Progress Report: Liz Phair
Name: Liz Phair
Progress Report: Phair chats about People Like Us, her sometimes confusing career, and what she wants to do next.
While in Los Angeles this week I had the chance to do a quick sit down interview with Liz Phair. Even though I was on vacation, I jumped at the chance because A) it’s Liz Phair and B) the interview was technically a part of the press junket for People Like Us, a big fancy Hollywood movie for which Phair contributed music. I met up with Phair at the Four Seasons where she was holding court in her own private interview suite while the film’s big stars — including Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer — were whisked through the halls by stressed out, headset-wearing publicity folks. While I was ostensibly brought in to talk to Phair specifically about her involvement with the film, she was also refreshingly forthcoming when it came to talking about her own career (and career misgivings) and what she sees as her future in the music business. To her credit, the general absurdity of our glitzy interview location was not lost on Phair, who welcomed me into her room by saying, “Um … can you believe this place?” I couldn’t.
STEREOGUM: This is certainly a change of pace for me. It’s not often that I get to interview people at the Four Seasons. People rarely want to spend this much money in regards to rock bands … at least not anymore.
PHAIR: I know, right? I’ve never been treated so well. It’s crazy, every few minutes someone sticks their head in the door and asks if I’m still doing OK. I’m like, ”Um, yeah. More carrot juice, I guess?” This is seriously the easiest shit ever. I could do this every day.
STEREOGUM: Do you live here in L.A.?
PHAIR: I do. I live in Manhattan Beach. I moved there to become a suburban mom, which is my alter ego.
STEREOGUM: So, for People Like Us you wrote a song with the film’s composer. How was that?
PHAIR: Really cool but kind of nerve-wracking. The composer is A.R. Rahman — the Oscar winner who did the music for Slumdog Millionaire. We made a song together called “Dotted Line” and it’s funny, I was reading things that people had already written about our collaboration that said things like “She wrote a song called “Bollywood” and then she went to work with a Bollywood producer!” and it completely didn’t happen like that. It was just random. He had been brought on by the film’s director, Alex Kurtzman, to do the score and then they asked me to come in. I think initially A.R. was just trying to gauge where I was. I mean, I’m a professional musician with a career, but at the same time I kind of don’t know anything … and, you know, he’s this trained composer and I’m just this kind of rogue songwriter. I don’t know what you’d even call it.
STEREOGUM: A troubadour of sorts?
PHAIR: Yeah, I guess. For me it’s just all about getting the songs out. So, he threw up some tracks and I just started to sing along, totally winging it. Then they cut those things together into some nice, melodic backing tracks, which were used behind the scenes in the movie for the character of Frankie. I was called in to the project initially because the writer/director of the film had used my music as background when he was writing that character. He found that my music informed her psychology a little bit as a result, so he asked me to write a song for the end credits of the film. So, A.R. played me his theme for the film and I went home and wrote “Dotted Line.” It was a surprisingly powerful experience for me. I cried as I was writing it. It kind of summed up what I felt like the movie was about. It couldn’t be a love song because the movie is about a brother and sister — can’t do that — but I wanted it to be intense and emotional. For me it was about commitment. The first real sense of commitment most people get in their lives is from their family and if you don’t have that, if that doesn’t really work out for you, then you often spend the rest of your adult life trying to figure out why the fuck you can’t give that to someone else. So, “Dotted Line” is about essentially signing this contract with someone. It’s saying, you know, I’m pretty fucked up and I’m bringing a lot of shit to this, but I’m gonna step over this threshold and try and be there for you in the best way that I can.
STEREOGUM: Have you collaborated in this kind of way before?
PHAIR: I have, but this experience was just uniquely blessed. I think when people do really amazing work — like, for example, the director really dug into his own family history and really brought up a bunch of stuff that was hard for him to do — it really inspires a lot of good work as a result. It’s like other artists hearing this kind of dog whistle or something — your ears perk up and you have this sense of “Someone is really going there, so I need to go there too!” and you try to rise to that. Though I’ve done soundtrack work before and I’ve collaborated with people in the past, this really felt different. I know people say this all the time, but it really just felt different somehow. There was this feeling that, Ok, here is an opportunity to be real and make art. Fuck, I need to do this!
STEREOGUM: Having just done the music supervision for a feature film myself, my feelings about hearing songs in films — as well as the process by which they are chosen and the context in which they are used — are much more heightened now. I just have a much deeper respect for it.
PHAIR: How was the experience for you? Did you feel like you made any mistakes?
STEREOGUM: It was great, actually, the artists we worked with were incredibly generous and I couldn’t have happier with the results. I realize that isn’t always the case though.
PHAIR: Ha! Well, I’d say most of the time that isn’t the case … but it could be for you! You could have a long successful run with only success.
STEREOGUM: One can only hope. I was just watching 13 Going On 30 for about the five-millionth time on cable, by the way.
PHAIR: Oh yeah, I have a song in that.
STEREOGUM: It’s a good example of … well, you just better hope that you like the way your song gets used because.
PHAIR: Because it’s gonna be rerun on basic cable forever and people are gonna see it a thousand ways ’till Sunday. Yeah, I know.
STEREOGUM: So the experience of seeing you music in films — and seeing it recontextualized in that way — has mostly been a good one for you?
PHAIR: Yeah, it has. I haven’t actually seen every single instance of when my work was used. Sometimes, for example, it might be a small indie movie and they just make a request and if it seems reasonable and non-offensive, I’m usually fine with it. If some other artist or filmmaker feels like it can help or enhance their work, that’s great. When it comes to creating original music for films, I’ve actually not gotten a lot of jobs in the past. There was a time when I really tried hard to do that stuff — back in my late 30s, sometime in the early 2000s — I’d get pitched for stuff and write songs for things and then I wouldn’t get it. I was kind of new to L.A. and looking for ways to continue making a living and everyone around you is like soundtrack! Soundtrack! And I ended up writing songs for all kinds of shit that didn’t up getting used.
STEREOGUM: Why not?
PHAIR: I don’t think I was really mature enough at the time. I was still trying to write “clever” songs that were way too literal in their interpretation of the source material … and they probably really did suck.
STEREOGUM: Writing for film is an interesting exercise. I think it’s good to take on these kinds of projects occasionally — it’s like taking on an assignment that you wouldn’t necessarily give yourself, but can yield unexpectedly fruitful results. It can be really healthy.
PHAIR: It really can. I wish that I could have the mind that I have now in the body and face that I had 20 years ago. If I knew then what I know now … I mean, I’m obviously not the first person to feel that way, but still. I guess people who have parents in this business can be taught early on what to care about and what to focus on. There’s no reason this kind of stuff couldn’t have happened for me sooner, but I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know how to approach things and I didn’t know how to just let things go when they didn’t work out. I didn’t know how to take pleasure in the work.
STEREOGUM: Part of being human is having regrets and being able to look back and say, “I wish I hadn’t done that” or “I would have done that differently,” but do you have serious feelings of regret when it comes to your creative work?
PHAIR: Um … yeah. Is that weird? Yeah, I do. There are plenty of things. There are songs on every record where I look back and think, Oh I half-assed that one or that could have been a great song if I’d just known how to push things farther. I wish I could strip away all the parts of my career that, when I look back at it I think, where the fuck was my head at? I must have been exercising other life skills during those moments — which is a legitimate thing as well. People want you to live only for your art, but I can show you a line of dead bodies that did that. I look back sometimes and think, I must have been having my first baby during that time or maybe I was getting divorced — who knows what the fuck I was doing. Also, sadly, as the money rises you don’t always get to explore your true art in the ways you’d like. Now that I’m poorer, I have a much stronger sense of what I’m doing. It’s all such a mind fuck. I don’t think you can ever land in total safety; you just have to keep trying to do your best and do things that interest you.
STEREOGUM: I have to tell you—in total honesty — while I wasn’t entirely sold on all the songs on Funstyle, I really appreciated the freedom of that record and I loved the statement you released along with it. Having experienced such intensely polarized reactions to your work — and given your experiences with record labels — how do you feel about making music now?
PHAIR: I still have that feeling like I just got out of a bad, traumatizing relationship. Here’s the thing that nobody ever seems to understand: I did not sign to a major label. Matador Records went to majors, first they went to Atlantic and then they went to Capitol. They left Capitol eventually but I was retained by Capitol. They compensated me, but they didn’t really give me a choice in the matter. So suddenly I was on a label — a major record label — in perpetuity, without any of the foundational people that I’d come up with. I was just plunked on a major label. So at the time I just thought, fuck it, I’ll just try and run with the rest of the … stags? Big dogs? Anyway, I’ll just go with it. Then, all this shit happens and by the time I got off the label and after the traumatizing experience of Andrew Slater … it took me two years to just get my head on straight. I haven’t had a manager or a label or anything for a long time now and finally, I’m writing shit that I feel good about again. I’m making music right now in which I can finally see the arc that goes back to my early writing style and I know who I am and where I’m coming from. It feels like all that business in between, I just couldn’t even think straight. I know that I made some good stuff and some bad stuff, but it’s that classic thing of how do you put art and commerce together? How do you make the right decisions when you are young and all this money is involved and everyone is telling you what you should be doing?
STEREOGUM: It fucks you up. It fucks up a lot of people.
STEREOGUM: So what do you want to happen next?
PHAIR: I want to make a kickass record and if I have my way I’ll have Ryan Adams produce it and we’ll do some down and dirty shit with great songwriting and it won’t be Guyville, but it will be authentic. And I’ll tour it. I’ll tour the shit out of that shit.
The People Like Us soundtrack is out now on Lakeshore.