Liz Phair has had one of the weirdest careers of anyone working in music right now. She’s gone from introspective bedroom strummer to indie tough girl Blowjob Queen to mom-rock songstress to tarted-up cougar sell-out. She’s been perpetually written off ever since the sleeper smash of her first album, 1993’s legendary Exile In Guyville.
And every time she seems completely down for the count, she’s resurfaced with the absolute last thing anyone would expect from her. (In the case of her last major release album, Somebody’s Miracle, that meant the worst thing of all: a boring album.)
Her most recent album, the independently-released surprise Funstyle, is a both an expectedly unexpected departure for Phair and a return, of sorts, to the f*ck-it spirit of her earliest work. It’s defiantly stupid (“Uh-oh/I think I’m a genius/Uh-oh/You’re being a peen-ius/Colada that is…”), unabashedly heartfelt, unflinchingly self-deprecating and witheringly mean. As the name suggests, it’s also, you know, fun.
With the record industry as we knew it all but gone, she’s free for the first time in almost twenty years to do whatever the hell she wants again. And Liz Phair has always been at her best when she thought no one was listening. Read our complete Q&A after the jump!
So tell me about Funstyle.
Well, I kind of put it together, like the Tuesday before I put it out. And I’d been living with these songs for awhile, and I got excited because I sort of told a story just putting the songs together in the way that I did and ended up sort of making it, like, my journey that I’d been through in the last few years in my usual crazy-coded form. So many people have trouble with the different production styles, but for me, the through-line is my character. It’s telling a story.
For a record called Funstyle, it seems pretty angry. You call a lot of people out.
It’s totally angry. Funstyle for me is pretty dark. I was, you know, when I did my documentary on the making of my first record, John Cusack said “You’re the wrath of the repressed.” And that’s sort of how I feel, and a lot of the songs on here are sort of about that. I feel like there’s so much stuff that’s just bullshit, and that you have to eat with a fork and knife and say thank you.
At the same time, even though I’ve been through some dark, dark times, I also don’t feel the need to be like, “I’m so sad.” Something about that doesn’t even feel authentic to me.
So that’s where the “Fun” part comes in?
I love doing stuff where, when you first hear it, you think it means one thing, and then when you listen to it you realize it means something totally different. I just love that, and I’ve done it ever since Girly Sound. [Liz’s earliest demos, some of which are included as a bonus on Funstyle.]
I’d speed up my voice and make it sound really innocent and say these awful, shocking things. And the contrast is really what gets me going.
And on Funstyle, like, take a song like Satisfied: on the surface it’s a pop song. It’s big, you sing the high chorus– but what it’s really talking about is how f*cking miserable we all are and how there’s no escape from it.
I think that’s a theme for me right now. Can you ever really hold on to the good life? Is there really such a thing? If you peel back the marriages, and you peel back the finances, and you really look at what everyone’s doing, I just don’t think anyone really f*cking has it together. We’re just hoping year-by-year that things balance out more good than bad and everyone’s concealing personal emptiness or struggle or whatever they’re doing. You just have to be willing to climb, or you just say, “No, not today.”
Your last couple of albums were really heavily criticized for being so poppy. People thought you’d sold out.
You know, i’ve been reamed for so long. I’ve done so many interviews with super-hostile interviewers. I’d always try to work through it with them– you know, cause they’d have so much anger, and they were so upset, and I couldn’t figure out why they were so god damn personally upset about it.
From my point of view, I just stopped being a druggie and a twenty-something barfly, and got my shit together and went on with my life, and I was still writing stuff that was interesting to me, even when I had to work with more mainstream producers than I would have chosen to. That wasn’t my choice, but I went along with it because I wanted to record more. But I always tried to stick myself in it. To be honest, now, it’s just like beating a dead horse. But I’m hoping that the humor in Funstyle can defuse the bomb a little bit.
I always avoid it. I always hear stuff– you know, well-meaning people always manage to tell me something really insulting, like “I totally didn’t agree when they called you a complete idiot loser sell-out whore,” and I’m just like, oh, thanks. But generally, I feel like, I do the creating, they do the bickering.
Is it still “nice to be liked but better by far to get paid”, like you wrote in Shitloads of Money years ago? Or is there an in-between?
There’s a third choice! I mean, I was sort of joking when I first wrote that song. But I think I agree completely that it’s better to be paid than to be famous. And I think you have to be accountable to your family and true circle of friends. You can’t try to be some new person that they wouldn’t recognize. That’s out of bounds– you know, game over.
But f*ck, I mean, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and get paid so I can live my life. Nobody believes this, but I really didn’t go for my pop incarnation at all for the money. I remember getting my income for the year and being shocked and being like, that’s awesome. But it was really more about infiltrating a whole world that seemed interesting to me and that I’d never been a part of. And I really just wanted to have a go at it.
Liz performs “Fuck and Run” earlier this year
You’ve been through just about everything an artist can go through in the music business. You’ve seen the industry from every angle. What do you think it takes to survive as a musician today?
Number one, don’t fall into major drug use. If you drink too much, or you’re too f*cked-up, or you keep living that life, you will not survive. You’ll cave in on yourself. Number two– keep surprising yourself. Don’t be afraid to do something you haven’t done before. You’re the big fish in the little pond, and then you’re the big old fish in the little pond, and it’s not a good look. You have to have the courage to do something ridiculous to keep learning. I mean, I’m thinking about taking up skateboarding in my middle age.
How about releasing more music? You’ve been known to go a really long time between albums.
I have a ton more music coming. I just don’t want to dump it all out. Because a lot of people just heard the first song from Funstyle, and you just can’t get them to listen to the entire damn thing. So I want to give it awhile to sit. So we’ll see.
It seems really hard to get people to listen to an album from start to finish these days.
My son only listens to Youtube. He doesn’t even listen to his iPod. He doesn’t even want his iPod, I use his iPod. I don’t have a clue. I don’t feel in control at all of how people listen to my music. I don’t usually buy entire albums on iTunes; I just buy the songs I like, so I’m just as guilty as anyone. But all you can do is make what you want, art-wise, and surf the waves as they come.
ATTENTION NYC fans: Liz Phair plays the Bowery Ballroom in NYC tonight, Monday December 13!
Buy a copy of Funstyle here.