at hand. I think I have a lot more in common with Madonna than the Ramones, in terms of trying on different hats musically.
Does it feel strange to have gone from being this very iconoclastic figure in the indie/alternative world to someone who’s totally shunned by that group of people?
They were always a pissy lot and they didn’t much like me back then. I didn’t like them when I made Guyville. What do you think Guyville is about? It’s about how much I hate that fucking scene. Guyville is about the idea that “alternative” is just as constricting as the mainstream. That’s what that record is about.
But you were always considered part of the indie world, because you were associated with Matador and —
Matador didn’t treat me any better than Capitol did. I wouldn’t even be on a major label if they hadn’t sold me to a major — twice. That’s the truth. But I don’t have any bad feelings toward Matador or toward Capitol. The only bad feeling I have toward people are the ones who have gone after me for no particular reason.
The new record, Somebody’s Miracle, is similar to Guyville in some ways. With that album you were trying to write a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. With the new record you tried to do the same thing with Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
I approach making music like I’m still learning. How do you make a great record? Well, let’s dissect a great record. Songs in the Key of Life just clicked with me. And I felt like it would be a really good process for me to take the sort of Stevie Wonder course and try to get inside that album and understand what made it so special and take a look at my own music and challenge myself. Of course, my album went in a different direction because I could never match Stevie, but it was a good starting point.
That’s a very academic approach.
Well, both my parents are academics so it makes sense. That academic rooting has a lot to do with my music and the way it’s developed.
See, I come from a visual arts background where you’re expected to try and change and explore you’re art — I mean, Picasso had five phases in his career. To me, if you’re a real true artist I don’t expect you to stay the same. Now I don’t necessarily expect people to continue to buy the art, but I do expect the artist to try it at least.
Visual artists are supposed to do a few things: They’re supposed to be provocative; they’re supposed to drill into society and make you look at things a different way; they’re supposed to change styles; and they have distinct periods. That’s how I approach my music.
Did the critical reaming you took last time impact the making of this record at all?
I don’t even think like that. Those considerations only came up when we were done with this record and were going over marketing. Capitol ended up funding some research, focus groups or whatever, made up of people who bought the last record. All of which was utterly inconclusive. It told us nothing.
What do you mean?
We were trying to figure out what had gone on — how did the album have a top-10 single and not sell as many records as it should have. They went through all this trouble getting all this research together. I wasn’t even supposed to see it, someone slipped me a copy. They combed through this huge fucking document trying to glean any kind of wisdom. Basically, what they came up with was that people didn’t like the pictures. [laughs] Or at least women didn’t like the pictures, men did. When they asked them, “Did you like the product once you purchased it?” they all said yes. When they asked, “Would you buy the next record?” they all said “I don’t know. I would if I liked the music.” There was nothing to be gotten out of these people — and it was a mix of old fans and new fans. It was really deflating. I thought there was some secret reason or pattern that I could figure out.
Sounds like they spent all that money only to discover that musical tastes are completely subjective.
You left Chicago for California five or six years ago. Has the move changed you?
Leaving Chicago cured something for me that I needed cured and allowed me to love it again. It allowed me to come back. I think you should always leave the town you grew up in. What I needed that Chicago wouldn’t give me was the ability to be something other than a good-girl mother who wore a white shirt and khakis or a rock ‘n’ roller who dresses outrageously. Living here, I had to pick and choose. One day I’d dress rock, and then I couldn’t go down to the Magnificent Mile. But in L.A., as much as people say surface counts for so much, it really doesn’t in a way. It’s all surface on one level, so people actually care more about what you’ve got inside. You know that whole thing about how you have to be pretty to live in L.A. — there’s some of that-but I never felt better about just being smart than I do in L.A., it is so appreciated.
You seem like someone whose interests and ambitions lie beyond music to an extent.
I’d love to write a book someday. But I keep coming up against the fact that I don’t write [laughs]. But I also love business. I read all these little “how to” business books. I used to be into astrophysics, now I’ve gotten into the whole business thing.
See, I dated my manager for a while and listened to all his phone calls and kinda watched how it all went down. I realized you can make a better lifestyle for yourself by simply understanding business. You don’t have to work with assholes, you don’t have to do bad things. You can play the game but in a good way. It’s like, “This is what I made: how can we sell this? Who would like this?” I’m 38 now and it’s sort of my time to think that way. I figure my 40s are my business time.
So do you not see a future for yourself in music?
No, I’ll never stop writing songs. I’ll always make records. Will I be in the competitive market of the record business? No way. At least I doubt it. It’s too grueling; it’s either feast or famine.
My career fantasy is that I have enough success that the record business can’t muck with me. Ideally, I could say, “I have a fanbase out there, I’m gonna tour from this month to that month. I’m gonna put out this record, and find some nice label that’s kinda indie and have it not be about sales or videos.” I want the kind of career where you would work, but not have to keep up with the trends. Yeah, I would like to work and not have to be trendy.
At this point would you consider it going backwards if you had to return to an indie label?
That’s no big deal to me. I mean, we tried to get off of Capitol sometime before Liz Phair. I would do whatever made sense for my career.
Not to end with a Barbara Walters question, but where do you see yourself in five years’ time? What do you want?
I hope I have another kid. I hope my touring business is smashing. I hope my son is growing up with a skill that he can use later in life and that he’s happy. I hope I still look kinda young. I hope my parents are still alive and healthy. I hope I travel more around the globe. I hope I’m doing some charity work. And I hope I’m working on a book.
By the time you release the next album you’re probably gonna be 40. Does that feel daunting or weird?
Yeah, that’s kind of a whole new game. It makes me wonder what the boundaries are. I mean, the Rolling Stones are still touring. I’ll probably push to do what I want to do as long as I possibly can. I’m not Greta Garbo. I’m not someone who is going to gracefully slip away. One way or another, I’ll be around for a while, you can count on that.