Heroes: Liz Phair

Heroes: Liz Phair

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Heroes: Liz Phair

The '90s alt-rock icon back with a bite

The '90s alt-rock icon back with a bite

Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG

In 1993, American singer-songwriter Liz Phair changed both the sound and face of alternative rock music. Her debut LP Exile in Guyville—a slightly bolstered evolution of the audio cassettes she’d been releasing under the moniker Girly-Sound— challenged the genre’s male dominance while introducing Phair’s sharp, occasionally sexually explicit lyrics, and strikingly deadpan vocal style. Singles like “Never Said” and “Fuck and Run” turned Phair into the poster woman for outspoken, creative misfits who didn’t want to follow the increasingly mundane status quo.

“What I remember about making Guyville is how surprising it was to us, where it went,” Phair says about working on the album with her co-producer Brad Wood. “Every day was a surprise...I had no idea at that point what I would sound like.”

Twenty-eight years later, Phair has released Soberish, her seventh studio album and first foray into new music in 11 years. The fresh body of work explores various thematic intersections, such as the past and the present. For example, she partnered up again with Wood and seeked inspiration from the art rock and new wave albums she played nonstop while in art school. On the other hand, she was also fueled by the socioeconomic state of the present day, as well as where it might lead us. “It didn’t feel like the country was the country I recognized,” Phair says of the U.S.A since 2016. “My son’s twenty-four, so I get his perspective as well. It’s like, you were brought up with all of this hope and empowerment, and you had it ripped away. And the rawest reality was shoved in your face.”

Phair also explores the contradictory relationship between sobriety and escapism. In “Spanish Doors” she sings: “I don’t want to see anybody I know / I don’t want to be anywhere that you and I used to go.” The track is an elegy for a friend’s divorce, as well as an ode to burying your head in the sand and disconnecting from a previous life. She uses the example of escaping to a bathroom during a loud party for some solitude.

“Some people are workaholics,” she says. “Some people fall in love all the time, or need drama all the time, or they’re constantly caffeinated and drinking alcohol at night. There’s a million ways that you can escape reality these days.”

For Phair, a part of this escapism (and a partial inspiration for the album’s title) was the legalization of recreational weed in California. “That was always my favorite drug, but because it was illegal, it was just something I did at parties. Or I would sneak some from a friend. But as a single mom, I didn’t buy it illegally–ever. So then, when it was legalized, I had to go through this second puberty of like, ‘How much do I do?’”

Phair has settled on finding the balance between reality and escapism. But one increasingly potent realization was that she was not done releasing music.

“I didn’t want to leave my career to just trickle off into nothing,” she says. “One thing that really impacted me was when Bowie and Prince passed. Suddenly we were losing all these icons from my youth that I thought had many years left in them. And my manager actually challenged me. He was like, “Are you making, right now, the art that you would want to leave behind if it were your last?”

The answer is increasingly leaning toward yes. With Soberish, Phair builds upon a foundation of her idiosyncratic sound and no-holds-barred lyrics, giving us an idea of what Guyville might sound like had Phair been in her twenties today. That said, she’s very happy she isn’t, and that she hasn’t had her whole life documented by social media like today’s younger artists. “I can’t even imagine [that level of visibility],” she says. “I have enough baggage to drag behind as it is. If you knew what I really did in my 20’s, God help me.”

Credits: Photography by Angela Kohler.

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