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Soundcheck: Liz Phair's 'fun style'

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
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Rocker mom Liz Phair talks sexuality
  • Indie rock icon Liz Phair is playing the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, this year
  • She's well known for 1993's "Exile in Guyville" and 2003's pop chart hit "Why Can't I?"
  • She streamed her latest album, "Funstyle," on her website last year

Atlanta (CNN) -- Austin, Texas, is a music mecca year-round, but especially each March: This month, Austin hosts the 25th annual South By Southwest festival.

The original 1987 conference highlighted only music, showcasing about 200 largely unknown artists for 700 registered attendees. In contrast, the 2011 version includes a film festival, an interactive media festival and a music festival featuring nearly 2,000 bands performing for about 12,000 participants.

In recent years, SXSW not only has become a destination for musicians looking to be discovered, it's also become a must for some established artists hoping to better connect -- or reconnect -- with audiences and the industry.

Indie rock icon Liz Phair is one of those better-known musicians this year.

After years of recording for major labels and their partners (most recently, ATO Records, which is affiliated with Sony's RED artist development company), Phair decided last summer that she'd had enough.

"I'm fed up with the way that the businesspeople look at art-making," she says. "It's all about positioning to them ... and it makes the artist the pawn."

The author of 1993's landmark "Exile in Guyville" and 2003's No. 10 Billboard Pop chart hit "Why Can't I?" quit ATO, streamed her new album "Funstyle" on her website over the Fourth of July weekend, then released the CD through the independent Rocket Science Records a few months later.

Phair approached Rocket Science and said, "I have this record 'Funstyle,' and I want it out this weekend," says Matt Larsen, the label's marketing manager. He says Phair felt that releasing "Funstyle" over Independence Day represented newfound freedom for her.

Phair's frustration with the business inspired angry lyrics about ATO on "Funstyle," which she poured into raps (yes, raps!) and sound collages unprecedented in her career. The stylistic changes befuddled many critics and fans. But Phair says her music and her mindset have always contained subversive elements.

"I've always been experimental, and I've always been someone that liked to provoke conversation or upend expectations," Phair says. "As I went from indie to pop to the more experimental kind of soundscaping that I've been doing lately, it freaks people out. They need to put you in a box, and they need to know if they buy this record, what dinner party they can play it behind."

(ATO released a statement to CNN saying, "Liz Phair is a talented artist. We wish her well in everything she does.")

Phair has risked losing devotees before. After the lo-fi music and vulnerable, sexually frank lyrics of her early albums evolved into a more polished sound on 2003's "Liz Phair," she experienced backlash from people who felt she had turned her back on her roots.

"I think people failed to realize that I was growing and changing in my life, as well as in my music," she says.

Her label's commercial expectations were changing, too.

"It was, 'Play ball, or sit on the bench,' " Phair says. "And I'm not a bench-sitter. To some extent, [fans] who felt betrayed were reacting mostly to the pop imaging, and less to the notion that here was a woman doing what she liked, and continuing to do what she liked, which is the ultimate power and freedom."

Phair's career is now on her terms again, just like when she started recording at age 19. The CD version of "Funstyle" includes a second disc, "Girlysound," which she calls her "bedroom tapes" and the basis for "Exile in Guyville."

Simultaneously releasing sets of songs recorded more than 20 years apart showcases how much Phair has changed, as well as how much she hasn't.

"I like contrasts, and I like taking two different styles and mashing them together, or two different songs and mashing them together," she says. "That's the kind of stuff that I was doing on "Funstyle" as well, and I thought it would sort of help people understand where the style came from."

One thing that hasn't changed much over two decades is Phair's sex appeal. At a recent concert in Atlanta, the 43-year-old was rocking a revealing dress, which was clearly appreciated by many in the crowd.

"There's a double standard in the society, not just the industry, when it comes to female sexuality and the roles that women are allowed to inhabit as they age," she says. "I was definitely not going to be wearing pantyhose and cutting all my hair off when I reached a certain age."

Phair also wears a lot more confidence on stage these days. At that same show, she kicked off her encore with the rap from "Funstyle's" "Bollywood," then thanked the fans who "got it."

"I always felt like other people were born performers and I was a born writer," Phair says. "It really was incredibly recently -- maybe for this last tour -- that I have loved getting on stage. It's fun to go out and tour and be extreme and be different than you are at home," she says.

"When I'm home, I'm Mom. I'm Elizabeth Phair. I'm myself when I'm with my friends. It's disappointingly normal."

When the Chicago-bred rocker is home in California, she spends time with her teenage son, and she's "always recording" with friends.

"It can be really exciting to collaborate on stuff with people that you know personally, socially, and see what you come up with," she says. "We write songs together or we just record instead of going to a bar or a club or something on a Friday night."

Phair's highest-profile collaborator on "Funstyle" was Dave Matthews.

"That's a perfect example of meeting another artist, loving what they do, loving them, and wanting to make music together," Phair says. "It was great. I just kind of piggybacked his personal recording sessions. There was a lot of basketball playing, as I recall, and shenanigans."

Besides providing easy access to a wealth of musicians and recording studios, living in California has other benefits, Phair says.

"I do not miss the Chicago winters at all. I definitely go back to Chicago a lot, but I make sure I go in the fall, spring, summer."

The endless summers have motivated Phair to pick up a California pastime.

"I've been learning how to surf. I've been in California about 11 years, so it was time."