“Can I give a caveat before we start?” Liz Phair is letting me know that she’s going to do her best to talk about Liz Phair. It’s also a warning. “I don’t really do favorites,” she explains. “We’re asking my brain to do something it doesn’t naturally do.” She delivers the news with a smile palpable through the phone; this is someone who doesn’t need to apologize but who still feels apologetic for not being what she describes as a “favorite-ing” person. “It would make my job a lot easier,” she deadpans. This self-aware, and kind, candor is what makes Liz Phair such an engaging personality and artist whose albums are remarkably accessible in their transparency; her 1991 lo-fi tapes as Girly-Sound and her Matador debut, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, remain some of indie rock’s most beloved works of bluntness, each sounding as vivid and knowing as they did nearly 30 years ago. Meanwhile, in hindsight, her much-panned 2003 self-titled LP now sounds equally influential on today’s younger musicians as her classics.
This month’s comeback, Soberish, her seventh album and first since 2010’s Funstyle, is often as off-kilter and compelling as Exile, but without making any attempts to re-create 1993. Phair reunited with producer Brad Wood, who originally produced Exile and its follow-ups, the just-as-excellent Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), but they were mindful not to just make a 2021 Liz Phair album that sounded like something from her 20s. (Though longtime fans will appreciate some callbacks from the ’90s, like Henry from “Polyester Bride” reappearing in “Dosage.”) They also wanted the album to acknowledge that some youthful feelings and life worries don’t dissipate. Soberish seems to wrestle with the idea that maybe you don’t outgrow Guyville; it simply grows up with you. “I was so sure about who was right and who was wrong when I was young,” Phair explains. “The older I get, the harder it is to know what part anybody played and where the blame should be. It’s so much more complex than that to me now. I tried to make the music more complex to echo that, to kind of bring in the brain of me now with the sounds and building blocks of me [from] then.”
Favorite Soberish song
One of the things I wanted to do [on Soberish] was to never have an ordinary structure, and yet make it feel so hook-y and familiar that you didn’t even notice that no song on Soberish is structured traditionally. A lot of times, I’m using a bridge for a second verse.
I’m going to use “Ba Ba Ba,” because that song still makes me cry when I hear it. I like that it can have that effect on me — that sort of bait and switch at the beginning where I’m talking about this encounter that we’re having and how exciting the first blush of love is, and how fun it is to be with someone that excites you that much, and you see all the possibilities. By the end of the song, it’s over. In the first part, the “Ba Ba Ba”s are actually speeding up. I had Brad do that. Because that’s how it feels! That’s the excitement of, Oh my God, there they are. We’re gonna be together. It’s happening now. Ba ba ba ba ba ba! And I love that it has a weird name. I love that I got away with it. You can’t always do that. You need searchable names on certain songs. But that was one of the ones where I got to call it whatever I wanted.
Most unexpected Brad Wood moment on Soberish
There’s a guitar in “Bad Kitty” that’s weird-ass. That nasty, scary guitar. That’s me, but that’s Brad taking my guitar part and running it through six filters. When it came back like that, I was like, “Oh my God!” I was running around the house screaming with excitement because he just gets the most brilliant sounds. He takes my stuff that is very regular, and he makes it sound extraordinary.
I don’t think of Brad as an unexpected person. I think of him as someone that is more powerful than you would think. He plays down his tenacity, and then when you encounter it, he’s strong as steel about his convictions. That can be unexpected. You can hear him defending something in the studio, that you’ll be like, “Why do you care?” and he’s like, “Because!” Then you’re sitting down for the TED Talk. Now you’ve done it. That’s how we work. We go, “Trust me on this.” The other person is like, “I don’t see it. I don’t know.” And then we’re going, “Oh my God! It’s amazing!” And we just know each other well enough to be like, “Okay. I’m not feeling this. I don’t know where you’re going with this.” And then it’s like, [screams with joy] “It’s fucking awesome!”
The good thing about working with Brad is that we both agree when it’s awesome. We never disagree. When it hits, we both have the exact same reaction: “That’s it!” You can work with people who have really great production taste, and it might not be yours. But he and I, we both feel the hit when it hits, the same way, at the same time.
Soberish’s most visual lyrics
I can literally see us on the scooter with our hair blowing, driving down Sheridan Road. That didn’t happen. I made that up. But everything about that song, every image in that song — a lot of which did happen — is totally visual to me. It was already playing like a movie in my mind: this trip down a road that’s so familiar in your hometown, that one road that over the years changes but you have so many memories there. It is such a main artery and traveling it with a person who’s been with you on a lot of those different journeys, and describing a very ordinary day that somehow, because it’s between the two of you over this long period of time of having that same ordinary day, is really special. It’s really emblematic of a relationship. It’s a love song to Chicago and a love song to my life and loves in that town.
The definitive Liz Phair chord or the Liz Phair progression
If anything, I’m chordless. I’m just moving my fingers until I like the sound. I have no idea what chords I’m playing other than the basics — no sense of whether I’m adding a seventh, or an eighth, or whatever. I just figure out where on the neck I feel like being, and if I can reach those notes with my fingers. I don’t stop until I have a weird tuning that I like, or a weird place in my hands. The most Liz Phair thing about my guitar-playing is that if you try to understand what I’m playing from the sound alone, you will get it wrong. Everyone thinks they know what I’m playing, and they’re always wrong.
It’s very visual to me, the fretboard and the neck. If I’m down toward the tuning keys, then I’m like, “I’ve been there for a while. I better go up towards the actual body,” I don’t think of it as, “Let’s move through this tonic progression.” I’m literally seeing a physical object and moving my hand all over it as if I’m a lover, in a weird way — “That sounds good. Keep doing that!” Or, you know, “I’m getting a little bit bored. That’s repetitive. So, okay, let’s go somewhere else, and let’s find a good rhythm to hook into.” There is no chord progression. There are made-up chords, every song, in every way.
Story you wish wasn’t cut from your 2019 memoir Horror Stories
I think the one where I’m losing my voice. I saved part of that for Fairy Tales, my next book. That feels incomplete to me because the other side of that is what I’m writing right now. There are certain things about Horror Stories that need their companion pieces in Fairy Tales to feel complete to me.
As my editor says, any story could be a horror story or a fairy tale. It depends on where you start and stop it, or how you feel about it as it’s happening. Fairy Tales will be very reminiscent of Horror Stories, but it will also be focusing on positive, exciting, and glamorous experiences, and then sort of punch holes in that to show the darker center, or the troubling part about those exciting and glamorous events that I’ve experienced. “Fairy tales” and “horror stories” are big, broad words and they were intentionally used because of that, almost poking fun at our obsession with the horror genre, and how it’s gory and bloody. There are some tough stories in Horror Stories that involve physical harm, but mostly, there are ordinary horrors that we all are carrying around with us, and there are ordinary fairy tales that we’re all experiencing, like a triumph in your day that feels incredible. My friend just drove to pick up a new puppy after her dog had died. That’s like a fairy tale for her, all that happened on the course of that journey. And what are fairy tales, if not inspirational stories that show you how not to fall into the pitfalls to reach your goal?
Liz Phair song that Girly-Sound era you would be most proud to hear
With Girly-Sound, I was really into mash-ups. I would take real songs and mash them with my own songs, like “Wild-Thing.” I also did a weird song about Elvis Presley and the ghost of Elvis Presley and how he’s still alive and haunting us as a culture. I like pop-cultural elements in my songs. I think I would have liked darker, edgier stuff.
This sounds really weird, but I bet that “In There” [off Soberish] would have impressed me. That sounds like a sophisticated, slow, not overreaching, almost dance track to me. I think I would’ve really liked that and thought I wasn’t capable of it. As simple as it is, it’s a look to wear that is unusual for me; I almost don’t feel that I have permission to step into that space, but secretly have always wanted to. I think I would’ve appreciated the unusual structure, too.
Praise for Exile in Guyville you don’t agree with
I’ve always bristled when they say I’m responsible for people’s sounds. I don’t like that. I don’t feel like I spawned people. I feel like I was a person who had a big role in a larger wave of people. I don’t feel like I did something that everyone copied. I feel like I was part of something at the time, even. I recognize that I was singled out, and I’m super-excited about all the young women that I can hear kind of speaking my language. But I just bristle that it’s my language.
I don’t feel like I invented anything. I feel like I was part of a whole movement of indie music, and some things hit better than others. It just happened to be that mine did. But I don’t like when people are like, “Did you hear so-and-so? She sounds exactly like you. You can totally tell that this artist wouldn’t be here if you didn’t exist” kind of thing. And there’s a compliment in there, which I can accept and be excited about. There’s also a sense of ownership that isn’t how I ever felt, or feel, that was sort of pasted onto me by writers and reviewers. Journalists kind of gave me that.
It’s not that I’m not taking credit; I just feel I’m part of a continuum. I have a lot of influence on that continuum. But I’m part of a continuum. I’m not being artificially humble, either. I definitely will take credit where I’ve felt it’s due.
Best-written Liz Phair song
Probably “Jeremy Engle,” which never even came out on an album. It was in an extra batch of songs that came out for online purchasers or something when I did the eponymous record at Capital. It’s a weird tune that I wrote the lyrics for before I put them to music. Walt Vincent produced it, and he added some cool-ass guitar sounds. It’s kind of a brilliant, stream-of-consciousness, spoken-word, half-rhyme-y short story about an Upper West Side New York intellectual that I had a crush on, and how he didn’t notice me, and how I wanted to be smarter so that he would like me. But my analogy in the song is that I’m just more of a napkin trying to look pretty on the table. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. You need a napkin. That’s my most favorite well-written song. That’s a song that friends of mine have adored and been really annoyed that they can’t just get it somewhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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