Liz Phair on Exile, Funstyle and being a studio geek

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In the early '90s, Liz Phair (due at the Bluebird Theater this Tuesday) started releasing tapes she called Girly Sound. These early tapes revealed a wide-ranging and playful musical creativity and helped to establish Phair in the underground music scene in Chicago. Somehow these tapes made it into the hands of the heads of the then-fledgling Matador Records, and Phair was offered the opportunity to record a full-length album.

The result was 1993's Exile in Guyville, a song-by-song response to the classic 1972 Rolling Stones album Exile on Main St. Both profane and profound, Phair's Exile is one of the true classics of the "alternative rock" era of the 90s for its brash humor and heartbreaking honesty. The album had its detractors, including scathing commentary from fellow Windy City denizen, Steve Albini, but it launched Phair's career, which continues to this day.

In the last few year, Phair had been working up material for her new album and the resulting songs were so strange and quirky to the ears of "industry professionals," including her management and record label, that she was dropped by both. That album, Funstyle, which Phair leaked out a little at a time before its Fall 2010 release, showcases the songwriter experimenting with sounds and sound designs in creative ways that most artists nearly two decades into their career wouldn't have the nerve to try out.

We caught up with Phair recently and spoke with her about the Exile reissue, the new album and her evolution from studio geek to a studio geek having come to terms with being a performer.

Westword: In the documentary you made that was part of the CD reissue of Exile in Guyville, you included interview segments with Steve Albini. How did you get him to be part of the project even after all the arch stuff he's said about your early work?

Liz Phair: I dragged around a couple of cameras and set them up around a room. I just asked him. It was really interesting to me and really gratifying that everybody wanted to participate in it, because I didn't just ask the people that had liked me. I wanted to talk to everybody who had been sorta part of it, and I was happy to see everyone was willing to do it.

I think enough water under the bridge had passed, and I wasn't expecting to be humiliated by these people, but I did expect them to say whatever they wanted to. There's a part at the end that I'm like, "Well, this is your chance, you can rip into me."

He thinks about it for a second, and then he says, "Nah, I'm going to take the high road." I think he said something like, "I think you know how much that record meant to women." He's totally entitled to his opinion about it. Even Tae [Won Yu] didn't even really like it.

I think it's important to show that it never was, for me, just all roses and champagne. There was still this controversy even then, and it was great to talk to everybody and to hear that every single person involved with it had issues with the record just like I did and also felt special because of it just like I did.

I'm not sure Steve Albini felt special because of it. It was a notable occurrence in Chicago. It was something people that people wanted to talk about their side of the experience. It was something that had affected their lives, and it was worth it to them to say their piece.

On Funstyle some of your music gives me the same feeling I get when I listen to Fairport Convention. Were they at all an influence on you as a songwriter?

No! And that's very interesting. I have a CD of theirs I was listening to recently. Do you mean the jammy stuff with Dave Matthews?

Yes, one of those songs for sure.

There was a loose and communal feel on a bunch of the tracks. That was definitely one element of Funstyle that everybody who was in the room should pick up some instrument and join in. That was part of what I considered Funstyle, the mantra, the mission statement.

Dave Matthews plays a bit on Funstyle. How did he become involved with the project, and why did you pick him to play?

I didn't really pick him. It was all very naturally done. My tour manager left the Liz Phair self-titled record tour and went to become Dave's personal assistant, and I got to know Dave socially through him and loved him and loved his music and loved going to the shows. I wanted to sign with ATO, and we just piggy-backed on his personal recording gigs and just tried playing together.

I think that's natural for two musicians who like each other to want to get into the studio and experience their friendship at that level, too, because with artists, so much of their emotions are in the creation. When you meet and connect with another artist, the urge is very natural to say, "Let's create together."

On your website you said that your new album lost you your record deal, but to my ears, it's one of the best things you've done. What inspired your use of such a broad range musical styles this time around? I mean you have a song like "My My" that is a bit like a Sly & The Family Stone type of funk and "Bollywood," which is not unlike the kind of hip-hop done by M.I.A.

[laughs] I was just having fun. I'd been scoring for television here in L.A., and when you do that, you utilize a lot of sounds and sound design, and it's a very fast process. A lot of those style choices were born of long hours in the studio just cracking each other up and doing sound design stuff that, as you're working on the piece, scoring, you start to go sideways and you just start experimenting pretty wildly, and that's sort of where that came from.

Where did the spoken sections in "Beat Is Up" come from, and what is their significance to the song?

I really have no idea where this stuff comes from. I'm not sure how I come up with it. I think I've become increasingly willing to be free and follow my inspirations wherever they go, because I'm always sure something interesting is going to come out of it. That was really just about the whole, I'm a mother and my son just turned fourteen and there's this positivity that everyone sort of engages in like:

"My family is great and everything we're doing is great. And we're doing some great things, and my kid is going to do a million things. Well mine is doing a million and one things." It's kind of making fun of highly-driven, out of touch parenting philosophy or life philosophy. Instead of really thinking about how you feel about your life, just running to keep ahead of it so you never have to feel about it.

"U Hate It" has to be one of the funniest and most deeply sarcastic songs written in recent years, partly because of the mix of sampled dialogue underneath the music. It's like something Frank Zappa would have done. Why that approach to writing that song, and have you actually heard people say stuff like that about your music?

Yes! People have said that about that song. That it has a Zappa-esque quality, the absurdity. I have heard them...I mean it was in direct response, really, to my management's reaction to "Bollywood," where they were tag-teaming me on the phone like, "I hate it. I hate it. No, I really hate it." They were so serious about such a funny song, and it completely shocked me, how upset this song had made them. Nothing is usually the direct go home and write a song exactly about what just happened. But it really was in that case.

It seemed absurd to me, and it has always seemed absurd to me, the reaction that people who don't like my music have about my music -- it's so strong. I don't know what upsets them so much about a song. Unless you're screaming white supremacist stuff, I don't understand why a song can affect people so much, especially a funny song like "Bollywood." It killed me.

I was like, "Wow, you really hate it, huh?" If a problem that I'm dealing with is absurd, I want to approach it in an absurd way so I'll do a song like that. That's sort of why "Bollywood" is that or "Beat is Up." I'm really talking about absurdity so I try to reflect that in the music itself.

With the new album you included ten songs from Girly Sound. Why is that?

When we first put out Funstyle, people tried to make sense of it as a stylistic departure for me, and they would write about my early recordings, Girly Sound, because there was that love of the absurd or playfulness or mash-up of styles, and it kept recurring in reviews.

This guy at the label asked if I had ever released that stuff. Not officially. And he said, "I think it would be a great idea to put it with [Funstyle]." It was important, once I caught the fever, because that gives you a context. It almost bookends my career in a nice way: This is what I'll do if I feel inspired in that vein, and that there's a precedent even before Guyville. Kind of help people understand where it's coming from--that side of my art making.

You've done some interesting covers including "Wild Thing" and "Turning Japanese." Why those songs instead of others?

I hate to sort of demystify it, but really, it was just a spontaneous decision. Jim Ellison, from Material Issue, who's just passed away, was the one who thought of "Turning Japanese," and "Wild Thing" was... I think that was that movie I liked way back when. There wasn't any deep meaning behind that.

Do you still play a Fender Duo-Sonic II? Is there anything in particular about that guitar you like?

Well, I do, actually. It's currently in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in an exhibit, so I don't have it on me. But we got one sort of similar as a stand-in until it's returned to me. Really, I just got used to it. It's small, it's light, it has a twangy sound that goes with my voice, because my voice is pretty high, and it's not very strong. It became my signature sound. It's what I began playing, and so in my ears, in my head, that's how my voice and my guitar should sound. When I'm writing, it's sort of important to have that totality to write with.

In an interview for Starry Constellation magazine, you said you considered yourself more of a studio geek than a performer. Do you still think so, and why so?

You know, I always thought that because I never grew up aspiring to the stage, it was never part of what I wanted in life. In fact, I dreaded it. But I loved making art. I grew up a visual artist, and with music and songwriting, it's all about making things to me. That's what I'm really in it for -- making things. That's what I love, that's where I'm comfortable and that's what I think I'm best at. It was a struggle to perform live for many years. I think you either have the instincts or you don't.

Now, actually, I kind of love but I still don't think I'm that great at it. I think, for me, I've become quite good. But compared to people that I see, I recognize, in performers, that kind of available inspiration that's always at your fingertips, that I have in the studio, in their live performances.

I think most of the time, I'm just at the mike trying to play my guitar and sing. It was just really recently, that after I read Keith Richards' Life, that I started becoming proud of the tradition of live performing. It tangibly changed how I felt about what I did out there. It was maybe the beginning of being actually a good performer.

Liz Phair, with Le Divorce, 7p.m., Tuesday, January 18, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax, $20-$25, 303-830-8497 (16+).

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