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All’s Phair: An Interview with Liz

Phair Way to Heaven

All’s Phair in Love & War

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big Whoop caught up with the solo-electric siren in Seattle where she had just finished another outstanding, sold out, performance. There’s no need for me to tempt you with prose, so without further ado, here’s what Liz had to say:

bW: Why did you decide to tour solo?

Liz: Because I want to do something different. I don’t want to do the same thing with the same guys anymore. I didn’t want to throw together some kind of pro lineup and do the pro slick tour. Also, if you are going to build another band — if you’re going to create a different sound on your next album, it’s a good idea to go back and figure out what you sound like, by yourself, because you forget. It’s like anything. If you start creative writing and then you go to school for ten years and then you go back and read something that you wrote ten years before, you think, “Wow there was something here that was really me, and now I just sound like everybody else.” I’m trying to come back to terms with what I am musically before I add other people on again.

bW: Why did you stop touring last fall?

Liz: The reason I canceled the tour in the fall was because I had done a shitload of press in the summer for the release of the album and I felt incredibly, emotionally fragile. People were picking at me, poking at me, manipulating me, and I was fighting with photographers who were trying to put me in skimpy outfits and shit. I got so overwhelmed by the end of the summer. I just kept thinking, “What the fuck am I doing? I could go back to grad school and do something. I don’t want to hate my job.” I felt that if I went out with the guys and did the band thing, that it would be forever known as me and these guys and that it would be impossible to get away from them at that point. I’d either have to fish or cut bait. I’d either have to go out with my band, do the rock thing and be a road rock-n-roll act or I’d have to make a change so that I could try and love my job again.

bW: How do you feel about touring now?

Liz: I’d love to not have to tour. There are a lot of reasons why I do it, and it’s not because anyone forces me to. It’s because all those things in your life that you’re scared to do, that you feel inadequate at doing, that you avoid, and that change your life, well, this is one of those things. I was so terrified of performing that no one knew I wrote songs until I was 25 or 26, because I didn’t want to have to get up there and show them. I was so scared. It’s just facing your fears. It’s something that makes me feel better about myself the more I conquer that feeling.

bW: At the Warfield show in April, you invited the audience up on stage and a lot of people climbed up and surrounded you for your last few songs. I know you invited them, but did they scare you at all?

Liz: No, I like that. It actually makes me feel less nervous the minute they get up there. It makes me fifty times less nervous to break that barrier between the audience and me. If I could just get over the fact that they’re sitting there, expecting to be entertained, and I feel inadequate in that so much so that if I can break that spell, anyway I can, it’s better for me.

bW: Did you ever perform at Oberlin?

Liz: Never. Oh god, no. I hung out. I was like a band wife. I went out with all the rock musicians, sat quietly in the rooms while they argued about re-issues and what not, and got drunk, and had my fun.

bW: You never grew up thinking you were going to be a rock-n-roll star?

Liz: No. Never. Never in a million fucking thousand billion trillion years.

bW: When was it that you decided this was going to be your career?

Liz: I moved to San Francisco right after I graduated from Oberlin and I didn’t do shit for about six months. I just played and played. We talked about all this stuff: how we were going to open theater companies, have shows, all these high aspirations, all these Oberlin graduates. But we did nothing and we ran through our savings. I recalled myself back home in the dead of winter. My friend Chris, who’s in the band Come and was in the band Codeine, saw me in San Francisco right before I left and he heard me playing guitar. He forced me to play for him and then said, “Liz, make me a tape, just make me a tape of your stuff.” So I got home and I had fucking nothing to do. I’m living with my parents, and it’s the dead of winter in Chicago, and I made a tape. I was 23. I sent it to Chris and he just started making copies of it — copies and copies and copies. And it got known around the country, swear to God, through an underground tape network. Then, when I called Matador, they had already heard of it and were like, “Sure, go ahead and record an album for us. Great.”

bW: Were you surprised by your success?

Liz: Totally. Everybody was. I was completely shocked. Shocked that people felt my songs were surprising. They seemed really ordinary to me, like camp ditties, “They built the ship Titanic, to sail the ocean blue.” I write songs very ditty-like, and I just didn’t think that there was anything so unusual about them that they would get attention like that.

bW: What scares you the most about your success?

Liz: Nothing scares me now. It used to scare me a lot because I didn’t feel in control of myself. I was used to being an artists, making a product, and then having that product be bombarded with either attention or criticism, but it wasn’t for me. I was really afraid of pursuing a career because you, yourself, your life, the way you look is what is picked upon. I felt like, “How the hell am I going to survive?” I was really a private person, extroverted when I chose to be, but not the kind of person that would be wanting that kind of attention on me.

bW: What do you love most about your success?

Liz: In the end, I like the fact that I can make music and get paid for to do that. My whole life, my big aspiration was to make what I like and have someone pay me for that. It was actually visual art that I wanted to get paid to do. That’s what my whole goal was. My parents were like, “It doesn’t work that way. There’s no free lunch.” I was like, “No, I will be paid to make my art.” It just turned out to be music instead. But that’s fine, it’s art.

bW: You were asked to do a shoot for Playboy. Did you consider it?

Liz: Yeah, for thirty seconds I was like, “That would be great,” because I could do my own arranging. It’s always been a fantasy of mine to be subversive in Playboy. The reason I didn’t do it was because I realized there’s no way to be subversive, no matter what you do. Look at Sandra Bernhardt’s spread. Even if you’re wacky or weird or do your own thing, you’re still showing your body for men’s pleasure. I just said, “Fuck it. There’s no way to make art out of this.” But I wanted to.

bW: What inspired you to write your new song, “Hurricane Cindy”, about Cindy Crawford?

Liz: Because she comes from the Midwest. Of all the supermodels — which, I have to say, I do follow because I grew up reading VogueElle, and whatever — she’s the one that I watch because I can relate. There’s something about it. I just intuitively know what she’s thinking when she says what she says. I read an interview with her in Details, and I thought it was absolutely profound. Every time I read about Cindy I rip out the page and I’m like, “I understand!”

bW: Do you have a favorite song on any of your albums?

Liz: I don’t know if I have a favorite song. I change. I really, really, really like “May Queen”. It’s funny, it doesn’t come out so well in the set. It’s hard to do solo. But I love it on the album. There’s something about it that I really like.

bW: What was the first album you ever had?

Liz: The first album I was ever given was the Kinks album, by my baby-sitter.

bW: Do you know when your next album’s coming out?

Liz: Hopefully, I’ll turn it in by January. So, it will probably come out in the beginning of the summer of ’96. You know how PJ’s album came out right about now-ish? I’m hoping mine will come out right about now-ish next year. I want to stay flip flop years with PJ Harvey so we don’t ever compete directly.

bW: Has marriage changed your lifestyle at all?

Liz: No, not at all. The weird thing was backstage in San Francisco everyone was like, “You’re married!” and they were just kind of looking at me. I realized that to get married was like a political statement to them, and I was thinking, “No, it’s just a guy that I know that I’m going to want to sleep with for the rest of my life.” It means something different to people that I share it with, then what it means to me.

bW: Do you vary your set lists from show to show?

Liz: I do vary my set lists a lot. Mostly because, when you go to a different city, it’s hard to gauge. You really want to tailor it, especially with one person and one guitar. Keeping peoples’ interest is of key importance, and it’s really hard to do if you want to stick to the same set.

bW: Why are your stage designs so different from city to city?

Liz: It’s a contest. We asked people, in each city, to come up with a living room set design. Whoever came up with the best design gets to build it and wins dinner for two somewhere. It’s just me and Deanne (tour manager) hopping into a plane and getting off at every city, every day, and so there’s no way we could take anything with us. Also, because it’s one person and guitar. Again, keep it interesting, have something to look at.

By Ashley Davy
big Whoop!, May 1995

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