The Layers of Liz Phair

Monday, 15 November 2010

As the adage goes, “Peel an onion, there are a lot of layers.” It makes sense when you think about it – an individual's personality is the combined expression of myriad experiences, joys, sorrows, successes, failures and life lessons learned; and for each of those stimuli, so develops another skill set to solve the problem. Those skill sets manifest in what people usually call a specific “side” (as in, a “dark side,” a “professional side” and so on) to a personality, or the “face” they put on how they need to react to different situations. In a musician's case, it's possible to trace those experiences into their body of work as well. Such was exactly the wisdom Liz Phair kept in mind when she began work on her newest album, Funstyle. “With Funstyle, I was really trying to present different sides of myself, and from different angles,” explains the singer of her latest recorded effort. “That's why it's eclectic. I've always done that, you know? Guyville had that same sort of arc, as did Girlysound – sometimes I'm serious, sometimes I'm messing around, there are levels of personal-ness that I'm revealing, and levels of impersonal-ness. To me, that depth – in the sense of having shallow, having medium, deep, truly deep, awkwardly revealing – is perfect for me and I like to put that all out there because that sort of rings true to me for how people are.

“[On Funstyle] There is the stuff that is more on the line of the singer-songwriter – like “And He Slayed Her,” “Oh Bangladesh” and maybe “Miss September” too – but with a spirit of free jam to them too,” continues Phair. “As a listener, it might be harder to see how the same spirit lives in “Bang Bang” as it does in “You Should Know Me” but the truth is that I just had all this material and kept going into studio after studio recording with people that I really respected, bringing in songs about the stuff that I was going through and they all came out with different sounds because I was working with different people and each moment was a different one. When I'm working with someone – if I'm collaborating production-wise – I try to decide what the best thing that they do is and take the best thing that I do and try to see what it'll turn out like when we both do those things together. That's kind of how it works when I'm most comfortable with it; I don't want to just drop my thing on people and make them do what I want them to do – I spent years trying to do it that way, and it's really hard to make that work. I just really love making music though, so I drew back my identity and put it into the song; I had a lot of production ideas, but I collaborated with whoever I was working with so some of that fell by the wayside. My style is pretty fast and raw and I like that so where I really got involved was in choosing which songs would come out and what statement I was making by  putting this collection of songs together. That's where I got really intense about the vision I was going to put out. I had a lot to choose from and Funstyle, to me, basically embodied a certain artistic statement; this is the way that I think music of this type is best made. The stuff that I did with Dave Matthews, for example, was really about capturing the right performance, in my mind. Some songs were done more than once because I like a moment to occur and I know it when I hear it.

“When I decided to bring them all together into this collection, I was really trying to make an arrangement that fit the emotional arc that I needed to express. It starts with self-deprecation and humor and bravado and then quickly shifts gears to say, 'Yes, but I'm a person too – and I have an intimate life and sadness and emotions that are real and simple' and then, after expressing that, ramping back up a little bit. I think the record relies a lot on the layers that we all have as a person; you have the ambassador of yourself, you have your go-to mode when you need to be funny and witty and charming, and then you have your private self that is less polished and more brittle, raw and unvarnished. For me, the record moves dynamically in and out of those spaces, and just when you think, 'Okay, she's really vulnerable and really small and just seems to be curled up in a ball there on the floor,' I'll do something which illustrates that I can still get back up and swing a sword around. That, to me, rings really true to life and true to people; so much of the time, you can engage with someone that you know and know well, and you're fielding all of their different selves at any given moment. I was trying to express all of my sides in this record; I was trying to put that all out there, and sort of force a listener to deal with the complexity of it because that is what I see.”

Such a description sounds wildly exciting and, in listening to the album, it's obviously not just a pitch. While some critics will say that Funstyle is thematically and stylistically scattered and some will (somehow) come to the conclusion that the album represents a return to the independent stance that Phair once struck on the Girlysound tapes and/or Exile In Guyville, the record doesn't just re-tread old ground, in fact, it jets well beyond all of Liz Phair's previous work and into uncharted territory. First and foremost, Phair bookends the album's run-time with “Smoke” and “U Hate It” – two sound collages that take a deep and wide strip out of record company executives and their practices by stringing a series of double-talking and occasionally self-congratulatory dialogues together into a form that is equal parts satire and biting criticism. In between those ends, Phair covers a lot of bases, both old and new. The Whip-ped, Exile-d and time-honored songstress returns for “You Should Know Me,” “And He Slayed Her” and “Oh Bangladesh” which all play pretty well and are the gimme songs for fans who have waited for something even sort of comparable to Guyville for eighteen years now. Those tracks fare well, but the first surprise comes when “Miss September” and “Satisfied” veer reasonably close to the “second” career as a Top 40-identified soundtrack pop star that Phair enjoyed with her self-titled album and Somebody's Miracle; placed together as they are here, the two "career images" (pop tart and indie songstress) prove to play pretty well together.

When the record was complete, all that really remained was to get it in a position for fans to hear it and, after a few twists and turns which found the singer bidding farewell to both Capitol Records and ATO, Phair has now regained her position in the arms of the inspiring indie-verse with Rocket Science; a situation that the singer happily says is far more palatable to her. “I left Capitol at around the same time Andy Slater [Capitol Records' then-president, who reportedly was the one responsible for connecting Phair with The Matrix team for her self-titled album in 2003 –ed] was fired and then I went to ATO,” remembers Phair with no malice at the change of circumstances that ultimately led to her association with Rocket Science. “We did the reissue of Guyville together, which was really fun and cool to do, and then I started recording new stuff for the new CD and they had a shake-up as well. Their president left, so there was sort of a gap in leadership and the people who were there weren't seeing eye to eye with me musically and we just decided to call it a day.

It was actually really civil and decent,” continues the singer. “[Getting away from a record label] can be pretty arduous and involved, but this particular scenario really wasn't. I think when you're dealing with reasonable people and everyone has a good attitude, then it's really not that rough. ATO wasn't into some of what I was doing, I think the reason they sort of tripped on what I was doing was because it was really eclectic and they were going through a transitional period and needed something they knew how to work, but Funstyle is kind of complicated and different. I'm not exactly sure if that's the case, but there weren't any hard feelings at all, it was actually really smooth on the way out; we weren't seeing eye to eye, so we arrived at a way to get out that treated everyone equitably. I think that's really all it should be about, and that's how it was with ATO.

“Things are really different with Rocket Science though,” says Phair brightly as the conversation turns toward her new digs. “They're sort of a label services engine, which means they do all the things a record label does except they don't boss you around all the time [laughing]. It's like a collective that is artist friendly and they help you do all the things that a label does, but it's more scaled down. That sort of arrangement has been really great so far.”

With the skies clearing for Phair around the release of Funstyle, the singer has truly returned with a new attitude regarding virtually every aspect of the music industry, and every facet of her job as a performer. Having recently completed a tour of the West Coast of the US, the singer (who has had a long and very well documented dislike of live performance) has changed her tune and now finds herself looking forward to the possibility of more public appearances and more road work. “I'm going to do the East coast in December and the midwest in the New Year – I'm hoping to be able to tour all next year, in fits and spurts,” exclaims the singer with an ambitious excitement that is really catching. “The live show has become really important to me, partly because I just read Keith Richards' autobiography, and reviewed it for The New York Times. It kicked my ass a bit, plus Steven Jenkins from Third Eye Blind really kicked my ass too; he told me, 'Liz, this whole shtick you've been running about not being into music? It's lame – nobody wants to hear it. Cut it out; like it or get out.' Because of all that, I have a renewed vigor for live performance now, which is fun.

“Not only that, I'm totally pulling from all the records,” continues Phair. “Because I've got so many now, it's been really fun to pick, like, the best two songs from each, and I also asked a couple of websites what they would want to hear, and they did a couple of really good polls and gave me a list of the songs that they really wanted to hear. I've tried to incorporate those as much as I can, and we're trying to make sure that each album gets a fair shake – obviously, Guyville gets a little more than most, but it's important to encompass all of what I've done. The live show is a separate entity from whatever record was just released; I don't do them just to promote the newest thing and really concentrate on that, I see the records as one stop on the continuum of performances and the shows should feature that plus the totality of everything that came before it. That has been working really well so far, and I've never had so much fun doing it!”


Further Reading:

Ground Control's Liz Phair discography review, from Girlysound to Funstyle


Liz Phair – "Oh, Bangladesh" – Funstyle

Liz Phair – "Miss September" – Funstyle


Funstyle is out now. Buy it here on Amazon

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