It is no coincidence that the new album from Liz Phair sober was released just in time for the whole world to reappear. Since her powerhouse debut in 1993 Exile in Guyville, Liz has shown herself to be an artist who lights the fire and leads the way. Liz doesn’t follow trends – she’s the trend. So it is true that sober– released June 4th, her first album in 11 years – is a tapestry of Liz’s previous story and provides a wild and intimate musical portrait of who she is now.
Produced by long-time employee Brad Wood—Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart, and white chocolate space egg–sober reflects a welcome touch of 90s nostalgia mixed with something unique, honest and really everything. Because the world was different, so was its process, and it became a time for creative self-discovery. “I think fear cripples my creative gene. I never thought there was something that would really turn it off. I thought I could be creative through almost anything, but fear no, ”she says. “You know what they say, like art that needs printing, but it depends on what kind. I never would have known that before and I’m glad I do now. I can plan accordingly. You cannot take the time that is ahead of you for granted. You could say, ‘You know what? We don’t know what’s coming? If you have the impetus, if you are inspired, do it now. ‘ I think that’s probably what I’ll take with me from the pandemic. “
Over the past three decades, Liz has proven that a successful creative career is far from straightforward. “I feel these 30 years. I feel connected to it, ”she says. “I feel like I’ve been to all of these places and doing all of these things and I still don’t really know what I’ve done with my life. I can still look back and say, ‘Wait a minute, was there an order?’ “
Well, there’s a clear timeline marked by consistent career conquests: there are seven studio albums (including her 2003 self-titled pop release), three US gold records, two Grammy nominations, her work as a television composer, and a 2019 reminder . You could say she did it all. “I would love to play at Red Rocks,” she says of the remaining items on her bucket list. “I would like to play Saturday night live, but i’m not sure i really want to play Saturday night live. I think I actually want to be in the sketches … I don’t know if I could do it, but what I really want to do is be in the sketches. “
SPIN: Congratulations on the new album – how are you feeling?
Liz Phair: I’m very proud and in some ways very nervous because it adds to work that I haven’t added in a long time. In a way, it goes back even earlier than just my last release because I worked with Brad Wood, who was the producer of my first three albums. It really goes back to the beginning. It shows where I’ve been, what I’ve learned. I think it shows a lot of the TV music I’ve made. Most of all, I think this will be the first time people have heard Brad and me making music in such a long time. Whatever that conjures up, it’s still resonant in a way that is more impactful than if you haven’t set a record in just 10 years.
Is it true Exile in Guyville was recorded over two years (from ’91 to ’93)?
It didn’t take that long. That said, I went on a weekend and maybe next month and then – it was slow – I was really working on Brad’s schedule at the time. We had such a small budget that he just had free time. I came after his paying sessions or sooner or so. It wasn’t a tedious process. It just stopped and started.
What sets sober Album apart from the rest?
I think it has an interesting sound, and I worked deliberately to make it sound like that. None of the arrangements are traditional. All the arrangements are pretty radical deviations from a traditional song structure, but I’ve done it so that hopefully you don’t notice that the hooks were strong enough, the melodies. We subtracted a lot. In the end, I took off a lot of my guitar parts, which is really unusual for me, and left things a little more open.
I would say the form will make the difference, the dynamics within the songs and the dynamics throughout the album. I hope it has more theatricality and more modern abstraction than people think. Often times the songs here have two lead vocals that are played at the same time. They say two different things, so it’s interesting to listen to too. There is more than one main character telling the story.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
I think “Ba Ba Ba” is my favorite. I like the way it turns midstream into a different kind of story. I like that kind of – it’s almost like a boomerang story and I really like that and it’s meaningful to me.
I saw this meme yesterday that said, “Find someone to love you the way people from Chicago love Chicago.”
Chicago is like that friend I’m gonna totally beat up but if you screw it up I’ll beat you. I like Chicago, but you can’t get around to it.
I’m usually there all the time. Yes, I miss it this year. I went back about four times a year so I still felt very connected to Chicago. Felt like it was almost a second home, but nothing more. My parents moved into old people’s homes, so it’s not my parents’ home anymore, and even then, COVID happened and we didn’t fly anywhere.
Is there anything that you miss in the early days of making music – before fame, before any kind of label, just this raw music making?
I think one of the reasons it takes so long between takes is because I like to forget that someone is listening. I like to return to a state of open borders. I like to think that I’m still a young person who doesn’t create in a vacuum, but for whoever I want. Instead of thinking about it like, “Well, this is your fans and this is your demographics,” which I never think about, but it takes a while for me to forget.
If your job, which is mine, is to talk about yourself every now and then, look at pictures of yourself or write a song about your life…. To be an artist the way I want to be, the way I am happy, I have to forget myself. I have to be the observer, not the one being watched. When I do a work cycle and have to go through this all the time to get rid of that work cycle identity and return to an open minded, open soul, open heart.
What do you think the music business has taught you over the years?
Read your contract. The people in the business are generally more connected to each other than to the artist. You have more control than you think. You just need to make sure that you have done your homework and understand what you are talking about.
sober: What does the title mean to you?
It means a couple of different things. Literally, it means just that. It means this feeling that for the past four years; A) Because they legalized marijuana, which was always my favorite drug, and then B) because we just went through the incredible stress of the Trump presidency and the divisions in our country. Then, the pandemic, it was too much for me to deal with it soberly. I suddenly had problems – not problems, but substances became something I thought about a lot more than before. I had to come up with what I thought was a good balance in an unbalanced situation that I thought was a slippery slope. I’ve never been someone who would ever call me an addict, but when you’re dealing with these external realities that existentially troublesome you, sometimes you need something to take the edge off. Suddenly I was very interested. Is that good or bad? Is that useful, isn’t it useful? Isn’t it a bad example to be set, isn’t it a bad example?
Whenever I come across a question that feels like a hot property, like, “Oh, don’t touch it, it will hurt,” I’m always very interested in it, just like I was with sexuality and the taboo. The taboo for me in this record is how sober should we be and what are our feelings about it?
There are so many options that we are not sober. When you think of our obsession with money, we are not sober when it comes to money. We are not sober when it comes to materialism or consumption. We’re not sober when it comes to entertainment and how much we want to record without ever caring about how it affects our lives. We are drunk on many things that do not necessarily change our physiological state.
No answers, but lots of questions. These are the questions I am currently grappling with.
Your willingness to speak openly about issues at risk is incredibly strong.
However, I understand this because I tend to speak openly and frankly about things that others may not acknowledge, and I get older, so I have this wisdom. I think I can see that. Especially if you are someone who listened to me when you were young it could even be something like: “mummy.” You know what I mean? [Laughs.] We need that now, and nobody has the perspective. Nobody living now has really experienced anything like this.
It is important that we all experience it. What can you do when you have made a name for yourself that I have a feeling what can you do with your creativity? I think this sounds so boring, so lame, of course, but I think there’s a reason it’s a stereotype. You can give back your wisdom. You can help shed light on some things for the people who are to come. You can shed some light on behind the scenes and share your life lessons.
The truth is always more interesting.
History is a story we have agreed on.
It was fun telling my son that he was younger and saying, “I know it seems like you are learning in high school about these things that are set in stone, written in a heavy book, by intelligent ones Teachers, but it’s really just a story that everyone contributed to. It’s just an agreed story that this is the one we’re going to tell. This is the perspective that we will say is the most communal, but it is changeable. You have a say. You can rewrite this story, you can deepen this story or tell a different one. “