The Reverb Interview: Liz PhairBy John Wenzel | January 14th, 2011 | No Comments »
Embraced by critics and hipsters in the ’90s, then cast out again in the past decade, Liz Phair has felt the fickle hands of those who anoint — and tear down — many musicians.
She’s also seen all sides of the recording industry, having risen from indie label Matador to Capitol Records and Dave Matthews’ own ATO Records before unexpectedly self-releasing her sixth album, “Funstyle,” which was savaged by taste-making websites like Pitchfork immediately upon its release. So where does that leave the 43-year-old Phair?
Looking ahead, of course.
“I’m always champing at the bit to try everything new,” she said over the phone earlier this week. “It’s a terrible quality that I have.”
We caught up with the Grammy-nominated songwriter, known as much for her sexually explicit, game-changing 1993 classic “Exile in Guyville” as slick, mainstream pop hits such as “Extraordinary,” in advance of her show at the Bluebird Theater on Tuesday, Jan. 18 with locals Le Divorce.
Q: When I saw you at Matador’s 21st anniversary weekend in Vegas last year, you played, appropriately, nothing but songs from your Matador period, and people ate them up. What was that like, given that many of those people were calling you a sellout a few years ago?
A: It was massive for me, as it probably was for all the (other artists) there. It was a homecoming, because even though it’s not the ’90s indie scene anymore, we all vividly remember that time and were a big part of it ourselves. It meant so much to be welcomed back and to feel so powerfully affected and inspired at the same time. And you knew that all the bands pretty much came in for as much time as they could, because they wanted to see all the other bands. And what a compliment to Matador! What an institution. To feel their panache and style again was great.
And you were an anomaly for Matador at the time, being a woman among a sea of pasty, sensitive dudes — and considering the fact that you solicited the label to listen to your stuff and sign you.
I asked Brad Wood, who produced “Exile,” “Who’s the coolest indie label out there? The best one?” And he said, “Matador.” So I called them up and it was just a freak of an accident that (Matador co-owner) Gerard (Cosloy) had just finished reading in a zine a review of my Girly Sound stuff. And he had just been thinking to himself, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could just read about someone and just sign them?” And then I called up. So it was fortuitous timing.
What’s your current set like in terms of new songs versus old?
It’s totally a mix. I mean, there are only two or three new songs in the set if you count the Girly Sound song, so a lot of it is the best-of, career-spanning stuff. What people really know is what we’re really playing. I always give the encore over to chaos, so people can yell out requests and I can hack my way through a song that I don’t really know anymore.
Does that ever throw you off?
It’s fun in that it keeps me interested. That’s an aspect of my character that I think gets lost in the media portrayal of me, which is that I’ve got a very fun-loving spirit, and it’s fun to try stuff I don’t know how to do. I have that thrill-seeking mentality, so when people want to know why my incarnations keep changing, or why I’ll do something different than I did before, it’s that same impulse.
Most people don’t know that you’ve also composed quite a bit for television shows (“90201,” “Swingtown,” “In Plain Sight”). Did that inform the theatricality of your new album?
No question (that) “Funstyle” is born of that experience. Really, it’s split down the middle because it’s also born of jamming with Dave Matthews, so it’s two very disparate creative avenues. Over the last couple years I’ve taken to, on a free night, rather than going out I’ll go in the studio with whoever is working, and I’ll sing back up or just hang out or work on my stuff. It’s become a social avenue that’s really rewarding to me to just have fun and record with people. So half of “Funstyle” is born of that, and half is born of long, long painful hours in the studio scoring.
Oh, it blows your mind after awhile and is so intense, especially the revisions. You can get 22 cues in a turnaround of two days, and what happens of course is you start to get slap-happy, and you start laughing really hard and it becomes this thing. So really, the other half of “Funstyle,” the wacky, zany, theater pieces, are born out of the scoring environment.
Where is that line for you between self-promotion and introspection, sexually-explicit and delicate? You’ve gone back and forth across it quite a bit over the years.
It’s something I’m working out in my life. I’ve sort of gotten real with myself and am living a pretty authentic, integrated life lately. At the same time I’m still struggling with, as we all do, the desire to reap the benefits of the act. So I think I’m split down the middle between being very real and grounded, being able to be honest emotionally and intimate in a way that I wasn’t always comfortable being AND at the same time becoming as, you I get older, being really good at throwing down my schtick. That can be both sickening and pleasurable, and that struggles sort of goes on for me in my life. Sometimes I enjoy being the charming monster and other times I enjoy trying to fit into an awkward silence and be comfortable with it. There may be an unusually extreme split right now going on between my two sides of being. But it’s fun when I’m play acting.
This is a fairly broad question, but how do you think music in general changed since “Exile” first hit? Obviously the industry has completely changed, but in terms of the culture?
The recording climate is difficult. Once you land on one little iceberg, and then that one starts to melt and you jump to the next one. That can be exiting and fun, but it definitely keeps you on your toes. I think it’s always been like a gambler’s profession to be in. Like, “I’m going to find the gold and ride that vein!” I think it attracts people with… I think they do love the music, but when you get into the business side it encourages sort of a stock trading mentality.
And really, even 20 years ago the industry was pretty much about the bottom line.
I hate to make generalizations, but I do notice that it’s been broken up to such an extent that the mystique has been pulled off of it. What I miss is the sense that there was some magic. Like, “Why do people behave that way? Because they’re magic people.” That was sexy and fun, and I miss that. Even though it meant (jerks) and drugs and things that fell down. Now it’s so practical-minded. Although, I guess I was one of the people that helped break it down.
John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an award-winning A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of completely random song titles and band names.