"I just felt like I needed to live up to something in making this record," Liz Phair says about her new album, Somebody's Miracle, due October 4th. The album, which she describes as "more soulful this time," finds the rocker closely examining personal relationships -- and looking to Stevie Wonder for creative inspiration and structure.
"In the fall I had a lot of the songs ready and was hell-bent on doing a song-by-song [response] to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life," says Phair, who has said that her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, was a response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. "So I had all the charts made, and we hung them up in the studio, and that session was really where we got most of the arrangements for the songs."
Working with producers John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer) and John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge), Phair realized she wanted the record to be guitar-driven, and soon abandoned a literal reading of the 1976 classic. "I couldn't do twenty-one songs -- and now they're all out of order," she says. Still, Phair insists, common themes link the two records.
"I started out thinking that the title track was like 'I Wish,' because he's basically going back to his childhood and saying, 'I wish those days could come back once more,'" she explains. "'Somebody's Miracle' is really about longing for an innocence, wishing I could recapture the innocence of what love is, the belief in love and the belief that I could have love, that I could stay with someone forever, the picture I had in my mind when I was young of what my life was going to be like.
"At the end of the song, I go, 'I never cry out loud/ I keep my tears to myself but I woke up one day and I found my life had left me for someone else' -- that's sort of how I feel. I was supposed to be married and be happy and have a family, and here I've taken this totally different life."
In writing the new material, Phair says she "talked a lot about the weaknesses that we have as human beings, and the weaknesses in relationships, and doubt and cruelty and betrayal," but still aimed to create a record that was "hopeful and positive." She attributed that optimism to the influence and richness of Wonder's music.
"I thought, 'This is what I wish music were today,'" she says of listening to Key of Life. "I was so blown away. I seriously had a real passion for it. So I wanted to just put a little more soul into what I was doing.
"And obviously with Stevie Wonder I was like, 'How the hell am I going to do that?'" she continues. "Clearly, when you find a record like that, the first thing -- and the most immediate thing -- is how inadequate you are. But that's why I did it. It's like taking a course with the best professor in the world."