Liz Phair was an inspiration to me back in the ’90s, and she continues to inspire me to this day. I love how she has always been smart and sassy with her provocative lyrics and her killer deadpan wit, and whether you like all the directions she goes or you don’t, she is always taking life by the balls and doing exactly what she wants.
Last week I got a chance to talk to Liz Phair about her new album, Funstyle, and the controversy surrounding it, her upcoming show tomorrow night at The Troubadour, and very important topics like who’s gonna be the next Ryan Seacrest. Check it out!
I just wanted to say first off thank you for taking the time to talk to me! I’m a fan of yours, so it’s really cool to get to interview you.
LP: Cool, Thank you!
So last summer you came out with your latest album, Funstyle, which is a very eclectic album. How would you describe it?
LP: I think I describe it as experimental and high contrast. I kind of describe it in the name. I mean it’s hard to get around Funstyle. (LAUGHS) It’s funny. It’s Funstyle. It’s hard to describe it better.
Yeah it’s true because it’s kind of silly. I really like it! I thought it was really cool that you had songs like “Bollywood” where you are rapping and kind of taking a stab at the music industry and all that.
LP: Yeah it’s the kind of stuff that you sit around with your friends and are like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did this?” You know, kind of wacky ideas and I just did them. It was fun to make and fun to listen to and hopefully funny to people.
I thought it was funny! However, your prior label and management, ATO, had a problem with it right? They didn’t want to put out the album?
LP: Yeah they weren’t feeling it. (LAUGHS) Everybody just wants me to do another Guyville, and I may or may not someday, but it is unhealthy for me to suppress what needs to come out. My art is a way of venting stuff I need to get out and sometimes it’s one way and sometimes it’s another. I just really needed to put this stuff out, and I didn’t make a big to-do about it. I think I did it appropriately. It was pretty under the radar, you know what I mean? It’s just for fun.
Yeah, you put it out online right? On the Fourth of July?
LP: Yeah, we ended up doing a hard disc later in October. I’ve been touring, and the shows have been great. We play a ton of old material. I think there are only two songs from Funstyle in our set list.
That’s cool. So is it stuff from all different albums or is it just mostly Guyville stuff?
LP: It’s a lot of Guyville and a lot of Whipsmart. There’s some from everything except Somebody’s Miracle, which seems to have gotten overlooked (LAUGHS) and I feel really bad about that. I’m like “Why aren’t we playing…” There’s so much material at this point, it’s hard to know. I kind of play what people like the best. That probably sounds like a cop-out, but it makes for a fun night.
Yeah I agree, totally. So Funstyle came out as a two-disc compilation with Girly Sound as the second disc, which are recordings that you made on cassette before your first album Exile in Guyville right?
Why did you choose to put those two together?
LP: It was actually stuff I saw in the early press for Funstyle. People were trying to make heads or tails of it, kind of going “What the hell is this?” and a couple early reviewers were like, “Well then you obviously don’t know Girly Sound because she was doing wacky voices and weird stuff back then.” I thought, “Yeah that’s totally it.” Like Funstyle was sort of like my Girly Sound, you know, that same need.
The reason I put out Girly Sound in the early part of my career was just to have all these wacky songs bubbling around that were also touching and deep. There’s stuff on Funstyle that’s serious too. Sometimes I just need to do this kind of thing, and Girly Sound was another period where I needed to do that and had the freedom to.
I haven’t had the freedom to put out my weird stuff in forever, because when you have a major label, they will only put out what they want to put out, and they usually only want to put out stuff that they think is polished. Now I could, so I did, and I think coupling it with Girly Sound was supposed to put it in a context and say like, “As it was then, so it is now,” like this is sort of the same side of my artistic bent. When I’m being free and playful and just wacky this is what I like to do.
Yeah I feel like that too. I really loved Exile in Guyville, and you went mainstream with your eponymous album. At first I, like most people, was thinking, “Eh, it’s not Exile in Guyville.” Then I started thinking about it, and I heard you saying, “No, this is what I want to do. This is a move I want to make, and it’s what I want to do right now and that’s that.” I thought that was really awesome, and it made me take a step back and say, “Well you know this is a woman that’s doing what she wants and she’s taking a chance.” Did you expect it to be such a controversial move for people?
LP: I think what allows me take risks is that I don’t anticipate that people will be upset about things. The whole pop period afforded me some of the most amazing experiences, like playing “God Bless America” at the World Series in Chicago. That’s an amazing experience. Or being able to tour all over the country and play the big festivals, or be on radio stations and see that whole thing. It was pretty amazing, and I think as an artist, I’m always after the journey. I’m not as tied-up to my image as a lot of people are. I think a lot of people are super self-aware and super invested in coming off a certain way, and I’m much more invested in seeking out new experiences and challenging myself in new ways.
I don’t regret that period at all because I did some of the most amazing stuff of my career. I don’t mean amazing like, “Wow, I made the world a better place.” I mean like, “Wow, I went places I never thought I could go, that I was afraid to go, and I learned so much.” It’s all part of the journey, and I hope I never lose that. I hope I never let people tell me like, “Don’t do it, they’ll laugh at you” or “Don’t do it, they’ll hate you.” I don’t want to go to the end of my life with regrets like that.
I think that’s awesome. I really admire that and the way you look at things.
LP: Thank you!
So is it exciting to go back now and just be indie again? And it’s kind of even more indie than you were, because you did this yourself. Like you made the move, you put Funstyle out on your own website, and then you found a label to put it out physically.
LP: It’s great! I have to say I’m loving my career again, because it’s really all about the music. There’s not all these people with all these vested interests and there isn’t this huge amount of money. When you bring a lot of money into something, the pressures go up and the control goes up as well, so you’re not as free. Everything is a trade-off. What I don’t have is the cushy glamour fun stuff, which frankly I love. I really miss doing photo shoots. Those were always really fun for me!
LP: It’s like mini acting jobs! Who doesn’t love doing that? But at the same time, now I’m free to tour really fast and lean, and my live show is really great and I can do what I want next. That’s incredibly rewarding, so I think I’m uniquely suited to this. All hell’s breaking loose in the music industry, and no one knows what’s going on. I thrive in that environment. (LAUGHS) “No one knows what’s going on?? Excellent!!” (LAUGHS) Like, “This is good!!” That’s sort of where I do my best.
(LAUGHS) That’s awesome. It’s a pretty exciting time with all these bands making YouTube videos and stuff like that. It’s like all these people make these videos now that look like cheesy ‘80s videos!
…because they’re just for YouTube, but I think it’s so awesome!
LP: (LAUGHS) I know! It’s great right?! It’s great!
LP: It’s very creative. Let me say this…can I say this? I need to say this in this interview! Some people are like, “Is there anything you wanna say?” I have something that I wanna say! What you see is, with the breakdown of the authority structure, it’s super creative and I LOVE creative. Like I love eclectic! I love all different sorts of people doing creative things. I wish the whole world were creative, so I love it!
I agree, I agree! So you’re going to put out more albums in the future right?
LP: Oh yeah. In fact, I’m going to be playing some new material these next couple of days.
LP: Yeah! We probably won’t get more than two, but we’ll have two more songs that no one’s ever heard before, which is fun.
That’s awesome. You’re going to play LA soon right?
LP: Yep, I’m playing at the Troubadour on Wednesday the 16th.
Nice! Also I read that you became a composer for TV shows and that you won an ASCAP Award for Best Composer of 2009, which has got to be really awesome. Which shows have you worked on?
LP: We worked on Swing Town, 90210, In Plain Sight, The Beautiful Life, and we’re doing In Plain Sight again. We just started up again with Mary McCormack, who is awesome—amazing woman, very funny—and we’re about to do this show called Great State of Georgia which is a show created by Jennifer Weiner. She’s a really successful novelist. She wrote Good in Bed. She’s a really awesome woman, and she’s created a TV show for young women, and we’re going to be scoring that too.
What channel will it be on?
LP: I think it’s ABC.
How did you get into doing this type of work?
LP: My friend saved my ass! My friend, Mike Kelly, who wrote for a bunch of TV shows and created his own show, Swing Town. I’ve known him since elementary school, and he knew that I was completely fucked over by my label and he was like “Liz, come do this with me. Come do the music for Swingtown. It’s about our hometown. You’ll be great at this.” So I got two other people that knew how to do it, and I found that I loved it. I learned right away how much I liked it.
That’s awesome. It must be kind of cool to get to do something different and put your talents to a different medium.
LP: Yeah, my experience of TV scoring doesn’t have to do with the TV show really. It has to do with going into the studio and making like ten mini-songs that are basically emotional. They just depict the emotion of whatever you’re looking at on-screen. That’s a really fun thing to do. It’s really rewarding.
You mentioned that the TV show that you are working on was created by a woman that is a novelist. I read somewhere that you are also writing a novel. Are you still doing that?
LP: I am! I don’t want to talk about it, because I learned early on that I talked about it a bunch and then felt like I couldn’t write because I had that Superego going on in my head. (LAUGHS) So I CAN’T talk about it so that I CAN write it. But yes, I am.
Okay awesome, good luck with it!
LP: Thank you.
Also I read that you have a teenage son. Does he think it’s cool that you’re famous? What does he think about your career?
LP: You know, I’ve just started to notice like tiiiny bits of pride in the fact that I am, because most of his life, it just doesn’t have any effect at all. I have a whole separate mommy life where we do family stuff and my friends all have kids. I do the full mom thing for the most part. I definitely fail. I’m not one of those ace moms that are perfect, but I did a pretty good job, considering my career, of giving him a stable, normal life. So he doesn’t really know or care about it, but because he’s a teenager and girls come in the picture, he’s getting more like, “Well you know because of YOUR career…” Like he’ll try out little. It’s so cute and funny. You know when you’re playing a videogame, how you can record yourself talking over it as you play?
Oh really you can? I’m still on old school Nintendo!
LP: Yeah, and he is so YouTubed out it’s sick. He and his friends have been getting together every Saturday thinking that they’re like little actors or commentators and doing these funny skits and uploading them to YouTube. Yesterday he was like, “Mom, I’m gonna be recording for the next hour. Could you please be quiet?” And I was like “Oh okay…” It’s so funny. (LAUGHS)
(LAUGHS)Maybe he’ll be the Ryan Seacrest for the gaming world or something!
LP: (LAUGHS) What’s frightening is that it almost seems like he MIGHT be. You know? (LAUGHS) I don’t know what to say about it. I’m just like, “Alright…” He puts on this particular voice, like he has an on-air voice. (LAUGHS)
(LAUGHS) Is it deeper than his normal voice? Like maybe Ryan Seacrest really has like a high-pitched strange voice when he’s at home and then he has his deep on-air voice.
LP: (LAUGHS) Totally! Totally! No doubt! Like that is for sure the truth…
(LAUGHS) I also wanted to ask, you’re originally from Chicago and you moved to New York City for a while, and now you live in Los Angeles. I just moved here like a year-and-a-half ago from New Jersey right outside of New York City, and I was just wondering why did you move here and how do you like LA compared to New York City?
LP: That’s a tough question because I LOVE New York City. I think of myself as someone who dreams for a living. I sort of spend a lot of time dreaming stuff up in my head, and I think LA affords a calm and quiet so you can do that, but I surely miss the intelligence and the cultural melting pot and just the caliber of achievers that you have in New York. When I don’t go to New York enough in the year, it’s really hard on me.
Yeah I definitely miss it too, but I do feel like I get more done here if that’s possible. (LAUGHS)
LP: No you do! It’s almost like you’ve gone out of the city and into the suburbs or something. You know what I mean? (LAUGHS) It’s quieter here.
LP: And it’s sunnier.
Yeah, it is sunnier. I guess it’s like I get the SADS (Seasonal Affective Disorder) back home. (LAUGHS)
LP: Yeah me too…
…and I’m like, “I don’t want to be creative or do things,” but here I’m like “Yes! I’m gonna go out and maybe I’ll even take a walk today!” Even on the drive moving out here I listened to your song “Go West” and it was inspiring.
LP: Awwwww. Well, welcome! Welcome to the West and when you get lonely, when you get that feeling, which you WILL, where you’re like, “I don’t relate to anybody out here,” just remember that peppered all over the landscape are like thousands of people that are like “I don’t relate to anybody out here.” We’re all here so you’re never ACTUALLY alone. We’re all kind of going “Mmmm,” but we’re here.
Thank you! I’ll remember the thought next time I am homesick!
After our conversation, I kept thinking about how in “Go West” she sings, “Take off the parking break, go coasting into a different state.” Liz took a chance with Funstyle despite what her former label thought, because sometimes you just have to say, “Forget it.” You can’t let other people or circumstances out there slow you down, because most of the time, no one is really actually stopping you but you. It’s all our own fears of failure or the anxiety brought on by worrying about other people’s opinions and what they think of us, but at some point you have to just let all that crap go and just take a chance and do something different. Go west.
Thanks Liz Phair for the interview and for staying strong!!
Here’s some of her videos over the years to get you excited for Wednesday night! I know I am!
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