By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Liz Phair knows the indie-rock party line. She's heard it stated and restated for coming up on 18 years: Her first album, 1993's landmark-knighted "Exile in Guyville," was feminist rock 'n' roll genius on every level — and everything else she's ever uttered since, as speech or song, is utter crap.
Perhaps that's because "Guyville" is such a strong, confident statement from a Wicker Park woman who seemed quite uncompromising, and each follow-up record has seemed unsteady, whimsical and quite compromising. When Phair surprised fans last summer with a new album, "Funstyle," released through her website, the wrath returned. Critics were universally dumbfounded by the album's tuneless talent, dreadful rapping on one track ("Bollywood") and wide-of-the-mark execution, few more colorfully than those around her adopted hometown. The A.V. Club called "Funstyle" a "box of dirt." Pitchfork said it was "horrible on just about every conceivable level." The Reader said listening to it gives you a good case of the "douchechills."
But unlike Phair's stab at mainstream pop in 2003, much of the vitriol flung at "Funstyle" was tempered ever-so-slightly by an underlying fascination. In my own review, I held out hope that Phair was in on her own joke (one song, "U Hate It," foretold all the bad reviews, and the music was posted with a note explaining "How to Like It"). It's a difficult work of art but, for better or worse, it's certainly daring. When we consider art outside the typical commercial, consumerist frame of pop music, that trait is usually respected, if not always revered.
Before she started another tour this month — on which she and a full band will indeed perform songs from "Funstyle" — we caught up with Phair to find out just WTF is going on.
Q. You've taken another beating over "Funstyle." How does this one rate?
Liz Phair: I feel less beaten up about this than on previous things. The first two weeks of press was so, "Blah blah, I'm freaking out, why wasn't I told?" My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them.
Q. Your intent then was to spring something wacky on us?
LP: It was really done in the spirit of good-hearted fun. ... That's part of why I wrote the little blurb to go with it. I didn't expect people not to get that. I called it "Funstyle." I was trying to be direct. The first round of reviews — I don't think they even got that it was funny. Really, you think I'm actually trying to start a rap career now? It stopped me in my tracks, like when you're at a party and someone says something and you just don't know how to respond to further the conversation? It's, like, OK, I'm going back to the bar to get another drink now ...
Q. And this isn't just your damage-control explanation now — ha ha, it was a joke, get it?
LP: No, I've been as consistently clear about this from the very beginning of the project. I don't see how it could be clearer.
Q. So what was the beginning of the project?
LP: The stuff on "Funstyle" came from two things. First, there's stuff influenced by my TV scoring career. [Phair's day job these days is scoring television shows. Her music has set the mood for episodes of "90210" and "In Plain Sight," winning her an ASCAP award for composing.] You spend long, long hours in a studio messing with soundscapes, and you get slap-happy. So you try to have fun with it, you try to crack yourself up. And there's a mania that develops having all this stuff, these sounds, at your fingertips, which I tried to put into a quasi-serious but mostly tongue-in-cheek piece of work. ... The other part was born in very natural jam sessions and a friendship with Dave Matthews. [Phair was briefly on Matthews' record label, ATO. Some of his playing appears on "Funstyle."] I would fly around and piggyback on various recording sessions he does when he's on the road when he wants to get ideas down. It was truly just two artists meeting and wanting to make music together. It was very simple on my end.
Q. Dave wasn't thrilled about the results, I guess. You just lost your ATO deal and your management — directly as a result of "Funstyle"?
LP: Yeah. ATO is a lovely label, but the guy that signed me left, and you know what that does. There's a reassessment, and suddenly the new people don't know who you are or care. And the stuff I was doing, they didn't know what to do with. My management said, "Hell no, I am not taking a rap song into a radio station! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard." I said, "Really? I think it's the funniest thing." I took it hard. I loved my management team. But sometimes it's time to part ways.
Q. So you wind up with this batch of songs, you know they're going to throw people for a loop. How much thinking about the situation did you do before posting?
LP: I waited a year sitting on this stuff. I wasn't trying to blow this up. I waited to see if I liked it as much as I thought I did. Now I'm writing a more mature and serious record, but it felt really wrong to skip over this. It's who I am intrinsically as a person, someone who puts it all out and takes a chance with an unbroken chain and doesn't stop to make sure I look just so before I leave the house.
Q. You're unfiltered. You think: Why not only try rapping but let's even display the results?
LP: Sure. It's about the journey and the process. I do things because I love doing them, or trying them. I'm less invested in protecting or even developing a brand. Obviously. ... And who cares if it's outside your comfort zone? I've always been a little daring. My parents like to joke that if there's something I'm totally unqualified for, that's of course what I'll be doing next.
Q. Can there be a Liz Phair album other than "Guyville, Part 2" that will please the masses?
LP: Uh, no? To do "Guyville 2" because I'm supposed to do it or because it's the only thing people like feels — meh. I'm writing stuff now that's really touching me, some stuff that's actually made me weep. I don't know if it's "Guyville 2," but it's off-kilter and very heartfelt and very personal, directed at a single person. It feels authentic, maybe in the same way.
Q. Does this free-wheeling spirit you're describing have anything to do with raising your son, who's now in his teens?
LP: He's just 14. All parents gush about what it's like to be a parent. I love it. His little world — he's basically sound, he's independent, and I enjoy him. There's kind of a rock 'n' roll way a 14-year-old boy thinks, and there's definitely a resonance between my job and what his brain is like. It's partly uncomfortable and partly really inspiring. He keeps me in touch with that part of myself.
with the Horse's Ha
8 p.m. Jan. 22
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $25, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.