Exile in Mainstream

Can the songwriter's follow-up to the disastrous Liz Phair reconcile her alt-rock past with her pop-rock present?

Boston, a city that exports a thousand academics and financial advisers for every one Matt Damon, does not have style. The few oases of chi-chi glamour jammed into downtown are plagued by rumpled white men in old Brooks Brothers shirts. This is a classic-rock town, a place whose only stars play for the Red Sox, so it doesn't take a celebrity spotter to notice Liz Phair gliding down Tremont Street, with her guitarist boyfriend, Dino Meneghin, on one arm and a dazzling gold purse on the other. On this drab street, she's a ray of Los Angeles sunshine.

We meet at the bar of her posh boutique hotel for our interview. Several weeks from now, her show in Fort Lauderdale will kick off her fall tour, featuring everything from her newest singles all the way back to Exile in Guyville, the 1993 alt-rock masterpiece that introduced her as a brash and cunning female rocker grinding the old, macho canon under her shoe. But while Guyvillemade her famous, it also cast a shadow over the rest of her career. And so I imagine that after the scathing critical backlash against her last full-length -- 2003's Liz Phair, an unabashed leap for the Top 40 -- Phair might be cagey or defensive, perhaps ready to settle some scores.

Instead, she sounds totally happy, even a little New Age-y. She's excited about her career, her life on a major label, and her new album, Somebody's Miracle, due out in October and even more polished and accessible than the last one.

Liz Phair: Over indie, under contract
Dusan Reljin
Liz Phair: Over indie, under contract

Details

7 p.m. Thursday, October 6. Tickets cost $18.50 in advance or $20 the day of the show. Call 954-727-0950.
Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

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Of course, hearing the songwriter aim for the Top 40 again will come as less of a shock now that we've had two years to digest Liz Phair. That album's prefab pop won Phair scores of new listeners, but when her old fans heard it, they recoiled at the sight of their defiant alt-rock queen becoming everything they hated: a slick, chart-bound pop star who worked with the same songwriters and copped the same moves as Avril Lavigne. And when the same album also had a poignant ballad about Phair's son and two perky, graphic sexual numbers -- one that compared her man to a worn-out pair of panties and one titled "Hot White Cum" -- it became not just her sellout moment but her first official train wreck.

Or, at least, that was the conventional wisdom.

For her part, Phair is still surprised that fans took her attempt to mainstream herself so hard. "I'm not one of those muso-heads. My experience of music is tied up with the whole industry and the entertainment part of it all," she says. "I didn't think at this stage I was still supposed to be making indie music -- which I just can't. It'd be fraudulent for me to try to be indie. My life is not indie. I think this time, I tried really hard to be Liz Phairian, for the most part."

Fair enough. But at this point in her career, what exactly does it mean to be "Liz Phairian"?

Sitting at the hotel bar and catching her first meal of the day, a light scallop salad, Phair is swift to correct the misconception that she deliberately signed to a major. She ended up there, she explains, following a series of acquisitions, in which Matador sold itself first to Atlantic, then to Capitol Records. "Atlantic was the hardest," she says. "They were old school, like, 'Let the radio programmer feel you up. '" But Capitol was a good fit, especially after Phair moved to L.A. and tackled the label head-on. "I'm like, 'If I'm going to get a handle on this building, then I need to get in there and I need to know who everybody is.' And it wasn't my manager taking me around doing this. I did it myself. I became proactive in my own career. By then I was comparable in age [to the staff at Capitol], and I thought, 'They don't own me -- I actually have an entire building to help me do this thing. '"

And while that may mean a few compromises -- and some skimpy outfits on her album covers -- Phair's hands-on approach has ensured that at the least, she's the one pulling the strings. When I ask her if the label ever demands anything "unreasonable," she laughs and says, "I'm friends enough with everybody that they're like, 'All right: We're going to pimp you out -- get ready for it.' But at least I know. I get the real deal.

"I'm resilient, very resilient. I will work with whatever context you give me. I will adapt to whatever -- I will figure it out. It was like in high school: I went to a super-conservative, preppy high school that was enormous, and by default of not going to class senior year, I ended up going to Oberlin, which was a super-tiny, socially inverted college, where lesbians were the top of the food chain. And I just looked around, and I'm like, 'My acid-washed jeans and Lady Di hair is not gonna work.' You adapt."

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