Before Miley Cyrus worked the stripper pole, there was indie rock artist Liz Phair who enjoyed teasing listeners with songs about getting down and dirty. Blonde and rail thin, the rebellious singer appears on her iconic 1994 cover for her debut album Exile in Guyville bare chested and howling. With lyrics like “I want be your blowjob queen,” the two-time Grammy Award winner enjoyed talking about sex more than pubescent boys, but also sympathized with teenage girls frustrated over settling for less.
While Phair fascinated audiences like any true rock star, she went the domestic route and gave her career a break to become a wife and mother. Today, Phair has returned to music, but prefers to work behind the scenes, a surprise for the now single parent who in 2004, sported a corset in Stuff Magazine. She’s composed music for hit TV shows, including “90210,” “Swingtown,” and now USA Network’s “In Plain Sight.”
Starpulse recently participated in a teleconference with Phair where she talks about composing for a television series, returning to the stage, and how the foul-mouthed rocker still gets into a lot of trouble.
How did you become involved with USA and ‘In Plain Sight?’
Liz Phair: A year and a half ago a friend of mine was a creator on a show called ‘Swingtown.’ He really loved my music and thought I could be good at doing something like this. I had no experience scoring music so I partnered up with two other musicians that I knew who had experience and I loved it. When they were looking for a new composer on ‘In Plain Sight,’ I went for it. Luckily we landed the job.
Why ‘In Plain Sight?’
Liz Phair: There is a certain amount of randomness to it. You are floating your name out there hoping someone is interested in working with you and you’re also pouring over projects that are becoming available in your agent’s office. I think I really responded to the strong female lead. It’s an unusual dynamic between Mary and Marshall. They kind of remind me in funny ways of old Capra movies, like It Happened One Night, that witty banter you get between Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, the sexual tension that’s percolating beneath. I love that stuff.
How is it working within a creative team on the show?
Liz Phair: I have two partners who deserve as much credit as I do for the music. I’d never scored before and I didn’t want to take on the responsibility of a show without people that were more experienced than I was. I couldn’t possibly do my cues alone. We get into our little tiffs where we think the emphasis should be. I think just the other day there was a crying scene where I really got bejiggerty because I’m like, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like when a woman’s about to pop!’ We went over it until I felt like the intensity mirrored my own feelings when I’m about to burst into tears. I find it to be really rewarding when you get the music that supports a well written scene and you watch it. It’s a little bit of magic.
In approaching the characters, how do you find the right musical identities for Mary and Fred?
Liz Phair: That’s hard because you really have to get to know the characters over the episodes. You may have an impression of them originally. Then the writing shifts a little bit. The writers explore their emotional lives and how they’re going to change with each new experience they go through, so you really have to take it scene by scene. The chase scenes are bad ass and you just hit them guns blazing, which is exciting. That’s very orchestral and we really ramp up the percussion. The more intimate moments are fun to play, as well as giving the character Mary depth. It’s fun to express ourselves in different ways musically. Each character does develop a musical identity as the show progresses and that’s half the fun.
If you had to pick one of your songs to represent the onscreen relationship between Mary and Marshall, which would you choose and why?
Liz Phair: I think you could find it somewhere on the Internet, but it was from Girly Sound which was my original incarnation. I used to write these long songs where I would sort of do a he said, she said thing. They just have this great game that goes between them that I find, even in the smallest moments, like little looks when they’re sitting in the car that speaks volumes.
What are your viewpoints on the significance music brings to TV shows?
Liz Phair: I can’t watch television now without hearing the score. It’s kind of corrupted me forever. I can’t divorce the two. I learned this early on with my son, when movies were frightening to him I literally would just mute the television. If you just see the visual nothing – at least for most people-doesn’t impact you. In a weird way music and dialogue are the things that strike you emotionally. Without them the visual is somehow separate. It’s removed and can’t affect you, so I think music is extremely important.
When you make an album, you’re recording for you and your fans. However, with TV it’s a completely different audience. How does that process change for you?
Liz Phair: You’re definitely working for your client so they have to be happy. You listen very carefully in meetings and take notes. Someone can say, ‘I want it to feel more intense.’ What they mean by intense can be very different from what you think. You learn what each person means and what they expect. For sure we work for the show. We want to make it as good as it can be and lift the performances to another level. I don’t have a problem with that. I can imagine how someone would think a recording artist, who is used to a lot of control, would come in. I get disappointed when they don’t like my cue, but I don’t get mad. I’m there to support and I don’t find that inhibiting.
In dealing with longevity as an artist, how tough is it to stay motivated to keep reinventing yourself?
Liz Phair: I think you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to try things that you don’t know how to do. For me, scoring has been one of those things. If you do become passionate about it you have a lot to learn and that keeps you engaged in the creative process. That’s how I do it, although it gets me into a lot of trouble. Critics don’t always agree with my choices.
Throughout your career you’ve done several different jobs within the industry. Which of those have you enjoyed the most, and why?
Liz Phair: I hate to say this, but I’m an omnivore. I love them all. I love expressing myself creatively. Maybe acting I was the worst at. That was pretty bad. I love challenging myself in new ways. I’m sort of a natural born artist. New media is always stimulating to me, so if I can try my hand at new things, it really generates a whole new wave of creativity inside of me. I began my life as a visual artist, believe it or not. Music was a secondary thing. I was very surprised when that became my full career. I have to say I can’t single one out as my first and foremost love.
Is there any chance of maybe doing a cameo on the show?
Liz Phair: I can’t imagine that I would. I’m not a very good actor, really, and I’m super happy doing the music. It’s a great show and we love working on it. That hasn’t even entered my mind.
How has your life changed now that you’re still working actively, but you’re less public about it?
Liz Phair: I’m fine with that. I love some of the glamour of being a recording artist and I’m sure I will again engage in that sort of environment. It’s fun to do, but I always was a studio musician. I think there are two kinds of artists, there are performers and studio geeks. I sort of always was the latter. I remember when we first got hired on ‘In Plain Sight’ we would listen and read the scripts, but we were really pawing at the ground going, ‘When can we make music?’ We just love to do it so it really works for me.
One reader mentioned that you’re working on a novel and wanted to know when we could expect to see more written work from you in the future?
Liz Phair: It’s sitting right in front of me. I got an intervention from one of my scoring partners. I handed him like a chapter here and there and he really likes it, but it’s taking me forever to finish. He literally staged an intervention. I’ll leave out the swear words but he’s like, ‘Just finish it. I’m so tired of hearing like, it’ll be done in eight weeks.’ My hair is dirty, I’m in sweats, and when I’m not working on scoring I’m trying to finish this darn thing.
Can you tell us anything about it?
Liz Phair: I don’t want to. I’m sorry.
Are there any additional projects that you do have in the works?
Liz Phair: I do. I’m writing a new record and it’s interesting how scoring and writing facilitate each other. Scoring teaches me to pare down my melodic ideas and really focus on emotional shifts in music. That sort of enhances my ability to put the right musical moments underneath the lyric. I think it’s actually improving my songwriting, although it complicates it in my mind. It’s interesting. They both enhance each other. I cannibalize, by the way, occasionally.
Readers also want to know if you’re going to go on the road any time soon.
Liz Phair: I hope so. I really have just started to feel like I want to get out there and play some more. I think maybe end of summer, early fall, sounds nice to me. I’ve got some stuff going in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for an exhibit they’re doing on Midwestern artists and I’m actually going to send my most prized guitar, the one that was on the cover of Liz Phair. It’s my main guitar which is a huge sacrifice. That means it’s going to be gone for at least a year or a year and a half. That’s a big step for me. That will be along with some handwritten lyrics and this fabulous black leather ball gown.
Had you taken a job like ‘In Plain Sight’ back in 1993 or ’94, how would your head space have been different?
Liz Phair: Oh, I would have been a monster. I don’t think I could have accomplished it. I would have thought I knew everything and I would have thrown hissy fits and not understood what I was doing. I can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t hire me back then to be honest.
Story by Stephanie Nolasco
Starpulse contributing writer