Interview

'People Like Us' Songwriter Liz Phair
by Scott McConnell

Published June 27, 2012

In theaters Friday, June 29 is the drama People Like Us, featuring original music by A.R. Rahman as well as the original song "Dotted Line" co-written by A.R. Rahman and Liz Phair, which plays over the film's end credits. The song is also included in the movie's soundtrack album.

Liz Phair recently sat down with Soundtrack.Net's Scott McConnell to discuss her role in creating "Dotted Line" and working with the film's composer and director. Ms. Phair is an accomplished singer/songwriter who first became popular in the early 90s with her hit album Exile in Guyville. People Like Us, co-written and directed by Alex Kurtzman (co-writer of Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III), stars Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks. The conflict of the movie centers on Sam's uncaring father (Jerry) who dies and leaves his debt-ridden son $150,000 to give to a family Sam didn't know existed: his half-sister Frankie, and nephew Josh. Themes of honesty, trust and commitment are explored through the main characters of Frankie and Sam.

Scott McConnell: How did you come to the project?

Liz Phair: [Director Alex Kurzman] got in touch with me a year and a half ago and had been listening to my music when he was trying to get into the character of Frankie. My music sort of helped him understand how she was thinking–what was going on with her emotionally. So Alex wanted to reach out to me. He wasn't sure what he wanted me to do, but he wanted me to be part of the project because listening to my music had been fruitful for him and he felt there was a tie in there.

SM: What was the tie in between you and the Frankie character, emotionally?

Liz Phair: We didn't even really know. Alex needed to get to his character; he selected me and it worked for him. He started to write the story and then he felt like he should reach out to me and tell me that this important movie that he was making about something from his own life I had something to do with.

We met and a little bit later and I saw the first cut and he still didn't know what he wanted me to do. I was totally moved by the movie, sobbing when I watched it. Frankie's issues were my issues, so I felt, "Oh, my god!"

And then when Alex was working with [A.R. Rahman] on the score, he kept thinking, "Can we get Liz in here and maybe her voice can be in the background in the Frankie scenes." I think he was searching after something and then when I went home after meeting A.R., they said, "Can you write something?" I wrote something really powerful overnight. And I didn't think I'd be able to do so because it was a big deal for me. Then I came back in with what I had written and A.R. and I meshed our two parts–his theme and my song–and we came up with "Dotted Line" and it just fit for the end credits. It was all organic.

SM: Tell us about you and A.R. Rahman working together, especially his style, his type of melody.

Liz Phair: He's very different than I am. I think one of the interesting things for A.R. in the beginning was that Alex kept saying, "No, no. It's too perfect. I want it to be a little bit less perfect." A.R. is so accomplished. He can make these gorgeous arrangements that are epic and cinematic, but Alex needed them to not be 100% right. Like when you make a carpet and you leave a flaw so that the gods won't be pissed off. I think this was a struggle for A.R. So when A.R. met me that was pushing him even farther out of his comfort zone, because he was like: "Okay, she can't really sing and play." But A.R. loved what I ended up doing, so much so that he was even like, "I've got some music lying around and do you want to listen to it and write some melodies on top of it, because you're bringing a completely untrained, rogue element, all emotion, no technique, into like super emotion, super technique, elegance." And that is what Alex wanted to come together.

SM: What are the issues in "Dotted Line" and how is it organic to the movie?

Liz Phair: It's very interesting because Alex said my song can't be a love song because the characters are a brother and sister. But it has to be powerful with a lot of love in it. I thought about that and thought about what the movie had meant to me, and what I had really thought we were all circling around. I decided that that was the issue of commitment and the lack thereof. Also that your family is your first experience of commitment; your family is your first experience of knowing that someone will be there, that even if someone has decided that it will cost them or is hard for them, they will throw in with you. And when that doesn't happen, when there's some kind of disconnect or dysfunction in a family, it leaves you in your adulthood struggling with these issues. So I decided that this was what the film really was about for me: struggling with commitment.

So I wrote a song about stepping on the threshold of making a really big commitment, but one that is very conscious–one that you know you are overcoming some of your own bullshit to do this step. What would it feel like to be in that moment? For example, if it were in a romantic situation, say the night before your wedding, you'd been through this whole commitment thing and now you're really going to do it. What's that razor's edge between all your misgivings and actually taking that step? So signing the contract, on the "dotted line," that is what it meant to me.

SM: Can you tell us a little more about the process of creating "Dotted Line" for the movie.

Liz Phair: It was weird. It was so organic. It was just little bits. Alex would just disappear from my life and then pop up again and say: "Hey, you wanna see this?" The process for the song was just having this stuff brewing in me. I knew that the movie was something that was going to powerfully connect with me, because I had read the script. Then when I saw the cut, it was so much beyond what I expected that I was mortified that I was sobbing like an idiot in a room with two men who were figuring out, "Should we start the shot sooner?" And then meeting A.R.

It all literally happened in two days. I came in one day and they just threw me into a vocal booth and said, "We're going to put up a couple of scenes with the music. You just sing what you feel like." So I'm standing out there kind of shivering in my boots because this is A.R. Rahman! I'm completely like an idiot savant. I don't know how to play very well. I just kind of feel my way through things. And there is A.R., a completely trained musician, and I didn't know what they expected me to do, but I sang a kind of "Ah Ah Ah." I made up stuff as I went. And that happened for the whole day, which was nerve wracking. Then that night as I was leaving they were like, "Can you write a song?"

I literally went and wrote the song that night. A couple of days later I came back and had to show it to them and play it right out there in the studio again in front of six people. Embarrassing. Frightening. And they were like, "I like it, okay. Let's lay it down in the studio."

SM: So you wrote the music and the lyrics?

Liz Phair: Yes, but A.R. already had the [musical] theme that became part of the song. I knew what the theme was. He played it for me. "Na, Na Na, Na." It was like a lullaby. Alex really wanted a lullaby feeling because the characters had missed that feeling in their lives, the safety, which is what they were trying to recreate with each other in the movie. [The characters of ] Sam and Frankie both missed that. So I tried to put that in the lyrics: the sense of people who never got that sense of safety, of what it's like when you try as an adult to give that to someone and get that from someone.

SM. So you went home and wrote the song?

Liz Phair: Yes, incorporating A.R.'s theme into the song I wrote. Then I come in [to the studio] and they've got a guitar player there and they're ready to go. It's like, "Game On!" Every time I walked in there, they're just ready to go. It's just happening. So we went in and we recorded it. So I only went in twice. One time I did the vocal thing. The second time I did the song itself.

SM: Were there other sounds or emotions you were trying to work with the song?

Liz Phair: There was a whole bridge that didn't end up making it into the movie. A bridge about [singing]:

"Would you recognize in a crowded room,
If I laughed too loud and if I left too soon?
Would you see it in my eyes when I looked at you,
The piece of me I hide, the pieces that I hide from you?"

That is: would you care enough and know me enough to recognize when I'm bullshitting? A lot of this is about Sam. He hasn't felt that his father has been truthful, so he's not going to be truthful to Frankie for a long part of the movie. And that push through is what I was interested in.

I'm going to throw this example in: I had an experience, a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime thing where I sang at the World Series. I did "God Bless America" in the first game in my home town of Chicago for the Sox in 2005. And I remember thinking: I can either try to hit that last high note or not. And I decided that the act of trying to hit that high note is a metaphor for the Sox trying to win the World Series, so I better damn go for it, to swell the crowd. For me the commitment part of that, the "dotted line" thing, is that I'm reaching for the commitment even though I don't know if I'm really up to it or if it's really going to work. So that was the push through with the commitment thing in that chorus. I believe in imbuing the stuff I do with the metal that it needs to win the fight. The Sox ended up winning.

SM: How do you compose? What techniques did you use when you were actually writing this song?

Liz Phair: I'm digging emotionally. I dig down until I get words that are as true as I possibly can. When I wrote this song, I was sitting in front of my fireplace and ended up crying because some part of it was actually about me. I've struggled with commitment my whole life. My whole life! It was a big deal for me to write about imagining myself on the threshold of actually doing it. So I know that I'm digging. I can feel when I'm a little bit uncomfortable and I try to sit there. It's like games of sobriety.

SM: Alex Kurtzman wrote in the soundtrack liner notes: "She [Liz] captured the essence of the movie with a perfect metaphor."

Liz Phair: I wrote from all three characters, Sam, Frank and Jerry. They are all very important to me. I wanted Sam's dad [Jerry] to be in the song. I wanted the song to be able to be sung by Frankie or Sam or his dad. It was really important to me that the dad not get left out of this commitment thing, because in the end what you find out is that he did commit to them. It was pitiful but he did commit. He couldn't live it in the light, but he made this commitment to these two people [his children Sam and Frankie] the best he could. I think that writing for the three characters really touched Alex. He said, "My god, you're the only person beside me who's written from all three main characters." I just did it naturally.

SM: Did Alex also think of you as Frankie?

Liz Phair: I don't know that I was Frankie. I mean, Frankie was Alex's sister. He knows what Frankie's going to do, but I don't think he always knew how she felt when she was doing it. And he needed that. What I remember is that Alex was mad at her. He had issues with her and I think my music allowed him to empathize more with how she felt.

SM: The second part of Alex's quote is. "She (Liz) helped me find Frankie's voice, now she was singing for her."

Liz Phair: It's true. It's cool. It's the magic of art and music. You somehow find a way to be someone, to speak for them. I think that art is always speaking for people who can't speak, even if it's you. I've written songs from my brother's point of view. I've done a lot of stuff like that. And with this movie, I wanted to make sure that what was essentially pounding in Sam's chest on the screen came out in song form.


Photo of Liz Phair (above, right) taken by Scott McConnell and 2012 by Soundtrack.Net.