Liz Phair

[MUSICIAN]

“I THINK THAT WHEN PEOPLE HEAR BIG PRODUCTION THEY THINK, ‘SHE’S FALLEN VICTIM TO CONCERNS OF COMMERCE.’”
Notable Alumni of New Trier High School:
Rock Hudson, 1956 Academy Award nominee
Liz Phair, recipient of 1993 Spin Record of the Year
Donald Rumsfeld, 1954 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Semifinalist
Chick Linster, 1965 World Record Holder, consecutive push-ups

Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, was released in 1993, and was followed by Whip-Smart in 1994 and whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998. Her new album, Liz Phair, will be released this June; it’s her first album in five years. In her candor and her anger and her unmistakable style—no one’s voice sounds like hers—Liz Phair is one of the best songwriters we have. She’s as literate and sensual as Lucinda Williams and has the kind of beautifully controlled rage that Aimee Mann has perfected, yet Phair hasn’t gotten much credit lately. For those who want to criticize her, she gives plenty of bait for them to munch on: Phair never officially studied music (she was an art major at Oberlin), and for a serious kind of singer she’s taken up some unlikely offers: she’s modeled in ad campaigns, and has had small parts in not-great films. And now, with her new album, hay will surely be made of the fact that not only is this her most explicit album, but three of its songs were written and composed with the help of the Matrix, the Los Angeles-based songwriting and production team that helped Avril Lavigne create some of her hit songs.

But still and nevertheless: who else tells stories the way she does? Her songs unfold like short fiction, full of detail and nuance—as opposed to the vague and repetitive poetics we accept as songwriting—and are perhaps even more believable because they’re sung in her trademark monotone. Her song “Love is Nothing” on whitechocolatespaceegg contains a scene in which a man is telling a woman about all the friends they have in common, and by the time he figures it out, she finds herself yawning. And yet, Phair is never judgmental of her protagonists’ love interests or friends; nor do the protagonists of her songs, who are mostly young and female, judge themselves. The lyrics to “Chopsticks,” the first song on Whip-Smart, tells the story of a woman meeting a man at a party, going home with him, and having sex while watching TV. After the night is over and he drives her home, she admits that secretly she’s timid, but she’s not regretful. That the lyrics are spoken to the tune of “Chopsticks” isn’t a juxtaposition as much as it is a statement that going home with someone you’ve just met is as routine and familiar as the notes to a clumsy song we all learned how to play as children.

Almost as much has been made of Liz Phair’s appearance as has been made of her candid lyrics. The CD of Exile in Guyville featured a photo of Phair exposing her nipple, and almost every photo of her seems to present a very different person. Phair herself sings in the first song on Exile in Guyville: “And I kept standing 6’1” / Instead of 5’2” /And l loved my life / And I hated you.” Phair seems to relish that one can readily alter appearances; it’s as simple, she implies, as changing one’s outlooks and affinities. The cover of Phair’s new album features a photo of her seated on a chair, with her hair entirely covering her face. If there’s a portrait in the closet showing her aging or altered, the photo seems to tease, this is the closest we’ll get to it.

—Vendela Vida

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THE BELIEVER: How does having split with your ex, with whom you worked closely and shared a life, impact your music, your new album, your life…?

LIZ PHAIR: I don’t think it impacted me nearly as much as the guy I was with after my husband. I had a long relationship after that and I worked closely with him. That was by far more up and down and disastrous in the end than my marriage was. It wasn’t the right two people, but we are reasonable and we parent together. Whereas the relationship I had after my marriage, I don’t know what that was, but it was definitely kind of damaging to my self-esteem. It had a lot of impact, plus it was some of the more fun times I’ve ever had. It was very rocky, up-and-down craziness. I had to fight hard, and I’m not super happy with where I am romantically in my life because I feel like I fucked up. I feel like I have made big mistakes and now I’m sort of at the end of my thirties, not married… I want to be with someone—I have a really good sense of who I am and what hurts me. Let me put it this way: In your twenties, what’s wrong with you is often a source of private shame. In my thirties now, it’s just who I am.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Vendela Vida edits The Believer.

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