Q&A: Liz Phair, Part 1
By Scott Deckman on November 8, 2010
Liz Phair has gone through two distinct phases in her career. In phase one, with Exile in Guyville and two stellar follow-ups, she was a potty-mouthed, guitar-and-piano, one-woman revolution; almost single-handedly knocking down walls and changing what a female could and couldn’t say in regards to sexuality on a record. Plus, quite simply, she could write songs like few others of her (or any) generation.
Phase two saw Phair take on the avatar of MILF. Yes, the lyrical content could sometimes still be quite raunchy, but gone was the centerpiece of her work—the confessional singer/songwriter—and in its place was a slick, hyper-produced would-be pop star. As indie-rock fans can be the most fickle of creatures, they mostly turned on her in droves. But Liz Phair kept doing what she wanted, damn the consequences.
And that brings us to 2010 and the recently released Funstyle, an even more brazen foray into pop and satire. But there was a special treat tucked into her new disc, her first on indie label Rocket Science Ventures: Girlysound. Girlysound is a version of her legendary Girly Sound tapes, the self-recorded four-track demos that got her signed to Matador Records in the first place. They’re raw, tuneful and everything the old Liz Phair was to so many. In the first part of a three-part interview, Phair discusses her beginning in music, her early influences and, of course, the initial backlash against her debut, an album that eventually landed on numerous Best of the ’90s lists, Exile in Guyville.
When did you begin writing songs?
Too young to remember—seven, eight, six... I just immediately made up my own little songs. Always been doing it.
One of the reasons why people are fans of yours is the way you tell a story. Have you always had this ability?
I think I’ve always done it; it’s always been my emotional release valve. I have a huge imagination… I was thinking if I ever wrote a memoir I would call it “Dreaming for a Living.” Because that’s just what I do: I’ve always been a daydreamer. I can remember in early classes, the teacher saying, “Elizabeth? Elizabeth?” I literally spaced out, I was singing, looking out the window while she was talking. I always have one foot in the dream world.
It’s like your song “Lazy Dreamer,” off of Somebody’s Miracle, in a way.
Kind of… I think I’m jealous of the lazy dreamer, and that’s why I’m so hostile toward him. I want to be doing that. I resent people because I feel like I have to take on responsibilities as a mother, as a businessperson. That stuff really takes its toll on me, and if I don’t get a day or two to just space out, that’s what will make me lose it. I think that’s why I can be a healthy person, ’cause I get that.
Do you think being adopted played any role in some of your music? Did it gave you a different perspective?
I think it’s part of why my identity is more original; there’s some part of me that doesn’t feel necessarily connected to any history. I feel like my own free-floating entity.
Have you ever thought to look for your birth parents?
Thought about it. But I have really, really great parents. And it’s hard to motivate. You might not like them! Chances are they’re not that together. I mean, they could be. I always fanaticized that I was the daughter of a Russian czar or something.
Is Exile on Main St. still your favorite record?
Seriously—it still is my favorite record of all time. It’s just still goin’. If I had to pick one to go off and be stranded on the moon with, that’s the one I’d pick. The close seconds are Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life or Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
How did you feel after Guyville broke through, when you were the “Indie Rock Songstress Most Likely to Succeed?”
It was both exciting and really traumatic. Everything went haywire—I was suddenly making tons of money and feeling really lauded. At the same time, half the population that I had known or been hanging out with totally disagreed with my sudden success.
Yeah, I read about what Steve Albini said.
He was just sort of a…
He’s sort of known as the rock asshole, right?
But he represented tons of people who didn’t have a public voice who felt the same way that he did. I remember walking into my local haunt and everybody just stopping talking because I walked in on them having an argument about whether I was good or not. That’s a very different feeling. I don’t know if you can place yourself in my shoes for that, but that’s very awkward. Half of them there think that you don’t deserve it and you’re kinda lame. You know what I mean? [Laughs]
That was what Guyville was like. It was not what everyone thinks it was. It was very controversial. My first review for Guyville wasn’t good. It was written by a friend of mine, he was like, “Basically, this is mediocre.”
Did it bother you that both Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, or even Juvenilia, never got the credit they deserved? They were really strong records.
When I first put out Guyville, I started reading everything that was written about me—as you would. You’d be like, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my name is there.” I read it all and it made me kind of crazy. I wrote all these songs about what that felt like rather than real-life stuff and I had to actively decide to not read stuff about myself all the time. It’s not like I don’t ever, but I chose not to live with that perspective. That self-centered world of like, “Oh, oh, you know, what does everyone think, what does everyone think?” So when Whip-Smart didn’t get the reception that it should’ve gotten, as much as I was disappointed, I didn’t wallow in it. I knew I was gonna make music for the rest of my life.
Yeah, I have a friend who probably likes that as much or more than Guyville.
I meet lots of people that really love that record; it’s a really good record. I think a lot of my records are good records and I think whether they strike a chord at the time is totally different from whether they’re of value. F
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Liz Phair, appearing on FILTERmagazine.com on 11/10.