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Cover Story: Liz Phair

| February 1, 2011

Shifting Sands

The woman on the cover of Liz Phair’s new album certainly doesn’t look shy. The shot composing the main Funstyle (Rocket Science) image shows her provocatively clasping a furry boa over her naked torso, flashing some side cleavage next to her name, which is stamped in black with the title embroidered in ghetto-fabulous script. Spreading open the gatefold reveals more skin and her arched body splayed on a leather lounger.

Click here for a full set of photos from Phair’s January 22nd concert at Metro.

Clearly it refers to the peek-a-boob art that accompanied her vaunted, 1993 debut, an album so thoroughly dissected and revisited it hardly bears regurgitating here. Phair, a former Winnetka and Wicker Park denizen, has spent the past decade explaining and dismantling the girl who made that record, but the old her’s not the subject that has caused her to clam up today. It’s her future.

“I’m superstitious talking about that because I’ve read interviews I’ve done in the past where I make these proclamations,” she explains. “And I regret shooting my mouth off and saying,” adopting an inebriated tone, “‘This is what I’m gonna do.’ Ask another question.”

All Phair has is the future, these days, and it’s a far more inviting topic than dredging through her past. (Pity Phair’s poor biographer. Researching this article turned up hundreds of outspoken interviews each contradicted at some point down the line, ultimately rendering an accurate portrait of her a statistical improbability.) It doesn’t take much prodding to get her to relent, though, once she decides she can omit specifics and thus avoid jinxing herself.

“I’m juggling a number of different things and it’s going pretty good,” she offers as courtesy. “I have to say I’m enjoying my work life. I feel like a lot of stuff that used to trouble me before doesn’t trouble me now. And I’m enjoying what I do and feel good about what I do. It’s a nice feeling.”

Without big-time management or a record label, Phair’s apparently as naked as she was born – superficially. She created a metaphorical skit for Funstyle, in which she’s turned away at an L.A. hotspot by an increasingly stuffy doorman. It’s supposed to symbolize the alienation she’s come to feel since her failure to shift enough units for Capitol Records, but it’s an incomplete and somewhat devious re-enactment because she’s not on the outside looking in at all. In fact, she’s deeper inside than ever – only, as someone who writes music for television scores, the kind of industry cog who doesn’t get their photo snapped at Spago.

“I was in no way qualified to do this,” she disclaims, “other than being musical. My friend Mike Kelley was the person who got me the business; he was a writer for various shows like ‘The O.C.’ and ‘One Tree Hill.’ He decided to do his own show, ‘Swingtown,’ be a creator, and it was about our small village, Winnetka, where we grew up in the ’70s. He said, ‘You’ve got to score this,’ and I was at an impasse with my record label and incredibly grateful for the opportunity.”

Phair has been in front of the camera, most notably in the Robin Tunney-starred Sundance favorite Cherish. In it, she played the aloof best friend to her real-life chum (ironically Tunney, also a Chicagoan, currently features on CBS’ “The Mentalist”), and now she’s in a dark room with two other dudes (independent partners Marc “Doc” Dauer and Evan Frankfort), trying her best not to lose her composure. “We still joke about the first time we were doing it,” she laughs. “I think I was playing a four-note sequence, and it was almost like the idiot savant because I looked up and saw it on the big screen and said, ‘This is awesome!’ We had to be quiet because we were recording, and Doc gave me a thumbs up and I gave him a thumbs-up back because I only needed one hand to be scoring. It was that feeling of,” she stops as if realizing you-had-to-be-there but not wanting to say it. “It’s so much more fun than I think people think. Like, ‘Oh. Scoring.'”

Part of the reason she likes it so much is because a) it arrived while she digesting her commercial decline, and b) scoring has allowed her to go back and become the sort of artist she’s always wanted to be without having to rekindle Exile In Guyville. There’s more to her than a dirty mouth.

“I don’t paint anymore,” Phair responds when asked about things she’d gotten away from. “I don’t draw anymore; I miss that. I think it’s just shifting sands. If I started to draw more, it would probably change more of the musical things I’m doing. Looking at the fretboard like a piece of paper – I used to write like that. That’s good for me to do, too, to see it as a plane. So that if I’m working down the fretboard toward the end of the neck closer to the body . . . or just how I was fingering visually. I think that whatever you’re doing in your life – when my son was very small, that impacted everything I did. I think artists are just permeable. And that makes them hypersensitive, often maladjusted in society. Taking everything in, trying to understand it in the way we spit it back out and communicate it – it’s in and out and in and out. So if I were drawing . . . like scoring completely shifted and made the stuff that came out on Funstyle. That stuff I would never be doing if I hadn’t been scoring for television. But that kind of fast, lots of soundscapes, storytelling visual, sonic stuff was completely born out of scoring for television. And everything you do and everyone you’re around will change and shift who you are and the kind of art you’re making.”

Funstyle is a complicated entry because it’s difficult to integrate it into her catalog. First released as an online exclusive, its physical packaging carries a bonus CD from the primitive “Girlysound Tapes,” the fragments and sketches that served as an early demo as well as the backbone for her first two albums. Its presence gives the whole release a house-cleaning feel, as if the Funstyle tracks are a thumbtack on a roadmap for her own reference – but not an entirely serious offering. (The contents within suggest as much, too.) Such an interpretation also falls in line with her rotating-checklist work habits.

“I have to keep enough things going that when I feel like I have to work on one thing,” she explains, “I can turn to another in rebellion and work on that. I have to trick myself: ‘I’m supposed to do this, but I’ll go do this.’ Then, if I have enough things, I can cycle them around and get them done. But I have a very rebellious nature. When I’m forced to do one thing I want to do exactly the opposite. I’ve often used that trick of giving myself an assignment I don’t need to be doing so that the other seems exciting and new and fresh. So, if I’m writing my novel I’ll immediately tell myself I need to write songs. Motivation can be the hardest thing of all. It’s easy to start with great ideas. It’s much harder to keep your enthusiasm going when you’re slogging through stuff. It requires dedication and time-consuming attention to detail.”

Literature is proving to be a formidable adversary for Phair. Especially in contrast to the “Girlysound Tapes” – raw, bedroom recordings – she’s found her experience composing a novel positively agonizing. She says that as far as constructing an album, “Ideally, you want to write an album and have enough songs for it.” But having enough songs is the least of her problems.

“Setting it up at the beginning so the payoff’s really intense?” she asks, somewhat flustered. “I spent a lot of time writing dozens of scenes that probably shouldn’t be in there. My heart stopped the other day because I was getting rid of a whole section that I worked incredibly hard on, thinking ‘I don’t really need this. I can excise the entire thing.’ It was painful. I labored over that stuff. But, in a weird way, when you’re writing you’re writing for yourself to understand the world. But when it comes to presenting it, it might be much better if you didn’t show all that behind-the-scenes stuff. Which is a pain in the ass because you’re writing like four times what you really need.”

Because the novel has taken the role of chore-to-be-avoided, it has also indirectly led to several songs being written on the trot, ostensibly for a future album. She won’t reveal the direction, of course, but she’s decidedly more upbeat than the note that accompanied Funstyle and its effects on her professional prospects.

“I’m trying to avoid,” Phair pauses, “I feel gunshy about press right now. I’m writing a bunch of new songs right now that are really, really good, but there’s this thing I’ve learned while creating that if you sit and talk about it too much, you can scare away the magic. And I’ve become, as I’ve matured, more protective of that stuff. So it’s hard to be like, ‘I’m doing this and doing that, this and that.’ It almost drags it down to the level of ‘not gonna be special.'”

She admits bleed between projects, though won’t acknowledge any thematic links between what she’s working on.

“It all plays off each other, and this was true in college, too,” she says. “Every course I took, when it came time for finals or the essay question in particular, I could synthesize material from other classes into my answers. It all fit together and I could review examples from intellectual history to flush out some great insight in art history. Writing has helped lyrically and for television and production-wise. Scoring has helped me getting things done on time, and writing articles for a publication has helped me learn to edit. I think – and I hate to say this because I’m a really lazy person – it’s really, really good for me to be working a lot. If I’m creative in a number of different areas, that’s the height of my power.”

The casual observer would call Phair delusional upon hearing that, and counter that she reached her apex about 15 years ago. But she insists she’s cottoned to her current situation, and appreciates the irony that as she’s aged she’s actually become more liberated.

“You know what a good idea is,” she describes. “Even if you don’t know the area in which you’re working, I think it’s pretty easy to know when something’s good and something’s bad. I don’t feel like I wasted time when I was younger, but I spent a lot of time trying to get into a headspace to be creative. I would drink or smoke pot or get into a fight with my boyfriend so that I could have this creative juice. I was thinking the other day how grateful and excited I was to not need to do that anymore. It’s like any kind of practice or repetitive thing, like if you know how to meditate and you just became able to sit down and meditate. I can sit down and just be creative. I get so excited, because it feels like home. And hopefully I can discern when I’m doing well or not.”

A habitual solo artist – a situation reinforced by her free agency – she now believes that if an opportunity came to be in a band and not lead it, she could hang back.

“What do you think scoring is?”

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the February issue of Illinois Entertainer, free throughout Chicagoland.

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