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Liz Phair On Writing After Midnight
The indie rock icon talks about her creative workflow, the emotional challenges of collaboration, and why she’s always been a bedroom writer
The first conversation in a series exploring the workflow of noted authors and other creators.
Preferred tools: Guitars with multiple tunings; Voice Memos app; pencil and paper.
Creative hours: After midnight
Writing space: Bedroom
Do you have a set routine for writing songs?
Definitely. But I think everybody gets in a rut sometimes where you have to do something different. For this record, I’m working in multiple tunings, and I have about ten guitars in my bedroom that are tuned to different tunings. I don’t even know what they are; I should really sit down and figure out what they are. But one of the things that’s so interesting about songwriting is that because of this, I can transpose a song — if it’s not interesting enough in E, say — I can just walk around my room, strum a guitar, and take that same song and throw it into an entirely different tuning, and make up the fingering as I go. It makes a song that can be sort of bland and obvious turn into a song that’s really special, because the notes that are playing off the traditional ones in some sort of weird jazzy or unknown way.
Do you have a specific place where you like to write, or do you end up writing in different spaces?
I’m really weird like that. I’ve always been a bedroom writer. I need like a little cubbyhole to write in; I usually kick everybody out of the house. I tend to write when everybody’s gone. I don’t think that’s normal for most people. I think they go to the studio, or they jam with friends. But I’ve always been this way; it’s always been this secret little thing I did.
And does this tend to happen at particular times of day?
It’s interesting you ask that, because for me about midnight is when I start feeling like writing (laughs) and I can go to like four or five sometimes. And this is sober! I mean, that’s what’s so scary. I often wonder if it’s just psychological that I know that everyone else is still asleep…
Before I was a parent, I used to go away for a month and stay in one of my friend’s parents summer houses, in the winter when it wasn’t occupied. I’d just live there all by myself for a month and write all the songs for an album. So in way that hasn’t changed. I have to be isolated in order to write..
Are there things that have changed in your songwriting habits over the years?
In terms of how I approach songwriting, it’s completely different now. Before, if it sounded okay and it kind of hit the right notes, then that was fine — but it was very rudimentary. But now, I’m so much more interested in transitions between parts, and songwriting structure. I’m currently developing one that’s — instead of verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge — I’m sticking the bridge as the second verse, so it’s verse, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus. To me that’s a really easy fix, it doesn’t challenge the brain too much; so this new record will have a lot of this new structure that I’m using consistently.
That reminds me of one of my favorite stories from Brian Eno’s diary that he published as a book. He’s working with David Bowie on that record they made in the 90s, and he comes home and writes this entry that says, “We’re working on this new song that has the structure ABBBBBBBBBBB — and A is the good part.”
(laughs) Eno is so brilliant. I think the best people that come to songwriting weren’t trained professionally, or they resisted it. I think songwriting requires constant innovation.
Do you have songs that take a long period to develop?
I do but I cannibalize them. They almost never come out the way they were originally intended. My voice memos are filled to the gills with half songs or ideas. I’ll go through if I need something — if I need a chorus, I’ll be like, “Oh, that was great, I’ll just re-write the lyrics to it.” It’s all raw material; I’m making a salad constantly. It’s like, “hmmm, there’s tomatoes left over; are they rotten? If I just scrape off this part I can use it.”
I was going to ask about what you use to record these ideas — so you’re just using the Voice Memos app on the phone?
It’s terrible. It’s not even alphabetized! I’ve got to get a better system. But the good news about that is that it’s all in one place, and when I’m out, or I’m waiting for friends and they’ve got a piano in the house, I’ll just go over and start writing a riff and then I’ve got my phone right there and it all goes to the same dump. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, Steven, and I’ll have a song in my head and I’ll just sing it into the phone. It’s so embarrassing.
I think that’s so often the case with tools for capturing ideas — the simplest possible tool that’s always available ends up winning out over more advanced options. What about lyrics vs. music? Do you write them separately?
That’s interesting. I don’t think I have lyrical ideas outside of melodies. But when I write poetry, I always do it old-school, with pencil, scritch-scritch-scritch on the page.
Pencil? I’m not familiar with that technology…. (Laughter) What about collaboration? You’ve co-written a lot of songs over the years, which I find fascinating, because writing books for me has always been such a solitary process, at least for the first draft.
I really like collaborating because it’s emotionally funky. I mean, you know this — once you’re pretty experienced at what you do, you look for those more challenging, turbulent places to apply yourself. It’s like: okay, now I want to ski a black diamond; I feel comfortable on blue. A lot of times I’m asked to help a young female artist with songs, and they are not ready for the process. And I wasn’t either at their age. It feels really intrusive, and they’re guarded and they feel embarrassed about exposing stuff. They’re defending their sovereignty to say these things the way they want to do it. So I’ll go through the voice memos and find a couple of unfinished songs that I can offer them that I wouldn’t mind giving up — and let them see if anything starts something with them. And we’ll move to different instruments; we’ll move to different rooms in a studio environment always because you want to record the sketches; you want to record if something happens. But it’s super hard to work with them, in the sense that it’s not just about the work; it’s about the emotional journey of it for them. I’m much more like, “oh, fuck it, let’s throw that away, and try this.” But to them, that’s like saying, “Oh, throw your elbow away, you don’t need it.” But I love that because they’ve got skin in the game; they really care. I wouldn’t work with anyone who didn’t care.
Is there a case study of a particular song that you can tell us about — how it evolved from idea to finished product?
There’s a song, “Baby Got Going,” on Whitechocolatespaceegg that was one of my most licensed songs at one point. A lot of producers like to make music tracks but they don’t know lyrics or melody, and they’ll give me their completely finished musical track, and say, “Can you do anything with this?” I love doing that, but it takes a really long time. With “Baby Got Going,” my producer Scott Litt gave me this track and I’d had it for like three months and nothing was coming. I’d physically walk toward the thing, listen to it, try something, and then walk away and not touch it for another week. Eventually, I woke up one morning and I had the whole song. I reached over to my desk and started scribbling the lyrics. And it was just a clean write; it was all there. And that was so exciting because it really fit with the track. The track had train whistles on it, and I’d asked Scott what the track was about, and he’d said, “I don’t know, I think it’s about a couple on a train.” I turned it into this filthy, fun romp, and it feels like my song because I worked on it, and ingested it, and digested it, and turned it into something new. To wait that long, and have it come out clean like that — it was wonderful.