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Murder, Mischief And John Mayer: Liz Phair’s Funstyle

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“I wanna be mesmerizing too,” sang Liz Phair way back in 1993 on her seminal debut Exile In Guyville. Arriving out of nowhere, whip smart, lippy and sweet in the most ironic of ways, Phair blew the door open that everyone from Alanis Morissette to Cat Power later walked through. Frank and bold and tough, Phair had private school looks and a Skid Row mouth and the combination was nothing short of mesmerizing. Indie rock boys swooned, indie rock girls admired her candor about indie rock boys and Phair became one of the biggest and most influential voices of the ‘90s.

It’s been almost twenty years since Exile and since then Phair has remained as magnetic as ever. A gifted songwriter with a lashing tongue and endless pop smarts, Phair, now in her forties, sounds as vital as ever. Her new album Funstyle (which features Dave Matthews on three tracks) is an unbridled batch of irreverence, sarcasm and nose thumbing; ex-labels, ex-boyfriends and ex-bosses are all thoroughly flogged and sonic revenge has never sounded better.

The foggy beats of “Smoke” break into a funky self-deprecating workout; the acoustic “You Should Know Me” is as accusing as it is tender and “Bollywood” is a scorching indictment of a former record company, rapped acerbically over a light Indian hip-hop arrangement. Later, the watery grooves of “Bang! Bang!” are hypnotic; the trenchant funk of “U Hate It” is impossible to resist and “Oh, Bangladesh” is a drowsy number that finds Phair daring one to “wake up dancing.”

A wondrous album about murder, mischief and John Mayer, Funstyle is a true return to form.

Phair was kind enough to sit down with SEM for a quick chat about Funstyle:

SEM: How long was the gestation period for Funstyle? Was it germinating for a long time?

Liz Phair: I was working on Funstyle for at least two years. It was the product of much frustration vented in rollicking good fun recording situations. I had the opportunity to work sporadically and that allowed me to be free and experimental.

SEM: The album is bookended brilliantly: “Smoke” is the perfect opener and “U Hate It” is the most suitable closer. It’s nice to see that an artist is still thinking about sequencing! Has the age of the iPod made this a lost art?

LP: I can’t help it! I believe stories hit you on a deeper level if you follow them all the way through. I’m as guilty as the next person of a la carte iTunes shopping, but I still feel passionately about a longer emotional experience and want to create one for those who care enough to listen. That’s how I experienced the journey, and that’s how I want to tell it. I always leave little clues in my records. When you’re a lonely listener and you need me, I’ll come through for you. Think of me as a ferry on the river Styx, only I’m getting us the hell out of there! I think sequencing will come to be more revered eventually because those who do it well will have had to choose from an overwhelming array of options. Story never dies.

SEM: How did Dave Matthews come aboard and what was he like to work with?

LP: Dave is the coolest, raddest, most highbrow Neanderthal heart igniter ever. I may be overstating it, but that’s how I feel. I want him and Ashley to adopt me. He and I met through a mutual group of friends and wanted to make something together. Brett Radin, his personal assistant at the time, carved out studio sessions for us and it was fantastic, loose and fun.

SEM: From “Bollywood” to “And He Slayed Her” this is a sonically very varied record–were you consciously trying to mix things up?

LP: I’m rather varied as a person, myself. Why not reflect that in my music? Why hide behind an easily digestible indie music happy meal? Go out on a limb, people. Obama’s not going to be in office forever and then it’ll be back to the old conformity crackdown. I’m surfing while the surfing’s good.

SEM: As varied as the numbers are, do you think there’s a unifying theme?

LP: Yes!!!!!! The SPIRIT OF FUNSTYLE!!!! Everybody can use a little FUNSTYLE in their lives. Everybody can apply the same methodology I did to my music to enhance their experience of almost anything. We have no funds? Ok, we do it cheap. We have only two hours? Ok, we do the best two-hour smackdown we’ve got. Oh, you brought your dog? Ok, get him on the track. FUNSTYLE is a way of operating and engaging. FUNSTYLE is like a drug. It’s not for every situation, but when used wisely, it has brought immense satisfaction and presence to the things that I do. Economy sucks. FUNSTYLE is free! (Well, almost).

SEM: How has the writing process changed for you from when you first started writing songs?

LP: I don’t think my music writing has changed that much. I still pull out a guitar or hum a tune in the shower or sit down at a piano and get spacey about it.