Liz Phair originally wanted to be a visual artist. She studied art history in college, and her experiments with Chicago's music scene came as she tried to earn a living selling her drawings. But the buzz about the four-track tapes she recorded at home eventually led her to a contract with Matador Records, which released her debut album, Exile In Guyville, in 1993. Billed as a response to The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, Guyville took years to reach gold status, but critics and fans adored it, and its gritty, confrontational, candid lyrics and raw emotion spawned a legion of imitators. She followed Guyville a year later with Whip-Smart, which received all the promotional push that its predecessor hadn't, and sold faster, but failed to earn the same accolades. Four years passed between Whip-Smart and 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg, and during that time, Phair married, had a son, released an EP of her early work, and periodically talked to magazines and newspapers that still identified her as the female face of indie rock. "Polyester Bride," whitechocolatespaceegg's first single, did well on the radio, but the album itself received mixed reviews; some complained about Phair's increasingly polished pop sound, while others embraced it enthusiastically. A far more intense version of the same split has greeted her latest album, Liz Phair. Having struggled through label troubles, a divorce, and a lengthy recording process, Phair has emerged from five years of silence with an album that sounds more commercial than anything she's ever done. The critical response has often been vicious and uncompromising, but Phair has defended her work and her intentions with straightforward self-assurance, as she did recently when she spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the new album, the changes she went through after Guyville, and why she made sure to include a song called "H.W.C." ("Hot White Cum").
The Onion: The reviews for the new album have been pretty brutal.
Liz Phair: I wouldn't say brutal. I guess you're not reading the good ones.
O: Do you normally pay attention to critical responses to your work?
LP: No. I stopped reading reviews after Whip-Smart.
O: Have you ever learned anything worth knowing from a review? About yourself, your music, the people who write reviews, anything?
LP: They're not usually very accurate. They're usually… I don't know. Not really. They're not really part of my life, you know? Honestly, I don't pay attention very much. It's not like I'm watching them.
O: You did write a public response to The New York Times' review. [Phair wrote a fable comparing critic Meghan O'Rourke to Chicken Little after O'Rourke panned Liz Phair. –ed.]
LP: Well, that's because that's my poor mother's paper. I didn't want to be personally attached to… I had to defend myself to The New York Times to make it safe again for my friends and family.
O: In interviews about Liz Phair, you've been straightforward about the fact that you're looking for a wider fan base and more pop-radio play. It's fairly unusual for an artist to openly admit that. Has there been any backlash over your candor?
LP: I don't know. I just think… I suppose it's very naïve, because press is about spin, really, at some level. But for me, it makes my life less complicated if I just kind of straightforwardly say what I'm doing. You watch a lot of people sort of posing, and I just say what I'm doing.
O: Have you always just said what you thought, or did you develop that philosophy over time?
LP: I've always been like that. Maybe I was shyer before, and I wouldn't say what I thought. And I'm not sure I always say what I think now. But my father is very, very straightforward, a very straight talker, and I really value that. That's probably why.
O: Are there aspects of your life or personality that you're still shy about, or would prefer to keep out of public view?
LP: My son, probably. My life at home, my real personal life.
O: At the same time, it seems like most of your songs address specific aspects of your personal life, your son included.
LP: That's true, but I think good art has to do that. Somewhere in there, you have to get at something that you personally experienced. You can change the facts and imagine it to be someone else's life, but if you haven't felt something, it's hard to convey that feeling.
O: Do you consider all your songs autobiographical? Do they all come directly out of your own experiences?
LP: I think they do. Sometimes I will take on a character: It'll be my imagining of a certain situation, and it'll be more fiction, but I think it's essentially feelings or experiences that I have had, then projected onto someone else's… You know, "What would that feel like?" Well, how would you know what that would feel like unless you could have some sort of sense of that feeling? I think I write songs because of pent-up feelings.
O: Because you write so many frank songs about sex, interviewers tend to ask you a lot of personal questions about your sex life. Does that bother you?
LP: I try to see interviewing as performance art, and just take it as it comes. So whatever they ask me… I'm probably more focused on you right now than on what you're saying to me, you know what I mean?
O: Is that hard to do over the phone?
LP: Not if you've done a lot of them.
O: How has that publicity process changed for you since your first album?
LP: A long time ago, like with Guyville, I took it all very personally. I really felt that this was me being graded, and I took it to heart, and was trying to accomplish everything that everyone wanted me to do. But there are way too many people, too many opinions to even possibly attempt to do that. What ended up happening was, I just wrote a bunch of songs about the industry. I ended up becoming so self-conscious that my songs stopped being about my life and started being about what people thought of my music. And that was really bad. I remember my manager at the time being like, "Liz, people don't want 10 songs about the music industry." And I couldn't write anything else, because every line I wrote, I'd think about what 10 different critics would think of that line. It kind of crippled me. So I changed. I stopped reading reviews, and I just tried to write songs for the same reasons that I wrote them for Guyville, the way I always wrote them before I had attention. I stuck with that, pretty much. And also, the thing about stories… Later, after whitechocolate, I realized that when people write a story, or an article, it's almost like me writing songs. They're going to have facts, and they're going to have quotes, and they're going to try to weave it into some kind of interesting piece. And I started to realize that I was sort of a character in a piece, and that helped me not get upset when they quoted my lyrics wrong, or quoted me wrong, or whatever it was. I started to see that each writer got to put on the little Liz Phair puppet: [Adopts high, squeaky voice.] "In my story, Liz Phair does this! La la la…" Sort of like that. So that was another way of looking at it.
O: That would explain why you wouldn't want to read those pieces, because they wouldn't be about you; they'd be almost fictional stories related to you. But at the same time, wouldn't you get curious about what all those writers were doing with you as a puppet, what kind of words they were putting in your mouth?
LP: Well, I mean… I see where you're going with that. You're like, "Look out, girl. If you don't watch what they're saying, you could get in trouble." But to be honest, I don't like being controlled like that, really. I don't make music so that people will approve of it, and I don't live my life so I can be safely a part of any one group. So to some extent, my goals are different. I'm trying to live up to my own expectations of myself, and I'm trying to live up to, maybe, my friends and family's expectations of me. That just means more to me. So I see the danger that you see, but I also see, from experience, the great danger of trying to do it the other way. I did try to do it the other way, and it was not successful for me. It crippled me as a musicmaker. You can lose your career a number of ways, one of which is to not heed the warnings of the intelligentsia who are trying to tell you that you're on the wrong path. Another way is to listen to what people say. That can stifle creativity as much as anything, too.
O: You've sounded in other recent interviews like Liz Phair was exactly the album you wanted to make, but that you had to go through a huge struggle to actually make it. Would you say that's accurate?
LP: Yeah. Can I skew it a little differently? I wasn't sitting around waiting, waiting to get this album the way it is. I was just recording for the fun of recording, and each time we'd finish a batch of recordings, I would go to my computer and put them in an order, and try to imagine them as an album. I work with what I've got. For me, I really, really like this record. And it satisfies, for me, the best of what I did over the last four years. You can say that that's not good enough, but it was definitely the best I had to offer. I didn't slack off. I tried very hard to make something that I'd like, and that other people would like. So to say that it was like this masterminded… A lot of interviewers do that, and it's funny. They imagine there to be meaning to something that is somewhat random. Like, five years of recording… It's not all thought out, it's not all preconceived, and it doesn't fall into place. A million things go wrong. Things just happen, and you work with what you've got. And I think a lot of writers want to feel that it's thought out, that things happen for a reason, and that it ends in a way that was preordained. There's no real masterminding, at least in my career right now. We were just recording, and I was enjoying every experience I had with all these different people. I just worked with what I had in the end, and tried to make the best record out of that. And I was pretty pleased with where I got to.
O: Speaking of assigning meaning where there may not be any, was there any particular reason that this one was self-titled?
LP: No. I mean, there's a little meaning, but not giant meaning. I kept trying out different titles, but a title just hadn't occurred to me. I was so busy with the music that I hadn't thought of a title. As it got closer, and people were like, "Well, what are you gonna call it?," nothing came. And that straightforward side of me just felt like sticking a name on it that was an afterthought, that didn't really mean anything, kind of galled me. [Laughs.] I feel funny saying this to you, but the record really means a lot to me. I'm very attached to it, so I didn't want to stick something on it that seemed fake or false. Because to me, the record is very real. So I kept resisting. I came up with a couple of names that didn't really work. Finally, I came up with the idea of the backslash, which is sort of a theme throughout all the songs. I feel like my life tends to be lived in the center of two extremes, of any given emotion, and that's how I know where I am in things. So I was trying to think of what we could do, things like "Love/Hate," "Sane/Psycho," all these different ones that were going to be ghosted in the background [of the album cover]. For "Red Light Fever," something like "Stop/Go," "Red Light/Green Light," something like that. Because almost every song has that theme in it. And my art director goes, "Can't we just symbolize it? Do we have to spell it out?" We thought about, at the photo shoot, using a wall on an angle, like me lying on a wall at that particular backslash angle. In the end, it just became the guitar at that angle. But no one would ever get that but us.
O: From the publicity surrounding this album, it seems like you were more involved in the production than usual.
LP: No, I don't think so. In fact, in my career, I hold pretty steady. The way I write songs, the amount that I write them… I hold pretty steady. The difference would be that the production environments get more complex, with bigger and bigger money. And having to still stand up for myself and say "I really don't like that drum," when you're talking to Matt Chamberlain, can get scarier. It's maybe more difficult to be yourself in those circumstances. I've definitely gotten skilled at working in situations where I don't feel fully comfortable yet. But I think that's how I felt with Brad Wood and Casey Rice [producer/engineer/performers on Exile In Guyville], and I had quite a bit to do with that album, too. From a musician point of view, if you went into Guyville, I'm sure you'd say Brad and Casey had a lot more to do with it than I did. But if you asked Brad and Casey, I'm sure they would tell you that I had very… The areas that I cared about are very different from the areas they cared about. But I was really, really into the things I care about, and the same holds true for this record. Michael Penn did way more of the work, but the stuff that really mattered to me, I definitely fought for. So I'm pretty, swear to God, steady all the way through.
O: Is that because you're exactly where you want to be in terms of your involvement, or would you be more or less involved if the situation permitted?
LP: No, I'm very comfortable where I am. I know my limitations. I know what I can and can't do at this point, a lot better than I did. I think when I was younger, I might have thought, "Well, I could do that, rahrrr rahrrr!" And then I'd try it, and I couldn't. I'd say I'm pretty happy with where I am in the production environment. The reason it says that I produced some of the tracks, like "Firewalker" and stuff, is simply a function of there being no hired technical producer. But I function pretty much the same way [on all the tracks].
O: You talked about getting away from criticism, and getting back to the way you wrote songs on Guyville. What's that process normally like for you?
LP: Well, usually I just have some kind of anxiety or something inside me, and I just want to write a song. It's a very intuitive process. When I was home for three weeks this summer, at my parents' house, some of the same old feelings about being a daughter would arise, and I would write a song that had nothing to do with being a daughter. It's some kind of buildup of tension and release. The songs don't necessarily have anything to do with what's causing that tension at the moment. It's like dream-worlds. It'll sort of surprise you, what issue you do want to write about, and sometimes you can get stifled. Like, oh my god, the last four or five years… Until I started collaborating with Gary Clark, who I wrote "Red Light Fever" with, I was writing the most boring, clever songs that had no real truth to them. They were just clever little ditties. I couldn't stop it, and I didn't know what to do. They all felt like an "A" student with no guts. They were just kind of small, annoying, clever, clever, clever, clever little songs. And to me, that's like death, really. 'Cause it's all craft, no gift. And when I worked with Gary… I think that's why I was so open to collaborating this time around, because I received such help in terms of, like, therapy. I set it out for us that we had to write a song a day as, I don't know, just a limitation to work with. And having to do it in front of someone else… He'd be like, "Well, what are you really trying to say here? What is this song really about?" And sometimes I'd start crying, because I'd realize it was about something… He just kind of opened me up. I poured out a lot of stuff about my divorce, and my bad relationship after my divorce, and it was a very fruitful thing. I think songwriting for me is kind of a way to stay happy in my normal life, and to express things that I feel and think, but because of my 36 years of experience at suppressing that for society, I don't get to on a daily basis.
O: When you write songs, do you have any kind of ideal listener, or any ideal reaction in mind?
LP: I never do that when I'm writing, but sometimes when it's time to pick which songs to put on a record, I'll definitely know what kind of impact, like, "Hot White Cum" will have. But part of why I put that on was a reaction to a lot of record executives, because they kept hearing that song–it's a pretty old song–and they'd be like, "Great song! Could you change the lyrics? Maybe make it 'Hot White Love'?" I'd be like, "Okay, it's not going to make the record." And I'd just put it away and not care about it. And then a year later, they'd listen to all the demos, because they were discussing what to do next, and they'd be like, "Yeah, too bad about that 'Hot White Cum.' Good song there, you know?" And I'd be sitting there thinking, like, "They really like the song, yet I can't put it on because it offends their masculinity or something, or it's too freaky, or too wild?" And I thought, "If I can't be wild, if I can't put a song like that on my record, then I'm kind of blowing my own aims for what art is supposed to be, which is a place to be free." So perversely, by the end of it, I'm like, "Fuck, yeah, that's going on." Kind of being obnoxious about it. But I really do like that song.
O: Do you think that other songs on the album get overlooked because that one is getting so much attention?
LP: Well, I think reading a review is different from listening to a record. When someone listens to a record, they're going to pick out the songs they like, regardless of what a review says. And if they like it, they'll want to hear it again. I mean, that's how I am. I don't know how you are. Listening to a record is very different from reading about it, like seeing a band live is different from listening to a record. I didn't understand The Flaming Lips, really, until I saw them live. Like, I liked the record, but once I was on tour with them, it was a whole different thing. Some things just can't be translated in a different medium. So I think in reviews, people make a lot of that song. I would, too, if I were writing about it. Of course I would! It's good copy. But the thing about reviewing is, you can't capture what it's like to hear the sound, good or bad.
O: How has your relationship with the label been since the Matador/Capitol changeover? Have things been any better for you?
LP: I've worked with a lot of label situations, and I know a lot of people on labels, so I'm well-versed in labelness. And I have to say, when Andy [Slater, Capitol president/CEO] came on board, suddenly I wanted to finish Liz Phair. Because I realized that this label has became the most indie major you could ask for. It's like a petite major. And with his sensibility… It's also partially because I'm the same age as everyone working there, probably. I really like them. They're all smart, they're all cool, and they get what you have to do, and at the same time, they're all trying to put as much taste and effort into quality as they can. I respect that. I see them as my partners.
O: Do you ever go back and listen to your old albums?
LP: I do, especially when it's time to tour. We have to go listen, and I have to remember how to play all those things. It's really hard to remember what the hell I was doing. I can't do those interviews where they say "Name your top 10 albums," or "What's the best from 1985?" I cannot list or compile, because I don't think like that. When I listen to my records, I can't go, "This is my best record, this is number two, number three, number four." They're like diaries to me. When I hear them, I'm overwhelmed with emotion, because I can remember what it was like then, or what I was doing then. Or like, "Oh my god, there's Casey," or "Listen, it's Scott Litt! Remember that day in the studio?" They're like photo albums, almost. That's why I like them and value them. And that's why, no matter what happens to me in my career, I'm going to keep making records, and I'm going to keep fighting to make them as good as I can, because they're keeping my memories for me.
O: When you bring up those memories, do you ever wish you could go back to the points in time they represent, to what your life was like back then?
LP: Not really, but I would love, love, love to time travel, and to hang out for a couple of weeks. I would love nothing more than to be able to drop in on different parts of my life and relive stuff. I mean, there's a lot I wouldn't want to relive, but it's definitely a fantasy thing to sit there and listen to them and go, "God, remember that?" Very fun.
O: Is this where you thought you'd be 10 years ago when you made your first album?
LP: I don't know. Yeah? Sorta? I mean, no. I never thought that. I mean, I can't picture where I'll be 10 years from now. I have no clue. I'm afloat on the stream of life. I don't know.
O: Well, are you happy, afloat on the stream of life?
LP: Oh, yes. I'm very happy there.