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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Liz Phair: Ever Changing, But Still Boy Crazy

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Liz Phair’s musical career has been marked by moments of intense transformation, even outright rupture, with the vulnerable (albeit highly sexual) singer/songwriter of 1993’s Exile in Guyville morphing into the pop artist behind such chick-flick-friendly tunes as 2003’s “Extraordinary” and even taking a turn as a hip-hop performer on the 2010 track “Bollywood.”

For many longtime fans, such transformations have brought about great pain and consternation. There is a belief—particularly strong among aging male fans and the critics who really liked the Liz Phair that talked about being a “blow job queen”—that Phair should never have left behind the untainted aesthetic of Exile in Guyville.

Yes, Exile remains a seminal album in the indie rock canon. But one must expect a musician to evolve, to experiment with content and form. Or put another way: Who today is really the same person they were in 1993?

Rather than ask Phair to discuss these moments of transformations, I wanted to know if she saw any sort of continuity within her catalog of material. After all, songs such as “You Should Know Me” and “And He Slayed Her” from Phair’s latest album, 2010’s Funstyle, sound like vintage Phair. They are logical extensions of the sound that she first developed almost 20 years ago. And the antagonist described in “And He Slayed Her”—where Phair sings, “I mean, what kind of kid were you when you were a kid/ What kind of man would do what you did?”—sounds much like a character introduced in Exile opener “6'1"” (“And you sell yourself as a man to save/ But all the money in the world is not enough.”)

“I do see a lot of continuity in my songs,” Phair explains, “but it is more of a continuity of spirit.” To Phair, all of her material is marked by “a strong female point of view,” one that has evolved over the years but still serves as “an expression of my individuality.” Phair explains that she has mellowed out a bit since her Exile days—particularly when it comes to the opposite sex.

“I had a lot more anger toward men when I was young,” Phair admits. And while Phair says she can still get “boy crazy” (her words, not mine), she is now interested in telling stories of women who have “taken their power” and who “aren’t going to make it easy” for their partners.

Some of the credit for this evolution must go to her experiences as a mother; Phair has a teenage son. Listening to the tone of Phair’s voice as she describes how being a parent has “impacted me tremendously,” one can sense how much she absolutely loves her son. Dealing with a young person whose “traits are so stereotypical male” has given Phair rare insight into the male mind, a process that Phair says “helps me be more generous with everyone.” And despite the fact that her son has “no interest in me as a career person,” he has opened Phair’s “eyes to whole worlds that are living parallel.” His presence in Phair’s life, then, may be one reason why she is now so willing to reach out to new ideas and approaches to music.

Yet this willingness to tread in uncharted water does not mean Phair will forsake her older material. “Playing the old songs still feels great,” Phair explains. She says she is thankful for the opportunity to revisit songs that still mean a lot to her. To Phair, this older material changes along with her, and she has come to see these songs as prayers of a sort, and the act of playing them each night is akin to “saying a prayer over and over.” It’s a strange but refreshing take on playing one’s “greatest hits,” one that ultimately showcases Phair’s respect for both her past and her audience.

Liz Phair plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Jan. 21, with openers Testa Rosa.