A CONVERSATION WITH LIZ PHAIR




This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST

MIKE RAGOGNA: Liz, when did you feel it was time to rev up your new album FUNSTYLE?

LIZ PHAIR: You know, it really was born very naturally from the musical experience I was going through at the time – usually my records are. I found myself in two different recording environments leading up to this release, one of which was my television scoring that I’ve been doing the last couple of years, where you’re doing a ton of music in a very short time and you orchestrate stuff with sort of a push of a button. So, part of FUNSTYLE was born from that sort of experimentation.

Then, the other half of it was all about jamming in the studio with other musicians and friends and seeing what we come up with there. So, there are two fun styles on FUNSTYLE.

MR: Nice. Very funny. Did you come into the recording process with these songs or did you write them in the studio with your pals?

LP: I came in with the songs, but where they went from there – it can diverge from what you expect pretty greatly if you’re willing to let it…and I was, especially the stuff that was sort of based on the scoring technique. That went really sideways in a good way.

MR: You mention that FUNSTYLE is kind of the converging of two different funs – one fun being the studio fun and the other being what happens when you get slap happy, working on television scores. Can you tell me more about your scoring? What shows do you have material coming up in?

LP: Well, we’re starting up again with IN PLAIN SIGHT. We’re starting our second season, but it’s the series’ fourth season. We’re going to be doing a show this year called THE GREAT STATE OF GEORGIA, which was created by the amazing novelist JENNIFER WEINER. I don’t know if your readers know her, but she wrote GOOD IN BED. She’s been creating shows for the last couple of years and this is her new one.

What it’s like, really, is making twenty mini songs per episode for these shows. You’re basically providing the emotion – the music is sort of the emotion of the scene – and that’s very fun and very creative. You can go any number of directions with it, so it’s very free too.

MR: Let’s go through a little of your musical history. You have many albums that I think you would find in a lot of people’s collections such as EXILE IN GUYVILLE, but you also have WHIP SMART and WHITECHOCOLATESPACEEGG. Those were your MATADOR albums, right?

LP: Yeah, I think. WHITECHOCOLATESPACEEGG was MATADOR CAPITOL and WHIP SMART was MATADOR ATLANTIC. If you remember, back in the day, big labels were buying up little labels. Now it’s all internet. But back then, the trend was like Pac Man – let’s munch up the indies.

MR: You performed with LILITH FAIR?

LP: Yeah.

MR: What is it like when a group of artists assemble with a theme and perform together?

LP: That was so much fun. I think whatever the reboot was just last summer – we need a new all female concert thing that maybe has a different story attached to it, so SARAH (McLACHLAN) could reinvent herself and come up with something different because it was so much fun. It was a blast, personally, to be able to be backstage rubbing elbows with all that talent. Just the feeling of having that all female environment was just like nirvana because it’s so rough out there for a woman that you have to toughen up. It’s just that Guy World is Guy World and it can be fun to dip into, but LILITH FAIR sort of gave me an opportunity to do what I do in a utopia.

MR: Speaking of Guy World, I remember…GUYVILLE was considered a little controversial because you were a strong woman during a time period when a lot of female artists were coming out with ubersensitive records.

LP: I’ve never cottoned, if you will, to that (singing), “I’m just a little girl and I’m in my room…” I just didn’t feel that. I don’t feel that archetype within me and I much prefer to be adventurous and stand up to the boys and that sort of thing. At the same time, I’m not a man and I never really intended to beat them at their own game. I just wanted to point out that, “Hey, we’re down here. Don’t be talking like that.” You know?

MR: Now, it was around 2003 that the album LIZ PHAIR came out and that was about the time that MATADOR sort of went away and you then became a CAPITOL artist, right?

LP: They abandoned me. They left me. CHRIS (LOMBARDI) and GERARD (COSLOY) like dumped my butt with CAPITOL and off they went. (laughs) I’m joking here – CHRIS and I are on great terms (laughs). It’s just one of those things that happens. I suppose I should be flattered because I think CAPITOL said, “Yeah, you guys can leave. But leave us Liz Phair.” So it’s actually flattering.

But suddenly, I found myself on a major, with nobody I came up with still around and that was sort of when my impetus struck to pop because that was sort of what was going on at the time and I needed money to record. They were sort of interested in radio hits – and I’d never had a radio hit – but I thought that sounded like fun. So, I went and worked with this team called THE MATRIX. As vilified as they’ve been in the press over the years for their pop mentality and their mainstream sensibility, they’re actually really naughty, funny, awesome people…and I enjoyed working with them quite a bit.

MR: You had a hit with them too, with WHY CAN’T I?

LP: I did.

MR: What was working with them in the studio like?

LP: They’re just fun. Just saucy Brits. They’re fun.

MR: That album also had the track EXTRAORDINARY, right?

LP: It did. That was a very different experience for me and I took a lot of heat in the press for it, but I loved doing that. I like that over the course of my career, I’ve been a number of different things – I’ve been an indie artist, I’ve been a radio artist with a hit and I’ve been sort of a polarizing press artist over the decade with controversial lyrics. And feminist – I don’t know what you want to call it – pot stirring, in a way. Now, I’ve started doing TV scoring and movie scoring and it’s just an interesting journey. I’m in it for the journey. I’m in it for the process.

MR: Are you in it for the pot stirring too?

LP: I can’t help it.

MR: What’s happening in the news lately that has your eye?

LP: Well, I’m watching Libya because I completely inaccurately predicted that the son would sort of step in and see reason. Obviously, what’s happening in America and around the world, with global corporations superseding nationhood as the powers that be – that’s disturbing. And of course, CHARLIE SHEEN – I’ve been following that train wreck.

MR: You can’t get away from it. How do you think they’ll do ONE & A HALF MEN this year?

LP: (laughs) I think JON CRYER should stay with ELLEN. I think he’ll have a much better ride.

MR: Ooh, nice one. So, FUNSTYLE has a second disc, the GIRLYSOUND demos. Can you go into its history?

LP: Absolutely. When I was a young girl – when I was but a wee thing – I would sit in my room and write these guitar songs. I would write them very quietly and they were filled with maybe anger, rebellion, roleplaying, jokes and they were just a very personal expression that I recorded on a four track cassette. I made copies of them – old style, like from one side of a boom box to the other – and I would give them to people. This was how the music got around and it became popular and people made copies of it until it became this underground thing that led me to my first recording contract.

MR: How did that lead to your recording contract?

LP: A friend of mine that I was hanging out with in New York City when I was living there was someone who was involved in the early music zine scene – like fanzines. He wrote this review of my GIRLYSOUND tapes saying that it was just over the top – “amazing artist, new woman doing things, you’ve got to hear it” – and GERARD COLSEY of MATADOR RECORDS was literally reading that review and was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if artists like this just called you out of the blue and you didn’t have to go court them at shows or hunt them down in some part of the country?”

Five minutes later, I called him up and worked myself into some megalomaniacal sort of stance and said, “Hey Gerard, I’m an artist and I’d like you to give me a recording contract.”

He was like, “Who is this?” and I said, “I’m Liz Phair.” He said, “Well, that’s funny, Liz. I was just reading about you.” Literally, it was that sort of a right place at the right time situation…and off we went.

MR: You don’t have to go completely into it, but can you tell me just a little bit of what went into making your album EXILE IN GUYVILLE?

LP: It was really fun. I would just walk on down the seven blocks to BRAD WOOD’S studio IDFUL in Chicago and he would sort of put me in when he didn’t have a paying gig. We’d just hang out; people would stop by and put something down on the record. Like, if somebody came in that played harmonica, we’d be like, “Hey, come play on this song.” That’s how the harp got on DIVORCE SONG. It took months and it was very relaxed. It was just very natural and very fun.

MR: And you have a DVD associated with it for the reissue.

LP: Yeah, GUYVILLE REDUX. I love that DVD because if you have any questions about…GUYVILLE, it pretty much answers them all. I went back and interviewed everybody associated with that record, or people that were in my personal life that were associated with why I did it. It just completely explains the whole process, the controversy that surrounded it and the people who liked it and didn’t like it…and how it all happened.

MR: DAVE MATTHEWS does an intro on it, right?

LP: (laughs) It’s like this little thread of humour runs through the whole thing. A lot of it is serious talk about stuff, but we did little animated things that show up every once in a while that are very funny. During the DAVE MATTHEWS thing, where he’s just facing the camera and really saying some serious and poignant things about my work, there’s this chubby guy in the background who’s thinking he’s off camera who tiptoes right through the scene behind DAVE. There are all these funny moments in the DVD. It’s a pretty good time.

MR: Now, ALAN LIGHT had a great line about EXILE IN GUYVILLE, which was, “It’s miles more complex than the porn star manifesto it was often considered as.”

LP: Isn’t that the truth? That’s the story of my life.

MR: (laughs) But honestly, you broke a lot of ground with that album.

LP: Thank you. I like all sorts of music. I really do. I don’t have a genre that I like better than another. I think there is room for everybody and the world is a better place for it. The type of music I was labelled as making didn’t describe what I was really doing, which was kind of turning an archetype on its head. Basically, the press picked up on a couple of shocking, sexual lines of the lyrics and that’s what I became.

MR: Remember TORI AMOS’ SILENT ALL THESE YEARS? It contained controversial lines, yet nobody blinked.

LP: I know. If you could explain that to me, I’d really appreciate it. I’ve been living with it for many years, so what’s up? What up world?

MR: OK. You worked on the CBS show SWINGTOWN and the CW’s reboot of 90210. You’ve also got an ASCAP award for top television composer.

LP: Yeah. Composing for TV has been one of the things I’ve been doing with my time for the last few years and I love it. It, of course, has the component with it that all jobs do because you’re working on it with someone else, so I don’t get to just have the final word. But the people that we’ve worked with have been really appreciative and really on the ball musically. It’s like making twenty mini songs for each episode and it’s really fun.

MR: After listening to those tracks on GIRLYSOUND all these years later, what are your thoughts on your run from then to now?

LP: It’s been a wild ride. It’s been more than I could have dreamed of. I love the fact that – as far from those tapes to as I am now – I’m still learning, growing, experimenting and enjoying what I do. I feel as immersed in music as I always did, so I count myself very lucky.

MR: Got any advice for new artists?

LP: I would say get your own buzz going yourself. At best, it’s going to be a matching grant. Everybody wants to pile on as soon as something has a buzz, but you really have to do it yourself. That, far and away is the best way to go about it, even in the long run, in terms of what kind of power you have and how you’re going to be imaged. Do it yourself and the help will come – probably when you don’t need it any more – but you’ll still be grateful.

MR: Are you on tour right now?

LP: This is sort of the last bits of the tour. We’re going to go down to SXSW and play that as well, so I’m looking forward to that.

(Note: This interview took place before her terrific performance at SXSW.)

MR: It’s like Comicon, so amped. Attendance by acts, panels and attendees just keeps exploding.

LP: Isn’t that interesting? What does it mean?

MR: I think artists, managers, labels, publicists get how live performances there gets a big buzz out on a level that’s not possible at most other venues.

LP: I love it.

MR: It’s nice to see this.

LP: I know.

MR: And the future for LIZ PHAIR beyond touring?

LP: I can’t say. I have surprises.

MR: Ooh. Will you come back and tell us about your surprises some day?

LP: I will.

MR: Liz, this has been really fantastic. Thanks.

LP: Thanks a lot.

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