Liz Phair picks a fight
Spurned by critics and her label, the songwriter sets out on her own
Liz Phair performs Tuesday at Rams Head Live. (Handout photo / January 18, 2011)
And a copycat, and a Sheryl Crow and an Avril Lavigne, but most of all, a former hero. So says the naggy, invisible Greek chorus of former and current fans, purists, naysayers, and kneejerk critics who greet every record she's put out since "Exile in Guyville," her seminal 1993 album.
The reaction was just as strong when she released "Funstyle" last year, an album that — after she described it as "experimental" — was practically begging to be torn to shreds by critics. The Village Voice named one of its tracks among the worst of the year.
As if she cares. Though Phair said she's bothered by the harsh response, she sounded like she relished rubbing people the wrong way. This was especially evident in her review of Keith Richards' autobiography last year, where she praised the guitarist for being a lifelong agitator.
"He makes his own rules, something I suffer from too," she said in an interview. "If you have those traits, they'll get you into much trouble, and like my grandmother used to say, you'll always be fighting upstream."
So the hate that welcomed "Funstyle" misses the point. In the album, she's as confrontational and as iconoclastic as early Phair — she released the album on her own after her label refused to. More important, it finds her taking control of her creative output for the first time in seven years, free of label and bottom-line record executives, and in spite of her clingy fans.
She's now touring with "Funstyle," and will perform at Rams Head Live on Tuesday.
Back in the '90s, Phair was indieland's coolest Heather, the kind of rocker who'd get on the cover of Sassy magazine and brag about lovers on her songs (see "Flower"). Since then, fans and critics have been gradually turning against her, especially after her self-titled bubblegum pop album of 2003.
"A lot of people want their artists to go back to their original sounds, but their fans don't freak," she said. "I get vitriol. It makes me think of witch-burning."
When her label, Capitol Records, responded coolly to — "hated," in her words — the new material that would become "Funstyle," she sat on the songs for 13 months, she said.
"I'm not like Richards. I fear the hand slap. I definitely sweat it when I think I'm going to get in trouble, because it's not something I think about when I'm creating," she said.
But again and again that turns into a dare for her. Not only did she decide to release the album on her own, but she rapped on it and began it with a song where alternating voices worry that the album will be "career suicide."
On "And He Slayed Her," a track that's reputed to be about Capitol boss Andy Slater, she confronts not only him but, from the sound of it, all critics.
She icily sings in its first verse, "I'm coming for you with a wooden stake/Nail you right through your heart and up to your gate," and on the "choke on this"-type chorus, "Hang yourself on rock 'n' roll."
"I don't think you can spend too much time as an artist believing what other people think," she said. "You have to do what you need to do as an artist. You have to have that courage."
If the reaction to the album was negative, it hasn't affected her touring schedule or her laissez-faire attitude.
The show — which is notably heavy on "Guyville" tracks, with just three songs from "Funstyle," she said — has taken her to the same large clubs as before; late last year, she performed at the 9:30 Club in Washington.
While she said she misses the glamour of tours supported by labels, she's also been enjoying these more. Not surprisingly, she said she likes the challenge of performing as an independent again.
"I don't know what the future holds" she said. "Anything is possible. I just want to make music and make a living. I just have to find the means of doing that. It's a wild, wild West, and I'm a gunfighter."
If you go
Liz Phair performs Tuesday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.