Posted March, 2011
Photo by Ryan Burchfield
Depending who you are, the mere mention of this talented woman’s name will either melt the hearts of men and boys alike and/or bring to mind her impressive body of work. Edgy, relevant, provocative. Those are the words that come to mind when I try to describe Liz.
If you’ve followed Liz Phair, you know that she is her own woman. Behind the beauty that melts the hearts of men and boys alike is talent that is supported by intelligence, a strong will and, more than occasionally, an almost defiant, matter-of-fact bluntness that is reflected in her music. You may or may not like what she has to say in person or in her lyrics, but there is no doubt left in anyone’s mind as to what she means when she speaks. If you don’t know what she means when she speaks, then you’re just not listening.
So, when I had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Phair by phone, I jumped at the chance. I mean, c’mon! Wouldn’t you?
When I called Liz, she was at home watching the news of the impending Japanese earthquake induced tsunami that had already hit Hawaii and was heading towards parts of California. She told me that, from her vantage point three blocks from the beach, the waves were beginning to change their look. After sharing with each other what we had heard about the disaster, we got down to business, chatting about Phair’s current round of appearances in the U.S.
Prior to calling her, I noticed that Liz’s tour schedule appeared to be short bursts of dates as opposed to a long, drown out tour. I asked her why that was and if it was working out for her.
“I have a teenager at home – an eighth-grader heading towards freshman year and I’m making sure that his grades don’t fall apart and making sure that he has a stable home-life. It’s just the way that I feel most comfortable doing this. I’ve learned the hard way that, when I tour for long periods of time, he would just start to slip out of the straight and narrow, so to speak. You can go away for one or two weeks but the busier I get, the more he sort of goes off the rails.”
I know many single parents of both sexes who have custody of their kids and know what challenges they face – especially if they have to travel on business. I asked Liz if touring during the school year posed a hardship on her.
“It works better for me because, when I’m gone, I feel great about being gone and I enjoy myself immensely. It’s a relief from the daily grind”, she says with an engaging laugh. Continuing the thought, she adds that her son “is old enough so that I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, my god, what is he doing tonight?’ I can call him, talk to him, whatever, so it allows me to fully immerse myself into the tour and just become that kind of ‘rock star’ thing. It’s really fun. I like it a lot.”
I ask about her support system that allows her this freedom.
“He stays with his dad (film editor, Jim Staskauskas). He (Staskauskas) has a great caretaker. She’s young so she gives him (Liz’s son) a chance to practice how to talk to girls!” again, laughing her endearing laugh at the thought of it all. When asked if Phair shares any advice with her son, she replies with words that all of us parents can relate to.
“He won’t accept any advice whatsoever from me or share with me. I’m like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ and he’s like, ‘Mom, you can ask me all you like but I’m not going to tell you.’ I totally trust him. He hasn’t hit that point where he’s super angry about anything yet. It’s still a nice period. I know it’s coming, though, when they’re mad and you can’t reach them. I was a teenager. I remember. I sit in fear of it but it hasn’t happened yet!”
Since the tour was in small clusters of days, I assumed that Phair was doing an acoustic tour. However, when I asked her about it, she corrected me with kind enthusiasm.
“Oh, yeah, I’m bringing a band! We’re out to rock! We’re there to rock! We play stuff from my first record, Exile In Guyville, my second record, Whip-Smart, and Whitechocolatespaceegg. We play stuff from almost all the records. We figured out what people most want to hear – fan favorites. That’s what makes up the set along with a couple of new songs. This time around, we’re going to try out some NEW, NEW material – stuff that ‘s never even been on a record yet. That will be fun!
Some artists feel that their tours are “about” something. I ask Liz if she feels that way about this tour especially in light of the industry controversy around Funstyle?
“It doesn’t have a theme other than ‘rocking-ness’. To me, it’s always about how I get to my fans. It’s almost entirely themed on visiting and connecting with fans. Otherwise, it’s all abstract. You do interviews and you put records out but you don’t actually get to ‘be there’, make the music they love and have them clap for you and see them singing the lyrics back to you. I love my fans and I love the people that come out. It re-energizes my enthusiasm for my career. So, I get as much out of it as they get.”
After her stop here in Dallas on March 17th, I knew that she was wrapping her tour up in Austin at the annual South By Southwest (“SXSW”) music and film festival. I ask Liz if she ever played SXSW.
“I have! I remember having an excellent time there. It’s fun to be where you can just be eating lunch and you hear a brand new band that you’ve never heard of before and be able to run home and listen to their record. It’s as if the world magically transformed into what you wished the world were like – bands playing on every corner! It reminds me of being in college.”
After what she experienced in the business in recent years with regards to artistic differences with her former record label, I ask Liz what she would do to “fix” the record industry if she was czar of the music business. I expected a barrage of thoughts that would reflect some sort of desire for revenge. Her answers caught me completely off-guard.
“Um, that’s a hard one. I’m trying to think of what I would do. Anything that you would do would, then, not allow what the next innovative breakthrough that was going to happen – happen. I think that the pressure of things gone wrong is what has to build up for you to make stuff right. It’s kind of like procrastination: if you don’t get your stuff done, sometimes you need a real swift kick in the pants if things are really going wrong. Then you’re scared straight, so to speak.
“I don’t know that I would change anything. I think that what’s coming out of this was already coming out of this which is gradual and, maybe, frustrating, but I’m starting to feel the benefits of it. The playing field is level. The people that used to have all the money and tell you what to do and seemed to know how the system ran, no longer know how the system runs. So, that makes the little guy as much as an expert as the big guy. I enjoy that sort of upheaval – the turning over of the apple cart. It suits me.”
Continuing in this frame of thought, she energetically adds, “I know what I’d do! I would have more festivals like Lilith Fair! I’d focus on female talent. I’d gather my rock army of young women and take over!”
I ask her who she would ask to help lead that army, she replies with her infectious laugh, “I don’t know. Anyone woman who wants to join! We would get all of those girls who are in the bedrooms playing guitars and rocking and give them a bunch of money and tell them to go forth and rock on such and such date! I’d start my girl rock army!”
That comment prompts me to ask Phair what female artists are commanding her attention.
“Well, I’m kind of obsessed with Maddy Diaz. She’s such a rock star! She’s so nice and cool and so talented. So, I’ve been kind of obsesses with her. I just saw some chick as I was Googling tsunami info, some German chick, Lykke Li, and I quickly bookmarked her page. Whenever I see someone new and interesting, I always check it out.
As our time is winding up, I have to ask Ms. Phair what projects she has lined up.
“My TV shows have started. I do television scoring. We’re scoring right now,– the fourth season. We did it last year. We’ve been doing television scoring on various other shows the last four years. We also have a new show starting out called The Great State of Georgia.”
“As for any new CD’s, we’re starting to get ready to record again. We’re testing those new songs out on this tour. But I have no clue when the new CD will come out. That’s another thing about the excellent new climate – I just put things out when I’m ready. That’s awesome! I don’t have to fit into anybody’s business formula.”
With all the she has accomplished in her young life, I ask Liz what she would like to do that she hasn’t already done and where she would like to play that she hasn’t already graced the stage of.
“There’s so much stuff that I still want to do. I want to score films. I want to do stuff that involves traveling like a world music show. I would go to different places and investigate the musical traditions of that area and how it impacts the modern music that comes out of there. Maybe try to make a song with all of these different artists and different scenes from around the world. I think that would be very nice.”
“I’d like to go to Europe and do more there. I’ve barely toured in Europe. I think I’ve only done it twice. I would really like to incorporate music and travel. It’s going to be hard because it’s a lot easier to play where people already know you. It’s a little daunting but I would really like to incorporate making music and the love that I have in being in the studio and being live and doing that around the world. I think that would be really interesting.”
Any more tour dates this year?
“I think that I’ll need to stick around and do my scoring jobs here. That was sort of the plan with a little bit of overlap but, for the most part, it’s time to switch hats and focus on that for a bit. But, as summer rolls around, hopefully, we can do some more dates – pick up on some more festivals and stuff like that. And I might bring my son along. When he’s out of school, it’s a whole different thing. I definitely might. I love travelling with my son.”
I wrap up our chat by asking Liz Phair to look ahead five years from now. Her son will be approximately 18 years old. What kind of guidance and advice does she envision giving him at that time as he heads into adulthood?
“I think that, at that point, everything that I could guide him with will have already been input. The only think that I see for him when he’s 18 to 20 is, really, when he comes to me. I have no idea what he’ll ask me. I hope that I’ve established a trust between us that he can talk to me. But, if he’s anything like me, he’ll be stubborn and independent.”
The lovely and talented Liz Phair will be wrapping up her touring for the foreseeable future with a show at The Troubadour in West Hollywood on March 16th and then on to here in Dallas on March 17 at the historic Granada Theater and then, finally, capping it all off at SXSW on March 18th.