By Scott Mervis
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 20, 2011
“Every record that I’ve put out has been upsetting to people. Every single one of them.”
Liz Phair says it started at the beginning of her career, in 1993, with her now-classic “Exile in Guyville.” Friends told her they were disappointed it wasn’t enough like the homemade tapes, “Girly Sounds,” that got her that first deal with Matador.
It didn’t end there.
“Guyville” was disliked by a lot of people when it came out,” she says. “It was a very raging debate about the kind of acclaim I was getting and whether I deserved it.”
“Guyville” introduced a guitar-driven singer-songwriter with raw sexual vibe and a flat, pretty, almost-disengaged voice. It was hailed as one of the best albums of the ’90s and currently sites at No. 328 on the Rolling Stone list of the Top 500 albums of all time. To this day, everything the singer-songwriter from the Chicago area releases, including the album “Funstyle,” is compared back that breakthrough.
“It never leaves the debate,” she says. “Like, ‘Your first record,’ and ‘How have you changed?’ and ‘Why have you changed?’ and ‘Will you ever write another one like that?’ and all of this stuff. It’s just the nature of having something that special that doesn’t come along that often, where you’re making something that comes from the heart and it connect to people and it’s relatively new, so it has this mark that is left. Now, it’s fine, I feel perfectly comfortable journeying on my own specific arc. It is what it is and it enriches everything I’ve done, but I doubt I’ll ever be the same. How could I without being fake? And that would be awful.”
By breaking out with the a record that loved—and hated, as she contends—Liz Phair didn’t make it easy on herself. When she returned the next year with “Whip-Smart,” people wondered where their lo-fi sex goddess had gone.
“It’s amusing to me to watch,” she says. “Now everyone’s like, ‘God, I love ‘Whip-Smart.’ When it came out, everyone so lukewarm about it and dismissive because they thought it didn’t measure up to ‘Guyville’ and it was a disappointment, but now it’s like a classic.”
There was a similar feeling around 1998’s “whitechocolatespaceegg,” which took a mature turn with the singer in the throes of motherhood.
“At the time they were like, ‘This is so pop, I can’t handle how pop this is.’ And then when ‘Liz Phair’ [her fourth album] came out, it was like, ‘Play something from “whitechocolatespaceegg,” I love that record.’ Each subsequent album both polishes the older stuff and knocks off the complain they were having about the record before.”
Last year, after parting with the label ATO (without releasing anything), she self-released “Funstyle,” her third album of the decade and first since 2005’s “Somebody’s Miracle,” Songs like “You Should Know Me” and “Bang! Bang!” sound like classic Phair, but it has its departures, including a bizarre venture in Bhangra-rap (“Bollywood”), disco-funk (“My, My”), guest spots by Dave Matthews, and silly skits of people dissing her new stuff.
“I see ‘Funstyle’ as being comprised of two different styles of fun—one being tongue-in-cheek, really fast and obnoxious, over-the-top cinema-score-type technique,” she says. “There’s like six of those. I see the other half as being the product of in-studio jamming, where you just drop in with friends socially and it’s very loose, fast jamming out a song. The engineer will be playing on the track. You gather everyone in a social environment.”
The skits spring from her side work in recent years scoring for such television shows as “90210” and “Swingtown.”
“I was working in studios and doing cues for TV shows and learning a whole new skill set musically,” she says. “Long hours can make you slaphappy. We just started creating little scenarios that would have us rolling, weeping with laughter and that’s how that ‘Funstyle’ thing came about.”
Songs like “Bollywood” seem to be geared toward positioning the veteran singer alongside such newcomers as M.I.A. and Janelle Monae.
“I totally listen to that stuff,” she says of the young female artists. “I was just downloading Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” I’m loving Katy Perry’s slew of hits. Sometimes I like Kesha, not sure I always love her. I think I prefer Katy Perry. Even though she appears sunnier, I think she’s got more edge, real edge. Gaga has the best performance chops of all of them. I’m still a fan of Beyoncé, to be honest. If you wanna elect someone to lead the female army, that’s the one I’m calling. All the little girls can step down. She’s an amazing performer.”
As for what fans can expect from her own set, she has been going heavy on the “Guyville” material and playing a few songs from every album.
“The new stuff goes so well with the old stuff. I haven’t tried to rap or pull off ‘Bollywood.’ We do ‘Oh, Bangladesh’ and ‘And He Slayed Her.’ The live show is a totally different thing than putting out records. It’s like a continuous relationship with the fans that for me has spanned two decades. It’s totally appropriate to play the old stuff. I’m thrilled I have enough records out that I can have a whole rocking set list. I remember early on it being like ‘God, I wish I had just a couple more rocking numbers’ and then like finally I reached this point where I can play a full set list and please people all the way through.”
Featured Photo: Liz Phair says her records upset people. (Photo: Darren Ankenman)