Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
June 15, 2012

While my taste in music encompasses a nonsensical range of genres and decades, it's fair to say that the early to mid '90s were my defining years, and my weapon of choice was the "alternative rock" of the era. This period coincided with the emergence of Liz Phair's work, as her debut album Exile in Guyville became an indie darling amongst alt-music critics, while her follow-up, Whip-Smart, led to her gracing the cover of a special "Women in Rock" issue of Rolling Stone. "Supernova," the first single from her sophomore release, was garnering buzz on MTV's music video showcase 120 Minutes and college radio, and in December of '94, I first saw Liz in person when she played KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, an annual Los Angeles concert that fielded a spectacular lineup that particular holiday season with the likes of Bad Religion, Hole, Live, Veruca Salt, and Stone Temple Pilots.

It's no surprise, then, that I was thrilled about the opportunity to interview Liz while she was doing press for the movie People Like Us, which features an original song that she co-wrote and performed--another entry in her growing body of work in film and television, the latter of which has seen her score shows including 90210 and In Plain Sight. Despite the fact that I spent much of the beginning and end of our session mesmerized and tripping over my own nostalgia, two small pieces of trivia that might be of interest to fellow Liz Phair fans emerged from the chatting that bookended our formal Q&A...

First, Liz would have rocked out with an electric guitar at the aforementioned Almost Acoustic Christmas, except she wasn't made aware that that was an option. "I remember being very embarrassed about that," she laughs, likening it to going out with a group of friends who unexpectedly change the game plan. "It's like when you go to a dress up party, and everyone's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're dressing up!' and they're not." The realization must have dawned on her quickly, though, when Luscious Jackson--the first act to hit the rotating stage--busted out the electronic keyboards and set a decidedly plugged-in tone. Liz was the third performer to step into the spotlight that evening, the only one to go acoustic other than Mazzy Star (if memory serves), who came out eighth in the amazing 11-act lineup. Still, it all worked out in the end, with Liz helping to put the "acoustic" in the Almost Acoustic Christmas, and changing things up by offering one of the night's quieter interludes.

Second, Liz pointed out an interesting fact about my Exile in Guyville CD. Fans know that her acclaimed 1993 debut was re-issued for its 15th anniversary in 2008, boasting three previously unreleased tracks and a bonus DVD entitled Guyville Redux. What is less obvious is that the seminal album had a second printing back in the day, and the difference between the first edition and second edition is evidenced by the image on the CD itself: the original printing features a blurry photo of Ken and Barbie dolls getting down and dirty in a swimming pool. Apparently, Matador Records, Liz's then-label, didn't quite see eye-to-eye with her on the offbeat choice of artwork. Regardless, you can now break out your copy of Guyville and feel all warm and fuzzy if you have the version Liz's sense of humor originally intended.

In the following exclusive interview, Liz (who has spent the day joking with everyone and genuinely enjoying the process of promoting a movie) talks about transitioning to more projects on the screen, reflects on some of her past songs, and embraces the digital age going forward.

People Like Us is now playing in theaters everywhere. So how does a killer rock goddess like yourself go from kicking ass live on stage to taking a more behind-the-scenes role of writing music for film and television?

LIZ: I think it's really just a natural curiosity that I have. I always want to try things that I haven't tried before. And I came from, originally, an art-making background. I was a visual artist before I was in music. So the side of the entertainment business that makes the stuff is always fascinating to me. Like I have a lot of kinship. Like when I do interviews, I feel like I'm partly a writer as well, so I totally get this--this works for me, you know? And I think just being in LA for as long as I've been, you meet great people. I mean, the best creative people here tend to be working in music and film. And maybe video games, I just haven't quite gone into that. [laughs] Or porn, right? You know, I haven't done that either.

I live in the San Fernando Valley. I understand.

[laughs] I would hate to see the soccer moms up there, because it's gotta be like one out of ten that's totally like...You know... [laughs, retracts from her MILF tangent] I'm sorry, I got off topic. But I came into this just naturally, I think, just being in LA. This is why I moved here. As my mother says, whenever I get upset about the shallowness or whatever bugs me about LA, "Yes, but you moved there for the work." And it's true. Here, I can do any number of different things with my creative talents, and it's natural to want to be part of film. And this is not something I sought out particularly. It came and sort of found me. And I think that's more special, because then it's just about two creative people collaborating. And I can get with that...Any time I can collaborate with someone who's great at what they do, I'm interested.

Would you have considered yourself a film and television person before you started doing music for those mediums?

No, not at all. I mean, I love films--I always have--but I was not a television person. I'm still not really a television person, per se. But I think I look at life as if I'm scoring it--like, my emotions score my life, as everyone's do. I just think I'm more in touch with it, I'm following that lead. That's why I go home and write the song when I had a weird meeting that made me feel bad or something--I have to express it musically. So when I first tried putting my own guitar line to picture, I'm like, "Oh, I should have been doing this all along." It [felt like I had] been doing this forever. And so I just need to get better and better at it.

Given your extensive catalog of songs, do you have any that particularly resonate with you now when you look at them in retrospect?

A lot of them. I mean, a lot of them, I go back and I don't even number that I wrote [them]. I just started doing Twitter a couple months ago, and every once in a while, people will connect and say, like, "Listening to 'White Chocolate Space Egg.'" I'm like, "Oh sh*t, there was a song actually called 'White Chocolate Space Egg.'" Or "'Support System.'" And I'll be like, "Whoa, 'Support System'..." And I'll go check it out, because I literally forget that I did that. I just don't stay in touch with my old material as much, and so I'll go back and I'll check it out again, and I'll say, "That is a complete and perfect portrait of that period." And it all comes flooding back.

By contrast, are there songs that make you cringe because they're the writer's cliche of the bad poetry from college?

Well, the worst for me is when it's a half-finished, half-done job. Like I don't mind if it's a sh*tty song if it's fully realized. What I f***in' hate is when...Like on Somebody's Miracle, there's this one song... [sings some lines from "Everything (Between Us)"] "We have everything we need here, we have everything between us..."

[shocked nearly speechless] I just got a private concert. That's was so awesome!

[laughs] Like [with that song], I'm just like, "Finish the f***in' song!" Or like "Wind and the Mountain." At the end, I flip [the lyrics] like, "And sometimes I'm inspired." I'm like, "No dummy, just stick with sometimes I'm f***in' tired." I hate when I do something intelligent to something that was emotional. Just keep the f***ing intelligence out. Get your cleverness, go pack it up, because I'll never be embarrassed by something that expressed itself the way it ought to have been. I call it "hitting where you're aiming." And when I try to overthink it, or apply intelligence to make it rhyme better, or some snazzy, slick bullsh*t, even if that's just production, how we produced it...That I can never forgive.

A completely off-topic question...What would be the most apt thing for a restaurant to name after you: a sandwich, a drink, or a dessert?


So if I order the Liz Phair, what would they bring me?

The Liz Phizzle, which is a... [laughs] It's Baileys and soda. It's like a milkshake with a little bit of sauce and a little bit of carbonation.

You talked about getting to be bad in your music life, which got me thinking about the duality in your song "H.W.C." On the one hand, the music is nice and mellow, you could probably play it for an infant; on the other hand, the lyrics cannot be played for said infant. Do you take a subversive pleasure in mixing things up like that?

[laughs] That's my favorite thing! Subverting expectation is my pleasure--it's my drug in life, no question. It keeps me sober. It's a good thing. I just love it. There's just this natural rebelliousness in me. It's not perversion, it's just subverting expectation.

How do you think you would have gotten your music out there if today's social media had been around when you were first coming up?

I think I would have done demos on YouTube. I absolutely think I would have. I think I would have staged them or done little mini-videos. I have no doubt. I directed most of my early videos, and they were basically a jumble of real footage and bad footage. I mean, on my Twitter, I do a lot of photo videos where I'll take pictures and write the lyrics of the video. It's like a flip book video, almost. I just have a natural art inclination to do that. So I'm sure [I would have used] YouTube...I still might! [laughs]

What other creative outlets have you been keeping up with when you're not focused on music? Do you still draw?

I do. I do some drawing, but mostly I write a little poetry, and I've been writing a novel for a couple years. So I do that mostly--I do the novel in the day, and then I do the rock at night...Proper! Good system!

Awesome. Well, thank you for your time today!

Thank you.

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