DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Liz Phair burst onto the independent music scene in 1993 with "Exile In Guyville," a fierce, funny and occasionally obscene portrait of her life at the time.
(Soundbite of "Soap Star Joe")
Ms. LIZ PHAIR: (Singing) He's just a hero in a long line of heroes, looking for something attractive to save. They say he rode in on the back of a pickup, and he won't leave town till you remember his name.
ELLIOTT: Since then Liz Phair has married, divorced and become a mother, and her sound's gotten a lot sunnier. Her new album is "Somebody's Miracle." Liz Phair and her guitarist Dino Meneghin joined us recently in NPR's Studio 4A.
Ms. PHAIR: Hi.
Mr. DINO MENEGHIN (Guitarist): Hi.
ELLIOTT: I'd like to start with some music right off the bat, if that's OK with you.
Ms. PHAIR: Sounds great.
ELLIOTT: Would you like to play something from your new album?
Ms. PHAIR: I would love to play "Somebody's Miracle."
ELLIOTT: Which is the title track.
Ms. PHAIR: Which is the title track.
ELLIOTT: OK, let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Somebody's Miracle")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I'm so far, so far away from it now that it seems like I may never know how people stay in love for half of their lives. It's a secret they keep between the husbands and wives. Baby, there goes somebody's miracle walking down the street. There goes a modern fairy tale; I wish it could happen to me. But I look at myself, wondering if I'm just too weak to have such faith in myself. Once upon a time, I was so restless in love. When things were fine, I changed my mind just because. Now I see how wrong and reckless I've been. Each frog has a prince just waiting inside of him. Baby, there goes somebody's miracle walking down a street. There goes a modern fairy tale; I wish it could happen to me. But I look at myself and I think, `What the hell?' Maybe I'm just too naive to have such faith in myself, you know I'm praying for it. You know I'm praying for it. You know I'm praying for it.
ELLIOTT: Liz Phair playing "Somebody's Miracle" in NPR's Studio 4A. It's the title track of her new album.
That's a beautiful song.
Ms. PHAIR: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: Tell me about it.
Ms. PHAIR: It's a really special song to me. It kind of embodies, I think, the feel of the record. It has a sense of longing and sort of an appreciation for things in life that maybe have meaning as you grow older. Things that are simple as people staying in love for a long time kind of inspires awe in me now.
ELLIOTT: The modern fairy tale.
Ms. PHAIR: The modern fairy tale.
ELLIOTT: I've listened to all of your records in preparation for this interview, and I kind of got the sense as I went through album by album that I was almost watching you grow up. I was listening in as you were going through life.
Ms. PHAIR: I think my music has always been for me kind of like diaryesque. In a way, it's the way that I keep track of where I've been. It's that cathartic nature of songwriting for me. I really like to kind of spill my guts in a way when I make a record. And so, yeah, I think it very much is like getting an insider's view, sort of a fly on the wall.
ELLIOTT: Early on you were very raw, and then your last album, "Liz Phair," was a little more polished, kind of a poppy sound, and you caught a lot of flack from your fans. They were like, `Where is Liz?' I get the sense that this album--it still has sort of that polished, `It will play on the radio' sound, but there's a little hint of that earlier Liz as well. Did you--was that intentional?
Ms. PHAIR: I think it was natural, actually. It was kind of like what was going on in my life. You know, any given Sunday--I just like saying that phrase, `Any given Sunday'--but anytime that you make a record, I think you end up reflecting what period you're in in your life. And I think I'm a little more settled again. I think I've gone through a bit of a bubble of sort of trying to change or grow, and then I'm kind of settling back down into a happy medium.
ELLIOTT: Do you get tired of being criticized for having that commercial or pop sound that people might want to hear on the radio?
Ms. PHAIR: I think it was one of those, like, tempests in a teacup. I never could understand why it was such a big deal to everybody. I mean, I'm clearly a lot older than I was when I first started out, and to be reflecting the same issues that you had at 23 when you're 36 just seemed false to me. It just rang false, you know. I can't be 23; I'm sorry.
ELLIOTT: There's a song on this new album where you sort of sing to someone who is in that place as a young singer kind of dealing with all those issues. What's the name of it?
Ms. PHAIR: "Stars and Planet."
(Soundbite of "Stars and Planet")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) (Singing) Who are you looking through the glass at me like you're gonna make it happen? Let me tell you something true: You know it's just the same old story. Stars rise and stars fall, but the ones that shine the brightest aren't stars at all. They're the planets...
In that song, I'm really speaking to a young singer or young singers or people who envy my position, and trying to remind them that what really makes me special is the same thing that makes them special. It's really about something inside that you can reveal. And it's kind of like trying to bring people around using the metaphor of the starry night sky. We call them stars, but the ones that shine the brightest are actually the planets. And we're a planet, just a lowly little piece of rock. You know what I mean? It's what you have in your soul that you share that makes you special.
ELLIOTT: And if you're able to capture that in song and people can relate to that, then you've done something.
Ms. PHAIR: Yes.
ELLIOTT: I want to talk a little bit about your influences. Your first album, "Exile In Guyville," was a response to The Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main Street." And you've said that this new album is actually inspired by Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life." That's sort of a long, strange trip, if you will, going from...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PHAIR: I've learned that I like the long-format classics. That seems to be my milieu. I really like them if they're long. This time around I never got to really finish the project. I started off very intentionally doing the same thing that I did with "Exile On Main Street," which is sort of going to school. I kind of put myself through school, in a way. And I really felt like what I learned from Stevie was to be specific about your own life, to really just--if you want to reach broadly, that--you know, if you want someone to understand you, sometimes ironically it's the sharing of something specific to you that then triggers their own specific circumstance that they relate to. Does that make any sense? I probably...
ELLIOTT: Yeah. But isn't it kind of hard to put yourself out there like that?
Ms. PHAIR: Not for me, not really.
ELLIOTT: You've just always done that.
Ms. PHAIR: I've just always done it. I think what's odd is that I have a career. I think it's normal for me to write cathartic songs. I think it's abnormal for me to perform them and go out and be sort of a public person.
ELLIOTT: How's your tour going? Didn't I read where early on you had almost, like, stage fright when you were having to perform?
Ms. PHAIR: I was not a performer. And it was a train wreck, really, in the beginning of my career. All I could do was write songs; I really didn't know how to perform them. And it got brutal sometimes 'cause people would be, like--I remember hearing a story that some industry types were standing from the balcony at one of my earlier shows and they're like, `I can't look. I can't watch this.'
ELLIOTT: I'm going to ask you now to maybe play an older song for us so we can get a sense.
Ms. PHAIR: Sure.
ELLIOTT: Maybe "Girls' Room" from "Whitechocolatespaceegg." Can you play it for us?
Ms. PHAIR: Sure.
(Soundbite of "Girls' Room")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the sky, I'm sleeping in the water, sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room tonight. Here comes Tiffany, my best friend Tiffany, wearing a size too small of a sweater. Me and Tiffany dressing up pretty. We love to ride, we love to canter. My best friend Tiffany, she is so popular. We're going from site to site and pool to pool tonight. And we hear Terry say that Tricia's OK, but she ought to learn to shave her bikini line better. And Tauren was born like her mother in a storm, and Tracey's been away forever. I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the sky, I'm sleeping in the water, sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room. I'm sleeping in the girls' room tonight.
ELLIOTT: Liz Phair singing "Girls' Room" in NPR's Studio 4A.
That like a high school flashback song?
Ms. PHAIR: Even earlier. It's a flashback to, gosh, my son's age, about eight, eight years old, eight or nine.
ELLIOTT: Is it hard for you, as far as your career goes, because "Exile In Guyville" was just so big and you were just--Boom!--all of a sudden, here you were. You were like this greatest thing to ever happen to independent rock and all that pressure--I mean, is that something that you struggle with in your career?
Ms. PHAIR: I think earlier did, but I really don't anymore. I really--you know, after that period was over for me--and that's concurrent with becoming a mother, look at that; it's very interesting. But like once I had my son, I wasn't the same person, life wasn't the same to me and I let go of so much of that stuff. And I also began to enjoy my life in a way that I hadn't before.
ELLIOTT: Liz Phair and her guitarist Dino Meneghin in NPR's Studio 4A. Thanks for playing for us today.
Ms. PHAIR: Thanks for having us.
Mr. MENEGHIN: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: To hear more from Liz Phair, visit our Web site, npr.org.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.