By Cat Woods
The Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2021
A quarter of a century ago, Liz Phair arrived with a middle finger raised to expectations.
Liz Phair’s explosive debut in 1994 surprised those in the music industry who prefer to play it safe. Exile In Guyville was a double concept album, not exactly the formula for instant success. But Rolling Stone declared “a rock and roll star is born”, and the Chicago-born singer-songwriter’s audacity paid off. Last year, the same magazine put that work high on its list of the greatest albums of all time.
Phair’s new album arrives a decade after her last one. And Soberish is again defying cliche, rewriting the rules of rock.
This time it’s not a feminist call to action. Rather, it’s an exploration of the space between extremity and addiction versus piety and self-denial. A rock star making moderation catchy, sexy and cool – could it be?
“I think that’s a state that I’m in a lot of the time,” muses Phair. “Especially this last year with the pandemic, definitely my weed consumption upticked, but there’s a sense that ‘soberish’ refers to the myriad ways that I, and I think a lot of people, find ways to escape reality, find ways to soldier on while not taking it right in the face. I love playing guitar when I’m high … but I can’t get anything actually done, and sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like to be a true rock star and go all in but that’s just not going to happen for me in my lifetime.”
The album has brought Phair full circle, reconnecting with Brad Wood, the producer of her first album. Wood went on to work with Smashing Pumpkins, Ben Lee, Veruca Salt and Placebo, helping to define the Chicago indie-rock sound of the 90s that Exile In Guyville pioneered. Track-by-track, Phair reinterpreted the rock’n’ roll lifestyle commentary of Rolling Stones’ classic Exile On Main Street to reflect her own reality of coming up in the Chicago indie music scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“I had wanted to be a visual artist, and I had majored in art history and studio art at college,
she says. “[Then] I had all these boyfriends that were in bands, and they loved music, and they used to make me mixtapes … [but] I got so tired of men telling me what good music was, and all of them arguing amongst themselves about what good music was.
“I asked my boyfriend at the time, ‘what is the best record ever made?’, then I reached through this box of cassettes I had and pulled out Exile on Main Street, which I really wasn’t familiar with. I said, ‘is this a good record?’ and he just laughed, snorting very sarcastically, and said, ‘Yeah, it’s one of the best records. Why don’t you do a double album?’ as if that would be the most egregious, uppity thing I could possibly do and I just looked at him like, ‘well, why don’t I?’”
The lo-fi, raw sound of songs like F— and Run, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Divorce Song signalled a new sound for female singer-songwriters, legitimising rough-edged 4-track demo songs as commercially viable radio releases with minimal intervention from producers. Being vulnerable and honest is the source of Phair’s connection to her audience, still.
“I think it’s something to do with my age,” she says. “In the length of time I’ve been in this career, I’ve learned something that I could not have known in my 20s, and that that is that concerts are actually a collaboration between audience and artist. My music reminds them of that summer that they were with their boyfriend or reminds them of that trip that they took senior year, or whatever it is they’re bringing. So, in a weird way, the actual power of the artist is not the separation; it’s the coming together over the distance.”
More than two decades and two Grammy nominations later – and after seven years scoring television so that she could be around for her son’s high school years – Phair is ready to perform Soberish live and begin the follow-up to her 2019 memoir, Horror Stories. In July, she’s heading out on the road with Alanis Morissette and Garbage.
“There’s a real camaraderie between Alanis, Shirley [Manson] and I, and I love being at this stage in my career, even for all the stresses of it being a young person’s game. It’s lovely to be with women that have been through the wars, just like you have.”
Featured Image: Soberish: Liz Phair’s audacity has paid off, time and again (Photo: Eszter+David)