If Liz Phair had been cold, detached, clearly bored, or chomping at the bit to move on to her next interview, I might have had to commit ritual seppuku on the spot.
I am not remotely objective when it comes to Liz Phair. There's no music more important to me than hers, and as conflicted as I've sometimes felt about her artistic choices over the years, I've always felt like I understood where she was coming from.
“When I made Guyville—and I still love Guyville—it was a really fucked-up time in my life… I was pent-up, lost—and you can’t stay there!”
Not everyone shares this point of view. Response to Funstyle, the surprise independent album she released via lizphair.com over the July 4th weekend, has been extraordinarily polarized and ultra-personal: "I used to love Liz Phair when I was 14. She was my hero! What the hell happened to her? This makes me sad" reads a representative post on Tumblr. In the Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers acutely parodied this kind of response, and pointed out that it's silly to keep feeling betrayed by albums that aren't duplicates of Phair's revered 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville. Powers wrote that while some read Phair's output as inconsistent, there's a baseline playfulness that runs through it: "Whatever form these songs take, they're uniformly inventive and individualistic—Phair's ongoing project of remaking pop's central sounds and stories in her own image."
On Funstyle, Phair, now 43, does funny voices, raps, and tells someone that while she's a genius, he's a "penius … colada, that is." She also sings a few straight-ahead rock songs about love and intimacy, and one rage-filled banger about the music industry. In the course of our hourlong conversation, which has been compressed here, we talked about what went into her decision to release these tracks against the advice of ATO Records, whether she reads reviews, whether she's in love, what sport has the hottest guys—you know, everything you've fantasized about talking to Liz Phair about since you first heard "6'1''."
Emily Gould: If there's anything about me that's anywhere on the Internet I'm like a bloodhound, I'll find it and like roll around in it, and it's awful. How much of the shit that's out there do you feel the need to know about? All, some, none?
Liz Phair: Almost none of it. After my first record came out, I read everything. I was so amazed that I was in the press. Now everyone's like, "Oh, Guyville, it's so wonderful, it's so pure." Well, I lived through it and at the time it was a shitstorm, of people being like "She can't sing, she can't play, who the fuck does she think she is, she's a fraud, she dyes her hair blond, she's playing up her sexuality which is why she sells." And then there's other people saying "She's the second coming of Jesus."
And then it came time for me to write the next record, and I really couldn't. Because I was so crippled. You know, you become an artist, you become an observer, of life, and you digest life by making art about it. What happened when I read all that stuff was: I felt their eyes—even as I was creating—I felt those voices saying, "Oh, let's do that" or "Let's do this." And it. Just. Fucked. Me. Up.
It's important to have people who will say to you that you're really off the beaten track. And I knew, with Funstyle—I've been told, in no uncertain terms, how awful it would be if I put out these songs. And I have waited over a year to release them because I trusted the people who were telling me this, but at the same time after 13 months of not putting out any music, I thought I couldn't go forward 'til I put out what I'd done. I thought, "Fuck it, I'll put these out, people will hate me. What's new."
Emily: People's relationship with your music is so intense and personal. I see people writing all the time that they feel personally betrayed; you're not the Liz Phair that they wanted you to be. How do you deal with that?
Liz: Everything that people lob at you who don't know you, it all hurts. When you're doing something as simple as making music, which really, theoretically, shouldn't hurt anyone—I mean, it's a song! Step back for five seconds and laugh.
I've had the same friends since I was little. I keep all my long-term relationships. I'm close with my family. I'm a more honest and kind person than I've ever been, I'm more responsible—I think whatever they wanted me to be would be like asking me to stay in this developmental cage.
You know, when I made Guyville—and I still love Guyville—it was a really fucked-up time in my life. I had no money, I was goofing around more, I didn't know what the fuck I wanted to do, I had all this anger about my brother, I was pent up, lost—and you can't stay there! If you stay there, that's sort of a tragedy in and of itself. Like, "I will keep my fans… and I will remain miserable." I always figured there'd be plenty of other young women stepping up to take my place.
Emily:There are a few songs on this album that seem very happy and in love. Are you happy? Are you in love?
Liz: I'm not in love. I'm pretty happy. Those were from when I was in love. For me, really being able to be intimate with someone—I spent so much of my adult life trying to relax my defenses enough to really risk myself. I spent a lot of time making sure I was in the driver's seat. It's an ongoing thing for me to be able to risk getting hurt. A goal of mine, something I was really weak at, was being… intimate. I had a picture of what the healthy heart would be like and I'm still trying to achieve it, 'cause I think I was beset by a number of handicaps.
Emily: It also seems like it would be extraordinary to find someone who'd be willing to be with you who'd be OK with having his life cannibalized in certain ways.
Liz: It's hard for people—it's hard for men, in particular, to have a partner that people talk about, that people want to meet. I've noticed that.
Emily: Martin Amis has a line, in The Information: "All writing is infidelity."
Liz: Ooh, that's good. In my last relationship, a huge problem was that I would want to spend nights alone. And my boyfriend could not understand what I would be doing. And I'm literally sitting in my house dreaming. It was self-preservation, for me—I'm miserable if I'm not making art. I'm miserable if I'm not being creative. And to be creative, you can't just say, "From 10 to 2, I will be amazingly creative, and then I'll pick the kids up."
Emily: So, I feel like I have to tell you, in my book there's a chapter called "Flower," based on your song, that's about how when I was 17 I took the virginity of a 14-year-old guy who was on my swim team, and everyone in my high school found out about it and it kind of sucked.
Liz: God, I'm sorry cause that sounds awful, but how hot is that?
Emily: He was so gorgeous, too. He definitely did not look like a 14-year-old. Um, it's disgusting to think of it now. But I was 17, it's not like I was a sexual predator…
Liz: Is it wrong that I'm sort of feeling like, you go girl?
Emily: I felt very justified by the song "Flower"—the lyric "You act like you're 14 years old" really resonated for me because he really was.
Liz: It was very concrete for you!
Emily: I'm friends with him now on Facebook. He's a painter. He seems to have turned out totally fine, so, no harm, no foul.
Liz: Swimmers are hot. Dude, soccer players are hot. Did you watch the World Cup? I was dying. A team would lose and I'd be like "I'm sorry to see you go, but look at this new crop of boys!"
Emily: I guess in terms of sports hotness, soccer is the hottest.
Liz: I wasn't expecting it! I only tuned in 'cause my friend was European and she wanted to watch the World Cup. And it turns out they take their shirts off every time they do something good!