I’m Not Joaquin Phoenix: An Interview With Liz Phair

Written by September 18th, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Did you hear the one about Liz Phair? How, after becoming one of the most respected and fawned-over indie artists of all time with her smart and sexy debut, Exile In Guyville, she proceeded to alienate critics, and a sizable portion of her fan base, by following her muse wherever it lead her?

In 2003, she pissed off the establishment by embracing mainstream pop, and this July 4th, she did it again, releasing a rap track, “Bollywood,” a clever satire about her adventures in the music industry. Many were not amused.

Her brand new album, the Dave Matthews-featuring Funstyle, is another bold move, but Liz Phair purists have twice the incentive to buy it, as it comes bundled with Girlysound, an album of songs she recorded in her parent’s house on a four-track, pre-Exile. We talked to Phair about revisiting the past, embracing the future, dealing with the haters, and more.

Congratulations on the new record.

Thank you!

Why did you call it Funstyle?

That was the name that [collaborator and co-producer] Evan Frankfort and I came up with while we were making the crazy songs. Because it was sort of a new amalgam of styles and genre and we call it “fun-style”. We’re not really sure what style it is. It’s fun-style. It’s fast, it’s funny, it sounds great.

Would you consider it a concept record?

Yeah I would! I’ll go out on a limb. I absolutely would, 100% consider it a concept record. Everyone’s like, “These songs don’t match. They have nothing to do with each other,” but they do because the spirit is the same all the way through it. I’m sort of trying to show a way to be in any musical environment you should find yourself, like traveling musically.

Like when I did the stuff with Dave Matthews, we were totally fun-style because the guy who was actually the drummer at that moment had one arm. He had a cast on one of his arms and isn’t even really technically a drummer. I think the engineer jumped in and played a little something. And that’s what the whole record for me is about. I mean, come on. This whole, “You have to win American Idol before you can play music. You have to prove that you’re really, really good.” I don’t believe that. I believe that music is inside of everybody and I want to express it as often as I possibly can. I like for people to join in and I like for it not to be a hideous process of, “Take 67. Take 68.” That’s not what “fun-style” as a concept is about.

That kind of reminds me of the new song”Beat Is Up.” Did you write that monologue that the Indian guy speaks?

Yes, I did. Haha.

What was the inspiration for that song?

Well that was actually in reaction to the fact that I’m a mom, a full-on mom. Not a young mom. My son’s almost 14 so I’ve been doing that for a minute. There are so many people in America who are just ferociously positive. “Yes, I’m doing great! How are you,” you know, that kind of thing. “Our children are involved in water polo, and soccer! They’re constantly on the go and constantly being better and better and better!” I love to poke fun at that. At the same time I’m guilty of it myself. I think it’s sort of running away of the basic unpredictability of life, and the fact that none of us really know how long you can go along being positive all the time before life kicks your ass. There’s a lot of falsehood about it, too. That’s what the Indian guy is doing for me, you know. “You haven’t slept with your husband in a while, you’re drinking and taking pills,” it’s just something I’ve noticed in a lot of us these days, and I think it’s funny.

When were these songs written? Was there a time period when you wrote most of them?

I guess they were written over two and a half years. They weren’t all at the same time. Some of them I wrote in and around scoring, because I don’t do a lot of scoring for television, so some of them were more inspired by that kind of musical technique. And some of them were inspired by my recent infatuation with the Dave Matthews Band, that whole scene… the way they are, the kind of people they are, the way they traversed that artistic landscape, I really admire. I’ve fallen into a habit of going to the shows. There’s kind of two main spirits going on: in studio, a lot of gadgets, a lot of fast, bold music maneuvers. And the other is really jamming with friends.

Critics have been judgmental of your music in particular, and it seems like having Dave Matthews on your record is sort of like a middle finger to the rock critic establishment. I’m sure that wasn’t reason for having him on there but, do you agree with that?

Um, don’t they get all pissed at him too though? I know he had a lot of trouble for a long time or resentment even as he was completely successful he still gets bad reviews which makes you kind of wonder what the fuck is up. So no, it had nothing to do at all with music critics and how they would receive it. That wasn’t in my mind at all. It’s never in my mind. That was a choice I made a really long time ago. It’s never in my mind to try to please or displease.

“U Hate It” was really directly related to my management because they heard “Bollywood” and were so upset about it. So upset about it, and I had no idea this was coming. I was completely blindsided by it. They got on the phone conference call style and were like, “We can’t work with you if this is what you choose to do in the future.” I thought they were gonna laugh like, “That was really funny! When did you do that?” And so “U Hate It” was basically about that moment that happened to me again, and again, and again where I make something that I think is really fun, or funny or neat and the people hearing it are somehow angered and I don’t get it. I try and try, but I don’t know why. I really can’t recall ever putting any music on and being angry. I can’t. There’s not a single moment in my life, even with music I didn’t like. If it’s the record of some artist that I’m a fan of wasn’t something I liked, I’d just say “Oh I don’t like that one,” and move on. Maybe you could explain it to me.

Um, no, I’m not gonna try. But I love the new record, and I love the song “Bollywood.” It made me laugh, and I love the music to it. Were you surprised by the backlash that it got online when you released it?

Well, luckily I wasn’t, because I’d already encountered my management’s reaction to it so I knew what was coming, and I fought for over a year, I think 13 months after parting ways with them. We’re still friends. We’ll call each other and see each other when I can, but I knew that I had a choice to make. I listened to them, 13 months after I’d been told in no uncertain terms that it would ruin my career and that I’d never recover, etc. I listened to them. I gave it a good long waiting period so see whether I still wanted to put it out. And I did so I just kind of mustered the courage and was like, “Here we go again. Not like it’s the first time.”

You also put this message online that says, “You’re not supposed to hear these songs.” How did you mean that?

I was told very clearly what a disaster it would be if I put these songs out and then also ATO, though they didn’t say anything like that, they were like, “Not for us. We don’t like it.” I had already started talking to labels, and was going to put out a very tasteful, mature, proper record that would harken back to Guyville… and I was gearing up for it, and this little rebellious streak in me was like, “Fuck that.”

I’ve always had a tough time doing what I’m told to do and I think the perception with critics is that I specifically do it, which is really very egocentric of them that they should think that I would really care so much about their review that I would make a whole record just to say, “Fuck you, reviewer.” I honestly like these songs. You could put me in a straight jacket if you feel the need, but it’s like I never go toward a creative project trying to upset people. I always make music for music, and I always make the music that really speaks to me or gets me amped at the time.

I had plenty of time to sit with Funstyle. There were a lot more songs that I didn’t put on that record that were recorded during that period, some of which are very good, and a lot of which I’m sure the critics would prefer. I really felt like I stumbled into a new style which, I’m not gonna start rapping, I’m not Joaquin Phoenix. It was just something that needed to be aired. It was a part of my creative journey that needed to see the light of day, and it was either shove these things under the carpet and pretend like I never did them, and no one would ever hear about it, or stand on my own and say, “I like it. This is what is exciting me now. This is what I see as a creative person now.” And that’s what I chose to do. It’s gonna give a lot of other artists, in particular female artists, the license to do more stuff like that as well. I think Erykah Badu is doing some stuff like this. I’m always about creating more room to be more expressive.

Do you listen to hip hop a lot? Are you pretty into it?

Yeah I do. Always have. I listen to all sorts of stuff. I’m an omnivore.

Who are some of your favorite rappers?

I had a huge crush on T.I. for a while. That was a long-running one. I’m totally into all of the new Eminem stuff. I especially love the way they mash up genres. I love the way it’s like a collage and I think that’s something I was definitely trying to do on Funstyle. I love that kind of bold stroke, like “fuck you” mash-ups. Love it, love it, love it, love it. I’ve been waiting my whole life for that.

That’s why I put Girlysound as a double disc on this release. I was doing that when I was 22. I was mashing up real songs that I would rewrite or use the chorus of something like, “Wild Thing,” The Troggs song. I’d rewrite it to my own purposes, or have two totally separate songs mashed together so that the first sounds like one thing, and then I’d switch on a dime to a chorus from another song. I’ve been doing that forever, and I just really love that and hip hop seems to do that more than other styles.

I think I’m a very visual person musically. The guy I work with, Evan Frankfort who produced a lot of this record is so good. He can do anything. I say, “Give me a thunderstorm where a dog is playing violin,” and he does it.

What were Frankfort’s and your other co-writers’ contributions?

Mostly I’d come in with a song so it wasn’t so much “co-writing” as it was arranging, playing parts and writing parts. I think there are only two songs that I co-wrote and that was with Kevin Griffin and then “Satisfied” with Doc Dauer and Evan. There’s a huge amount of writing that goes into producing. Everybody is playing instruments. On “Andy Slater,” I’m playing guitar and bass. That’s my thing, that’s how I like to work. If you were in the room, I would get you on an instrument, and Evan would make you sound good. There’s a dog, I got the dog on “Smoke” because Hank is part of our little room, and he’s part of our little vibe.

When I was working with Dave Matthews the engineer jumped in on some stuff, I had Brett, who is really Dave’s assistant and my ex-tour manager, he was playing drums with one arm. He had his arm in a cast. You just get everybody in and that’s kind of the Funstyle spirit. Life is short. You should get your hands on something and start playing.

Do you consider yourself thick skinned when it comes to music criticism?

I wouldn’t naturally, but I have had to be. I’m very sensitive so it’s not my natural thing. I’m terrified to play live. I get very nervous about stuff like that. I don’t love being exposed which is ironic, but I really got into music because of the studio environment, which I feel more comfortable in. But even then I was so nervous to sing, I just remember long stretches of take after take.

I would much prefer if people would take my music the way I intend it to be taken, but that hasn’t happened, so I’ve had to basically decide. I can stand the criticism much better than I could stand to take it and do what they want me to do, and feel like I’m working for them. That would rip my insides out. I just feel extremely committed to being an artist able to pursue whatever artistic inspiration comes my way. I fight for that. I fight really hard, and that forced me to become really strong and say, “This is what I think I should put out next.” Sometimes, often I guess, I stand alone.

If you had kids, would you want to teach them that, or would you tell them, “Be sure to suck up to your teacher even if you know their wrong, even if you feel like you’re writing a crap paper. Give them what they want to get the ‘A’.” You know what I see in our world? I see people drinking and doing substances because they are so fucking repressed that they can’t stand it. So they do what they’re supposed to and then they come home and get ripped so they can get through another day. I fight that. I fight for the right to be myself.

You’ve written some sexually frank songs in your career. Can we expect more songs like that in the future, like “H.W.C.” and “Flower”, or are they out of your system?

No, they’re never out of my system, I just didn’t happen to have one. I think alot of people thought I’d always put a sexual song on-like as a gimmick or something. But if I’ve got one, believe me, it’s going on it. I just didn’t have one. Well, “Oh, Bangledesh” for me was like the sexy one on this record although it’s not a explicit. But then again the encounter that I was having that spawned the song, wasn’t as…I don’t know. Like, if I’ve got em’ I put em on. But you can’t really-at least I can’t-jsut call them up at will. I wish I could.

What was it like for you to revisit your old material on Girlysound? I know some artists can’t really listen to their old stuff.

I asked Ken Lee, who runs one of my biggest and best fan sites, which ones I should put on it, and he gave me a list, a solid list that I almost entirely used. And then I added some that are just….I cringe, I wanna die! I put them on there cause I thought they were relevant to the sort of voice acting that I do. You know, taking different personas, taking different characters. But oh my god, they’re bad! You really just have to suck it up. Yeah, it’s really hard to listen to early stuff. But some stuff, you know, it was relevant. The reason that I’m coupling them together needed to be shown. I’m thinking in particular of “California,” where I did this kind of low voice that’s like I’m a gangster, and I’m so lame and can’t tell the jokes right. It’s just awful, but it’s very distinct because I’m slipping in and out of character. Like I do this stupid gangster voice, telling a joke that probably my dad’s golf buddies told him, and I heard over the dinner table or something. Then I slip into a completely melodic chorus that has nothing to do with the joke I’m telling, but somehow the juxtaposition of the two makes sense to me. And artistically brings home a point. I mean, I came from a visual arts background. So, I understand that. I think alot of people in music, that’s not how they came to music. And that isn’t a part of what they’re hearing when they listen to something.

You said you hear things that made you cringe, but do you also hear some rough gems as well? Do you think that was a productive artistic period for you?

Yeah, very much. There’s beautiful songwriting in it that I wish I could do today. Just moments that kinda take my breath away. There’s moments that are just like, “Wow.” And I can’t remember what I was thinking and I can’t remember if I thought at the time that I was any good, or if I was just doing it or trying to impress someone. Or had I heard a song where they kind of do a chord change that was really unexpected? And it’s really such a wealth of information that ‘s like….when you go back and look at your old stuff, it’s very embarrassing, but it shows you something that should give you confidence. And that is that you’ve always been trying to be creative. Any one who is creative and has worked long enough, you know, you’ve always been trying to do this. That is so important in your life. If you just never look at it again –“No don’t look at anything I’ve done in the past. It’s so embarrassing!”– you’re missing out on what made your life your life!

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