Immediately heralded as femme-indie-rock’s poster-girl upon the release of her acclaimed debut Exile In Guyville (1993), Liz Phair has since macheted through life with the kind of veracity and curiosity which have made her a musical heroine beyond any gender or genre bounds you might fancy applying to her. Here we’ve selected some of our favourite quotes in conversation about her excellent new album, Soberish.
On avant-garde artist, musician and filmmaker Laurie Anderson, who appears in Phair’s Hey Lou clip in puppet form:
“I’ve been listening to her Norton lectures – it’s a series affiliated with Harvard – and I’ve gotten my mother and my godmother to watch them as well; during the pandemic that’s one of the ways we’ve connected. Some people are doing book clubs with their families remotely, some people are playing Dungeons and Dragons, and we’re doing Laurie Anderson’s Norton lectures together.”
On puppeteer Toben Seymour:
“Here I was working with an artiste of puppeteering, and he’s just as particular as I am. It was so fun to get a window into the puppeteering struggle, just like I have my own musical struggle. He is wonderful. Can I tell you how weird it is to have a puppet created of me? Toben made a Liz Phair puppet; she’s on TikTok, my puppet-self. And now I’m actually imitating my puppet in my look: I had to buy, for the first time in my life, big eyelashes, and I had to grow my hair long and put it up a certain way.”
On the layered meanings of the new album title:
“This is exactly the tension that I feel in relationships, between the almost intoxicating escapism of when you have that ‘in love’ feeling, like how exultant it is. Then the tension of the day-to-day life that still happens, and as you try and forge something together you become mired in something that’s very grounded and very real, and not at all what you were hoping that this relationship would do for your life. How do we navigate that tension? It lives with us always, and you can use that same analogy about the creative process. It’s exhilarating when it’s really flowing and it’s beautifully working, and at the same time there’s nuts and bolts that need to be tightened. That tension in life never leaves us, or at least it never leaves me.”
“It can be a vicious place! You have to be careful because it depends on how you curate it. Humour is the main thing. I try to select for humour, and newsworthiness, and just some people I want to support. But it can feel like… you can spiral. Especially if you scroll through before bedtime – look out! I [have been reading novels], to try and decompress and take myself out of this mad, mad world.”
On the reasons why it’s been so long between albums:
“I was scoring TV for the last six or seven years, so I got really into sound design, and I became fluent in spatial sound design. I played with and enjoyed learning about plug-ins and filters. Guitar gets repetitive in a TV show – you have to turn it into something else. So, if you put three or four plug-ins on any piece of sound, it becomes an entirely new instrument. I actually enjoy this virtual space. It couldn’t have been better for a pandemic, because we all went into the virtual space. I’ve been waiting to get into AR and VR for so long! I’ve been bugging everyone like, ‘When can I start doing that?'”
On recording inside an anechoic chamber:
“Acoustics are really interesting to me. I recorded a couple of songs [inside] an anechoic chamber… it’s a room constructed within a room, that is actually suspended by bungy-type cords, and its dampened. There is so much sound baffling that there is no atmosphere, no reverberation, it’s just the pure sound. A lot of people freak out when they go inside it, but to me it’s heaven, because you get this pure thing.”
On working with producer and long-time collaborator Brad Wood, with whom Phair has worked since her debut Exile In Guyville:
“It was about subtraction a lot of times, which is an interesting way to work. We’d throw a whole lot of sh-t on it, and then pull pieces out until it had an interesting sound. Especially songs like Soberish; we just got rid of my entire guitar, so it has that awkwardness that you feel when you’re waiting for someone to come to a bar, that you only know a little bit, and you’re probably going to sleep with. It has that awkward tension when you’re like, ‘Ah! I feel naked!’”
On matching the nice with the nasty:
“You know how they say with French perfumes, there’s all this floral and sweetness, but you need something nauseating, something rancid in there? It’s the same with music: you don’t want it to be too on-the-nose, you want it to be pretty, but also kind of ugly – there’s all these aesthetic balance questions which some people feel overwhelmed by, but I just love them.”
On the vision of Soberish:
“Storms are very important to me. Ambient sound is very important to me. And water, for some reason; the fluidity in there I hear as water. I hear fluidity in a lot of it. My aesthetic is, you know when you’re flying in a plane and you look down over the landscape and you can see that farmers – there’s a part of the mid-western US where they actually farm in circles, so that irrigation can just go round in a circle, these long spiralling irrigation things, the tension between natural forms, like the foothills of the mountains coming down and then these man-made shapes and colours on the ground – to me, that’s the tension that I want to capture on Soberish. There is just songwriting, feelings, guitar, drums, bass, and then there is a sort of organic mess that I’m playing with, that we have to create.”
On Australian tour managers:
“Oh my God, they were hilarious! They were killing me! They were just sort of shambolic; when I first got into the car with them I’m like, ‘Are these people professional?’ Then we’d get to the airport and they’d be bumping me up to First Class and I’m like, ‘Well, didn’t have the juice to do that, but they did!’ As everyone’s loading their luggage up on the carousel as you’re checking in, they’re talking to other tour managers like, ‘Hey! Hello!’ They all know each other. It felt like a movie.”
Soberish by Liz Phair is out June 4 via Chrysalis/Inertia.
Keep up with the latest Australian release dates for music.