Interview: Liz Phair

on October 28, 2010, 8:52am
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Liz Phair has never been one to do as she’s told. From her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, to her current release Funstyle, Phair has been consistently pushing the envelope of not only her own creativity, but her place in the music industry. She sung blatantly about sex when no other woman was, she refused to conform to the narrow boxes the music business placed her in, and she did the opposite of what people told her to do, just because she could.

Understandably, I was a little bit nervous as I waited for my coffee date with Ms. Phair in one of Vancouver’s downtown hotels. With artists, you never know what kind of personality you’re going to get that day, especially one with a reputation for being rebellious. But Phair is everything but intimidating.

Petite and astonishingly fresh-faced, Phair is a small, blonde package with a load of personality. She’s giggly, kind, inquisitive and unguarded. She’s the type of person to tap you lightly on the shoulder and really engage you with whatever insightful thing she’s going to tell you. A good trait to have in anyone, let alone a rock star who, at this point in their long career, reserves the right to be jaded and cynical.

The critical response to her latest album Funstyle alone is enough to put a chip on anyone’s shoulder. The album saw her leaving her old label in order to release this mix of experimental and traditional songs. I myself had the opportunity to review the album, and though I personally found it to be inconsistent, I admired Phair for taking the plunge and devoting herself to something so risky.

But to Phair, the risk was something she had to take.

“I’m very connected to my internal, deepest subconscious,” says Phair. “I’ve been listening to it for many, many years. That’s how I write songs, that’s how I’m creative. So I have a relationship and a responsibility to my subconscious and it really was pissed. “

Not unheard of in the American music industry, the label executives were adamant that Phair not release the songs, something she touches on in the song “Smoke” where it’s called “career suicide.”

“They were absolutely shocked and horrified and they just said no way, it’ll ruin your career,” she points out adamantly. “So I was put away for thirteen months and I was in talks with other labels to produce something very mature, sorta Guyville circa 2010. You know, ‘Good Liz.’ And right as I got up there towards it, this thing, my subconscious, just started screaming at me and I was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ I waited 13 months, I’m not kidding about this. This is the most bizarre and interesting thing I’ve done lately, like, I’m sorry but I’m putting it out.”

Phair didn’t have much time. She wanted to release it by July 4th and had decided to take the risk at the end of June. But they had interest from Rocket Science, an indie label, and it was off and running, released online in an almost secret manner.

“I walked in there (to Rocket Science) and was like, here’s what I want to do… everyone thinks I’m crazy and by the way you’re going to be hated. You’re going to get all this hate press for the first few two or three months. So they were like, go for it. And I’m glad, I’m really glad.”

Glad because she’s proud of the work she’s done on Funstyle, regardless of what any critic thinks (after all, that’s just one person’s opinion) and because she stuck to her guns and took the artistic leap no matter what the outcome.

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“Artistic stuff is weird,” she admits. “Sometimes it isn’t received well but it’s still legitimate for being a rung on a ladder. If you miss one, you have a hole in your ladder. It needs to be done. I really believe you have a responsibility to whatever this force is that helps you create. “

This force that drives Liz is a powerful one. It’s seen her through many career highs and lows. I had to mention that I found it ironic that her self-titled release in 2003, which saw more “pop” songs like “Why Can’t I?”,  drew  a lot of backlash from critics and fans for selling out and yet Funstyle, which has her doing the exact opposite of selling out, is also drawing a lot of heat. A can’t win scenario?

“Oh yeah,” she laughs. “I’ve given up the win thing. Nobody like to be walking into a headwind you know, it’s never ideal but I have never…honestly, when Guyville came out there was a huge backlash, even then. And now it’s like the holy holy. You know, people say it’s so great and everyone loved it , but  it was not so. There was a huge amount of backlash in that. She’s blonde, she’s from the suburbs, she doesn’t deserve this, she used her body to get this, she’s half naked on the cover and that’s why she got this. So they were there, even then. It was controversial and uncomfortable for a long time. Now, no one remembers that. All they remember is “oh, it’s the greatest.”

Regardless, she doesn’t let the backlash, no matter what it’s about or where it comes from, hold her back.

“As long as you’re true to your artistic self, posterity will show the growth of an artist. If I hadn’t put out Funstyle, well what’s coming next? Maybe I wouldn’t get to that next thing, I might have locked myself in a dead end and never climbed out of it. So those risks are essential.”

Looking back, the risks she took on Exile in Guyville, by making it a song-by-song answer to The Rolling Stones Exile on Mainstreet, were quite big as well. I ask her whether she’s thought of doing another response album like that.

“I wanted to do Songs in the Key of Life,” she says earnestly. “But I didn’t quite have the time to do it. I got about halfway through it. And there was so many things going against that. The advice of my publicist was like, don’t you dare touch that, that is like African American sacred legend. But that fully inspired me to do more. And it’s still rattling around in my head. And I decided that the two highest records were Dark Side of the Moon for evilness and Songs in the Key of Life for goodness. And these are the two towering rock achievements, light and dark. So both those records have inspired me to want to do that same kind of response thing. The hard part is because I am older, I have a child and I have jobs, I don’t have the ability to immerse myself. My son will be in college in like five years, so maybe I can get all trippy and think about nothing else. But to do something like that, you have to be completely consumed.”

Though Funstyle may not be every critic’s cup of tea, she does have a lot of loyal fans who support her no matter what. I know from my own review of Funstyle, I had a barrage of Phair fans who tried to get me to see things their way and I really admired that. I asked Phair how important was it that her fans “get” her.

“Super important and this time around, more than any,” she says sincerely. “I have really reached out to my ultra fanbases and I’m literally working with them because I think now more than ever, in this climate, they are the ones who care. And when no one knows how records are going to sell, they are important as any element in this because they’ll tell you. I’ll ask them for my set list. I couldn’t accommodate everything but I definitely listened and I asked them about which Girlysound songs were important to put on as the second CD and I’d say 95% of that is their choice too. Because they know. They are the people who your collectors, so to speak. They know who you are and they get you. You can ask your record label and say what should I do next and they’ll probably have mixed opinions, whereas your fans will say you need to do this because I’ve been watching you for the last 20 years and they know what needs to happen next. They know you… it’s kind of like asking your mother.”

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But Phair is ever the button-pusher. When I asked if waiting so long between the online release in July and the physical release in October was on purpose, she admits the reason she waited was in order to get the slings and arrows out of the way.

“I was kind of trying to draw fire,” she laughs. “You know, let them take the shots before we’re even up and running because I knew that was coming. I had no doubt in my mind. And I also hate that whole frontloading thing, I’ve always hated it and major labels require it.  You know, give everything up for first week sales and it always feels fake to me. I’ve always despised it. I like things to grow, I like things to build. So since our record climate is so volatile and no one knows what to do, I’m just going to be me then. There are no rules. And I have no idea how it’ll work out. But it’s kind of exciting. If you make a mistake, it’s your mistake.”

She also notes that being involved in every aspect of her album helps her to create a sense of “me-ness’ throughout every song. People who care about the music want to feel that connection. After all, Phair is known for her personal topics in her songs, so why not create the feeling of a personal relationship with the listener?

Aside from the personal connection, Funstyle was Phair’s chance to test the waters and dabble in different genres and music styles, from Bollywood beats to rapping.

“It’s funny because the way I’ve been for a long time is, I’m open to different kinds of songs. And I was playing this song the other day and Stephen Jenkins was there and he was like, you’ve got to drop the hammer on that, that’s going to be full on metal. And I was like, ooh OK. You know there is something about me that loves that and at the same time I’m reading this book right now (which I can’t say what it is because I’m reviewing it), that has made me stop and go maybe I need to really consider what sound I put something with. And everyone’s told me that forever, you know, pick a sound, do this and I’ve never wanted to do it because they said so. I can’t also promise that I’m not going to go ‘It’s going to be metal all the way through!’ It might be. It’s the joy of my life, – creating is the joy of my life, please don’t make it a job. Like it’s something I hate, you know force me to do something because you need that.”

I found that funny considering a lot of her lyrics are very angry but the music of Funstyle is quite soft. Maybe she really could go full-on metal for her next album.

“Yeah, I am full-service woman,” she says proudly. “I have all the moods under the rainbow. I reserve the right to be multifaceted and complex. I reserve that right as every woman should. We have an incredible emotional range. And I think we should be free to express that. And sometimes doing something like “Miss September”, that bridge,  when I’m talking about holding you and when you’re scared I will be right here and I’ll have you inside me. You know, sometimes something soft like that, for a woman like me, is the bravest stuff you can do. Because it’s actually saying I want to spend my life with you. There’s almost no way to sing it without feeling awkward… because it’s not cool. But it’s how I felt. So softness can be as much of a risk as hardness. Sometimes being tough is a front. So I am open to all and I love that making art allows me to be whatever I am going through. You know, your cool factor goes away. You have no armor left.”

“I understand,” I say, relating. “Then the people who want to get at you, they can really get at you.”

“Exactly. Because they’ve nailed you,” Phair smiles.

The vulnerability Phair displays is refreshing to see after dealing for years with a music industry that is still hinged on the double standard between male and female musicians.

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“You know, in the early 90’s there was a bunch of powerful women who played an instrument and wrote the songs and fronted whatever it was. And I thought about it and there are very few women artists like that right now. Taylor Swift plays her guitar and writes but how many women are doing the singer, songwriter, intense rocking thing? Not many. Pop is big and they are singing and wearing costumes and stuff but the rock front woman went somewhere. Remember, there was Shirley Manson from Garbage and all these people and they are all kind of gone. It’s scary. I don’t know what that means exactly. To me, just by the dearth of it, there’s a double standard there. It may have gone too far and now the girls are like ‘No, no, no, you’re right. Boobs, boobs. Sing, sing, sing’ and the boys are like (clapping) ‘Good. That’s where you should be.’ Do you know what I mean?”

I nod. I know what exactly she means.

Phair continues, “And I do not want to like a woman just because she’s a woman. And you need something to say. Someone like me, I guess. Lady Gaga does have something to say, I’m not saying she doesn’t, but it needs to be almost spawn from punk where you need to get up and express this. Try to imagine, in our culture, a chick who is attractive, who sings and fronts a band and is an amazing guitar player. You can’t even picture it anymore. But how cool would that be? You’d die. Oh my god, my guitar hero is a woman. And why shouldn’t it be that way? That’s a new article for you ‘why don’t women rock?’”

I can’t help but smile at the honesty of her comment. Why don’t women rock? Why not when you’ve got such a fabulous example of why women should rock.

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