Liz Phair Is Very Good at Being Liz Phair

Photo: David Eszter (via The Oriel Co.)

It is one thing to have lived a few decades disarmed by Liz Phair from afar, and quite another to experience her firsthand. A few minutes ahead of the Zoom interview we had set up through Phair’s publicist to talk about the singer-songwriter’s new album Soberish, I received a call on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hi, it’s Liz Phair,” rang the dulcet voice on the line, a voice that has been in my ears so many times over the past three decades but had never previously spoken directly to me. “I just wanted you to know that I’m running 10 minutes late.”

It was a small token of consideration, the kind of thing that when exchanged amongst friends does not invite a second thought. And yet, it’s rare to be contacted by an artist subject who’s running late—those are things that handlers handle. Direct and practical has long been Phair’s brand, though, and there it was in front of me, and earlier than I suspected, disarming me all over again and anew.

“I feel that the people that we are not made up of the big moments,” she said after we connected on Zoom. “I think they’re the little, tiny day-to-day decisions and actions and I put a lot of weight on that.” The focus on happenstances between major life events that evaporate if you aren’t paying attention gives Soberish, Phair’s first album since 2010’s Funstyle, its life force. It’s an album of fleeting encounters and waning interest that is often punctuated by insecurity voiced by Phair’s narrators. The title track finds her doing shots for liquid courage. On another she sings, “Half the time I’m so scared I care so much.” On “Ba Ba Ba,” whose tempo varies as if to render jitters musical, Phair finds a way to push back on her own temporary sense of security: “I don’t have the guts to tell you that I feel safe.”

“I know how to write a cool song that makes me look cooler,” Phair explained. “But I wanted to actually feel transparent.” Soberish, then, required Phair to do what she’s been doing—putting herself out there—while understanding how context might alter how she is received. “It takes a kind of a willingness to see the whole span of life, to even say, ‘I want to talk about love in my early 50s,’” said Phair, who turned 54 in April. “Like, should I really be doing that? Should I really be saying, ‘I really want you to date me’? Like, how pathetic could that look? But that’s the reality. That’s the truth.”

To be aware of Phair’s catalog is to know just how cool she can make herself sound. Her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville was rarely mentioned in the press around the time of its release without “critically acclaimed” preceding its title. A classic in the indie rock canon, Phair puffed herself up while showing her work (“I kept standing six-feet-one, instead of five-feet-two,” goes the opening kiss-off, “6’1””), presenting the image of a young woman with a firm grasp on her sense of self, sexuality (“Flower”: “I want to be your blowjob queen”), and, yes, coolness (“I never said nothing,” went the chorus of one of the album’s singles).

As the kind of era-defining album that eclipsed all that followed, Guyville haunted Phair for years. She compares her discomfort with the perceived expectations for her to make another Guyville to the 2009 YouTube sketch “The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon by Richard Gale,” in which a man traverses the globe and time while repeatedly being hit by a ghoul with a spoon. “That’s sort of what it feels like to avoid doing what everyone tells you they want,” she explained.

Working on a documentary she put together for the 15th anniversary, Guyville Redux, and seeing how the album affected the people it was written about as well as its fans helped relieve some of the landmark album’s burden. Similarly, working on the album’s 25th anniversary reissue that included an official release of the legendary four-track Girlysound tapes, whose underground trading led to Phair’s record deal with prestigious indie label Matador, helped get her back in touch with herself after spending a period “in the dead zone career-wise,” as she put it in her 2019 memoir Horror Stories. “I was unsure how to get back into the rock and roll game, how to be Liz Phair again. I wanted to reclaim the life I had as an artist but I felt cut adrift from my previous career,” she wrote, recounting a period when she was collaborating with Ryan Adams, some time before allegations of sexual misconduct (including coercion and manipulation) broke in the press. That collaborative project was aborted.

Revisiting Guyville allowed Phair to reconnect “with the songwriter within, and [see] how she can be really, really good when she’s reined in or has a focus and seeing how easy it is to just fool out into ridiculousness if you don’t hold the reins entirely tightly,” she recalled. New Liz’s reacquaintance with Old Liz also gave her a sense of comfort when reuniting with producer Brad Wood on Soberish, (Wood co-produced Guyville, its 1994 follow-up, Whip-Smart, and some of 1998’s Whitechocolatespacegg). Now instead of a spectral ideal to not live up to, Phair uses Guyville a counterpoint, contrasting her debut’s “finger-pointing” (her phrase) with Soberish’s softer approach. Phair recently told The New Yorker that on Soberish, she had set out to use “the sounds that we had used on Guyville.” Insofar as both contain hooky guitar pop, that tracks, though Soberish is much more polished, at times leaning into maturity and emerging with synthy nü-AC confections like the ballad “In There.”

“Frank” is the word that has perhaps most often been used to describe Phair’s writing, and it is generally applied to her unflinching portrayal of her sexuality. There is some more of that on Soberish’s penultimate track, “Bad Kitty,” which opens with Phair luxuriating in double entendre like a cat in sun: “My pussy is a big dumb cat/It lies around lazy and fat/But when it gets a taste for a man/It goes out hunting for him anyway it can.” Phair said that releasing sexually explicit material (“Supernova”: “You fuck like a volcano and you’re everything to me”; “H.W.C.”: “Give me your hot white cum”) has been occasionally “embarrassing” once it makes its way to the public. “My parents were mortified,” she said. Her son Nick, who’s now 24, though, not so much: “Nick doesn’t care about my career. He is proud of me, but he’s never particularly interested in following it. I don’t think he knows most of my songs.”

When she toured for the most recent Guyville anniversary occasion, she said she wasn’t keen to revisit the above-quoted “Flower.” “During the Trump era, I didn’t want to talk about that,” she said. “The male archetype was feeling sour to me. I wasn’t into it. I felt like, ‘No. Fuck you. I do not want to be your blowjob queen.’”

Phair said her sexual presentation to the public was the result of a lifetime of taking in images of “women’s bodies selling everything…car parts, hotel experiences, golf resorts” and trying to combat that with something “bigger, splashier.” “I really wasn’t anyone’s blowjob queen in real life,” she clarifies. “Like, I like them—I love them. But that wasn’t like my m.o.” She said some men read her conceptual image play as simply more advertising: “A lot of guys were like, ‘Hey, me next.’”

But there’s only so much of one’s image that one can own when it’s being sold, and I wondered how Phair felt that she had been processed by public consumption. It actually wasn’t until 2020’s quarantine that she felt “hyper-critical” of her own looks, which threw her for a loop because she has generally felt “pretty OK” about her appearance. “2020 hit my vanity way harder than I expected,” she recalled. “I did not expect to feel as exposed and as vulnerable in terms of how I look as I did this year, like not being able to get my hair or go get my Botox or whatever it was that I needed to feel like beautiful, like the clothes shopping and stuff like that. I didn’t even care that I was over 50 till 2020 and then I was like, ‘Holy shit I’m over 50.’”

Phair qualifies herself as “vain in the sense that I watch my body shape and I try to make my face look nice in good lighting; not vain at all in the sense that I don’t give it a ton of weight.”

“It matters a lot more to me what I stand for, what I’ve said, what I’ve done,” she explained. “But I want to look attractive. I want men to think that I’m beautiful and sexy still. I still want to get laid. But I want to be loved too, you know? Yeah, I’m trying to live to like 120, so I’m trying to preserve it.”

Beyond her aesthetics, there’s also the question of what Phair’s profile represents in 2021. If all roads lead back to Guyville then an inevitable pitstop in any broad conversation about Phair’s body of work is her 2003 self-titled album, which spawned her sole U.S. Top 40 hit (“Why Can’t I?”), and seemingly turned a large portion of her indie fans against her for selling out and collaborating with songwriter-producer team The Matrix to make music tailored for radio. Behind the scenes, Matador had pulled out of its deal with Capitol and left the previously indie Phair on a major. In retrospect, she says, “the pop album” as she referred to it in virtually every reference, was “one of my more successful adaptations to a circumstance.” Instead of adaptation, though, fans and critics perceived capitulation. In 10 years time, Phair went from critically acclaimed to panned so publicly, the negativity was discussed as if part and parcel of her identity. Phair recalled touring with the Flaming Lips in 2003 had having that band’s lead singer Wayne Coyne interrogating her about the public reaction. “It kept bugging him that I wasn’t more upset about the bad reviews, like, ‘Aren’t you upset? I’d be really upset.’ I couldn’t tell if he was trying to shit-start to see if he could get me to crack.” She didn’t, in any case.

“I thought in the grand scheme of life, it was just ridiculous that people are freaking out about music,” she said. “Don’t listen to it, turn it off. Like, calm down. It didn’t make any sense to me. I learned later kind of what was driving that anger, that it was sort of a ‘indies being swallowed up by the majors’ and it was issues of commerce and issues of socio-economic disparity. I couldn’t believe how personal the attacks were. Like I betrayed a nation and that putting out a record had nominated me for public office.”

Just as Phair knows how to make herself sound cool in songs, it could very well be that she knows how to make herself appear to be well-adjusted in interviews. If you go back and watch vintage TV appearances, you see her nailing them over and over again in a practically alchemic mixture of casual and incisive. She receives questions thoughtfully and speaks in fully formed paragraphs. She is gracious. The more you talk to her, the more approachable she becomes. Talking to her over Zoom reminded me of chatting with someone randomly at a party, someone who fascinates not just through her ideas but with the humility and plainspokenness through which they are delivered.

What is particularly notable about Liz Phair is indeed that plainspokenness, which results in her ability to stick the blunt mic-drop over and over again (perhaps best illustrated in Guyville favorite “Fuck and Run,” whose conclusion goes: “Fuck and run/Fuck and run/Even when I was 17/Fuck and run/Fuck and run/Even when I was 12.” This is not to downplay Phair’s savvy or ability to craft a coherent statement for public consumption, which she says she calculates after all her songs are written when she’s in editing mode of a work. But it is to say that her je ne sais quoi is largely tonal. Her special sauce is to come off as if she’s not doing anything special at all. She is a master of the matter of fact. Some people just have a knack for direct communication. When I suggested as much to her, Phair said, “You’re probably speaking to my actual one superpower, you know what I mean? Yeah, it probably is what I do better than other people. A lot of the other stuff, I don’t do better than other people.”

She’s utterly sanguine when it comes to her public profile, too. She seems unfazed by the ebb and flow of attention and acclaim. When she began composing for TV a few years ago (working on the 90210 reboot for example), she said she did so without ego. Longings for what she refers to as her “superstar” period were few and far between.

“I always thought I was an artist,” she explained. “The celebrity part was always an add-on. The celebrity part was always incidental. If you take away my ability to be authentic, feel safe, or make art. I’m going to be very unhappy. But if those three things are there, I don’t care about the rest.”

The impetus for her book Horror Stories is stated in its prologue: A conversation in which her manager asked her whether the music she was working on in the mid 2010’s was “the album you’d want to leave behind if it were your last?” I wondered if, now several years later, she has delivered such a work with Soberish.

“I wanted you to see me missing and me not getting or longing or looking back or being excited because I’m about to be with someone and I have, like, stars in my eyes. And then it all goes to shit again, because that’s the truth,” she said of her new release. “My absolute highest goal is to leave behind the record of an imperfect person, a woman’s life as it was really lived.”

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

snide-o-mite
Snide-O-Mite

Due to men being their typically awful selves, I know all the words to Divorce Song and Fuck and Run.