Liz Phair on ‘Soberish’ and ‘Fairy Tales’
When Liz Phair visited Studio A for an FUV Live session back in October 2019 to talk about her riveting, thoughtful book of personal essays, Horror Stories, little did she know that a horror story of a pandemic year was right around the corner. But as Phair tells FUV in a new Q&A, ahead of her birthday this Saturday, April 17, and a seventh album, Soberish, slated for release on June 4, she's done her best to remain sanguine, although it's not always been easy.
There have been bright moments: she's very pleased to be working with producer Brad Wood again, and despite her antipathy toward Zoom, Liz even did her first livestream concert in March — and her rescheduled tour with Alanis Morrisette and Garbage takes off this summer.
One of the singles from Soberish, "Hey Lou," is an affectionate, fictional ode to the relationship of two iconic New York musicians— Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. This week, another single, "Spanish Doors," was also released from what will be Phair's first album in 11 years. In our email chat, Liz talks about about Reed and Anderson's influence on her, and speaks honestly about the vagaries of love, the challenges she's faced in isolation, and why she hit a mountainous writer's block as she worked on her second book, Fairy Tales, during a very bleak 2020:
It's been a complicated year, to put it mildly, but you did play your very first livestream, "Hey Lou, Hey Liz," in March. How did you approach that event differently than a normal live show? Would you do it again?
Certainly, performing by yourself while facing a wall instead of an audience is less stimulating. I enjoyed the idea of putting artistic shots and textures into the performance. I felt like we came up with an interesting hybrid of live performance and music video. But in the end, I don’t think "work from home" is that satisfying when you’re a performer.
Your single "Hey Lou" — and especially the video — is a loving and honest look at a real and complex relationship. No one but Laurie and Lou knew the machinations of the relationship, but to outsiders, it always seemed that Laurie Anderson enabled Lou Reed's softer side to blossom, and in turn they both found a way to heal and thrive as a couple. Was that your angle? Did you know them?
I don’t know Laurie Anderson personally, and I never met Lou Reed. But both of them created music that was pioneering for their genre and their experimental influence shaped my early work. I found it very romantic that they should have gotten together and formed such a stable partnership. They seemed like two complicated, provocative artists whose personal harmony defied expectation. I don’t think the lyrics of "Hey Lou" are realistic at all, just a reflection of the fascination we’ve all felt wondering how these extraordinary people went about their ordinary life together.
The use of puppets in Toben Seymour's video was clever. Laurie's puppet even has dimples! Who designed them and do they live with you now?
Wow, suddenly my fear of dolls coming to life is mega-triggered! No, they don’t live with me, they live with their creator, Toben, who designed their features, with my management team and me providing feedback along the way. My puppet now lives with Genvieve Flati, another Los Angeles puppeteer who helps us create TikToks. It’s been a highly amusing way to approach Covid isolation creativity.
As a Laurie and Lou fan, what are your favorite releases from each of them and why?
I’m really enjoying the Laurie Anderson's Norton Lectures, and have even gotten my parents and godmother into watching. She’s a gifted narrator and mixed media conductor. The imagery and wordplay is at once hypnotic and energizing.
How much does that theme of unconditional love inform your forthcoming album, Soberish? Do you dissect the many angles of a relationship (especially where an addictive personality might be concerned)?
Unconditional love is an absolute, and I find my best work in the grey areas of life. It’s the comings and goings of love — that terrifying, vulnerable transitional feeling, just before or just after — that most compels me. Why does love happen? Why does it go? I never have the answers to those parts of the arc. Whereas when it’s peaking or absent, I feel at peace.
Substances — potions, habits, ritual — often show up in the insecurity of those transitional times. I love to create, almost like using a substance, to settle me down when I’m traveling over the rocky parts of the road.
How did the pandemic first affect the writing and recording of Soberish with Brad Wood? Did your experiences alter the trajectory of the album in a significant way?
Most of the music was completed before the pandemic, though three songs were recorded and finished remotely. Luckily, we had established our working shorthand for the album before we were in lockdown, but it still colored the album in a lot of ways. I think the artwork in particular reflects the isolation and escapism I was feeling during this past year.
Your wit, laced with poignancy, has always been a defining quality in your lyrics. The title Soberish itself hints at that very thing. Is there a particular quality to the new album that circles back to your beginning? Certainly working with Brad evokes those early Exile in Guyville days too.
We borrowed many of the textures and sounds from our Guyville, Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg days, combining them in new ways to reflect our tastes now. I’m more into sound design. To some extent, I think of Soberish arrangements as us painting with sound. That’s how I approach recording in the studio. I can visualize the arrangements as clearly as I can hear them. The humor is essential to me. Tragedy and comedy share a wall, if you know what I mean.
8. When we last spoke in 2019, after the publication of your book of essays, Horror Stories, you'd been working on a second volume, Fairy Tales, which was to lean more towards the rock 'n' roll aspect of your experiences. Where are you in the second volume?
Throughout most of 2020, I felt stalled. I couldn’t find my fairy tale. Darkness abounded. We just dug into the day to day of it all and I didn’t beat myself up too much. Thankfully, all of the juices started flowing again after the dissipation of the January 6 uprising and the firm installment of a different government. Covid and blatent corruption stole my abilities and I learned a certain amount of security and mental well-being are necessary for me to create. I sort of bought into the old adage that from pain comes great art, but there’s a limit. At least there was for me. It’s alarming how quickly the font of my creativity can be turned on and off by outside forces I have no control over. But I’ll never take inspiration and focus for granted again.
We've all been searching for ways to take care of our mental and physical health during this crisis. What has been your road to self-preservation or self-care over the last year?
Many interviewers have asked me that question and it makes me feel so 20th century. I don’t really relate to self-care as people are defining it now. Making art is my self-care. But so were a lot of other things that I can’t do during a pandemic. Massages and beauty rituals? Gone. Travel? Gone. So I guess I enjoyed spending time with my son and appreciating a clean house, yoga, and cooking food, Long walks. But honestly, I’d be doing those things anyway. I really miss all of the social and cultural world we’re not able to experience now. I’m sick of Zoom. I’m sick of working from home. But I consider myself lucky to have faired as well as we have. So it’s a mixed bag of mostly wet, brown sand and a few pretty shells….
- Liz Phair