It’s tempting to say that the new crop of female singer-songwriters wouldn’t quite have the freedom and leeway that they enjoy today without Liz Phair having cleared a path for them. But you can also argue that her acolytes have never quite approached the fearlessness and unfiltered honesty of Phair’s finest work. No shame if they haven’t, because that’s a pretty high standard indeed.
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Eleven years have passed since Phair last released a full-length album. In the interim, she penned a well-received memoir volume (Horror Stories) and gave her seminal 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville the deluxe reissue treatment. Having looked back, Phair is releasing a new album on Friday (June 4) called Soberish that concentrates on the here and now of her life, with her penchant for warts-and-all truth-telling intact.
It’s also a strikingly diverse work from an artist unfairly pigeonholed by her early success. Yes, there are familiar blasts of irreverent wit (“Hey Lou,” “Bad Kitty”) and melodic rock (“Spanish Doors” and “Good Side”.) But there are also lush electronic flourishes (“In There,” “Soul Sucker”) and introspective balladry (“Sheridan Road,” “Lonely Street.”) Phair sings about having nine lives in the closing track of Soberish. With this wonderful album as the jumping-off point, she also seems ready to enjoy a rich second act to her career.
Phair sat down recently to talk to American Songwriter, her answers reflective and insightful, yet often punctuated with mischievous, conspiratorial laughter. She spoke about the new record, her changing songwriting perspective, and her need to explore new musical avenues with each release, regardless of expectations. Here are the highlights.
American Songwriter: When you announced this album on social media, you indicated that you were surprised that you got to make another record. Was there a part of you that was concerned there might not ever be a new release like this?
Liz Phair: That was definitely something that I wondered about. Like is this really something I can get back into, touring and stuff? If you’ve been out of it for a while, you kind of lose your place. You have to get your sea legs again. But incredibly, it just happens to be a really good time to celebrate female singer-songwriters, so I lucked out.
AS: Even though there has been a lot of time that’s passed since the last record, you wrote the songs for Soberish only over the past couple of years. What was behind that choice?
LP: I was working with Brad Wood again, who was the producer on my first three albums. We hadn’t worked together in twenty years, although we’d stayed in touch as friends. I think the idea was coming to it with fresh, new material that wasn’t evocative of our past, but still could use some of the same sound palette from our past. And do it in a way that was surprising even to us. That was my goal.
AS: When people see that you worked with Brad on this album, they might assume they’re going to hear something like your first few albums. But this album is so diverse musically. What was your game plan for how you wanted this record to sound, and how did Brad help you get there?
LP: He is absolutely instrumental in the way the record sounds. He’s an incredible engineer in terms of the sound of everything, which is gorgeous, and a mixer as well as a producer. A great deal of what I love about the record I owe to Brad. There was definitely a specific idea in my mind that I had about the type of my music fandom that I wanted to explore. It was a period before my music career took off when I was just listening in my Walkman headphones to stuff that was kind of post-punk, New Wave pop music that I was really into. So I drew on that influence heavily for this album.
AS: The relationship songs on this record take a lot of twists and turns. Some start out happy and then veer into heartbreak, and vice versa. Did the paths these songs took surprise even you as you were writing them?
LP: I think so. I think you’re referring to “Ba Ba Ba,” which is one of my favorite ones on the record, because that relationship took a turn, took several turns that I wasn’t expecting. So to see it captured as truthfully, to my ears, as I got it on that song makes me really happy. I had Brad speed up the “ba ba ba” in the beginning, and then it kind of slows down and settles. That’s very unorthodox to do in a song, but it spoke to the rhythm of your heart as you’re getting excited to see someone.
AS: I feel like people assume too often that all songs are autobiographical, and that you maybe get that more than most artists. Do you relish then a song like “Hey Lou,” where you’re clearly writing from somebody else’s perspective?
LP: Yes, I like stepping into other personas. It’s something I do more often than people think. I may write it from the point of view of “I,” but I’m actually writing it about someone else entirely. That was what we got to do on “Hey Lou.” It was a fluke, a happy accident. Brad was trimming on a loop in the chorus. There was a little bit of vocal that was tagged on it at the end that sounded like it was saying “Hey Lou.” And he just immediately said, “I think it would be really funny if this was a song about Lou Reed from Laurie Anderson’s point of view.” I immediately was like “That’s hilarious.” And we started riffing lyrics right then and there, laughing so hard we were practically crying. It came together in a matter of minutes.
AS: Have you received any response from Laurie or the Reed camp?
LP: Not yet. I know that they’re aware of it, so I’m gonna assume that they don’t really like it, but they’re not gonna come after me. (Laughs.)
AS: The title track really sums up a lot of the themes on the album. Were you aware as you were writing that it would make a sort of centerpiece to the record?
LP: Thank you for noticing. I did feel that would be an important track. The song sort of encapsulates everything I’m going through. There’s the optimism of an exciting, blooming romance. There’s also insecurity about new people and new things when you’re settled and used to things being a certain way, like stepping out of your comfort zone. And just the whole idea of not being able to take reality straight on the head. That’s something that I’ve been going through the last couple of years. The political situation and COVID pandemic: It’s just made reality too bitter of a bite to take straight. That’s been something I’ve been struggling with.
AS: Your astute fans will notice that Henry the bartender makes a return on “Dosage.” Only now, he appears through you relaying his advice to someone else. Was that strange being the advice-giver instead of the advice-taker in song?
LP: That was the fun of it. Could I write a “Polyester Bride” of today? Who would I be at that same bar? And I decided that I would be advising a young woman that I ran into, who maybe had been overserved. And just kind of looking at her and remembering when that was me. This beautiful full circle of going back to that bar. Though Henry isn’t there, his advice is still as pertinent to her today as it was to me then.
AS: When you wrote “Sheridan Road,” was that taken from real-life experiences or your imagination?
LP: Sheridan Road is a north-south street in Chicago. It hugs the lake and it connects the suburbs up north to the downtown. And that was a very important road to all of us growing up on the North Shore, because it’s how we got down to the exciting life that our parents didn’t know about. But it’s also how we had to crawl back up north, and not get pulled over for drinking too much, or being caught out late. It was just a very fraught road, the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Though all those things have happened in that song, putting them together in one song was an imaginary smushing of different times.
AS: “Lonely Street” is one of my favorites on the record. What inspired it?
LP: I was on tour when I wrote that and the guy I was seeing was also in a remote location for work. It was just this sense of finally we’d reached a good place and then both of us geographically were split apart. No matter what you get correct, whatever wrong you right in your life, something else can go spectacularly wrong right along with that. (Laughs.)
AS: There is a kind of tenderness that permeates this whole record, obviously in the slow songs. But even the up-tempo numbers take a benevolent tack and don’t lash out. To what do you attribute that?
LP: I think largely it’s just my age, the experience that comes with time. It used to be a lot simpler back when I was younger to point a finger and say, “You are wrong. I am right.” That was easier to do. The older I got, the more complicated everything seemed. But the feelings are no less real. If there’s a little bit of gentleness that I’m bestowing on the objects of my ire and a gentleness with myself, I think that’s just age and experience giving you a poignancy for life itself, for all the ups and downs. There’s a poignancy and a beauty within the mess.
AS: When I was making notes, I wrote down the phrase “emotional GPS,” because it felt like you were really relaying where you were in your head and heart? That’s probably the case with all albums, but do you think it’s maybe more accurate with this one?
LP: I think that’s always the goal. The goal is always to write where I happen to be in life, because I’d like to leave behind a record of a woman’s life in all the mess, all the glory, all the everything. But I think, in this particular instance, because it had been so long since I’d done a full album-length release, and especially after having just written Horror Stories, the first part of my memoir unearthing all this difficult stuff, with the album, I was trying to capture intimacy as I feel it now at my age. That can be less fraught and dramatic than when you’re young. But I don’t think it’s any less moving. I think you can tell in the lyrics a little bit, that this person is not just beginning in life. Some things have been lost.
AS: Going back to your time away from recording, did you feel like you needed to step away from it for a while when you did?
LP: I definitely think that’s part of it. There’s no question when you’re just on a treadmill trying to keep up with output, you can lose the why. And I think once you lose why you’re doing something, you’ve lost the fight altogether. Because there’s so much in every job that ruins the very essence of what the job is for. The personal nature of writing songs compared to the very public nature of selling songs and selling music is always a tension that artists feel and at various points, they’ll say, “I’m taking time off” or “I’m doing something totally different.” Because how do you balance the very personal with the very public? The very private and very universal? Those are tensions that an artist can’t help but feel in their body.
AS: But this record certainly feels reenergized.
LP: I just felt ready. I felt ready and connected to whatever the inspiration umbilical cord is. I think also putting out the reissue, the box set in 2018, helped me reconnect with my artist self musically as well. It reconnected me to that world, those people. The why of that first record, why I did it, is much clearer to me after putting out the box set.
AS: Do you think enough time has passed that this record will get a fair listen and not be compared to the records you did when you were just starting out?
LP: I don’t know. I hope it does. I hope that it can be taken for what it is and appreciated, or not, depending on what it actually is without the baggage. I think that’s one of the best things about being an artist is that each new work, each new project, is a fresh chance to say something about life. But then there’s all the marketing baggage that comes with people’s expectations or what they believe the boundaries and labels should be. You know, “You fall into this category.” If people could just let that go and see the way the music speaks to them, I think that’s a far better way to appreciate something as delightful as music. It should not be cordoned off and quantified.
AS: Did you feel kind of targeted in the past by critics who gave you a hard time when you wanted to branch out to different types of music?
LP: I did feel that people had taken Guyville as if that was my true actual self, rather than also a project that I put together. I intentionally made it sound a certain way. But if you listen to my early work, it doesn’t sound that way really at all. Each new project is a new chance to live as a different side of yourself. That’s the point of it.
AS: I love that the album ends with “Bad Kitty,” which is this unapologetic track that ends with the line “No regrets.” What was the idea of sending that message at the end of the album?
LP: In my personal life, what this album chronicled was a long-term on-and-off-again relationship that spans many years, breaking up, and then starting to date new people. And you start to remember your single self. You remember that person that you were and you get back to that more. That’s sort of how I see this album ending. Like “Ah well, you tried at love again, and it didn’t work out. So now you’re back to your usual self.” (Laughs.)
Photo Credit: Eszter+David