Last night we had a chance to see Liz Phair play an intimate show at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a kick-off to her tour (which brings her to Bowery Ballroom tonight). Before she went on, we went down to the basement of the venue and sat in a makeshift greenroom with her and Alex Tween of The Forms, who was there to interview the '90s icon for us. The two share someone in common—Craig Wedren—who Phair has worked with, and who recently sang on The Forms's new EP, Derealization (out February 15th). Phair talked about her new album Funstyle, her most celebrated album, Exile in Guyville, and of course the good ol' prostitutes of the East Village.
If you missed out on tickets to tonight's show, she'll be at Music Hall of Williamsburg next month (and The Forms will be playing Cameo this Saturday night).
I just listened to Funstyle recently, and a lot of the music on it is genuinely fun. But the lyrics often, even in the upbeat songs, describe some harrowing and what must have been painful experiences in the music industry. How does it feel to be free from all that now, and if you could do it all over again, would you? I probably would want to be part of it again because I loved being able to chalk it off my list, like the radio world and the Madison Square Garden Christmas Show. There are certain really pinnacle moments, like, I don't think I would have been asked to sing God Bless America during the World Series at the Sox game if I hadn't been so high profile, so all the cool shit that we did that you never get when you're undergrounding it, you know? But I take to what I'm doing now better, like generally my stress level is so much less, and I'm just kind of like back in my own pond, and it feels very good. It feels very creative, like I'm killer creative right now. And back then I was more of a performer; I couldn't come up with much stuff. It was a different mode. So I'm so glad I did it, but this is where I really belong.
Funstyle has songs that are nothing like you've ever done before, not even close. Some of it is organized almost like a play or script, with overlapping voices, etc. That's how I see it, they're like visual theatrics. That's because I've been scoring television too on the side, and there's sound design involved in it, and we don't get to do a lot of the sound design, but we do building up of the action, and you start to think in terms of not just the music, but the visual with the music. And long hours in the studio doing TV shows, because when it really gets cooking, they're going to want a quick turnaround on 20-25 cues, which is insane. So you're in there really long, and Evan Frankfort, who did a lot of the Funstyle songs with me, he's hilarious, so we would literally just be crying and weeping and laughing so hard turning in a whole bunch of really ridiculous cues and be like "What do you mean...You don't like it?" And it spawned this whole Funstyle thing that we were doing. And that's where Funstyle really comes from. Not a lot of people know I've been scoring television, but anyone who's familiar with scoring TV would know immediately where all this shit was coming from. You've got a world of sounds and scapes to do and you're thinking in terms of "scene music." And so I was in that mode. I guess some people know if they listen to your song "Bollywood"'s lyric about keeping your profits as a scorer. That song kills me. I mean I listen to Funstyle every week, and I still love it. It kills me! When I kick myself off the boat, when I'm like "You're not getting in," I just start pounding the table like "That's so fucking funny!"
We actually share something in common, having each done musical collaborations with someone who is sort of the Kevin Bacon of music, Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think. I know you've worked with the Matrix and Michael Penn as well, and I was just curious about if you prefer writing on your own or collaborating with people? It totally depends. I love collaborating, it's really fun to do and sometimes I'll be more in a super self mode like right now, where I've got this thing that I'm getting off my chest and I'm sort of blossoming in this weird way that I haven't done. I haven't been writing songs like this since Guyville-era. And it's freaking me out, because everybody's been wanting me to do that, but I couldn't get there until I wanted to do it. Now it's spontaneous, and I'm like "Holy shit!" I don't know why and I don't know how or where but it's happening, and it's beautiful! And this music is very personal, extremely personal. Singing to one person and bearing my soul. I'll sob as I'm writing this because it's so cathartic, and collaboration is so different than that. but at the time that I was doing a lot of collaborating, I loved that too because I'd never done that. I'm always a monster of creativity, like it doesn't matter if you said, "Okay, now we're going to be sculpting clay." and so to do something different, that I'd never done, I'm like, "Yes! Let's do it!"
I find it very inspiring when an artist is unafraid to take risks, and I think that's something that's always been true about your music. Obviously with Guyville and now Funstyle, and with the self-titled record too it seemed you were like "I want to do pure pop because I love pop." That was my reading. That's so true! And you thought, "I'm going to do it and I don't care what anyone says." Is it a struggle to find that courage, because many artists are afraid what their fans are going to think, or is it just something that comes naturally to you? It's never a struggle in the inception. Like when I start to do it, I'm—I love undiscovered territory. Someone has an analogy: A song, before you record it, is like a fresh field of snow. it's magical and it's a real high for me. I do start to get scared as someone else will make me aware of what's going to happen to me. It fucking sucks, and I can have sleepless nights where I'd be like, "Are we really gonna do this again, Liz? " I just firmly believe, at least for me as an artist, that it is actually an imperative that I continue to search and do this thing that I can't articulate. I think there's something about that that's essential to who I am as an artist. And if you ask me to re-make the same stuff and cater to the same audience, I think I would die. That's just me. I think I'd rather quit. I'm so rebellious internally that I know that I would just do something else. I'd just go to a different creative medium rather than do that. I don't know why that is about me. I think that's probably how most real artists are, because if you're just making what other people want to hear then you're not expressing yourself. Look at all the periods in visual art, which is really my background and training was in visual art, and I did a big theme on Le Corbusier, and he changed styles radically. There's a sculpture of his in Chicago, it's black with white outlining, these funny little jigsaw puzzley boxes that became eyes and faces but not really, almost very abstract, and he was given so much shit for that. People that change styles radically, to me, are the alive ones. That is what I admire about someone like Picasso, as opposed to, say, Jackson Pollock. Yeah, and that's just how I am, like, to betray that would be to betray my purpose. But yes, it sucked. Like I went in and said "By the way, we're going to get worlds of shit for this." And my fans did not disappoint. They showed up for the party.
I feel like with a lot of vocalists I hear, if they are good at anything, are good at either composing lyrics or writing melodies, but you have always been great at both. I think "Divorce Song" is a perfect example of that. I was just wondering about your songwriting process, and what your secret is to be able to do both well. It can be different ways. I've written awesome songs—like there's this some "Baby Got Going" on Whitechocolatespaceegg, with Scott Litt, where he wrote the music and I heard it and decided to write a melody to that. It took months of playing around and leaving it alone, and then one night I wrote it all at once. So it just depends, but mostly, what I'm doing now, is I sit with my guitar, I have to be alone, I have to be isolated, calls can't be coming in. I have to space out into that dream. I think I read something about how physics-wise you're jumping into another dimension, and that's where all the good stuff is. And whatever it takes you to jump, like some people use drugs (I used to too), to jump into another dimension. I've got something to say right now. I can now write without drugs. And I have been for a long time but the music was kinda lame. It took me fuckin' 10 years of lameness to be able to write without drugs. And that scared the shit out of me, because if you're going to tell someone who's going to quit, "By the way it's going to be a decade before you're good again!" I recently read David Lynch's book on transcendental meditation, and he is someone who obviously has a lot of creative ideas. He says meditation helps him get into the space you were just talking about in a natural way, and that's where all of his ideas come from, so it seems that doing it without drugs is possible. Yeah, but it's not easy.
How do you see the early 90s era of music that you first came up in within the overall arc of music? To me it was kind of a golden age. It was a golden age. Going back to the beginning of October when I went to Matador 21, it was like stuffing my face with Thanksgiving dinner and Halloween candy, everything all at once. It was so exciting and I was so proud. Not only to be a part of it, but just to see this era that was so like, nobody can touch it right now. There's too much manufactured stuff. And the people that aren't manufactured are too isolated. So it really was a whole movement that incorporated many cities and many different bands that were moving together with the same mental outlook, and now it's too- there's lots of excellent bands but they're too isolated to move together so big. We had a whole army, and that was fucking rad. It was very inspiring to watch them on stage at Matador 21 because I remember what the 90s were about. And it was sonic invention, like originality was key, and it wasn't just the lyrics, it was about being able to get up on stage and do shit, like "Here's an instrument. What can we get out of the instrument?" And now people are just like, "Well this is a different chord structure." They're generally, technology-wise, all doing the same stuff, and it was cool. That was a powerful invention, originality, I feel. And women had more of a role in it too, instead of just being a poptress. I love Katy Perry as much as anyone, but there was something about, of the people, for the people, by the people. Although some might argue that the internet is bringing things out of the control of gatekeeper major labels and into the hands of the people, so i think it can cut both ways. I would say that's true. Totally. For me, what's different is that they're not together. They're not in a unified mindset. That means that everyone's off in their own little world, doing their own little thing. It's fun to be part of a huge movement.
Are there any artists around these days that you like? I've just developed a massive crush on Madi Diaz. Go check her out. She's a friend of a friend of mine, and just sang backup for me on my new songs I'm really excited about. She's beautiful and authentic and an amazing performer, and she's not one of these like [sings something slow and wimpy], and neither is she like a tough rocker chick. She's something authentic and really beautiful. Yeah, there's more than just Courtney Love and Katy Perry Yeah, I look at her and I think, why aren't you a fuckin superstar? I met her socially, she sang on my song, and then I Googled her after the fact and was blown away by some of the YouTube performances, like, you're the feal fuckin deal. And in person she's so gorgeous, it's like she is a rock star. Also Mumford and Sons, I've been listening to them a bit.
Rolling Stone called your album Exile In Guyville one of the 500 greatest of all time, and you recently did a tour supporting its re-release where you performed the album from start to finish. I've talked to other artists who have done records that in people's minds are this milestone, and for them it can be as much of a burden as a blessing. My Bloody Valentine comes to mind. And for you this was your debut album. Was there a downside to starting off with so much success? There was. There was a lot of downside to it, because when I was working that record I wasn't happy at all. I was panicked and really wasn't prepared. I had never played out and suddenly everyone's coming to see me play. We're talking like, just throwing someone on the stage, but with reporters and shit. I got minorly anorexic I think. I look back at some of the pictures and maybe fashion-wise I looked good but I don't think I was- I can see that that's not healthy-thin. I just felt assaulted personally. Sometimes I look at Kristen Stewart, the way she's all like that and I can relate to that at that time. And it also became, Everybody just wanted Guyville again. And the best thing I ever did was re-release it for the documentary. Going back, I fled the scene because I so associated it with being stoned and being in the dark poverty level and sleeping with guys I didn't want to or shouldn't have, But going back and talking to every single person that had been important in that record for the documentary was so healing, because first of all you got to see that they'd all moved on too, that that world isn't there any more. It's gone. The buildings are gone. They've been turned into strip malls, the people who were part of it aren't mean and awful any more, they're drinking cappuccinos and moving on with their lives, everything's so much brighter, and to also hear that for them, that record- because it touched them or they were involved in it- had a huge impact that they had to grapple with, it wasn't just me who had to grapple with it. When something takes off like that, everybody around it deals with it, whether people are like, "Hey Brad, do another Guyville," or Steve Albini was like, "Yeah I probably shouldn't have given her that much shit." Whatever it was, everyone had something to deal with, and so we all were just, I look pretty in it, no one else looked pretty. We just were hanging, and talking it out, and it changed everything and it brought my record back to me, and I didn't know that was going to happen. And now it's just like, fucking, I get really emotional right now because it's that big a deal to me. The record really came home. And I went to Matador 21, and theoretically those are the people that had been hating me the hardest. And it was a lovefest! It was chill! I can't explain it. Anything in life, to go face the parent that abused you, to go face whatever it is. I really didn't know that that's what I was doing. I just thought, this is the only marketable thing I could do! Same old record, I gotta give something new! It had very profound unintended results.
You must have some memorable experiences with all the touring you've done over your career. I know you've opened for Alanis Morissette, played at Giants Stadium... Any notable tour experiences you'd like to share? So many. I'll stick with the White Sox thing since we brought it up. I like that because I have terrible stage fright that I just recently overcame, so being told that you're going to be broadcast live on TV, not in front of a rock audience, but a mainstream audience, in your hometown, singing a song I don't normally sing. And so we were rehearsing this, and my boyfriend at the time was my guitar player. And he was so blase, he was like "No, it's gonna be fine, I've played with The Calling in Brazil, huge stadiums, it'll be fine." And I'm like, "We need to rehearse it again!" And so we stood in the fucking hotel room singing God Bless America probably 25 times. I'm not kidding. Over a couple days I made him do this. And every time I was using that visualization technique, like, imagine that you're there, imagine that the overwhelming feeling is happening now, so I was prepared. I get up there and it is the most terrifying motherfucking thing ever because they're like, "Okay and go! You're on!" There's nothing in my entire career that was so frightening or fast or terrifying. You're not ready and it's going on now. And, do you know, mister blase fucking shit his pants. He could not even remember what he was playing. I see the picture of him, he's like, so miserable. And I'm there, and I'm having the moment, and I am aware and am thinking "This is fucking amazing, this is so cool!" I was present because I prepared mentally. I felt like the King of the World. And I had this whole philosophy of how I needed to hit that high note because it was a symbol, just like ballplayers needed to reach for something to win the series, so it's like really important as a Chicagoan to hit that high note. So I'm coming up on it and I'm like [sings high note], and you can hear the crowd go crazy, like is she going to do it, and I totally did it, and it's one of my favorite moments because, unlike most of those big moments, I was there, and I soaked up every fucking second of it, and it was super-great. And then we went on to win the series! I feel like everybody had to pull together, there's no way that was going to happen unless all forces were aligned.
This is an interview for Gothamist, which is a New York-centric website. I know you're a Chicagoan basically No, don't say that! I'm completely a New Yorker, by the way. I started here, with Matador. I would wager it's my biggest market, or my most...I don't want to piss Chicago off, but it's neck and neck. I lived here for a while in college. No one's taken New York away from me. Do you have any favorite New York anecdotes or memories you could share? I remember I cried for the first three weeks of living here because I was terrified about trains, taxis, everything. And then I just switched on a dime and started only leaving the house to go out at about 11 P.M. That's the hour that we would leave, and we'd stay out till 3am or 4am. We had the best fucking time. It was so traumatic for a girl from the Midwest to deal with. Where exactly in New York were you living? I was on Thirteenth between A and B. There were two models that lived above us who played bongo drums, and I'd never seen more beautiful people in my life. I still haven't seen more beautiful women, and I just couldn't believe that people like that were real. I've seen a lot of pretty girls. These were like some kind of next-level alien shit, because you're just like [gasp]. And there was a "No Prostitutes" sign, metal, taped to a lamp. That was new to me too, like wow you've gotta have one of those signs out? They didn't even work; taxi drivers would get blowjobs on my street, and you'd come back and see that. We were right at St. Marks, that was our back view. Now no one can afford to live there, I'm sure. Yeah the no prostitutes sign has moved to Queens.