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Liz Phair’s Songs of Experience

This June, after months of pandemic-related delays, Liz Phair will finally release “Soberish,” her seventh album and the first in more than a decade. Since 1993, when Matador Records put out “Exile in Guyville”—Phair’s full-length début, and still one of the funniest, richest meditations on sex, self-actualization, and human relations I’ve ever heard—she has been a beacon for women attempting to navigate the cloistered, historically male universe of indie rock. It feels reasonable to say that, without Phair, who turned fifty-four this week, the genre may not have opened up to artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Mitski, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and others. “Soberish” combines the candor and scrappiness of “Guyville”—it often feels just as spontaneous and elemental—with the emotional sophistication of a person who has seen some things.

I recently spoke with Phair, who Zoomed in from her home in Southern California. Her blond hair was gathered into a ponytail, and she was wearing a piece of her own merch: a pink, slouchy sweatshirt featuring the words “Hey Lou” and a yellow banana reminiscent of the image that Andy Warhol lent to the Velvet Underground, in 1967, for the cover of the album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” “Hey Lou,” the first single from “Soberish,” is a loose, jangly rock song that imagines a conversation between Lou Reed and his wife, the musician and artist Laurie Anderson. In it, Phair skewers the idea that genius and unpleasantness are hopelessly entangled, and that every great artist has a built-in excuse to be a jerk: “No one knows what to think / When you’re acting like an asshole / Spilling all the drinks / Talking shit about Warhol / Again,” she sings. I told Phair that the banana was a perfect choice as an accompanying image for the song, but it seemed that her younger fans—who stream most of their music and aren’t routinely exposed to cover art—might not make the connection.

“Isn’t that crazy?” she said. “It’s like in ‘The Matrix,’ when the world dissolves. Bits of data are disappearing. It’s almost as if the collective unconscious is getting dementia for people that are our age.” She continued, “I used to take comfort in the knowledge that, if it was on the Internet, anyone could find it. But that’s not the case. I blithely thought that all my past work, all my past interviews, all my past performances would still just be there. When I tried to search for them, so much of it was gone. It sucks.”

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It’s really good to see you.

You, too. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening!

“Soberish” is your first full album of new material since “Funstyle,” from 2010. It’s not as if you’ve been dormant in that time—there’s been a book, performances, reissues, other recordings—but what did it feel like to be back in the studio again?

It was wild, because I was working with Brad Wood, who produced “Exile in Guyville” and “Whip-Smart,” and part of “whitechocolatespaceegg,” so I was going back in time in a strange way. There was awkwardness in the beginning, in terms of reconnecting. It was a slow reëntry into working together, a bit of a push and pull. The mandate that I set out for us very early on ended up being exactly what we got at the other end, which is a huge triumph as a creative person—to actually arrive at the destination that you set out for yourself.

What was the vision that guided you?

It was such a specific mandate—it was very clear, which gave me a lot of faith. I wanted to use the sounds that we had used on “Guyville,” but with the added complexity of me now being fifty-plus years old. And I really wanted it to feel distinct from other work that’s coming out. I remember when I first heard André 3000—I was driving in a car and I pulled up to a stoplight and someone was blasting it out of a car window. And it was like [mimics record-scratching noise]. You know? Like, “What is that?” It was so distinctive.

So I wanted [this album] to be reminiscent of the old stuff yet more complex than that, and I wanted all the songs to feature unorthodox arrangements. None of them could be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, double chorus, out. Or verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out. Whatever it was, it had to be experimental—but it couldn’t feel like that. It had to pass you by without you ever knowing that I’d done something radical with the arrangement. It had to feel hooky and easy to listen to. “Guyville” sounded so different from other stuff that was coming out at the time. How do we do that again as us, thirty years later? Those were all the mandates. It was like Luke shooting that final kill shot into the Death Star—it was that narrow. It took a lot of subtraction. We’d do a song and strip away.

Where and when were most of these songs written?

They were mostly written over the past two to three years. I wasn’t pulling from the distant past, which is interesting, because I usually do. There are three songs that are five years old, maybe? But it’s a pretty young record in terms of how recently it was written. Some of [the recording] was done remotely, after we delayed the release of the record [because of the pandemic]. That was my choice. I wanted to do that—I didn’t want it to come out into darkness. It’d been ten years since I made a real album. But it’s really hard to put something on a shelf. It feels wrong. There’s a timeliness, there’s a freshness, a sense of where the Zeitgeist is going. I added some lift to the album because I was trying to imagine what state of mind we’d be in at the end of the pandemic. The Trump years really got me down—it was hard to fight that depressive element that kept showing up again and again. But I think we fought it pretty well.

In some ways, it feels like the perfect moment for a record like this to appear. On the East Coast, we’re in the midst of that really odd, halting, awkward transition from winter to spring. There’s one day that’s really warm, and then it gets cold again. Same thing with the pandemic—people are starting to get vaccinated, yet it doesn’t really seem over. Instead, it feels as if everything good is very close, but we don’t quite have our hands on it. There’s a lot of optimism, but a lot of lingering melancholy, too.

I think of “Soberish” as an album about the transitional times, not the peak in-love times and not the peak single times, but the transition of falling in love and the insecurity and vulnerability of that, the tumultuousness of how one minute you’re telling all your friends you’ve got a new guy, and the next minute you’re, like, “It’s over. I don’t even . . .” And then it’s back on again. That kind of bullshit. When you’re breaking up and you’re pretty sure it’s over, but you still love each other, or you still had sex, and now you miss them, but also you know it’s over? That’s where “Soberish” is—it’s a transitional, emotional record.

“Soberish” also feels like a pretty apt description of how many of us spent the first few months of quarantine. Sometimes you’re clear-eyed, and other times you’re just out of your fucking mind. How did that word come to symbolize this collection of songs?

In a literal way, it means the state that I’ve been in while dealing with the pandemic and Trump and what it took to survive—I couldn’t quite take reality straight on. But, at the same time, it’s more expansive. The cover has the intersection of Sober Ave. and Ish St. It’s a crossroads. It’s an in-between state. Maybe you’re technically sober, but there’s still something you do compulsively, that you flip back and forth between in your life. “I’m gonna be this person! No, I’m not, fuck that. No, I’m gonna be this person! No, fuck it, I’m not gonna be that person.” It’s about all those things that are neither one nor the other, and we toggle between them. We stand on that street corner so many times in so many different ways in our lives.

How do heartbreak and songwriting intertwine for you, if at all?

So much. They intertwine so much. You know how we have secret wishes about ourselves, like I wish I had curly hair instead of straight hair, or whatever it may be? I wish I could write those great “I’m in love and this is amazing and we’re gonna go on forever!” songs. But I turn to creative work when I’m trying to figure something out. People have been asking me about self-care a lot, and I feel too old to answer that question because I’m, like, “What’s that?” But I realize art-making is my self-care. It’s what I do when I want to say something to someone but I know I shouldn’t call them, or I want to readdress something but it’s just too far in the past, or I want to secretly tell someone how I feel about them but not actually tell them to their face. For whatever reason, I feel this sense that the mail needs to be delivered. There’s stuff in me that needs to get out of me and go to its destination, and I can’t settle unless that’s the case. Songwriting—writing in general—really allows me to take all that turmoil and uncertainty, the hesitation, missed opportunities, the things I desire and don’t have the courage to reach for, and sing about them or write about them, and then somehow the universe feels served. I’m actually doing what I’m supposed to do as I move through life. It’s a way of cleaning my subconscious closet that adds to the world, rather than just remaining toxic and unhappy and making other people unhappy.

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