By Steve Knopper
Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2011
All Liz Phair wanted to do was make a loose, spontaneous record. “It was very improvisational,” says the veteran Chicago rocker. “It really caused the producers and some of the musicians a lot of pain because I would want it to sound ‘demo-ey.’ …But I wanted to catch that moment. We were trying to trying to come up with a word to describe what is this style that we’re doing. And Evan (Frankfurt, one of the album’s producers) just looked up at me from the (mixing) board and said, ‘It’s funstyle!'”
But the reaction to “Funstyle,” which Phair finished in 2009, was hardly fun. Instead of the breezy, barbed pop and rock songs Phair has been putting out for the past decade or so, “Funstyle” opened with “Smoke,” a bizarre cut-and-paste dance track of soul-singing snippets, jarring sound effects and spoken-word non sequiturs. It included “Bollywood,” perhaps the most unexpected song of Phair’s career, in which the singer raps over a clanging Indian bhangra beat. One of her longtime managers at Chicago-based A-Square called her after hearing it and declared, in Phair’s recollection, that he “hated it.”
Phair was taken aback. “I thought they’d find it really funny and fun. I didn’t think they’d take it super-seriously,” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘You hate it.’ ‘I hate it.’ You hate it.’ I couldn’t understand how ‘hate’ came in there. He was embarrassed to take it to the radio station. It was done respectfully—we’re still friends—(but) it was just one of those things.” Not long afterward, Phair cut ties with the company and added a final song, “U Hate It,” in which the voices of older men debate the album’s merits, as a commentary.
Phair, 43, is not unfamiliar with album backlash. Her 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville,” her shambling, monotone-voiced, song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ classic “Exile on Main Street,” chronicled Chicago’s male-dominated alternative-rock scene so vividly that it divided its potential local fans. Famed punk producer Steve Albini trashed the album publicly, and Phair recently told Filter magazine: “Half the population that I had known or been hanging out with totally disagreed with my sudden success.” Still, the album remains a ’90s alt-rock classic, up there with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream,” and turned Phair into a national superstar.
Then in 2003 she signed to major label Capitol Records, and made an aesthetic decision that, once again, divided her fan base. She went pop, putting out “Liz Phair,” working with high-priced hit-makers The Matrix to make super-catchy songs like “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?.” The new backlash, from “Guyville” fans, was intense; indie-rock Web site Pitchfork.com, taking the Albini role, gave it a rating of 0.0.
Although Marty Lenmartz, a DJ for radio station WXRT, likes both “Liz Phair” and “Funstyle,” and the Chicago rock station plays five songs from the former and one from the latter, he can see why the backlash occurred. “‘Exile in Guyville’ was such an intimate record. She pretty much opened up her soul and let it all spill out,” he says. “At some point she got older and moved out of Chicago and probably felt that more of a pop record was something she needed to do… Suddenly you’re just like any pop artist.”
Phair looks back her “pop period” as sort of a artistic dabbling in a new type of music, much the way she tinkered with fun, rap, Bollywood and improvisational rock on “Funstyle.” She views her extracurricular activities the same way—for the last couple of years, she has composed score for TV shows, beginning with the canceled 2008 CBS series “Swingtown,” then more recently, USA’s “In Plain Sight.” She’s also working on a novel, and has written book reviews for the New York Times, including a 3,400-word piece on Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’s autobiography last November.
Over the phone, the Richards review leads to a discussion of “Guyville,” which Phair reissued during its 15-year anniversary in 2008.
“I was using this persona of Mick (Jagger) as if he was this boyfriend that I couldn’t understand. It’s a girl insanity. If you’re not a chick, you’ll never get it,” she says. “I couldn’t communicate with this guy that I had a quasi-crush on—who Mick was, was kind of who this guy was. …Either I was saying ‘I totally know what you mean, I feel the same way’ or ‘you’re totally an (expletive.’ “
Jagger is the only Rolling Stone Phair has ever met in person. In 2005, when Phair was finishing her album, “Somebody’s Miracle,” she found herself in an LA studio near a listening party for the Stones’ latest albun. One of her producers, John Shanks, was the conduit. “He introduces me to Mick, and I can barely speak, and Mick is just kind of standing there not interested in me at all: ‘Yes, I’ve heard of you,’ ” she recalls. “And he basically forgave me for my using their name to sort of make myself famous. It was not, like, ‘Wow, thanks for that awesome thing’—it was kind of like, ‘You’re welcome,’ “
Featured Image: “It (‘Funstyle’) really caused the producers and some of the musicians a lot of pain because I would want it to sound ‘demo-ey.'” Liz Phair says. (Photo: Darren Ankenman)