Ray of Light: Liz Phair

A trailblazer of indie rock, Liz Phair forever changed the music industry with her 1993 debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, when she was just 25. Unabashedly honest and always unapologetic, Liz became an influential, unwavering voice of empowerment for a generation of women.

For the last three decades she’s continued to create; more groundbreaking albums (she has seven now), television music scores, and even a person (her son, Nick), while wading through her share of adversity. Today, Liz’s authenticity and openness is just as genuine, as evidenced by her recent memoir, Horror Stories, her 2021 album, Soberish, and our exclusive interview with her, where we chatted about it all. 

EE: You’ve been busy! What inspired these recent projects? 

LP: It actually goes back to the night Prince died in 2016, and a conversation I had with my manager. There was this spate of artists like Bowie and Tom Petty that had passed and I guess I wasn’t emotionally prepared for my childhood idols to be leaving so soon. And my manager asked me, “Are you making the record that you would want to leave behind if it were your last?” That shook me. It was a catalyzing moment that really refocused me and I knew then I wanted to do meaningful work.

EE: And the result is a memoir and your latest album Soberish, which sounds both new and nostalgic all at once.

LP: That’s what we were going for. I worked with Brad Wood, my producer on the first three records of my career. After 20 years, we both wanted to work together again—it was finally the right time. We knew we wanted the Exile in Guyville sound, and we replicated that to a great extent—but we also wanted the style to be more current.

EE: Speaking of Exile in Guyville, you created that before you became a mom. Do you ever temper anything now because of your son?

LP: (Laughs) I probably should’ve. Luckily, most of my family is fairly immune to what I’m doing in my artistic life. Once I had done the kind of provocative songwriting that I’d done, any children I had were gonna hear it. And to be honest, my son is better for it. He knows what art is versus real life—art is a free, expressive place and he sees my real day-to-day existence, which is not that. And he has a role model for what you can do creatively.

My son is also an artist and he actually did all the artwork for Soberish. That’s his graphic design. At the EVEREVE shoot, they had all my vinyl records laid out and I was looking at the collages I did on Whip Smart and Guyville and simultaneously looking at my son’s artwork and I thought, “My God, it’s a family business!”  

EE: How was the shoot?

LP: So much fun. The photographer was amazing, and the clothes were fantastic … and I love fashion. It was like being princess for a day. I could not get enough of it, and I could not stop dancing.

EE: Do you have a favorite look?

LP: The Monrow black dress with the racing stripe up the side and the slit at the thigh. I guess because of COVID I have been in sweats and jeans and flowy maxi dresses, and to wear something bodycon that just fit like a glove… it was exciting. But all the outfits were great, I was so happy to wear them.  The stylists were asking my opinion and I was just like “more, more, more!”

EE: It sounds like you have so much fun with fashion.

LP: Yes. At this age, I’m appreciative of trying lots of trends and trying on different versions of myself when I get dressed. That’s what I love about EVEREVE; it straddles that line between keeping one foot true to you and the other is like you’ve-never-seen-me-like-this-before! It’s wonderful to transform yourself with fashion. It’s not a meaningless thing. It’s not a superficial thing. It’s actually very impactful on your spirit.

EE: You’re in your third decade of rock stardom—what’s it like playing live and touring now? 

LP: It’s so different than when I was younger, but I’ve always had stage fright and I still have it. The first couple of songs for every show are always a little rocky—it’s hard for me to transition to be in front of a big audience. But once I’m on the train and it’s moving—it’s one of the best jobs you could possibly have. 

EE: You have such a rich catalog of music, how do you curate your set list? 

LP: There’s a certain amount of obligation to the fact that I have had a long career. And it seems the fans have voted over the years on 12 songs that I have to play; I need to deliver on the memories they’re hoping to revisit that evening. Those songs just make the crowd so damn happy. It’s like one big room full of happiness, everyone knows the lyrics—who doesn’t wanna feel that? And it leaves a few spots in the set list that are going to be unexpected and surprising, and that is so fun, too.  

EE: Who’s on your playlist these days?

LP: Lately I like [the artist] Blondshell. She’s in the Soccer Mommy genre. All these young women [artists] blow my mind. It was so hard for me to muster the courage and the sense of entitlement to step on stage, so to see young women feel that is a natural place for them to be, and if it weren’t them, it would be some other young woman…that’s fantastic. 

And I’m a little obsessed with Bon Iver’s i, i. That’s been on rotation for a week. I’ve cried. I’ve smiled. I’m loving music right now that resurrects my emotional life. The pandemic shut me down in a way I didn’t realize was happening—I became numb. So right now I’m into music that makes me feel either nostalgic or brings up tears or emotion; I want to feel moved.

EE: You’ve achieved so much. Has your definition of success changed throughout your career?

LP: Something that occurred to me almost 10 years ago, and is still true, is that success is liking the people you work with. It felt like the first 15 years of my working life was spent navigating different circumstances that were not ideal or were not healthy, and to be able to get to a place now where people listen to me and I don’t have to prove that I know what I’m talking about; where I’m surrounded by people I am inspired by, who I have fun with—that, to me, is the biggest marker of success. 

EE: How do you stay inspired and keep moving forward?

LP: I try to stay in a place of inspiration, not letting my ego or my past accomplishments limit my ability to reinvent myself. If I dwell on my reputation or being what people expect me to be, I may feel safe or more secure, but I won’t grow. It’s important to me to stay fresh and open artistically; not carry around the weight of the past. I like to think I’m reborn every day with new possibilities, it helps me keep a sense of my own forward path.

More Liz Phair!

Shop all her looks here, and visit her site to stay up-to-date on her music, books and live shows. And click here to read more inspiring Ray of Light profiles.

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