By Chris Willman
Variety, May 25, 2021
“The garbage people are going to come by the house,” Liz Phair says suddenly over a Zoom call. While it might seem like she’s declaring an impending hard out, with Shirley Manson and Butch Vig perhaps set to swing through, she’s referencing actual Manhattan Beach trash collectors. But the group Garbage could just as well be a part of the conversation, seeing as they, Phair and Alanis Morissette will be touring together this fall, recalling a halcyon ’90s time when alt-rock felt like it was ruled by melodiously rich, lyrically uncompromising women who could knock your block off.
Maybe that era never really ended, for a generation of young women and more than a few men for whom Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” felt like a paradigm-shifting, even life-changing exercise in musical frankness. She never stopped writing great songs after that landmark 1994 debut, but she has been in a kind of self-imposed exile from record-making in recent years, taking more than a decade since her last album to come back with a new one, while she was busy doing TV music work, writing a memoir (2018’s “Horror Stories”), touring and raising a son. She’s returning on June 4 with “Soberish,” which reunites her with Brad Wood, the producer of her beloved first two and a half records. Might they have recaptured some of that early magic, even if you can’t go home again?
“You can go home,” Phair says, firmly correcting us and Thomas Wolfe. “Home is still there. But it’s just never going to be that time, that place, that you ever again. Brad isn’t the same Brad; I’m not the same me. You just have to allow home to evolve.” Then comes a maxim anyone in show business with a few seasons under their belt could live by: “Nostalgia is only fun if you don’t mind where you are at the moment.”
As to whether “Soberish” will remind fans of the albums they fell in love with when Phair was coming out of the gate with prolific force: Thankfully… yes and no. There are moments that have the familiar core indie-rock-trio sound Phair and Wood perfected in the salad days, but it’s like a frequency that comes in and out. Their approach now is more experimental — sometimes evoking the lush harmonics of ’60s pop, sometimes veering toward electronic programming and an R&B influence, sometimes dropping everything for the hush of free-form poetry. But hearing her intimate, conversational writing voice is like resuming a phone call that got put on hold more than a decade ago. It’s superior work, but how it’ll strike Phair-weather fans married to one revolutionary moment in time is anyone’s guess.
“Everything has been jostled and wrestled with and put in its best possible place throughout the whole recording process, and then comes the trust fall,” she says, “where it comes out and you have to think about yourself as a brand that people have expectations for. You don’t live that way, but you suddenly see yourself through other people’s eyes, and you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m Starbucks, and I just came out with some marshmallow and egg custard flavors. I don’t know how that’s going to go over.’ So yeah, there’s a worry, and a lot you can’t control. But I know for a fact that the album is alive and not dead, which must be counted in its favor.”
Wood thinks that, whatever detours the two took in the arrangements, the new album accentuates the writing style that established Phair as a savant. “I’ve always loved that she has these chord progressions that are almost inscrutable at times,” the producer says, “and complicated vocal melodies that somehow come across to the audience as sing-song. When I see her play live and people are singing along, waving their phones in the air, to ‘6’1”,’ which has the most bizarre, challenging vocal, I find that hilarious. I feel the same way about her I do about Bob Dylan. Nobody ever sounded like either of them before they came along. Their songs are so complicated, and then you get to the chorus and everyone is singing, ‘How does it feeeel?’” Or “Fuck and Run” — take your pick.
Liz Phair is still surprised that you’re still surprised by the emotional or sexual candor of some of her past records. It’s something that shows up, occasionally, on as mature a record as “Soberish”; suffice it to say that “Big Kitty” is a song that is not about a cat.
“I’m a much better singer, producer and guitarist now” than in the ’90s, she surmises, “and my voicings and tunings are far more complex and interesting. But there’s a pure, unspoiled, unselfconscious beauty to the early work that I can’t capture again. I can’t unknow what I know. But when I listen to the early stuff, I marvel at how much my songwriting was already complete. And I also shudder at how little sense I had — which arguably is still a problem for me — of the impact of my words. ‘Yeah, I’ll just say whatever!’ I’m still doing that. It’s still a shock to me every time when people hear something and they have a feeling or thought about it that’s like, ‘My God!”
But the provocations in “Soberish” are mostly subtler. Take the conceit of the title, which Phair seized on months into making the record; she refashioned much of the sequence around the attendant ideas, much as “Exile in Guyville” turned into a concept album once upon a time. (Told about the recently Oscar-winning film “Another Round,” in which Mads Mikkelsen and a group of Danish schoolteachers make a plan to use alcohol to maintain a constant, manageable, low buzz every day, Phair says, “That’s very funny — that’s totally in keeping with the album.”)
Of arriving at the album name, Phair offers: “At a very superficial level, they legalized marijuana in California in 2016, and I suddenly found myself going through like a second puberty, because the illegality of it had put it in a certain category in my life. So when it became the same as ‘Do you want a drink at 5?,’ I struggled with coming to my perfect amount of use and not-use. And I began to feel like ‘Soberish’ is a bigger basket than just about substance use. How many romantic movies do I watch? Is that getting drunk on a fiction? Is it destructive to my dating life? Sometimes working and being busy all the time can feel like a way to not deal with actual life. Overeating. Staying up all night, if that’s your jam — I got into that for a while too. It’s about any way in which we alleviate the pressure of reality by escaping in our minds.”
With Phair’s expertise at holding opposing thoughts, the album jumps between a song like “Dosage Is Everything,” in which she tells a suitor that his inability to moderate his drinking makes him a non-starter, to the title track, in which she’s so excited about an impending romantic liaison that she can’t resist getting to the bar a little early to get buzzed. Is she having it both ways? “Definitely,” she laughs. “I’m a partaker as well as a judger. I’m the child of a doctor and grew up with doctors, so to me it’s all stuff you should and shouldn’t do. Dosage really is everything. It’s the human animal’s response to ‘If it’s good, I want more of it’ that I find interesting. Because it can ruin so many things, and yet feels like such a relief.”
Phair had a different concept record she’d started that will never see the light of day. In an aborted project that would have echoed how “Guyville” was configured as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” she put significant work into an album-length reply to the Beatles’ “White Album.” Unfortunately, Ryan Adams was her collaborator. She’s said she didn’t have all the problems other women artists did with Adams — but his tendency to not finish productions was a commonality that proved fatal to her would-be album a few years back.
“There’s a sadness letting go of a project that seemed real and achievable,” she says of consigning those uncompleted tapes to the vault, while adding that she ultimately had “no problem walking away in that, luckily, I’m prolific as a writer. You couldn’t work in this business without being able to let things go and trust you can start again. With my book ‘Horror Stories,’ I lost five or six chapters because my laptop fell into my bathtub. I had to rewrite those chapters, and that was agony. Agony, I tell you! But I think they’re better for it.”
She and Wood remained friends since last working together in 1998 — even co-hosting playdates with their kids — but didn’t talk shop again until 2018. That’s when Phair’s “Girly-Sound to Guyville” boxed set came out and the two met up for the “Song Exploder” podcast to discuss “Divorce Song.” Afterward, says the producer, “I just felt, ‘Wow, I wish that podcast interview hadn’t ended. And I wish our relationship in the studio hadn’t ended.’” Phair felt the same way. She was reminded that they have similar instincts, adding: “We’re both micro-focused on, like, ‘What’s that instrument doing right there? Could that be a beat behind?’”
Wood has observed Phair’s comfort with her legacy and influence. “When she’s asked about Soccer Mommy or this newest generation of female singer-songwriters, she seems really happy to be even considered, and I think she’s flattered by and accepting of it,” he says. “It’s nice to be in a place where you can still make records and have something to say, yet have people still talking about what you did when you were in your 20s.”
Looking back on the revolutionary “Guyville” era, Phair acknowledges that “the picture of young womanhood that I portrayed in public meant something to certain people. And you could imitate that and say, ‘I’m an actress, and I’ve been given one role to play the rest of my life.’ Or you could see it as a freedom of a kind” — an implied lifetime license “to be a woman of a certain age, still putting out new albums to be considered. … If you had told me at 23 that I would still be doing this, that would have seemed revolutionary to me.
“And I’m not even sure how effectively I am going to be able to do it. But I know that to be able to be my age, having raised a child, having gone through life and still looking forward to a tour with Alanis and Garbage, with a new album at 54, seems radical compared to my expectations of what a middle-aged woman would be doing. I feel like this is more ‘Liz Phair’ than anything.”
Alanis Morissette makes no bones about having a crush on Phair. “Basically, she’s a dream girl,” Morissette says. “If I ever bring up Liz Phair to anybody, there’s this collective swoon that happens.”
Morissette recalls forming a bond with Phair in “the middle of the mid-’90s or late-’90s mayhem. She was the only artist I sat down with where I felt like I had a human-to-human connection. It was healing for me to be able to connect with a fellow woman, because there was no real girl squad energy in the ’90s. We were all just holding it together in a patriarchal context. She and I have talked about how there was so much focus on, for me, being an Angry White Female, and in her case … what did she sing, ‘blow job queen’?” Morissette laughs. “It’s so easy for women to just be labeled as one thing, stamped, and then people move on. I bow to her as someone who made it through and still has sanity.”
Says Phair of Morissette, “Early on, people tried to pit us against each other. Certainly with festival bills, there was a sense of like, ‘How many women can we include before everything’s ruined?’” she laughs. “You couldn’t help but feel the pressure to compete. I batted that away from the very beginning, and she reached out to me as well. She’s such an inspiring person, so strong, so self-possessed from such a young age, and yet very open and generous with the struggles that she goes through. So I think there’s a lot we relate to with each other as lyricists as well.”
Like Morissette, Phair is capable of putting the opposite sex on blast. The lustiness of “Supernova” or “Johnny Feelgood” has echoes on the new album too. Yet, asked what was most challenging to write about at this point in her life, she says: “How much I’m a sad sack in romantic relationships. I think I would have portrayed myself as more of a ballbuster, and more on the winning side of things rather than the losing side of things, if I had had less self-esteem at that moment. I know that sounds counterintuitive. But when I feel better about myself, I can be more generous with my failings and my weaknesses, and when I feel worse, I tend to pump myself up and try to cover up with like toughness.”
If there’s any fear of not coming off as the tough chick some fans expect, “I think once you’re onstage with a band and an electric guitar, you just are that,” she says. “You don’t have to posture. But I think that there’s a desire with the writing of the record to express the sides of yourself that are quieter and really speak soul to soul, you know? Back in the day, I would have been more interested in having a brash record that could stand up at a festival and take down another band. And nowadays, I’m more interested in reaching that individual that’s listening on their own.”
Featured Image: Eszter+David