Two years ago, Liz Phair did a round of interviews announcing a new deal with powerhouse indie label ATO and stating that she felt creative for the first time in 15 years. And while she did rerelease her seminal 1993 album, "Exile in Guyville," on her new label, fresh songs never seemed to materialize -- until July 4 of this year, when Phair posted a new album online, seemingly out of nowhere.
As she gears up for the Oct. 19 physical release of that album, "Funstyle," on Rocket Science, Phair is open about why things didn't work out with ATO.
"It was an amicable parting, and I was sad to leave, but I don't take well to strong-arm tactics," she says. "The management there went through huge shifts, and I felt like they wanted to reel me back."
Phair is no stranger to the shifting fortunes of the industry -- after releasing "Guyville" to near-universal critical rapture in 1993, she put out two more well-regarded albums on indie label Matador before pulling an abrupt about-face and releasing two pop albums on Capitol. Many of her older fans never forgave her for teaming with production team the Matrix and crossing over to the commercial side, and "Funstyle" seems unlikely to win them back. The album is certainly audacious, finding Phair rapping at numerous points, as well as revisiting her lo-fi singer/songwriter roots, but it's not "Exile." And in a way, that was what Phair wanted.
"Everyone wanted another 'Exile,' and at one point, I just thought I should do it," she says. "I do a lot of scoring for TV shows and thought that maybe I should approach it like writing for a client and just give people what they wanted. But at the last minute, I backed out."
Instead, Phair took the "Funstyle" tracks to Rocket Science a few months ago and told the label she wanted them out as soon as possible. "It was all contingent on whether we could execute the plan quickly," GM Ken Gullic says. "We could, and we also really bought into the spirit of what she was doing. She's like a pop-art artist, and she's willing to challenge her listeners."
Phair also acknowledges her past by packaging the physical version of "Funstyle" with the "Girly Sound" demos, which Phair first released in 1992. Phair will play the Matador Records 21st-anniversary party in Las Vegas in October, and Gullic says she will tour behind the new album, although details are still being finalized. He also hopes that Phair will book a number of TV appearances, both as a performer and an interviewee.
"She's great at selling herself," he says. "And there has been a lot of anticipation for this album, so I think people want to hear from her about her vision."
Gullic adds that Rocket Science is a good fit for someone with a defined vision, like Phair. "We started as a label services company, but in the past year, we've morphed," he says. "We put out the Smashing Pumpkins and Filter albums, and we do artist-friendly deals that allow the artists to be as engaged as they want to be."
Phair admits that as involved as she is in the album's rollout, she has no idea what the future holds. "All I know is, I'm proud of these songs," she says. "They represent a period of inspiration that was really important to me."