By Marcel Anders
The Red Bulletin, October 21, 2021
Since the release of her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville, singer-songwriter Liz Phair has set herself apart from the status quo of the music scene as a disruptor and someone who confounds expectations. It makes sense, then, that 11 years on from the Chicagoan’s last release, the album Funstyle— and at the most unexpected of moments—she’s back. Soberish sees Phair reunite with Brad Wood, the producer with whom she made her defiant, groundbreaking debut and its two follow-ups. Cited as an inspiration to more recent indie artists such as Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski, Phair— with Wood’s help—showed that female songwriters could be both feminine and frank, making art that feels vulnerable but also holds its own in the male-dominated indie music scene.Here the 54-year-old discusses changes in the musical landscape over the last decade and how she has created a record that honors her past while also navigating an industry transformed by the internet.
THE RED BULLETIN: What made you return to the scene after 11 years?
Liz Phair: It was good timing. When my son was in school, I switched to scoring TV [shows] so I wouldn’t be out of town as much. Then he went off to college. In the interim, I was inspired that so many young female artists had sprung up. If you think about my first album, Exile in Guyville, it feels like “Girlville” has happened now. It was like moving back into a better and inspiring environment.
How has the industry changed while you’ve been away?
All the things that are required of an artist today, like the social media presence, the self- management, entrepreneurship —it just seems so daunting. There are more things than ever to compete against, more people than ever out there making music because of home technology, and the algorithms are ever more unforgiving.
And you chose Brad Wood as your producer again …
Listening back to my early recordings and talking to everyone, I felt an emotional connection. I almost remembered who I was and how we made that record. Brad really takes all my crazy ideas and tries to realize them. He’s very much responsible for the sound, but he let me produce as well. It’s collaborative.
It seems you came up with something similar to Guyville, yet somehow different.
It was a lot of fun to say, “How can we evoke the past, not just showing where we are right now, but looking to the future the way Guyville did back then?” My first record occupied an unusual space in culture; it felt new, different. And so how can we evoke the past and yet have our present-day product evoke the future?
Do you ever feel like some fans just want Guyville, while others prefer pop tunes?
I’d like people to understand that art is not a fixed thing. Creativity is a fluid, ever- changing medium. It’s like mercury—if you try to box it, it’s going to slip out. And I wish the world in general would understand the great gift of the transmutability of our creative lives. I think people would be happier if they could experience more creativity and take it less as my identity and my ego.
What’s behind the title, Soberish?
I felt very “soberish.” [Laughs.] Living in America under Trump, for a while I couldn’t take reality head-on. [The title] could be interpreted to mean all the different things we do to avoid direct reality; not just substance use, but all the ways in which we can exist, both in the real world and in denial.It was a lot of fun to say, “How can we evoke the past, not just showing where we are right now, but looking to the future the way Guyville did back then?” My first record occupied an unusual space in culture; it felt new, different. And so how can we evoke the past and yet have our present-day product evoke the future?
So what we’ve got on Soberish is the essence of Liz Phair. Do we have our old Liz back?
I think so. I feel like myself again. That sense of myself as a boundary pusher—too much imagination, dramatic emotional cartographer. That person is back.
Liz Phair’s new album Soberish is out now; lizphairofficial.com
Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Rene & Radka/CPI Syndication)