Liz Phair has never been one to do as shes told. From her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, to her current release Funstyle, Phair has been consistently pushing the envelope of not only her own creativity, but her place in the music industry. She sung blatantly about sex when no other woman was, she refused to conform to the narrow boxes the music business placed her in, and she did the opposite of what people told her to do, just because she could.
Understandably, I was a little bit nervous as I waited for my coffee date with Ms. Phair in one of Vancouvers downtown hotels. With artists, you never know what kind of personality youre going to get that day, especially one with a reputation for being rebellious. But Phair is everything but intimidating.
Petite and astonishingly fresh-faced, Phair is a small, blonde package with a load of personality. Shes giggly, kind, inquisitive and unguarded. Shes the type of person to tap you lightly on the shoulder and really engage you with whatever insightful thing shes going to tell you. A good trait to have in anyone, let alone a rock star who, at this point in their long career, reserves the right to be jaded and cynical.
The critical response to her latest album Funstyle alone is enough to put a chip on anyones shoulder. The album saw her leaving her old label in order to release this mix of experimental and traditional songs. I myself had the opportunity to review the album, and though I personally found it to be inconsistent, I admired Phair for taking the plunge and devoting herself to something so risky.
But to Phair, the risk was something she had to take.
Im very connected to my internal, deepest subconscious, says Phair. Ive been listening to it for many, many years. Thats how I write songs, thats how Im creative. So I have a relationship and a responsibility to my subconscious and it really was pissed.
Not unheard of in the American music industry, the label executives were adamant that Phair not release the songs, something she touches on in the song Smoke where its called career suicide.
They were absolutely shocked and horrified and they just said no way, itll ruin your career, she points out adamantly. So I was put away for thirteen months and I was in talks with other labels to produce something very mature, sorta Guyville circa 2010. You know, Good Liz. And right as I got up there towards it, this thing, my subconscious, just started screaming at me and I was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ I waited 13 months, Im not kidding about this. This is the most bizarre and interesting thing Ive done lately, like, Im sorry but Im putting it out.
Phair didnt have much time. She wanted to release it by July 4th and had decided to take the risk at the end of June. But they had interest from Rocket Science, an indie label, and it was off and running, released online in an almost secret manner.
I walked in there (to Rocket Science) and was like, heres what I want to do everyone thinks Im crazy and by the way youre going to be hated. Youre going to get all this hate press for the first few two or three months. So they were like, go for it. And Im glad, Im really glad.
Glad because shes proud of the work shes done on Funstyle, regardless of what any critic thinks (after all, thats just one persons opinion) and because she stuck to her guns and took the artistic leap no matter what the outcome.
Artistic stuff is weird, she admits. Sometimes it isnt received well but its still legitimate for being a rung on a ladder. If you miss one, you have a hole in your ladder. It needs to be done. I really believe you have a responsibility to whatever this force is that helps you create.
This force that drives Liz is a powerful one. Its seen her through many career highs and lows. I had to mention that I found it ironic that her self-titled release in 2003, which saw more pop songs like Why Can’t I?”, drew a lot of backlash from critics and fans for selling out and yet Funstyle, which has her doing the exact opposite of selling out, is also drawing a lot of heat. A cant win scenario?
Oh yeah, she laughs. Ive given up the win thing. Nobody like to be walking into a headwind you know, its never ideal but I have never honestly, when Guyville came out there was a huge backlash, even then. And now its like the holy holy. You know, people say its so great and everyone loved it , but it was not so. There was a huge amount of backlash in that. Shes blonde, shes from the suburbs, she doesnt deserve this, she used her body to get this, shes half naked on the cover and thats why she got this. So they were there, even then. It was controversial and uncomfortable for a long time. Now, no one remembers that. All they remember is oh, its the greatest.
Regardless, she doesnt let the backlash, no matter what its about or where it comes from, hold her back.
As long as youre true to your artistic self, posterity will show the growth of an artist. If I hadnt put out Funstyle, well whats coming next? Maybe I wouldnt get to that next thing, I might have locked myself in a dead end and never climbed out of it. So those risks are essential.”