Liz Phair is well acquainted with controversy. It's there waiting to punch her in the eye every time she pops her head up. Last year, after nearly a five-year absence from the new releases bin, she unleashed Liz Phair (Capitol) on an unsuspecting, unguarded world. And yeah, it caused something of a stir. But this time, the new record was stroking some people the wrong way -- in a whole new way. Phair was now causing no small amount of consternation among old fans and music writers by apparently abandoning the ragged, do-it-yourself ethic that made such early works as her volatile 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, so approachable and endearing in favor of a sound seemingly orchestrated to deliver unto her something approaching (oh my!) mainstream success.
There's no doubt that Liz Phair is by far the slickest, most commercial-sounding album she's ever made. It contains hit singles -- big, brassy and shamelessly radio-friendly cuts. Co-producers on the project included Michael Penn and The Matrix (the high-power production team responsible for crafting the sound of Avril Lavigne, among others). And it's been difficult for those who adored what her Capitol press kit somewhat dismissively describes as Guyville's "endearingly shambling indie rock" to accept the gloss of new singles like "Why Can't I?" and "Extraordinary."
After all, some of us really love that endearingly shambling indie rock.
"Me too," she enthuses, while asking that she not be blamed for the precise wording of her bio. "I love that stuff. That was my growing up period. And that 'shambling' is originality. Originality is the most important aspect of the music, which -- you know, that's part of indie. I love those songs like children. They're cute to me and very emotionally telling of whatever I was at that time. They're the photo albums of my life. Without them -- I don't have the greatest memory -- a lot would be lost."
Exile in Guyville (Matador) is a '90s underground rock classic, a breathtaking rush of thematic boldness, technical na & iuml;vet & eacute; and raw enthusiasm. In songs like "6'1"," "Help Me Mary," "F-- and Run," "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Flower," Phair deals candidly with sex, sexual politics and her extreme dislike of being pushed, dismissed and marginalized. It's brash, honest, undisciplined and playful, with just enough fear and pain oozing from the cracks to suggest that at least some of that bravado might be a mechanism helping to mask profound insecurities. Guyville was threatening, illuminating. For some, it was liberating.
"I'm always trying to take down the big boys," she admits. "I'm that way. Guyville was that to me. That whole Wicker Park [music] scene in Chicago. I was tired of being told I had no taste or didn't know anything about music. I was the girlfriend. And they were the cool ones. And I was just like, f-- off. So making Guyville was my way of saying, 'Guess what? I can do this too.' They act like it's f--ing rocket science, like they're the high priests of something and that people just can't understand, you know? And I sat quietly playing guitar in my room. I was a visual artist at the time, so no one really paid any attention to my music. I just had had it. They're bullies, honestly. No offense, but it's bullying and it's ridiculous."
When Guyville was released and started causing waves nationally (not to mention selling very well), her harshest criticism came from her hometown, from people she knew, from the scene that initially inspired her. Phair quickly discovered that, although the indie rock subculture is considerably more nurturing and supportive than the music industry at large, it is still, largely, a boys' club -- with enclaves as conservative and regressive as any in the rock mainstream. The backlash largely boiled down to this: "Who the hell does she think she is?"
"I was also dating my manager for a long time, and I felt very bullied by the whole business thing," she recalls. "You know, 'You don't know business, you don't know what it's like out there, you can't make decisions for yourself because you don't understand and you don't have the connections.' Blah, blah, blah."
In the decade flowing Exile, Phair's recorded output was intermittent (and included 1994's Whip-Smart and 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg), and she retreated not once but twice from the business. During the first, she got married, became a mom and took domesticity for a test drive. During the second, she divorced, moved to Los Angeles with her son and began to rebuild -- if not reformulate -- her music career. The title of the new album itself seems to suggest a new beginning.
"No," insists Phair, "that's all the fun stuff you get to read into it later. Which is not illegitimate, actually. I definitely have written songs that were more true later than when I wrote them. But I just couldn't come up with a title. Like all my titles were just really bad, you know? I'd kind of sit there in these meetings, and they'd go, like, 'Well, what do you want to call it?' And I'd kind of throw out things as sheepishly as you can imagine. And they'd just be like, 'Uh-huh.' And it wouldn't get the reaction I was looking for. Then it got down to the wire."
If there is a thematic thread running through the new album, Phair says it's the notion of living in the space between extremes.
"I could have called it Backslash, which would have been really funny after the whole backlash happened. That would have been quite amusing. But that punctuation mark was really how my life was when I was making this record. I was very split between extremes, in that little area between love and hate or sane and psycho. Rock star mom. It was everywhere. Red light, green light, you know? Do you just blow on ahead or are you just stuck? The reason I'm in the middle of two extremes is that I am an extremist. And the only way to temper that over time was to be able to balance between the two. I didn't want to eliminate my extremist tendencies."
Liz Phair's frequently huge sound and highly polished sheen certainly represents an extreme side of the songwriter -- that of a confident, modern, media-savvy rock superstar.
"I wanted to get in there," she says of her leap into the mainstream. "I started off this record cycle extremely pissed off at my last manager, and I was gonna show him how it's done. Also, there's just a plain and simple love I have for big music. You can ask Brad [Wood, who produced Guyville]. I'd be sitting in the studio and he be like, 'Well, it's best to only use one trick because two tricks can sound cheesy.' And I'm like, 'C'mon! Gimme two tricks, gimme four tricks, gimme all the tricks you've got!' If you listen to Girlysound [her pre-Guyville demo tape], it's not tasteful. It's embarrassing and I'm ripping off mainstream songs half the time. I think Guyville was very much a combination of Brad and me and Casey working together. That was probably the coolest I ever got. But I didn't grow up cool. I grew up mainstream. And I don't like leaving any of them behind -- my 12-year-old self, my 9-year-old self. I really like to integrate. There are a lot of reasons I made a commercial-er record. And most of them, during the making of it, had nothing to do with commercial-ness. It had everything to do with being in the studio and getting really, really excited."
But this big rock has other facets to explore as well. Lurking in the shadows thrown by the massive production of the Matrix are sparkling moments of fragility and restraint, the moments in which, you might suppose, the other extreme of Liz Phair -- the introspective, vulnerable extreme -- shows itself.
"Trust me, I don't put the Matrix above Michael or Walt [Vincent, co-producer]. My favorite songs on the record are not necessarily the Matrix ones. But do you know how exciting it was walking in there, to walk into the Matrix and get a Matrix done to you?"
To get Matrixed?
"Yeah, get Matrixed," she laughs. "It's like, wow, that's really cool."