Liz Phair on Exile, Funstyle and being a studio geek
Darren Ankenman Liz Phair
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.