Liz Phair: The Cream Interview



  • Photo: Ryan Burchfield
It was hard for me to get off the phone with Liz Phair — there was just so much we had to talk about. I’d been a fan ever since Exile in Guyville came out in 1993, and I was in the eighth grade. I fell in love with that album, and thereby Ms. Phair, with the same kind of 13-year-old lust that is usually reserved for summer camp and junior proms. That was when sex was always taboo, but it was all anybody ever thought about.

After outing myself as a nerdy fangirl, I tried to compose myself and talk about her work. We spoke about what she’s been doing — which includes scoring for television and writing reviews for The New York Times — as well as her new album, Funstyle.

Nashville Cream: I begged for this interview because I’m a huge fan. I wanted to say that upfront. A lot of the questions I have for you are to satisfy my curiosity because I started listening to your records when I was pretty young, and you know how that goes — I feel like that time in my life is very close to my heart.

Liz Phair: Like we grew up together.

NC: Exactly. So I wanted to talk to you about some of the different kinds of work you’ve been doing — you reviewed Life by Keith Richards for The New York Times. It seems like you’ve been tied to the Rolling Stones for a while, ever since you made Exile In Guyville [which Phair called a track-by-track response to Exile on Main Street]. Did you approach the Times to do that review, or did they approach you?

LP: They approached me. I had written a review of Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500’s memoir Black Postcards a few years before, and I just got a lucky break. They called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it, so I said "yes," but with like 15 exclamation points behind that "yes." And we had to wait for the book to be finished and to be delivered, and to get past customs, and there was an embargo, and then finally when I got it I was on tour myself. So I read it and wrote it while being as Rock as you can get, you know, touring and driving in vans and sitting backstage, and on planes and in between sets and stuff like that. So it was like a wacky way to take on something that big, but maybe perfectly in keeping with the subject matter.

NC: That’s a really good point. That book’s been called a drug memoir a lot, almost more than anything else. And you’ve been pretty public about your dealings with drugs and smoking too much pot when you were younger. Is that something you feel comfortable talking about?

LP: Yeah, sure. I mean, drugs are fun. They are hands-down a great way to escape reality. My son asks about drugs and I tell him, yeah they’re fun, but they hurt you. For me, in my life, the lesson I learned about it is: If you don’t live sober enough to become in enough pain, you can just mask everything and you’ll never actually achieve happiness. You never learn how to deal. For me it was just about having more fun to live in an escapist fantasy than it is to actually deal with life. You know, Keith, that’s not an issue for him. There is nothing in that book about that. I mean I can’t get over the fact that he’s just devoid of that struggle, that internal dialogue of should I or shouldn’t I? And it just blows my mind! I felt like I was watching an alien! I was both jealous, and amazed, and inspired. I was like, “I should be doing more drugs!” I really felt like we should all read this book and get a little more rock ’n’ roll ourselves. We’ve gone too far. Life can be a little more magical than we’re living it right now.

NC: And it seems like the way that Keith Richards used drugs was really utilitarian more than even escapist. Like he used them to get a job done.

LP: Yeah!

NC: Here’s what I think: It seems like getting in trouble for being a fuck-up is often why you quit being a fuck-up. And I feel like it must have been very hard for you to turn away from something that people sort of wanted from you. You received a lot of accolades over this album that you’ve talked about as being, you know, largely a product of —

LP: Stoner-driven rock.

NC: Right. And it seems like it must have been confusing to associate such a low point in your life with a career high point.

LP: That’s very insightful, and it’s very true. For years when people were like, “Why can’t you do Guyville again?” I would say, because I can’t go back into that miserable existence. Why do you want me to be a liar and unhappy and acting out and deceiving people and doing really hurtful things, and being hurt in return. I don’t ask that you like what I’m making, but why can’t you let me go? Luckily, that struggle is something that I’m well past. I will definitely party every once in a while, but I’m one of the most sober people you’ll meet. It takes years and years and years of self-discipline with everyone around you just saying, “C’mon, just drink!” And I’m just like, “I don’t really feel like it. Believe me, when I want to drink, I will.” But that is hard earned. I’ve earned a center. I’ve built integration for my personality, and I’ve built honesty. And yeah, people just want you to make that thing that fills their life, that hole that you left behind when you went away. They’re like, “Just give me that thing again! You suck!”

NC: It shows a whole lot of integrity on your part that is not that common in the music industry, or anywhere, really.

LP: I have really good parents. I had a really stable upbringing, and neither child that they adopted — my brother or me — was particularly stable at specific points in our lives. We both caused much of the gray hairs on our parents’ heads. But we were well loved and they stuck with us, and I think I came from a very secure foundation.

NC: I told you about how I was really inspired by your music growing up, and a lot of the groups that came around at that time it seemed like a response to the super-cool scene, the repressive sort of demand to hang with the guys, to know without asking. And as a response to that it seems like there were a lot of really defiant girl groups at the time. Maybe it was two sides of the same coin, and just matched what was going on in the world at the time. But I often wonder what girls listen to now.

LP: I don’t know, because I have a son and he hasn’t started really dating yet, and I haven’t gotten the privilege of spending a lot of time with girls that age. I know that a lot of the young women that I run into are kind of voracious live music followers, and I don’t know what they’re listening to keep themselves emotionally fed, but I know that a lot of them are into going out to see live music, which I remember being so scared to do when I was their age. I’d be standing there, I’d even go by myself if I wanted to see a cool band, and stand and smoke in the corner, and be so self-conscious all night that I could barely watch what I was watching.

NC: It seems to me that your career trajectory arose from sad navel-gazing music towards poppier upbeat songs, at the same time as that was going on in the world, and it followed that trend pretty well. I was curious about whether that was a conscious effort on your part, because girls now, I have no idea where they get inspiration, musically.

LP: Like how are they stretching their wings in ways that surprise them about themselves? Like how are they finding themselves vis-a-vis music these days? Like how do smart women seek out and then satisfy that need to connect when they’re not connected to the people around them? I don’t know! I wish I had the answer for you! I don’t have a clue! And I particularly love young women. Like, I’m drawn to that 13-18-year-old range. They kill me, they just slay me. I just adore them, and I just don’t want to do a disservice by making a generalization, I just don’t know. I think that they are way more liberated in terms of … I don’t know that they are, actually, you know? They still want their boyfriends’ approval. Are they really liberated? Is it more homogeneous? I don’t know! You need to do a whole different piece on that.

NC: I will! When I was a teenager, it was the height of the Riot Grrrl movement, and you were a part of that, especially with the Girly Sound albums. And you’ve talked about having an underhanded feminist technique to use a female voice …

LP: Subversively, yeah. Would you hear it if I’m saying these awful things in this really sweet and innocent way? You know, my aim is always been to be heard, and to log on as a female living my life, ups and downs, whatever, because I’m so appalled that for so many centuries we were just invisible, you know? It’s anecdotal evidence, anything we lived/felt/dreamed. There are plenty of writers from antiquity who are male, and it kills me not to be present in that history. I just wanted to do everything in my power to log on and stay there, and I wanted to encourage everyone else to do that too. We don’t have to get it right, we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations, we just have to be there.

NC: That’s a really great way of looking at it, and very true. It seems to me that the success of your early work must have been really overwhelming. You experienced first-hand the recording industry’s shock that a girl would be so vocal about wanting to fuck guys. And that it was such a surprise to so many people, and considered so groundbreaking, must have made you feel pretty jaded from early in your career.

LP: I was so angry to begin with, it was all cart and parcel to the same thing I was angry about, which is — how can I feel and think the way I do on the inside, and yet be expected by everyone everywhere to manifest a lie? I’ve scribbled entire diatribes on the back of a barf bag on a plane because I read yet one more article that says that men think about sex more than women. It drives me up a freaking wall. Not true! I don’t know how to get rid of these things that I think just comfort men and subjugate women. I’m tired of it. Every girl who was a kid knows that all we talk about is boys and sex. It’s ridiculous, and there’s only so far you can expect your own time to move, and I try to be at peace with that, because I know how I feel and I know how we all felt when we were younger, and we all pruned ourselves and changed ourselves to be popular and successful in such a way that truncated our true beings. And you see it in the women who have these perfect little lives, who drink themselves into the ground in inappropriate moments because they’re just so repressed. I mean it’s true for men too — men are asked to be different than they are and to cut off their emotions. I really don’t feel the gender battle as much as I used to, but that was what was driving me at the time, and the industry was no different than half the men I met at dinner parties.

NC: Right, to expect it to be different is a little shortsighted. I want to talk about your new album. A lot of people don’t seem to understand it, and don’t get the humor of it. What do you want to say to people who are dismissing it, what do you think that they don’t get?

LP: I mean, it depends on what their complaint is. If they’re dismissing it because it’s not an “important” work that is going to change anything, well, I did call it Funstyle! I was aware that this was not my seminal piece — I do hope they understand that! But it’s totally real; it wasn’t just to make a splash. I truly was into this stuff, and it was authentically borne of the kind of creative environment I was in. I was scoring for television, which created the kind of Funstyle soundscapes because that’s what you do when you’re in the studio for 14 hours and you’re slap happy and you start laughing and playing with the knobs and dials. It was available to me and I pounced on it. So was jamming with friends, which is something I’ve done a lot over the past couple of years. Instead of going to bars or to clubs I will go visit people in the studio, if they need a backing vocal, or just want to hang out, or they’ll come to my studio. That sort of give-and-take is the life of a musician. When you’re recording you’re alone for a long time and you want visitors.

The other half of Funstyle was sort of born of that, co-visiting in studios, jamming together. So it was sort of a record of what I was doing for the past couple of years. These were songs that, to me, were some of the more groundbreaking, stylistically and emotionally. But I was never trying to make it into an “important” work, so to speak, a work that needs to be dissected. Not everything you do has to have the same implication, or even the same impact. And I think people are still waiting for me to somehow save the world, and I happen to think, first off, that it’s other people’s turn. And second off, that just by doing what I do and continuing to do it, I am! You know? Like, walking the walk and living my life the way I have, which is different than most people. Like I’m doing this. And I look at them, sitting behind their computers, probably very fearful about trying new things, and they wouldn’t dare put themselves out there to risk any kind of humiliation. They need to get up and start saving the world. Just being a gatekeeper of public opinion is not actually living your life; that’s commenting on other people living their lives.

NC: I wanted to talk about scoring for television. That’s something that you’ve said you’ve taken to like a fish to water. Why do you think that is? It seems like a lot of your songs are character-driven, and you get into a person’s mind and write from their perspective. Did that prepare you?

LP: Thank you for that insight because I hadn’t put that together. I hadn’t even thought about that that was something that I did anyway, and that maybe that’s why I can put myself into the character and try to write from their emotional point of view. Thank you for that insight! I think that’s part of it. I think that also I’m just very visual and always approach guitar playing from a visual point of view rather than knowing what the harmonics are and the chord progressions. I’m really very ignorant as a musician. I can’t read music very well. To me, scoring is like investing a scenario with emotion. That’s the way I approach it, and I think I do that 24/7 in my life. I think if I’m sitting talking to a person, I’m imagining what they may be feeling, and projecting onto them what I think they should be feeling. I’ve been filling in emotional scenarios my whole life, and that’s sort of how I write music, thank you for pointing out. Something will happen to me in the day and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, and when I get home I write a song about it and that will teach me how I think about it. And scoring does draw from that.

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