Liz Phair is totally good with being a Gen X feminist in a Gen Z world
Before it was legal in California, Liz Phair never used to buy weed.
“I’d always preferred it to drinking, but I wanted to be able to stand up in a court — courts terrify me — and be like, ‘I did not buy illegal drugs,’” the veteran indie-rock star says. “So at a party I’d be the one standing outside the bathroom: ‘What are you guys doing in there?’”
Phair’s feelings changed along with the law in 2016. “All of a sudden I could just buy it whenever I wanted,” she says, which turned out to be quite a bit of the time. “My son had just gone off to college and I kind of went through a second puberty.”
Today Phair, 54, has dialed back to the point where she estimates she’s high for about a fifth of her waking hours — a state that inspired the title of her wise and witty new album, “Soberish.” Her first studio LP in more than a decade, it’s all about finding the manageable (if sometimes awkward) sweet spot between too much and not enough, not just with drugs but with love, work, exercise, money.
The songs ponder indecision and compromise; they capture relationships at critical moments of transition, as in “Spanish Doors,” about a couple facing divorce, and the jangly title track, where a woman downs a shot of liquid courage before a rendezvous at a fancy hotel: “Why do we keep dicking around? / Waited such a long time to be with you / Now I’m chickening out.”
Sonically too, the music conjures an in-between state, with breezy pop melodies roughed up by strange textures and asymmetric structures that carry even the tidiest songs in unexpected directions.
As proudly as the album wears Phair’s grown-up experiences, “Soberish” knowingly evokes her classic 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville,” which made her an instant sensation (and helped open up a forbiddingly male-dominated indie scene) with its frank depiction of a 20-something’s sexual-emotional awakening. The unashamed desire in Phair’s songs shocked prudish listeners even as her deadpan vocal delivery challenged long-held ideas about how desire presents; more important, she wrote about sex as a kind of multidimensional phenomenon: a pleasure, a vice, a tool, an obligation. For the new album, Phair hired her first producer, Brad Wood, with whom she hadn’t worked since the late ’90s, back when they both lived in Chicago.
“I wanted us to use our old sound — those basic building blocks,” says Phair, who slightly burnished her DIY style for 1994’s “Whip-Smart” and 1998’s “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” then went big and glossy on a series of polarizing records from the 2000s. Zooming from her home in Manhattan Beach, she’s wearing a sparkly silver top, her blond hair hanging loose over her shoulders; behind her, a couple of acoustic guitars lean against a sage-colored wall.
Liz Phair was supposed to be on tour with Alanis Morissette right now. Instead, she’s interviewing the “Jagged Little Pill” star for The Times.
Yet you wouldn’t call “Soberish” a throwback, in part because we’re living in something of a Liz Phair moment. Her influence as a singer and a songwriter — and as a guitarist with a fluid style that Wood compares to Keith Richards’ and Joni Mitchell’s — has never been more evident than in the work of Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail and other acclaimed young artists exploring intimacy in the age of the DM.
And Phair is closely tuned into what’s going on among her inheritors. With Olivia Rodrigo — whose smash debut, “Sour,” builds upon the smarts and candor of “Guyville” even if 18-year-old Rodrigo wasn’t alive when it came out — “I felt an immediate kinship,” Phair says. “She’s a character I would get along with in real life.” Phair admires Taylor Swift too — the way she uses personal details to tell a larger story about women at a specific point in time.
“I love when she talks about the house that she bought and the history that’s in that house,” she says of Swift’s song “The Last Great American Dynasty,” from 2020’s “Folklore” album. “I love the resonance of that.”
Phair wasn’t hiding out exactly as her legend grew in the years after her last album, 2010’s “Funstyle.” She took gigs scoring television shows, including The CW’s “90210” reboot, in order to be around for her son, Nick, whose dad she’d split from before they moved separately to L.A. around 2000. “Everyone who knows us says we’ve done a really good job as co-parents,” she says.
In 2017 she started work on an album with Ryan Adams, but the sessions quickly flamed out; later, Adams was accused by several women of sexual misconduct, which led Phair to scrap the unfinished songs they’d recorded together. She also wrote a memoir, “Horror Stories,” and put together an elaborate box set to mark “Guyville’s” 25th anniversary.
The latter project is what sparked the idea of a creative reunion with Wood, who’d also ended up in L.A. and with whom Phair had stayed in touch socially. “My daughter used to love Legos, and Nick had the best Lego collection on earth,” the producer says.
Wood admits his expectations were low when he and Phair got together two years ago. “I had my doubts that 2019 Liz and me were going to be able to conjure anything like 1992 Liz and me,” he says. But although Phair wanted access to that old sound, she didn’t want to use it in precisely the same way.
“This was the summer of ‘Old Town Road,’ which was so exciting to me,” Phair says. “You’re telling me that a two-minute mashup of styles is the biggest song in America? This was our moment! No traditional arrangements. Everything’s gonna be completely off-kilter but so catchy that you don’t even notice how weird it is.”
You can hear what she was after in a curio like “Soul Sucker,” which rides an almost hip-hop-ish beat, but also in “Hey Lou,” a crisp folk-rock number with a needling riff and a tricky tempo shift. In the latter, Phair steps outside herself to imagine the domestic life of what she called one of her favorite celebrity couples: Laurie Anderson and the late (and famously grumpy) Lou Reed.
“No one knows what to think when you’re acting like an asshole,” she sings. “Spilling all the drinks, talking s— about Warhol.”
Asked which half of that couple she identifies with, Phair says, “Oh, I’m always the Laurie. I tend to be attracted to men that I’m trying to accommodate somehow or another.”
Has being aware of that tendency changed it?
“I’m not even gonna try to change it — there’s no hope,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up in a certain time period, and I’ve accepted its limitations. I’m a feminist but I still want flowers, and I still want you to hold the door open. It’s conflicted, and that’s OK. I’m a product of the late 20th century; I’ll leave it to the next generation to re-carve the shape of their dreams.”
Despite Phair’s proven cool-aunt status, it’s easy to wonder whether the contradictions that have always defined her work — on “Soberish” no less than on “Exile in Guyville” — might land less favorably among Gen Z-ers with more rigidly progressive politics.
“I see that a little differently,” she says. “My age group, we took for granted certain solid facts about how this country operates. But this younger generation has seen behind the curtain, and they know nobody’s f— driving this. At all. So I have a lot of empathy for the idealized we-have-to-reform-society thing.
“Do I actually think that any utopia works? I’m a Gen X-er — I don’t get with any attempt to make everything correct. But I look into Greta Thunberg’s eyes and I see the death stare that comes from the knowledge of a fact.”
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The singer says her views have been shaped by her close relationship with her son, who’s 24 and who spent much of the pandemic quarantined with her. “I have memories of me trying to weed the garden and he’s supposed to be helping me but he’s actually just standing there calling me a libertarian,” she says. “But the truth is he’s past the point where I’m teaching him. He’s teaching me in equal measure.”
Still, after more than a year of quality mother-son time, Phair is ready to get out of the house, not least because her favorite activity when she’s high is cleaning her closets — and she’s cleaned all the ones she’s got.
This fall she’s set to tour with a pair of fellow ’90s survivors in Alanis Morissette and Garbage. “And I’m getting ready to date again,” she says with a grin, “remembering what’s fun about it, what it was like to be in love in seventh grade. I’m reappreciating just two human beings finding each other and exploring each other.”
Post-COVID, she reckons, “I think I’ll be more interested in what takes place between the two people instead of: Are their friends people I would like? What about their family? Could I hang with this lifestyle? I think it’s increased my attention span for another person.
“But who knows?” she adds. “In six months I could be singing a different tune.”
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