The mid- to late ’90s saw a blossoming movement of young femalesinger/songwriters, who mostly sang sweet, introspective songs of loveswon and lost. One artist who stood apart from the pack, though, wasChicago-based Liz Phair, who always had a harder, indie-rocksensibility that was in stark contrast with the top sellers of thatera, such as Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole and Sheryl Crow, but nevershowed the aggressive tendencies of Courtney Love, PJ Harvey or JulianaHatfield. Instead, Phair was closer in artistic temperament to earlyBeck: acerbic and coolly humorous, but with a strong veneer ofsexuality on top.
Unlike Beck and some of the others mentioned, Phair never became ahousehold name, instead remaining a cult favorite who garnered heaps ofaccolades from music critics and considerable exposure on MTV. Her CDsales were respectable, but never amounted to the blockbuster numbersher label and industry types projected. Then, she purposely lowered herprofile after getting married and giving birth to a son at the end of1996. Two years later, she released her third recording,whitechocolatespaceegg (Phair’s description of her baby), whichwas mildly received and ushered in a period of the singer focusing onher home life.
Fast-forward five years later to 2003: Phair is now divorced and asingle mother. Throughout her career, Phair’s personal life has alwaysserved as source material for songs and, undoubtedly, she had plenty todraw from when creating her recent self-titled CD. However, in thespirit of being an indie artist, she doesn’t always do the predictable.The results are a varied collection of songs that weigh heavily on thelighter side. “I’d just come out of a real heavy relationship andI just wanted to lighten up and make some more upbeat music,” shecommented during a radio interview in late June 2003. KCRW, the SantaMonica, Calif., NPR affiliate, was broadcasting a live performance byher band during its well-known Morning Becomes Eclectic program,long a magnet for acts somewhat outside of the pop mainstream.
“The funny part is that I just rolled with what was going onat the time,” Phair continued. “Every song on the CD wasrecorded at a different session. Over the five years, I worked withdifferent producers and we never really had a plan. We just recordedwhatever songs we happened to think were the best at the time.”That kind of “seeing what sticks to the wall” methodologyled to her working with a diverse group of producers that includedmulti-instrumentalist R. Walt Vincent, the highly successful Matrixteam and fellow artist-turned-producer Michael Penn.
Actually, Penn produced an entire CD for Phair, but she and thelabel opted to intersperse tracks by other producers and scrap his mix.Understandably, Penn was somewhat miffed by the politics and creativemaneuvering, yet he also says that he understands the decisions andwishes Phair much success. “The story goes that Liz delivered therecord to Capitol and they thought it was good and would get goodreviews, but they felt it wouldn’t be a smash,” Penn commentsfrom his L.A. home studio. “So she went back in with the Matrixand I just figured that none of that stuff [that he and Phair did]would come out.” In the end, though, Penn has more productioncredits than anyone else on the CD, including the Matrix and Phair.
Prior to Penn becoming involved as a producer for most of 2002,Phair had made a batch of demos with Vincent and pop songwriter GaryClark. From listening to that body of work, Penn sensed that Phair wastrying to find a balance between her own idiosyncratic material andmore structured pop that didn’t come as naturally to her as a writer.“I took her songs and tried to find ways of doing them thatappealed to what she was trying to do,” the producer recalls,“and also how I felt they would best be served.” To keepcosts down and to accommodate Phair’s spur-of-the-moment creativity, hedid most of the work in Capitol’s Pro Tools room. If drums or guitarswere needed, they booked short blocks of time at Sonora Recorders, Sage& Sound and Sunset Sound.
While recording Phair’s CD, she and Penn discussed how they wantedto texturally shape the work on a song-by-song basis. Penn wouldnormally go through sounds and beats, and record the backing musicians.Phair would occasionally work with the players and mostly preferred tocome in later and listen to what had been done and then do vocaloverdubs. Penn comments, “The one that I’m most proud of, whichdidn’t show up on the record, is ‘What You Can’t Have.’ Itwas a song she wrote with Gary Clark and I heard it in a way where itdidn’t have a standard trap [drums] set. We made this cool, groovy loopthing out of the sounds of arc welders and other stuff. It created thisenchanting vibe that was unusual and really worked. Basically, it wasdone in the spirit of what just sounds good, with no considerationwhatsoever of marketplace or recapturing former glory.”
In contrast to Penn’s organic and intuitive approach, the Matrixproducing team — Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards— brought a more overtly commercial perspective to theundertaking, focusing primarily on constructing appealing andaccessible melodies and lyrics. On the surface, it might seem unusualthat Phair would be attracted to a group of producer/writers best knownfor their work with Avril Lavigne, Ricky Martin and the BackstreetBoys, but Phair noted, “It was just as exciting and rewarding asany other recording experience. They are really wonderful and talentedpeople, as are R. Walt Vincent and Michael Penn.”
From the trio’s homey Decoy Studios located in the San FernandoValley, Spock describes the Matrix philosophy: “Whether it’s LizPhair, David Bowie or whoever we’re working with, we try to hold up amagnifying glass and magnify the coolest things about an artist so thatit’s accessible to lots of people, not just a small market. And we tryto write good songs. That’s all we’re about, really.”
The Matrix team felt that the five songs they wrote and recordedwith Phair complemented the body of work she had previously done withPenn; in fact, they all thought what the duo had created previously wasbeautiful. Christy remembers the listening session, which set thecourse for the Matrix’s work on the CD. “Liz said, ‘My onlyworry is that it’s a little bit mellow. I’m just in a mood to do thingsthat will shake things up and not be so passive.’ So we knewstraightaway not to hit her with any mid-tempos or things like that;just uptempo stuff. She was open to it and ready to do somethingfun.”
When working with Phair, the team would play around on guitars andpiano, throwing around ideas until there was a general consensus. Fromthere, they’d refine the songs and start putting down tracks.Generally, the Matrix likes to build everything around the vocals, sothey often have a raw vibe initially. “The drummer plays to thesinger so he can really feel where to pull back and to lift up at theend of bridge,” remarks Christy. “The same goes for theguitars, which Graham does, and then we’ll have Corky James come in tosupplement.” Despite the layering and the Matrix’s vocalharmonies, Phair’s singing is by far the tracks’ most distinctivefeature. Christy stresses, “We’ve worked with a lot of singers,and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who’s who. Liz’s voice doesn’tsound like anyone else’s. It has a huge character, and I think she’sunderrated as a singer. She has quite a range and is truly an indiepoet.”
Similar to Penn, the Matrix did their own recording (to ProTools/Logic Audio) and production, with drums produced at House ofBlues Studios in Encino by Krish Sharma. However, when it came time formixing, Phair chose Serban Ghenea at Windmark Studios in Virginia Beachto handle nine of the 14 final mixes, with Tom Lord-Alge doing theremainder at South Beach Studios in Miami. Ghenea, originally aCanadian guitarist, came up under the guidance of R&B producerTeddy Riley and is adept at melding different styles. “A lot oftimes, this happens,” he explains from his new studio. “Ifyou’ve got a bunch of producers with very different approaches andsounds, it’s nice to get one guy to make it all flow together into analbum package. You can tell a Matrix song the minute it comes on; theygot a signature that’s really cool. To be quite honest, I didn’t knowwho all of the producers were [for Phair’s CD].
“Everything was well-recorded and pretty easy to workwith,” he continues. “But these days, [the recordings] maysound simple, but there’s 50 to 60 tracks going on.” Ghenea,who’s worked with N.E.R.D., Jill Scott, Justin Timberlake, BritneySpears and Faith Hill, never met or spoke with Phair, Penn or Vincent,but he did go over some minor points with the Matrix, who, unlike Penn,were happy with his work, which utilized a slew of Pro Tools plug-ins.He says it wasn’t necessary to talk to Phair; he just mixed by feel, ashe’s accustomed to. Ghenea also recently worked on Jewel’s new CD,which is as much a departure for her as Phair’s.
It was a long and, at times, hard road bringing the Liz PhairCD to life, and not all of the critics have been kind: Some haveaccused her of pandering for commercial gain; others loved the newstyle and attitude. Phair looks at the whole thing as an extensivelearning experience: “The cool part about being an artist is thatyou get to work with a lot of different people, and you’re creative. Ilove the recording process, because in your creativity, you come intocontact with someone else’s. You learn from each other, change anddevelop something new between the two of you. That’s what reallyexcites me.”