One Pandemic Later, Liz Phair and Soccer Mommy Still Can’t Remember the Words
Liz Phair makes no secret of her troubled relationship with the music industry. The alt-rock singer-songwriter’s 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville made her an industry darling—Rolling Stone lists the record as one of its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”—and a cascade of accolades followed. Her 1994 follow-up, Whip Smart, won the feminist icon a Grammy Award, and her third album, 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, put Phair in league with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette.
After early success and a high-profile record deal forced Phair into radio-friendly territory and drew her criticism for “selling out,” the artist left her label to independently release 2010’s Funstyle, a compilation of outtakes and biting callouts of prominent industry executives. At odds with an industry that had both venerated and controlled her, Phair spent the better part of the last decade in creative isolation. The result of this incubation period, last week’s Soberish, is a testament to Phair’s commitment to growth and introspection. Despite its original 2020 release date, the record embraces pandemic-friendly topics of reemergence and transformation, and rings in yet another phase in the artist’s illustrious career. To celebrate Soberish’s long-awaited arrival, Phair hopped on the phone with Nashville-born singer-songwriter Sophie Allen (better known by her stage name Soccer Mommy), who has taken a few pages from the rock veteran’s book, to discuss everything from the challenges of recording rain sounds in sunny Los Angeles to forgetting the lyrics in the middle of the performance.
LIZ PHAIR: What’s new in your world?
SOCCER MOMMY: This week, I just got out of the studio. Now, I’m in a weird mental headspace of having nothing to do all the time. I’m really bored. I’ve just been going to the new Publix. That’s a pretty big deal down here.
PHAIR: They opened a new Publix?
SOCCER MOMMY: Yeah. They just put a Publix in downtown Nashville.
PHAIR: Have you ever been in a grocery store and heard your voice come on over the radio?
SOCCER MOMMY: No, I’ve actually yet to hear my music on the radio or out somewhere.
PHAIR: I’ve heard mine in stores. Usually, it’s Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” and I’ll be shopping listening to my backing vocals. I’ll just be humming it hoping someone will notice. It’s not my song, so I feel much less shy about it. I’m like, “Please notice me. I’m singing extra loud. Don’t I sound familiar?”
SOCCER MOMMY: You’re like, “Look, I know the harmony.” What have you been doing? Are you in L.A.?
PHAIR: Yeah. Tell me about the new record. Have you had any surprises? Did it turn out to be what you expected or did you find that you made something different than what you thought you were making?
SOCCER MOMMY: I’m really happy with where everything is so far. There’s still a little bit of post-production we’re going to do on it. But I’m excited because it sounds different, and it’s got a lot of different stuff on it. My favorite part is the recording. I prefer that to sessions, touring, and everything else.
PHAIR: You get creation right there. You imagine it, you work it out, you create it, and it’s like you’re Dr. Frankenstein or something. Then the song comes alive and it’s very cool.
SOCCER MOMMY: Once you start touring a record the songs are not even new anymore. Usually I’ve already started the next thing by that point, so I’m distracted. It’s always the best when I’m still obsessively ruminating on the songs.
PHAIR: It’s a special time. You get to be amazed by your own work before everybody weighs in.
SOCCER MOMMY: It’s like the toddler phase. Then they become a child and a teenager, and you’re like, “This is getting annoying.” It’s not just cute anymore. Are you really nervous and anxious for your record to be out there or are you just excited?
PHAIR: I feel like it came out last year because we delayed it for a year. The fact that it’s just coming out right now is mind-blowing because I’m well used to it. I’ve been talking about it. Everybody’s heard at least four songs off of it. The actual release of it feels a little more anticlimactic. I feel like it’s already partially out.
SOCCER MOMMY: That’s probably nice. I always have this psychotic break around release week. I’m literally insane for a day and a half while all of the reviews are coming out and then I’m totally fine again. It’s just like all the pressure is lifted.
PHAIR: That’s a fast turnaround. I think that everyone in this industry has a natural rhythm that they developed early on. And then they make it their job and suddenly there’s all this pressure to work at a different pace. I struggle with that a lot now, just thinking about this album that I’ve known so well for months and months, but other people don’t.
SOCCER MOMMY: And before you even get in the studio, you have this idea in your head of what it sounds like. I’m terrible at giving people any sort of direction. I’ll be like, “I want it to sound like it’s raining.” They’re just like, “Let’s hope this works out.” It can be frustrating, but it’s a relief when you find a good producer who just gets you.
PHAIR: It’s so critical to find people who can translate your words into sonic reality.
SOCCER MOMMY: Speaking of rain, I really like that there’s the rain scene at the end of your record.
PHAIR: Sound design like that breaks the fourth wall or something. I bought these recording devices that you hook around your ear, and you can just walk around and pick up surround sound. I had it ready to record rain, but actually weather channels in L.A. no longer predict rain, it’s so infrequent and random. I happened to be sleeping, and I heard the rain on the window, and I’m like, “Oh my god!” I knew it could end in a second, so I put on the weirdest clothes and grabbed these devices. I just walked up and down the streets splashing in the puddles to get that rain sound. People would stop their cars and be like, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “Yes, I’m recording!”
SOCCER MOMMY: You were like, “Shh.”
PHAIR: I did have to quiet someone. How rude is that?
SOCCER MOMMY: Are you guys going to tour this album?
PHAIR: We are. We’re going to go out with Alanis Morissette and Garbage on her Jagged Little Pill tour. Have you been playing any shows?
SOCCER MOMMY: I have an actual real-live show next week. That’s going to be pretty fun. That’s the first real show we’ve played in two years.
PHAIR: Are you nervous about getting back out there?
SOCCER MOMMY: I mean, I’ll be a little bit uncomfortable. It’s stage fright. I feel fine now, but I think when it actually comes to getting up there, I’m going to be a little weirded out that we’re back because it’s been a long time. My bass player was living on a farm for eight months. No phone service. He just got back, and we hadn’t even seen each other or practiced in eight months. It’s so foreign all of a sudden. We used to do it all the time, and now it’s this weird thing. I think it’ll be fun.
PHAIR: It’ll be like riding a bike. Get back up there and it’ll be in no time as normal as anything, right?
SOCCER MOMMY: The first two songs will be awful and the rest will be fine. It’ll be great.
PHAIR: Like every other gig ever.
SOCCER MOMMY: Pretty much. I’m most worried about forgetting lyrics. We were practicing and I was just blowing through entire verses with no words. I really hope that I don’t do that.
PHAIR: People think that we always just know the words, but we don’t. It’s just a muscle memory, just like remembering where to play on the guitar. It isn’t actually conscious. And if it is, you’re in trouble.
SOCCER MOMMY: Totally. I’ve messed up entire sections of songs at shows because I’m so easily distracted. I’ll be playing a song, and in my brain I’m like, “Maybe we should get a pizza after.” Then I fuck something up.
PHAIR: I always try to click into my band when I’m drifting. If my attention starts to focus on something unproductive, I just immediately focus on what my band is doing.
SOCCER MOMMY: If I focus too much on what other people are playing, I just feel like a crazy person. I’ve always been very anal about what the band is doing, especially drummers. Not my current drummer, but drummers, I’ve always been very anal about what they’re doing. I just feel like a crazy person. I’m looking back at them every time they do a solo like, “Just chill out. I didn’t know you were going to do that solo right there.”
PHAIR: That poor drummer is getting dirty looks from you all night.
SOCCER MOMMY: Yeah, he’s dealing with a raging bitch, pretty much, the entire show. My current one is great. I don’t have to tell him anything.
PHAIR: Does your management ever say, “You’d be perfect if you just could figure out TikTok?”
SOCCER MOMMY: They have tried to ask me to do it, but I’m pretty against it, so I think they’ve given at this point.
PHAIR: If I was just a little bit older, if I had lost my mind a little more, I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s probably the one I can handle.”
SOCCER MOMMY: Yeah, exactly.
PHAIR: Imagine my age, and all the skills I’ve acquired over the years, and all of a sudden none of it means anything because I’m not good at TikTok. I’m like are you fucking kidding?
SOCCER MOMMY: I could have saved so much time dubbing cassettes if just started posting TikToks. But I wonder if the musicians who are getting famous on TikTok are going to be able to last.
PHAIR: Right, because if you’ve been quiet for a while or you’re just getting back out on the road, you first have to gin up the fan base again. Would someone who was TikTok famous just forego any physical performance?
SOCCER MOMMY: No more songs, only 30 second clips.
PHAIR: Mood pieces.