When she debuted in 1993 with the seminal Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair planted her flag as indie rock’s resident acid-tongued queen. The Chicago singer-songwriter, who recorded the project as an alleged track-by-track response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., challenged the machismo of the scene with a deadpan frankness that was just as evocative as it was shocking. In the years since, Phair has lived nine lives in the music biz: She released two follow-ups (’94’s Whip-Smart and ’98’s Whitechocolatespacegg) before unleashing 2003’s self-titled LP—a step into the mainstream that many critics interpreted as an anodyne attempt at radio success and, more importantly, a betrayal of her brusque beginnings. In classic Phair fashion, of course, she had the last laugh—it was her highest-charting album to date—and what followed was a pair of records that pushed the envelope even further.
It’s been 10 years since Phair released Funstyle, a see-what-sticks sort of adventure in experimentalism that traversed everything from Bollywood to hip-hop. In that time, she focused on raising her son while juggling live performances and scoring TV shows—until quarantine, when she felt inspired to pick up where she left. “I cannot [emphasize] how weird it was to work on a record in a pandemic,” she tells Apple Music. “There were so many reasons why that ended up being stranger than anyone could have possibly imagined. And in fact, it’s the same as always.” The resulting album speaks to that sentiment, marking a reunion with Guyville producer Brad Wood, who brings a pop sheen to a collection of songs rooted in Phair’s DIY beginnings. It’s a record that examines how relationships work, and how distance can manipulate your perceptions of longing and intimacy. Below, Phair walks us through how each song on Soberish conveys her view of the world today.
Spanish Doors “Anyone who’s a fan of my music knows that I’m fascinated by ordinary moments in conversations that somehow take on greater significance in the larger scope of a person’s life—how simply one piece of information can rock your world. And I really resonated with the idea that [my friend, whose divorce inspired the song], was in a public place when she found out that she was no longer going to be living the life that she was accustomed to. And how jumbled your internal landscape can be when you’re dealing with denial—‘I don’t want to face this.’ Bargaining, maybe there’s a way out of this. Devastation, in the sense that everything’s going to change and there’s nothing you can do about it. The stages of grief. How can you put that into a pop song? That’s the tricky challenge.”
The Game “I think most of my romance these days is amped up. It’s not day-to-day, it’s overly large. And sometimes I think ‘The Game’ is really talking about how much you need ordinariness and day-to-dayness in a love relationship. And as exciting as it is to have a kind of a dramatic affair, it gets old, you get tired. You don’t want to keep resurrecting it—you want it to evolve into something more subtle. I think that surprises me.”
Hey Lou “[Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson] are icons to me. Independent of each other, they were huge influences early on in my life. I just loved both of their music when I was a teenager. Both were making groundbreaking, compelling art. And then, when they got together as a couple, it just seemed impossible: How can these two titans coexist in an ordinary life? And it was really an accidental inspiration that turned into a real sort of love letter to two challenging, difficult artists who, by all accounts, had a very peaceful, loving relationship. So, I’m fascinated.”
In There “It’s like you’ve been saying no to someone for a while and when they start to lose interest because they’ve been rejected a number of times, you’re like, ‘Goddamn it. I miss them.’ And then, you have to break in with your own inability to commit or your own inability to open yourself up to someone. Because for the longest time you could just say no, and you felt like they’d keep coming. And now you are realizing that you’ve said no, and it might be you that has the problem.”
Good Side “‘Good Side’ is my mature ‘F**k and Run.’ Instead of being in a pithy funk about my hookup, I can just kind of say to myself, ‘Well, he got a pretty good impression of me. So, no harm, no foul.’”
Sheridan Road “That inspiration came from a longtime partner that also grew up in the same area [in Chicago] that I did. And there’s this particular road in it, Sheridan Road, that is the main artery connecting the suburbs to downtown. And every time you want to go home or any time you want to go out, you travel on this road. So, our being together on this road in the song brings up all the different life experiences that we’ve had. And yet, we’ve walked the same walk all our lives, but his life is totally different from mine. He’s got special places and I’ve got special places. How could we have been growing up in the same place the whole time and not have been aware of each other?”
Ba Ba Ba “I’m hooking up with someone, it’s a new romance, I’m very excited about it. And in the space of a single song, it starts and is already over before it even began. I think of it as a boomerang song, because where you think it’s going and the person you think I am at the beginning of the song is sort of my ambassador self, the more appealing broadly to mainstream people, like, ‘I’m happy. Yay. Woo.’ And then, by the end of the song, I’m back to my usual self and the relationship is already over.”
Soberish “I feel like we’re all doing the best we can right now. I feel like we, as a country, have gone through a time period that was very dark and difficult and an existential threat, so to speak. So, a lot of people felt the need to stay connected with reality without actually being entirely sober. How much of reality can I stand to absorb and how much do I need to push away from me and keep myself insulated from? ‘Soberish’ is just a more romantic and innocent way to look at that. I used to be the kind of person that could do this sober, but right now I need a shot.”
Soul Sucker “You know when, if on a certain night, you have a hookup with someone and you like that person and it was perfectly fine, but it was just, like, that night. And then you keep running into them in your real world, and maybe they weren’t the person that you would be most excited for people to see that you hooked up with. You’re in your more elegant persona, and then here comes your hookup from back in the day. And you’re like, ‘I don’t know who this is. I don’t know.’ Like that.”
Lonely Street “That is a very modern love song, because it sort of speaks to, yes, we can be connected by a screen, but what I really need is for you to be lying next to me, whispering in my ear. And there’s a sense of sadness in the relationship, but also a sense of isolation that we get by in our modern world with a substitute for what we really need, which is actual intimacy.”
Dosage “I think of it as a modern-day ‘Polyester Bride’ in that I wrote it with the idea of going back to that bar, where Henry the bartender gave me all that good advice when I was young, and coming back as an older woman and seeing a young woman who is basically in the position I used to be in. So, I’m now looking at myself in the younger person who’s wasted, giving her advice, but also saying, ‘By the way, you’re doing fine. Nobody has it all together. Even now, at my age, none of those decisions were even the impactful ones.’”
Bad Kitty “‘Bad Kitty’ is just embracing the mess that is my life. It’s an ongoing theme I have that I will always be out of place no matter where I go or who I try to be. And the manifestos that people think that I have, or that I have the answers, I really don’t. At the end, it’s the poem of just no helmet, no brake, no net, no rope, no more cocaine. You don’t really believe that I’m never going to do those things, do you? That’s really a kind of a throwing your hands up: I am a bad kitty. To this world, that’s how I am perceived. That’s how I identify myself as. It’s not such a bad thing, really—I get nine more lives. But at the same time, it doesn’t all make sense. It’s my emotional state and that’s how I make art. And it doesn’t always have to make sense. One thing does not have to be like, ‘Now I will never do this, and now I will do this.’”
Rain Scene “I was here in my house, and I had bought a 3D microphone thing that I can put on my ears that will record surround sound of whatever space I’m in. And I knew I wanted the approaching storm of ‘Sheridan Road’ to break. I wanted the storm to actually release at the end of the album. So, this unexpected rain happened here in Southern California, and I just practically threw clothes on and threw this thing on. And I was, like, yelling to my son, ‘I’m going out in the rain! I’m going to record the rain!’ And I just stomped up and down the street around my house, recording puddles and me splashing in puddles. And I had Brad edit it in such a way that it took on a flavor of synthesizer of manipulated sounds at the end, and then I wrote a little song about it.”


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