Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter. Guitar playing virtuoso. Feminist trailblazer. Globally published author. Gamechanger. Composer. Disrupter. Visual Artist. Icon. These are some of the many words that could be used to describe Liz Phair as she heads into the release of her next album, Soberish, her first collection of new, original music in a decade.
But let’s get the basic narrative points out of the way: Liz Phair has been a recording artist and touring performer for twenty-five years; she has sold over five million records worldwide, with three U.S. gold albums and two Grammy nominations. She once sang God Bless America at the opening game of the 2005 White Sox World Series win in her hometown of Chicago. She’s appeared on television shows across the globe. Her deeply clever and often brutally candid songs have been garnering critical praise since she began her career in the early 1990s in Chicago by self-releasing audio cassettes under the name Girly-Sound. She signed a deal with acclaimed independent record label Matador Records, and in 1993, Liz Phair put out an album called Exile In Guyville; to say it changed everything would be an understatement. Exile In Guyville -- a collection of bold, lyrically and sexually frank songs paired with equally as inventive and remarkable guitar playing by Phair -- has been ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, by Pitchfork as one of the 100 Greatest albums of the 90’s, and is considered one of the most accomplished debut albums for any artist in any genre to date. A rapturously-received follow up, Whip-Smart, landed her on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1995; in 1998, she released her major label debut Whitechocolatespaceegg to continued critical acclaim. Never one to rest on her laurels, Phair took her sound in new directions on her self-titled record from 2003, which featured the mega hit “Why Can’t I,” as well as her album Somebody’s Miracle in 2005, both of which reconfirmed Phair’s sharp instincts for writing pop-centric, three and a half minute masterpieces. She pivoted again, this time towards hip-hop with 2010’s Funstyle. Then -- she simply stopped.
“I’d gotten adrift from my artist self, I’d become my mom-self, or my middle-aged-person self,” she explains. She took the impulse to write songs and instead used the energy to start writing short stories from her life -- her upbringing outside of Chicago; her world travels as a renowned artist; her romantic ups and downs; her experience raising a child. When she finally gave herself back to music, she did some work composing for television, in addition to occasionally writing her own Liz Phair songs again. She went in and out the studio, never quite hitting the inspiration for which she was hunting. In 2018, Matador released a fully expanded edition of Phair’s original Girly-Sound tapes onto digital service providers for the first time. Excitement from fans all over the world was palpable at finally having access to these early tracks that established Phair’s original, iconic viewpoint in the first place.
And then, in 2019, two things happened concurrently: her memoir made up of short stories -- entitled Horror Stories -- was released, unveiling layers of Phair’s beautiful internal world into public consciousness. And, almost 30 years later, Phair reunited with Exile In Guyville and Whip-Smart’s producer Brad Wood to work on some music.
“I wasn’t coming from a place of big success, I was coming off of being silent for a while. But listening to Guyville again, and immersing myself in my Girly-Sound demos, and talking with everyone from that era made me want to work with Brad again,” she says. “Girly-Sound brought me back to that early part of my career and who I’d been then,” she continues. “What I wanted to achieve, what my style of working was. I connected again – in a much more healthy way – to the artist I was searching for at that point.”
Simultaneously she felt energized by the new generation of female artists she saw continuing the work she had begun 25 years earlier — the lyrical frankness, the melding of rock and pop, women steering the course of their own careers. “Probably the most pivotal in bringing me back was seeing that this world that I’d always dreamed of had actually come to be,” she says. “What I was longing for back in the early part of my career had happened! Everywhere you looked, on social media, there were women making their own music, fronting bands, it was their vision, they weren’t just women in a band, they weren’t just songwriters, they were the entire authors of the vision, head to toe. And it was so exciting!” She likens those early days as a female artist in a male-dominated industry to “speaking a foreign tongue in a country and being lonely because of that for a long time.” Now, she says, “It’s like going away for a while and coming back, and there are tons of people speaking your language. It feels like an entirely different landscape, one that I want to be part of and not miss out on.”
The astounding collection of songs Phair and Wood worked on became the album entitled Soberish. In addition to reuniting her with Wood, Soberish returns us to a voice we have long-missed, one that sings of modern love, missed connections, separation, creativity and global change, of the “uncomfortable, turbulent, emotional world that we’re in right now,” as Phair puts it. It reveals a songwriter more unflinching and more relevant than ever.
It is a non-conformist, genre-blurring, visionary record. “I said to Brad I don’t know how many times: ‘I want this record to have an identifiable sound, but I want it to be something different that you haven’t really heard before. I want it to sound exactly like this record,’” Phair explains. The pair worked hard, she says, to “reframe and re-contextualise” songs. “We deconstructed songs as much as we constructed them.” She points particularly to the mechanical rolling sound that begins album opener “Spanish Doors.” “That was a late addition that just changed the flavor of that song completely,” she explains. And to a new structure she calls her “Triptych” and a mingling of vocals she has labelled “The Tokyo Drift.” “People don’t realise what a difference those differences in sound make when you’re listening,” she says.
The key to the Soberish sound was subtraction. “There’s a lot of subtraction on this album. Making a song, pulling it apart and trying to get down to something surprising,” she says. “If I wrote the song on an acoustic guitar, and that’s the lead line, then pull out the lead line. Just pull it out and what do you have left and what can you bring in. I’m always trying to reinvent pop. I’m always trying to make something fresh and different on this record, so it doesn’t really sound like anything I’ve done before but it’s very recognisably me.”
Phair is quite smitten with the album’s title. “Soberish,” she says. “I just like that word. It describes what I’m always aiming for, I never want to be entirely sober, but I also want to stay grounded enough. It’s almost like you’re toggling between two versions of very familiar selves.” The sober self, she explains “can be super-symmetrical, orderly. The –ish is like the loosening, the more primitive.” And the state of soberishness is about more than just substances. “It’s about a frame of mind that has one foot out the door,” Phair says. “It’s anchoring yourself to the right thing but giving yourself enough anchor chain to sail around the cove and forget it for a while. Just hold to the center so you can swing around.”
If Phair’s career has had a governing philosophy, we might take it as this: hold to the center, swing around. This return, this new collection of songs, shows her at her finest: playful, inquisitive, uncompromising, but anchored. The center can still hold.