Q&A: Liz Phair on Funstyle, Letting Go of Guyville, and Her Experience on Capitol
Darren Ankenmann We were sent this.
Over July 4th weekend, Liz Phair released Funstyle, her first full length in five years. For just five dollars for a full album download, the 11 tracks came with a message: the music within cost her relationships with her management company and ATO Records, who'd just enthusiastically reissued her 1993 classic album, Exile in Guyville. As par for Liz Phair's last 10 years, Funstyle sent the Phair faithful into a tizzy, with its notable nods to Bollywood, humorous scatting about her recent career troubles, and ethereal electronic arrangements.
Through a distribution company called Rocket Science Ventures, Funstyle received an official release on October 19 and along with it comes 10 songs from the much bootlegged Girlysound tapes, four-track recordings that served as precursors to Guyville. Phair is headlining the Bowery Ballroom on Monday, December 13--tickets go on sale today at noon. Sound of the City recently caught up with Phair, who spoke candidly about her experience with Capitol Records in the early 2000s, letting go of Guyville, and her work as a composer for televisions shows such as 90210 and In Plain Sight.
It sounds like you've had a frustrating few years.
Yes and no. It's sort of par for the course at this point, whether art and commerce will ever come together. I would think my worst days were back at Capitol [who released 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg, 2003's Liz Phair and 2005's Somebody's Miracle]. ATO and I just didn't see eye to eye on the music but it wasn't anything as traumatic as having good old [then Capitol Records CEO] Andy Slater breathing down your neck.
Those [ATO] guys are still cool, I still see them. Even my management, who I split with [over] all this stuff, we still see each other when they're in town. What's frustrating for me, is that for any artist, you want to make stuff, put it out, and go play. But there's often many things, especially in a recession, where no one is feeling very risk-takey.
I can see a new act being risky, but I'd never consider you as a risk.
Have you heard the record?
It is odd. It's not risky... I get it. I don't freak out about it. To me, this is a longer game. I really did sit for 13 months on the Funstyle sound. I did listen when they were like, "Don't do this." I listened! I sat there for a year and waited to feel the way they did and I never did. I actually thought the more the economy tanked, the more Funstyle is needed. I don't get the fear people have of creativity.
For me, I was always working on a budget. For me, that's fine, you don't have to do as much of the dog-and-pony show. I obviously feel passionately about it, and gave myself the amount of time to see if I feel passionately about it, and I do.
Did the way things play out make you feel depressed?
That was good ol' Capitol. That was extraordinarily depressing. The stuff with ATO was like, "Oh, yeah?" They didn't have power over me, it was just a business proposition. Capitol really had power over me. That sucked. I don't ever, ever want to be in that position as long as I live, knock on wood. There's nothing worse. It's your entire life, your livelihood, your passion--it's everything to you, and it's nothing to this other person. It's just like a little bead that he moves from one place to another. And the idea that someone would retain me against my will and also not have any plans to do anything. Like "I don't want you to have her." It'd be like an abusive boyfriend: "I don't want you, but he can't have you." That's what it felt like and it was a shocking, profound experience to go through.
The way I remember it, it always seemed like they were much more concerned with "Liz Phair: Sex Symbol" over "Liz Phair: Musician."
You better believe it. There was a photo shoot that ended up being the photo shoot for a cover, where I had refused the photographer. This guy does super provocative, super sexy stuff. All the girls were looking all passive, their limbs were dangling and their boobs were hanging out sort of thing. And I said, "No, this is not the packaging and imaging I want." And I sent him back. Sir Nameless was furious. FURIOUS. Literally, pulled the guy back from London and said, "This is who you're working with, this is who it is, if you don't do this, you're going to be on the fucking street and I don't know what to do with you." Yelling at me. I can remember distinctly, totally having a breakdown and crying in the closet. Being so frustrated that I was being forced to do this.
But this is what I do sometimes with that sexuality: If it isn't my choice, then I just throw it in your face, really, really hard. Because I don't know where to find my power. I don't know where else to find it. It's like, "Oh you want some sex, well here's some fucking sex." That's sort of where I go. And that was a real shocker. He scrapped a whole video. It was just frustrating to have someone take you down certain avenues. And I'm sure if he was listening to this phone call, he'd be like, "You were so fucking lucky at that chance." I can see both sides of it, but to me, consensual matters. It just fucking does.