By David Carr
The New York Times, August 2, 2005
Liz Phair, former crown princess of indie music, has news for all those who wish she would go back to opening up a vein so listeners can feel her pain.
She does not feel theirs.
“I don’t remember that time as fun or happy,” she said, recalling the days in 1993 after she released Exile in Guyville, a gender-bent song-for-song retort to the 1972 Rolling Stones album, Exile on Main Street. The CD was hailed as a revelation, but since then, she has steadfastly refused to live down or up to her early reputation as the coolest girl at the party. Ms. Phair has made four CD’s since Exile, and the latest, Somebody’s Miracle – due out in October – will do nothing to quiet critics and fans who suggest she traded mesmerizing musical idiosyncrasy for a more common, commercial sound.
“If you are an old fan and it doesn’t fit what you need, don’t buy the disc,” she said with firmness, but no rancor. “People hang their hopes on you fitting into their CD collection in way that they have made a space for, but I’m playing a longer game than that.”
Ms. Phair, 38, who has spent the past few years as a piñata for critics, is nonetheless in a very sunny mood. She is in the midst of a lo-fi, nine-city tour with her boyfriend and accompanist, Dino Meneghin. Sitting on Pier 25 in Lower Manhattan on Sunday afternoon before playing at Joe’s Pub last night and tonight, she had to be persuaded to sit down at a picnic table rather than hop in a nearby kayak and paddle into the Hudson. The duo is doing three songs a night from the new record and then mostly winging it, grabbing requests shouted from the audience and playing B-sides and oldies as whimsy indicates.
“Every night we play a challenge song, which is one we might have rehearsed and then one hack job where we just do our best,” she said. With its acoustic setting and reach-back into her oeuvre, the tour should be a crowd pleaser, which is something Ms. Phair has not been spending much career time on. Her last record, self-titled, but radio ready, drew particularly visceral criticism.
“Hating, I can understand,” she said. “I hate stuff too. I can get with that. But some of it is personal and weird. I don’t like being approached by people who look at me too intensely, who needed something from me that I didn’t have. I don’t represent anything. I am just like you and everyone else. I am trying to live my life as best I can.”
Ms. Phair is a fickle cult figure, who was surprised by the adoration when it was forthcoming and seemed mystified by the disappointment that came behind it.
She jumped up to take pictures of passing boats and sipped on a half-caf iced soy latte – “I tamper with everything, including coffee,” she said – seeming relatively self-aware, if not as self-involved in a way that made for compelling songwriting in the past.
“Am I coasting on some early success? Yeah,” she said. “It was a good lucky break for me. But I would rather earn my way back again than simply conform to what people are expecting.”
In the one version of Ms. Phair’s career, she took all her early promise and squandered it on her last album with a production team that confected Avril Lavigne. She pointed out that the record did pretty well, not huge, but enough to keep her and hers – she has an 8-year-old-son – in food and shelter.
Ms. Phair said the record’s singles, a particular genre of music, required plenty of compromises. “I would argue with the producers and listen and then say, ‘Yeah, take my guitar off the record, because you know you want to.’ I fought for the songs I wanted and cared about and tried to piece it back together in a way that was meaningful to me.”
Her label, Capitol, put major juice and money behind the singles, and she trudged from morning show to morning show, plugging it with whatever wacky guys happened to be sitting in front of the mics. But it was not a strictly commercial undertaking, she added. The mostly nude cover art and a one-song ode to the health effects of semen meant Wal-Mart and Starbucks were not much interested in Liz Phair by Liz Phair. The fact that the project was self-titled only doubled the rejection.
Ms. Phair pointed out that she never signed with a major label to begin with and has tried to make the most of what has happened: Matador, the indie label she signed with, made a deal with Atlantic, and a later deal with Capitol Records, and so on.
“I figured if I was going to float, I would have to find a way to navigate these waters and still maintain what I like to do,” Ms. Phair said. “I like doing the photo shoots, the interviews, the videos, but the bottom line is that I like to sit in my bedroom and write these little songs. I am still making records and still have a measure of control over my music, and that is not easy to come by.”
But, she added, “I think what I do is still pretty identifiable. I think I have a quirkiness and a melodic sense that you won’t confuse with anyone else.”
Tiny, with a bustier framed by an overlay of white blouse and a skirt that demonstrates motherhood has not changed her penchant for showing some casual leg, Ms. Phair would be hard to mistake for someone else. Her do-me feminism and frank sexual lyrics may be part of what put the mostly-male rock criticism community in a tizzy to begin with.
Ms. Phair has lived her life in opposition to whatever has been placed in front of her. Exile was a bitter, compelling retort to both the Rolling Stones and all the snotty girls in her suburban neighborhood.
The gesture of Somebody’s Miracle is more complicated. Conceived as another song-by-song response – this time to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life – it tacked away from that concept to become an album that gives solace to whoever shows up. There are singles, throwaways and full-on confessionals – enough to satisfy or embitter various parts of her fan base, depending.
Which is just about pleasing to Ms. Phair, who might be seen as a diva without portfolio or a sly genius, depending.
“After all, I’m not sitting in an office telling someone that their insurance policy doesn’t cover their chemotherapy,” she said. “Theoretically, I am trying to make a piece of music come to life, to try and bring joy and meaning to people’s lives. That’s a pretty good deal.”