Few people can make, or take, a hit like Liz Phair. Confident and true to herself, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who changed the stage for a generation of women like Liz. 6’1” was just the beginning.
Episode 12: Liz Phair - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: Long before Alanis Morissette. There was another woman talking about sex, and upending the male patriarchal narrative in rock music and she blew my mind. Liz Phair as a true pioneer in the alternative rock lexicon. And I couldn't believe I'd never met her before. We come from a very similar mindset, and when Liz Phair and I sat down to discuss her career and her songwriting, this is what happened. Liz Phair. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
Liz: Shirley, thank you for having me.
Shirley: I'm thrilled, literally. I mean I've been a big fan of yours since, uh, since before I was in Garbage. So that goes way back. We're talking-
Liz: That is beautiful.
Shirley: 25, 26. I don't know how many years actually, but a long time and I first heard of you in Edinburgh, Scotland and like I have a really strong memory of reading about you in one of the, you know, music papers, and like being really jealous.
Liz: [Laughs] That's good. That's a high compliment. That's a great compliment, you’re like- “Ugh.” [Laughs]
Shirley: Yeah, “Who is this radical girl?” But, um, I think it's just interesting what you just said about, you were talking casually off mic and you were saying that you don't mind doing all the technical stuff, but you, you're worried about an audience.
Liz: Still am. I still see them as individual people and I cannot help when I feel what they're feeling. I see their faces and I feel what they're feeling. But like the terror that I will feel, I will stammer, I will stutter, I will be shaking the whole time I perform. Something about that exposure, for just, I didn't picture myself on stage. To say, “I want eyes on me, I want ears listening to me.”
Shirley: But at some point you made that decision, correct?
Liz: Well, no, actually I just made a record because that wasn’t-
Shirley: But you don't make a record without knowing that there's going to be an audience at the back of it.
Liz: I did, Shirley I did. I did. I thought I was just gonna show up the people in the neighborhood. I thought I was going to show the men who were successful in my neighborhood. Like the bands that I saw as big, the local bands, that treated me like a dumb girl.
Shirley: But to be successful, to be successful you need an audience.
Liz: I didn't put those two things together. [Laughs] I'm not kidding. I just didn't conceive that it would take off and be taken as seriously as it was. I didn't- I thought I could make a record just like I made my art, and I'd put it out and someone would buy it or not buy it and that would be kind of the end of it.
Shirley: But you wanted to make a piece of art then?
Liz: Oh, for sure.
Shirley: And he wants to say something.
Liz: Yes. Always. Every day of my life I want to make a piece of art. Even if that's just like cleaning up my closet, literally. Every day I want to make a piece of art.
Shirley: Now I know that you had done, I guess what would now be called a mixtape, but wasn't a mixtape back then, right? It was just considered, I don't know, kind of a weird anomaly where you put the girly tapes together, right?
Liz: Yeah, yeah. I just, I was challenged, um, by a friend who knew I had stage fright and knew that I wrote these songs and recorded them by myself, but would never play them for anyone. And we lived in a social scene where everyone pretty much got up on stage, so it shouldn't have been so intimidating to me. So he kind of was like poking me a little bit to see if I would crack. He's like, just make me one tape and send it to me. So I went home and that's what I focused, um, my time on was recording these girly sound tapes. And I loved it, and I only sent two copies out, one to my friend Tae Won Yu and one to Chris Brokaw. And Tae Won Yu made like copy after copy after copy after copy and he sent it everywhere and all of a sudden I'm getting mail, I'm getting-
Shirley: A street campaign
Liz: A street campaign! You know, and he came to my show last year. It was the first time he’d seen me perform.
Liz: Maybe ever. And he just, he hugged me. He's like, “I saw the songwriting and I got it. I got how it's all of a piece. It's the same- at its core, it's just a songwriter.”
Shirley: So for this, this podcast you picked 6’1, which I thought was really intriguing cause I thought you were going to go for something much more obscure. I was like, “I- I bet you she’ll go for something I've never heard of before. Weird B side or- But you picked, uh, the first truck off your debut album. I want to know why.
Liz: What I heard the directive was something pivotal and because it was-
Shirley: That is correct.
Liz: That is correct, okay. So, I took my assignment very seriously.
Shirley: I knew you would. [Laughs] I knew you were a good girl at heart.
Liz: [Laughs] I am a good girl at heart! And I thought that's the lead off- the kicker to establish that whole first record, which is- has loomed as such a big presence in my entire career. But it also is one of the easiest to explain the conceit that I was playing with in terms of Exile on Main St. and Exile in Guyville. So I had done a kind of song by song response in my own conceptual, artistic weird Oberlin way.
Shirley: So did you, though, really do that? Or did you just know that that would be an amazing story in the press?
Liz: I absolutely did it, and it kills me that I lost those notes. My parents must have thrown it away at some time, and I will be happy to get my godparents on a mic to affirm that that summer I did nothing, but pour thro-
Shirley: No need, I believe you.
Liz: Pour through my notes making all these sort of symbols that would show me, I- I think, I forget what I used… Like a big square would be a big rock song and a circle be a kind of more watery, um, internal subconscious song or sexy, or maybe that was waves. Like I had all these little symbols, but what I did was, this is what is so confusing to everyone. I- I wrote the girl into the plot using myself as the girl.
Shirley: Yes, you did.
Liz: The idea was when The Stones are singing about some girl, I play the girl and sometimes, and I was very careful, I- I- I was an art major, a studio art, art history major at Oberlin.
Shirley: At Oberlin.
Liz: So I knew about art. I knew how to make it. I knew how to make it in a way that was sophisticated, but I didn't know about music, you know? I knew what I liked. I knew what I played, so I applied- it's like art rock. It was like an art concept and the first song Exile on Main St. is Rocks Off. And it's a song about Mick running into a past love or you know, a girl he's dating but didn't date that night. And how she's looking at him with this like, “Oh, I can see that you're coming home. You're doing the walk of shame. Where were you last night?” And he's so fucked up. He's so wasted still that he can't even answer her, but he can understand what- she's looking at him. This accusation like, “This is too early for you to be you dressed like that, out in the morning, where you coming from?” I wrote 6’1 as the girl looking at him, but it was like any rock dude, any of these rock guys that are so untouchable in a way and so inspiring and sexy, but you hate them too because they're bad boys. They don't care about your feelings and they are slutty. You know what I mean? Like, and so I was writing that song back at The Stones.
Liz: My voice is not a traditional singer’s voice, it was awkward and swallowed. I sing much better now. I’m actually- I learned that learning how to sing, I don't know if you've found this, was an emotional journey as much as it was a technical journey. Allowing yourself to be seen, allowing yourself to want in public and feel in public is a very hard thing.
Shirley: Absolutely. But you know, it's interesting because to me when I was hearing the, well, that whole record, I love that you weren't a smooth stage school kid. You know, you had a very unique, still do, have very unique way of presenting vocals on records that I hadn't really heard before and that has been ripped off ever since. Really, people have been influenced by you, and, and have deliberately tried to emulate you for that very reason, as you don't sound like you went to stage school, which to me, is, is the most heavenly aspect of your voice.
Liz: That's such a nice thing for you to say.
Shirley: Well, it's just true. You know? I'm not even trying to be nice. I'm actually trying to be a bitch. [Laughs] I’m only joking.
Liz: No, let’s get into it! I'm totally- dude. Let's get exciting.
Shirley: It felt very off- flippant to me. It felt off-key and flippant.
Liz: Yes! How dare you step into this space and not be fully trained, and not be what we expect? How dare you take up that space?
Shirley: T- Tell me what was happening in your life when you wrote this particular song. Where were you? What was going on? Can you remember?
Liz: Yes. I was flat broke, and having to tell myself that I was a great artist ‘cause no one was telling me that.
Shirley: Are you in Chicago?
Liz: I'm in Wicker Park in Chicago. I'm downtown, basically squatting practically paying very little rent.
Shirley: Job? Do you have a job?
Liz: No. God, no. That was the whole thing. I was a starving artist. I'd had jobs, I knew what work was, but I knew that I wanted to be a great visual artist and I had interned for very famous artists that I admired and that was still what I was doing. So there was a, an insouciance that I had because it wasn't my real thing. Music wasn't going to be my real thing. I- I was sick of men explaining to me what good music was and arguing, just sitting as a passive bystander, listening to the men debate.
Shirley: It's really tedious, isn’t it?
Liz: God, it's so dull. And if you offer any, you know, contribution, it's too-
Shirley: You know, you’re a girl. What do you know?
Liz: Yeah, what do you know? And, so, I had just about had it. I’d had boyfriend after boyfriend make me mix tapes telling me that my music sucked, and there's this great. I was done. I, you know, “Okay, how hard is it to make a record?” And that was even a dare from a current boyfriend who's like, you know, I'm like, “What's the best record? What's the best record that's ever been made?” As a learning tool! [Laughs] You know? And I happened to have a cassette of Exile on Main St. in the house, which I had never heard. It was a leftover box from the previous tenants. And I said, “Is this for example, a really great record?” And he's like, “Well arguably that is one of the best. But if I heard it put it next to another one, I'm not sure if that, or-” you know, but I'm like, “but is it really good?” And he was like, “yes, it's considered one of the best albums I’ve ev-” And he's like, “It's a double album. You should do that, you know?” And immediately I thought, “Fuck it, why not? Why wouldn't I take on this? I'm trying to show you all that this is not rocket science or brain surgery. You can actually make an- you know, an album.” And so I started to do it.
Liz: 6’1 was my- I always see the beginning- it’s like the introductory paragraph, when they teach you how to do a paper, I'm setting the table for where we're going to go and what's going to happen. So I knew that I was doing that. I knew what song was corresponding with which I had charts and diagrams of like how this related. It had to be a big song, it had to be a rocker, it had to have a certain amount of chutzpah or just, you know.
Shirley: But had you written the words first, or do they come to you as you’re playin-
Liz: They come at the same time. They absolutely come at the same time. Only a couple times I've written music and or words separately, both fruitful ways to go, like-
Shirley: And you’re playing on a guitar
Liz: Playing on a guitar… Feeling…
Shirley: By yourself?
Liz: By myself.
Shirley: Sorry to keep interrupting.
Liz: No, no, no. I'm like, in fact, yeah, I'm, I’m in an apartment that is basically being renovated from beneath me. So it's, there's like little, little stuff like sticking out of the walls. I painted it and I made it very homey, but it was definitely not really a real apartment. You know, it's like falling apart, it was very annoying. [Laughs]
Shirley: Exactly how I want it to be!
Liz: That’s exactly how it was. And there's, like, evidence of the night before is lying everywhere. There's like, you know, drinks, glasses, and high heeled shoes on the table and God knows what else. And I'm writing, probably faced with a humiliation the night before where Nash came into the bar and he paid no attention to me and was with was some glorious girl on his arm and I needed to say, “I'm here, I'm watching, you know, notice me.” I think it was that kind of song, this kind of, but I knew I was setting the table for a much longer thing I had to say.
Shirley: And this is an odd question, and again, if you don't feel comfortable answering it, you don't have to answer this question-
Liz: Oh, I want the odd question. Do it, do it, do it, do it.
Shirley: Do you love sex, or do you just like writing about it?
Liz: I freaking love sex, but I don't like it- The misnomer about me is that I'm extremely monogamous. I'm a specialist, not a generalist. So, I only like having sex with someone that I actually really am into. [Laughs]
Shirley: Well, I just find it fascinating, you know, um, that people assume when you write something and express it, they assume you are that person a hundred percent. Like there's no room for maneuver -there's no room for-
Liz: Yeah what is that?
Shirley: Or artistic, like, license. They just say, you know, she's this, she's that.
Liz: Well, they took it to mean that I was a huge slut. Anything about sex, I pretty much love. It just- I only like it with the person that I'm into.
Shirley: Yeah, and you’re-
Liz: And that seems hard for people to understand, although I don't know why.
Liz: Men do not compute that, and 25 years later they still don't compute that they're like, “she likes sex she’ll probably like it with me.” No. You can be a good girl and want sex with the people that you want it. And you can describe it as audaciously as the men. And then that leaves the audience having to grapple with what a con- what their conceit of like a good girl or a bad girl is.
Liz: “Permission to be human, sir.”
Shirley: So why did you pick Brad Wood to come and produce this very personal female perspective? Why did you pick him?
Liz: Here’s thing about Brad, he takes me seriously and so many producers don't. They see my bad guitar playing and they say like, “Well I'll cover that up with what you mean to be playing.” And it ends up sounding generic and you lose me in the shuffle and that explains a lot of the music that people don't like that I put out subsequently. But, he lets me be…
Shirley: Who you are.
Liz: Who I am. Some other label flew me out to California and I had a cassette of, like, all the music, and I think a couple people said, “Are you planning to re-record this in tune?” You know, and I'm like-
Shirley: Oh my God.
Liz: [Laughs] No, it is what it is, but- I mean, this is my whole thing. Imperfect does not make me not worth hearing from. I wasn't going to re-record it because it was art. It was, it hadn't been done. It had been done the way I wanted it done, but now I had to live it and you know, I- we can discuss at length what makes my head that way, that I would be willing to humiliate myself a couple of times. But I think it's just this deep respect and passion for art and understanding that artists who are long dead are still having an impact on our culture. That hooked me right away, so that hooked me as a little girl.
Shirley: You know, I've noticed, you know, reading a lot of your press over the years that people got really mad at you because you tried different things, some to great success, some not so successful. Like any artist, like any great artist, they have ups, they have downs. They fuck up, they make great pop records, and people think they're rubbish, and then 10 years later revisit them and actually go, “You know what, that was a great pop song.” And you're dealing with people's prejudices all the time, right?
Liz: Yeah, absolutely. Um, yes, I totally agree.
Shirley: But you haven't been really allowed, I don't think too, you have allowed yourself, thank God.
Liz: That's it. I took the permission myself and again, I think that's coming from an art world. Like you know, a, a visual artist- you know, Picasso's earlier period doesn't look anything like his later period, and so many artists go through those phases. So, I was looking at it from a longer game, not really knowing the way the machinery of the music business works. And that is interesting. I don't regret that pop period at all because I learned, I would argue that that is where I learned to perform live. That's where I sort of mastered my fear and found a place for myse- myself on the stage.
Shirley: Do you feel resentment towards Exile in Guyville because it has, forever basically, you know, the, the, it's the standard by which you are constantly judged and never allowed to deviate from. Is that difficult? Is that frustrating?
Liz: It was really hard. It isn't anymore, but it used to be, like time, distance, more accomplishments, like, moving through life now it feels like my best friend and ally. Um, but at the time, maybe even up to 10 to 15 years afterwards, it felt like something that people were constantly trying to drag me back to, and I didn't know how to say I'm a mother living in Lincoln Park, taking my kid to the sandbox. I'm not hanging out at the bars and doing all the stuff that I was doing before. It would be faker of me to pretend that I was, I never saw Guyville as the end of my journey. I never saw it as like a, “Now I have achieved everything I ever wanted to do and here I am, I’ve landed. It’s home.” It was always something I was moving through as I have moved through everything in my life.
Shirley: And do you think you'd still be here as a working musician and still inspiring people and teaching people and being a representation in the world, of a woman at 50 who can continue to be creative? Do you think you'd do- have been able to do that had you stuck to your one Exile in Guyville template?
Liz: Super brilliant question and no, I would not have. If I'd stuck to the Exile in Guyville template, I wouldn't have much to say because I wouldn't have journeyed, I wouldn't have traveled as far as I had. I wouldn't have learned even a third of what I've learned, and I wouldn't have the inner strength to know who I am and what my value is so that I can convey it, and, and give it to younger artists and say like, trust in yourself, believe in yourself, you will take some hard knocks- that is the one thing I would give to my son if I could just give it to him wholesale, just be like, “Here, take this from me.”
Shirley: So speaking from experience, I was a very, um, you know, prominent sex symbol in inverted commas when I was in, in the nineties, as I know, you too were. You were considered, you know, se- we both were considered sexy babes.
Shirley: And as my youth began to, you know, diminish and I stepped into adulthood and I’m now, literally a middle aged female artist. I struggled with some of that, you know, in my forties I really struggled with my value as a human being who was no longer considered sexy and beautiful. I didn't walk in a room and people were like turning around and looking at me, you know, instead I saw, I saw a lot of disappointment, not just in male faces but in female faces too, you know? And I felt very self-conscious and I projected a lot of my bullshit onto other people, which was maybe real, maybe not. I suspect some of it was real ‘cause I'm no dummy.
Liz: Well, I mean, okay, youth makes for a really fun photoshoot. You can put anything on it and it can withstand whatever style because it's sort of flawless in its youthfulness, so there's a real thing. It's like an athlete does age out of being able to compete at the same level as- you know. So I've aged out of a certain- and I miss the photoshoots. I really loved doing that, but like, you know, it's different now. You can't just like throw a bunch of weird style on me and it looks cool. Um…
Shirley: By the way, she's looking flawless. As I wal- sit opposite of her here in the studio.
Liz: I had very strong women in my family. I'm not just- I didn't just drop out of the sky. My mother is a very beautiful woman and she's maintained her beauty in a very natural way, like just a sense of allure that, and my grandmother remarried twice after her first husband passed away… Like I have seen, I actually walked in on my grandmother. I think that-
Shirley: I’m so sorry, how terrible. [Laughs]
Liz: I mean, it was really shocking, but also gave me a lot of permission that like, you can still be teenagers in your seventies and eighties.
Shirley: Oh, I see.
Liz: I was like, Oh my goodness. Okay. So, um, so like I just- [Laughs] like, so it- that's a permission I'm taking, whether it was granted to me or not. I mean, don't- think about how much people gave me shit when I was 36 for daring to wear short skirts and stuff. That was what, almost 20 years ago. And they were yelling at me that I was too old for this, and I just wore a shorter skirt because I am not gonna let that happen to us without fighting.
Shirley: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm fist bumping Liz Phair this very second. Thank you so much, I could-
Liz: Thank you so much, I could talk to you forever!
Shirley: I could talk to you forever!
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
Shirley Manson talks with musicians about that one song that changed everything.
George Clinton describes his political groove, Chocolate City, in style.
Sharon Van Etten speaks on Love More, a song about a life-saving friendship.
Matt Berninger discusses Fake Empire and getting lucky in the music industry.
Jónsi explains how his tear-jerking song, Svefn-g-englar, brings him joy.
Alabama Shakes frontwoman, Brittany Howard, discusses writing Sound & Color.
DJ Shadow discusses creating Six Days and the dedication it takes to work alone.
Juliette Lewis explains what it is to be a Hard Lovin’ Woman.
Peaches discusses creating an empowering new sound through F*** the Pain Away.
Angel Olsen describes how it feels to write the breakaway song Shut Up Kiss Me.
Open Mike Eagle describes the real moments that make up his song, Qualifiers.
Laura Jane Grace explains how I Was A Teenage Anarchist continues to ring true.
Liz Phair discusses handling adversity for women through her song, 6’1”.