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The Redemption of Liz Phair

As if she ever needed that. 

by Brad Simm

It started out with a bang — a big bang. Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s indie-label debut in 1993, not only shot up a mesmerizing shooting-star bursting with pop brilliance, but it was, and still remains, full of fresh insight from a forward-thinking woman strutting her stuff in a male dominated industry. New York tastemakers Matador Records knew they were onto a good thing and backed her for two more albums—Whipsmart (1994) and whitechocolatespaceegg (1998)—both further explorations into Phair’s tremendous talent that wraps ordinary lives inside clever songs and conversations.

After a decade in the indie-rock trenches, Phair teamed up with Capitol Records who outfitted her with a top-notch production crew and songwriting specialists to crack mainstream media. Why not? Phair had bloomed into her 30s and deserved a proper starship to roam new galaxies. But even with the delirious radio sensation “Why Can’t I?,” along with “Litter Digger,”—a shining gem about her young son’s curiosity, stumbling into the bedroom to find mom not with his dad—and the frank sexuality of “H.W.C,” with its liberating “gimme your hot white come” chorus line, Phair’s major-label outing didn’t break through and command the airwaves like it should have. And it should have, because it was a terrific album. 

“Well, thank you,” says Phair quietly, pleased with the acknowledgment that her adventure with Capitol was fruitful, even if a departure from the Matador years and her dedicated DIY followers of fashion. It was yet another exploration; a different experiment but well thought out, revealing Phair to be the true experimentalist that she continues to be.

Life After Chicago

Packing up and leaving her home state of Illinois for Los Angeles, where she raised her son, Phair began composing music for television, working on dramas, sitcoms, and sci-fi fantasy, along with the reboot for 90210 that she snagged an award for in 2009. Outside of her industry contracts, she plunged into the weird wonders of writing fiction, joining NaNoWriMo, a national community of literary minds where she honed her skills off and on for several years. “I was working on a book of fiction about the music business, doing that privately. I discovered fiction is really, really hard,” she laughs. 

With NaNoWriMo, however, Phair learned to write at the speed of her thoughts resulting in an unexpected creative outpouring. “The first time I was flowing my thoughts through my hands into the page, I remember being incredibly excited. The same sense of excitement as the first time in the recording studio.”

Although she didn’t complete a fictional account of the music business, Phair did spill her personal, upfront, and serious experiences in Horror Stories: A Memior (2019), rife with honest recollections of the not-so-glamourous details of her life. Her untypical telling of events won critical praise and widespread appreciation that she had reentered the stratosphere jet streamin’ once again. 

Too Much, Too Little?

It’s hard to pin down the exact concept behind Phair’s new release, Soberish. One interpretation has it that after being on the straight and narrow for some time, thinking with a clear and rational mind, temptation crosses your path and heightens the desire to break away, to break out, if only for a little while.  “I like that definition,” confesses Phair. “It’s slightly different from mine, but I like it very much. That’s the fun about putting out songs, putting out art, you hear other people’s take on it that’s equally true.”

Refining the idea behind Soberish, Phair says, “This all came about because they legalized marijuana in California. I’d always loved the drug but it had been a minor player in my life because it was illegal… But when they did legalize it, I realized I was going to have to go through a second puberty, and this whole thing that if I could have it all the time, how can I moderate that?” 

Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville
Exile In Guyville, 1993
Liz Phair - Soberish
Soberish, 2021

True to staring down the barrel, Phair doesn’t want to negate the challenges in her life. She’ll brave up when it’s necessary to make decisions, take action to grow and evolve. At the same time, she strives for a little balance in life, “optimizing” herself. “I need that magical realism, that escape, and I found that increasingly over the last four years with the Trump administration and Covid; there’s been so much that makes it hard to look at life.” 

As a result, she “started to look at all these ways to make reality less difficult to encounter.” When talking about those great desirables, distractions, and addictions to level things out, she asks “What is the right amount? What is too much and too little?” 

That’s the segue into Soberish: finding out what your balancing and where exactly to begin: “Everyone has a maze, inside their heart/The best we can do, is pick a place to start.” 

Into The New

One clear starting point on the record is a return to Guyville and Phair reconnecting with Brad Wood, the producer behind her first albums with Matador. While Soberish recalls having the stylistics of those recordings with its sparse drum-guitar directness and Phair’s vocals front and centre, there’s also an eclectic selection of keyboards, strings, and horns pulled into the mix. “I definitely, intentionally set out to make an unconventional record,” explains Phair. “I wanted Brad and I to have a chance to step into the new, just like when we made Guyville. We were exploring and being inventive. I wanted to be in that place again.”

Since Guyville, Phair had done television and Wood was mixing albums for other artists. When they circled back together again, they pooled and pushed out all their resources. “It’s like encountering your favourite band from the past,” says Phair. “Only they’ve totally moved into a new area. I use the analogy of when I first heard Andre 3000 come blasting out of a car next to me at a stop light. I remember thinking, “What the fuck is that?” And feeling this sense that I’m hearing something that is new, something inventive. That’s what I wanted Soberish to have.” 

One fun twist on the record is both the song and video for “Hey Lou,” which depicts a day in the life of Lou Reed and wife Laurie Anderson. Writing with Wood in the third person, the outside-looking-in glimpse of Lou and Laurie’s domestic bliss is not all that flattering as Lou displays some grumpy and goofy behaviour. Phair puts it into perspective. “We both had revered those two artists our whole life. I loved both of them; they were formative for me before they got together. But imagine seeing two of your very strong, very opinionated artists suddenly get married into this very peaceful, beautiful relationship, and you’re like, ‘They’re the best celebrity couple ever!’ At the same time, I just don’t believe it. I gotta think… ‘Oh Lou, what now?’” 

If there’s one thing synonymous with Liz Phair, it’s her playful, open sexuality. And when she leads off with “Bad Kitty,” she gets right to the point: “My pussy is a big dumb cat, it lies around lazy and fat/But when it gets a taste for a man, it goes out hunting for it any way it can.” 

In addition to the wordplay, its melodic hook and seductive beat easily make “Bad Kitty” the most infectious song on the new album. Oddly, it’s placed as the last track when it clearly should have been the first single released. Liz Phair, once again, quietly confirms the obvious: “I tried. I tried that. Just so you know.”