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An interview with Liz Phair.
by Gregg Shapiro
Singer/songwriter Liz Phair, who made a splash in 1993 with her debut album Exile in Guyville, continues to make waves with her latest release, Funstyle (Rocket Science Ventures). The double-disc set includes the 11-track Funstyle CD, which finds Liz at her most experimental and daring. The second Girlysound CD consists of 10 songs from the legendary Girlysound Tapes, recorded early in Liz’s career. Funstyle definitely has something for everyone. I spoke with Liz shortly before she began her 2011 concert tour.
Gregg Shapiro: Your new disc, Funstyle, was available digitally on your website when it was first released. Did you always plan to release a physical CD version?
Liz Phair: Yes, always. That was part of the plan. I just needed to get that music out right then. It was a pure artistic inspiration. It’s the kind of stuff that if there wasn’t such a tenuous climate in the record business now, you wouldn’t be able to do it. But many an artist has had that impulse many a time. It’s just taking an opportunity that’s available to you. It’s like diving into the deep end with your clothes on. It’s fun. [Laughs]
In talking about what you want the album to be, you say, “I just think we should do something a little more Chicago.” What does “a little more Chicago” mean?
[Laughs] When I listen to Funstyle, it cracks me up. I can’t believe that even hearing the lyric quoted back to me can crack me up. [Laughs] I’m largely saying the sound that is rock and Midwest is pretty heartland. This is a gross generalization and certainly not entirely true, but I want rockin’ good music that I can drive to, that has an American rock feel. And I think I make reference to [songwriter/producer] Jon Brion, sort of using him as an example of—and this is not entirely how I feel about Jon Brion either—being more brainy, maybe slightly more jazzy, complex chords. And I think what I’m trying to say is just something “rock Chicago.”
Would you say that the skit-like tracks such as “Smoke,” “U Hate It,” “The Beat Is Up,” and the rap on “Bollywood” reflect the influence of hip-hop on your work?
Definitely! That’s a big part, and no one’s asked me that. I’ve talked about how the process of making those songs was influenced by working in the studio as a television composer, which is easy to see from a technical point of view. If you have at your fingertips all sorts of sound effects and orchestrations that you can call up instantly, you can see how that production style came to be. It really reflects Evan Frankfort’s abilities as a producer and engineer, as well. But I’ve always listened to hip-hop and rap. I’m an omnivore musically, spreading my wings a little bit.
You know how music comes in and influences you and you put it out in your own little weird way. I don’t think I’ve ever given myself license to do something like that. And because the nature of Funstyle was fun anyway, I was able to joke around using the beats that were in my head as well.
Speaking of “The Beat Is Up”—the character voice is very funny and very Midwestern. Did you have a Midwestern accent that you struggled to lose for your career?
My mother beat it out of me from day one. I was groomed long before I had a public career. I was always told at the dinner table, “You never know if you may be invited to Buckingham Palace some day. You’ll need to know on which side your salad fork goes.” [Laughs] That was always the joke. I would be talking to her about my day at school and she would be like, “Car, not cahr. “ And then I’d say, “Okay, we took the car to the . . .” And now I do it my son. He’ll be in the middle of speaking to me and I’ll be like “What is that?” Then I’ll start doing a skit from Second City or something—[speaking with a heavy East Coast accent:] “Oh, my God, Ricky Maht-in,” and he’ll be so mortified that he’ll correct himself.
Doing the voices reminded me that you’ve done some acting in the past—for example in the movie Cherish. I was wondering if these skits were a way for you to flex those muscles again?
I do that in my normal daily life so often. I’m always doing voices. Anyone who knows me as a friend has known that about me. I have an ear and I mimic.
When I was seven we lived in England for a year. I was six when we arrived, and one of my father’s favorite stories to tell is about how, from the day that we got off the plane in London and I heard the British accent, I was so self-conscious that our accents were different that I immediately went into character. I stayed in an English accent the entire year. All the time, I never broke it—not once. My brother wanted to kill me. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” It was three Americans and one little English girl and they totally forgot about it. Then we came home—and this is my dad’s favorite part—we got off the plane in America and I dropped it. That was this intense thing with them looking at their daughter and thinking, “That’s different!”
I don’t remember any of that. I remember affecting the accent because I didn’t want to stand out. It’s just in me. But I’ve tried to act and I really can’t do it. I think I’ve struggled my whole life to be an individual, to be myself, to have a voice of my own. To take on someone else’s [character], even though I probably have the aptitude, I’ve gone so far down this road of individuality that I just don’t know how to do it. I’ve tried to act and it just doesn’t work very well. [Laughs] Thank you for noticing something unusual about me.
Is there a remix of “The Beat Is Up” in the works for your gay fans who have always wanted to have a Liz Phair tune to be spun in their favorite club?
From your lips to God’s ears. Anyone who wants to take that assignment on, please do so. It’s ripe for it, it’s ready for it. I love to dance. I’m a crazy mad dancer. I dance around my house. Women of my age aren’t given that many opportunities to dance, [which] sucks. Yeah, let’s all go dancing.
Funstyle also has plenty of the more traditional-sounding pop songs, including “You Should Know Me,” “Miss September,” “Oh, Bangladesh,” and “Satisfied.” How did the experience of writing these songs differ from the more experimental ones?
It’s a very different head space. I think that’s because I’ve been doing this so long, I can channel one way or the other. I don’t find it a conflict at all to go from a light mode where we’re laughing so hard we’re on the floor—I can’t even tell you how much laughter went into a lot of the Funstyle stuff—to the more private stuff [at the opposite extreme]. Especially “You Should Know Me”—that’s a very naked song. “Miss September” is also hard. It’s hard to be sincere. It can be a real challenge to say something like “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” That can be hard to say straight, and it’s something I keep trying to do in little ways. I don’t think I’m as good at that as I am at other things that I’ve had more practice with. How am I going to get better if I don’t keep trying? I can tell by your questions that you believe in this too. You should live your potential in all directions if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, and I definitely take that to heart.
Funstyle includes a second disc of 10 songs from the Girlysound sessions. How would you say that your perspective on these songs has evolved over the years?
There are parts of it that are so familiar. It’s like breathing, listening to that. I hear some essence of my self that’s very reassuring to me at this point—that there’s a continuity to my creativity that’s firm, that’s solid, that you can’t throw away. I can hear talent in that. I think, “Wow, I was so young. I don’t know how I did that kind of stuff.”
At the same time there’s a lightness of touch and a playfulness that isn’t serious and is having fun. It’s a kind of spirit that I hope to embrace my whole life. It can be a challenge because life is hard and it kicks your ass. Pain is real and heartbreak is real and nothing to be scoffed at. To be able to keep approaching life with optimism and innocence is a challenge in and of itself.
You have to maintain a sense of humor.
You sure do! And you also have to maintain a sense of connection to other people. In between the lines I hope there’s a compassion for all of us. Nobody has it together. Everybody’s self-conscious and thinking that people are going to see through them at any second. It’s very painful. I’m a big “hey-let’s-all-come-together” kind of person. I’ll show my flaws if you show yours, and maybe we can all relax.
Did putting these 10 Girlysound songs on a CD give you a sense of closure?
I don’t even know how to speculate about that, although it’s a very valid thing to say. Sometimes my art gets ahead of my consciousness. It better not be [closure]. It better just be moving into a new phase. Possibly I’m putting something to bed to make room for the next thing. That’s how it feels to me. I was aware of that and went with it, not knowing what that meant. I heard that bell ringing, too. That’s a signal of something.
On the Girlysound disc, you cover and revise “Wild Thing.” Do you have a favorite cover version of one of your songs?
My friend Chris Brokaw did a really good version of a Girlysound song, but it never got released and it isn’t on the “Don’t Be So in Love with Yourself” compilation. He opened for me a couple of times on this last tour and I got to watch him perform it live, and I was deeply moved. Chris Brokaw and Tae Won Yu are the two people who started me recording music, and I wouldn’t have a career without either of them. Watching that was a full-circle moment. Ben Folds performed “Flower,” I think. Also, Ted Leo covered “Fuck and Run.”
If there was going to be a Liz Phair song on Glee, which one would you want it to be?
Oh, my God! “Hot White Cum” probably. [Laughs] I can just see them dancing to that. You know I love to break FCC statutes, so that would be perfect. [Laughs]
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.