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All’s Phair in Love & War

All’s Phair: An Interview with Liz

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Liz Phair. Her debut album, Exile in Guyville, made it into every major critic’s Top Ten List. She even graced the cover of the Village Voice, where she was heralded as the singer/songwriter of the nineties. Much of Guyville talks about sex and love in explicit terms, which has unfortunately led many male critics to drool over her lyrical come-ons. They’re missing the boat, however — Phair’s voice is not one of a submissive love slave but that of a woman who wants respect, autonomy, and great sex. All at once.

Despite all the critical accolades, talking with Liz Phair isn’t so different from talking with a friend. She’s down-to-earth, spontaneously funny, and would make a great companion for sitting in diners until the wee hours. Self-assured but never glib, she comes across as determinedly un-rockstar-like. But then again, she never set out to be one. In direct contrast to the adolescent fantasies that practice posturing in front of mirrors before they’ve even written a song, Liz’s songs came first; the fame later. The rock star life that mandates rigorous touring, groupie adoration and minimum wage slave labor is the male-dominated world of Exile on Main St. that Guyville rebuked. She wrote songs for herself and her friends, not in order to join the legions of slackers armed with four-tracks. Her overnight success came specifically from not being immersed in a music industry that continually seeks out the fresh and novel before proceeding to homogenize it to broaden its appeal.

Guyville‘s strength was its ability to chronicle the intimate, but at the same time, go beyond that and capture a universality of intimacy that wasn’t limited to the context of the song; an Everywoman peering into everyone’s innermost thoughts by publicly examining her own. Her power as a songwriter is in the poetically mundane. She didn’t say anything that had never been thought before, but she distilled all-too-common feelings of unrequited love (“Flower”) and insecurity (“Fuck and Run”) into smart, succinct couplets.

On her second album, Whip-Smart, Liz Phair continues to prove her uncanny knack for dissecting the love/hate relationship between the sexes. The opening track, “Chopsticks”, has sparse piano (note the title) underscoring Liz’s deadpan voice chronicling an almost one-night stand: “It was 4 am and the light was grey / like it always is in paperbacks…” “X-Ray Man” parallels Guyville’s “Soap Star Joe” in its depiction of the “American Male” with his “iodine tan” and “cheap, unpleasant desires”. Her dry, witty lyrics still explore relationships in a matter-of-fact way, bringing the taken-for-granted to light in new and unexpected ways.

We caught up with Liz and found her to be incredibly down to earth for someone so lauded in media across the country.

Warped Reality: We’re completely disorganized, so we apologize.

Liz Phair: I’m completely disorganized myself. I’m thinking, “like wow, she even has a book.”

WR: Argh. I forgot a magazine, too.

Liz: You know what? That’s even better. Really, I don’t read fanzines very much. I get all these fanzines and I start to feel bad. The more they pile up, I’m like “oh fuck”, because I feel guilty, so I put them away, and then there are these huge stacks. I’m sorry. I like books! Even before I did this, I just loathed fanzines because everyone I knew was into fanzines and it was like, “the crunching, fucking, grueling, bone-shattering sound of the guitar calls in over the anarchic vocalization from hell,” and you’re just like, “what the fuck?” It was all this masturbatory phrasing that told me nothing. I don’t consume a lot of rock paraphernalia; I don’t buy records or buy magazines.

WR: You don’t buy records? Most musicians are always listening to music.

Liz: Well I do listen to music, constantly. I just don’t buy it. I’m always around people who are literally hijacking stereos. I could try and shove in Luscious Jackson every once in a while, but it doesn’t really matter. We were in England and I tried to throw that one on the stereo, and the guys were like “OW! ARGH! EWW!”

WR: How was England?

Liz: I fucking hate it. It’s such a drag over there. The food sucks. The people are really stiff. The weather sucks. I just don’t like it.

WR: Yeah, we were over there last summer and they actually managed to destroy pasta. How could they destroy pasta?

Liz: Because they’re English. A palate based on famine rations. Creative ways to recombine famine rations have become traditional English classics and that frightens me.

WR: Ok, serious interview now. What gave you the impetus to write Guyville? It was the first real thing you’d done, right?

Liz: I’ve been writing and playing songs since I was close to zero, so it got to a point where I just wanted to. I got competitive. I was sick of “I’m with a band.” I thought, “I AM the band!” I was tired of trying to live off my art, sell my art and make rent. I also had the opportunity. I had people who would literally do it for free and help me. I just took opportunities, whereas before I’d been really quick about shutting the door on stuff like that.

WR: Are you surprised that it has done this well?

Liz: Yeah, I had no clue. I was just making it to prove to my friends that I could, that I could kick their ass. That my songs were better. And that I could rock. I think I made some joke about how the people that I really was intending the album to be heard by lived within a mile radius of where I was.

WR: So, how long have you been touring now?

Liz: Look at me, I’m road weary.

WR: Way too long?

Liz: No, five days. I’ve been on the road for five days!

WR: You’ve said that you hate performing live and you’d rather not do it. How do you feel now?

Liz: A lot more comfortable. I still don’t want to do it. It’s not something I want to do. I have lived my life at points just partying rampantly and going out everywhere, but those are only phases, usually at a point where I can’t deal with something. I want to change my life. So I’ll go out!!! But mostly, I’m pretty private. So going on the road is a nightmare, because no matter how great everyone is, you’re talking to people all the time. If all I had to do was go somewhere and chill, no problem. But to go and be on all the time.

WR: Just running around, schmoozing, etc.

Liz: Yeah, exactly. I went to a party last night of people, just people, and I was so used to having to shake hands with everyone that I was walking around like “Hi!, Hi!” And then I was like, “No, I don’t have to do that.”

WR: How do you find dealing with record company people?

Liz: It’s a drag. I don’t want to be a businessperson, but you have to be. If you don’t play the power game, you don’t get what you need. You either play and win or you play and lose. Or you don’t play. There’s no “don’t play-win”. I’m in the world that I started art to remove myself from. Business was the place that I never wanted to find myself, so I became an artist. Where am I now? I’m a businessperson. That’s the job part of it all.

WR: I thought I’d ask you about a line from Soap Star Joe: “They say he sprung from the skull of Athena”. Were you acquainted with the myth?

Liz: Oh, absolutely. I was well-educated. I used to like Greek mythology a lot, and I just thought that was an apt metaphor. You know, like those dolls that keep popping out? I figured, “What would pop out of Athena but the crass American supermale?” It’s only fitting.

I got schooled to death. Kept dropping out, kept going back. I only went to art school for a semester. I dropped out of Oberlin saying, “I only want to be an artist!” and I didn’t need to learn all this other stuff, but I found there was nothing to stimulate me to create, what had compelled me to draw in the first place. Suddenly, that was my whole job and there was nothing to put back in. So I just found it really deadening and went back to Oberlin. And then every time I had to write a paper, boy did I feel like drawing!

The sleeve for Guyville has this whole theme of visual art and being a female in front of a camera. “Did he fire six shots or only 5?” It’s the photographs. I’m on the front cover doing my character, and on the back cover, I’m me. It’s two totally different poses. And on the inside are like “gaw”. It’s about women being manipulated, visually and behind cameras. But no one got it! Everyone’s like, “Ok Liz, whatever. As long as the color’s really sharp.”

WR: There’s irony there!

Liz: And they’re like, “Gee, I didn’t know you had such big tits.” And I’m like, “Those aren’t mine! That’s not me!”

WR: Do you find that men treat you differently now?

Liz: I noticed no one ever hits on me anymore. You’re a power player now. You’re a de facto male pretty much to them. In that sense, they do get really threatened. And that’s not how I was ever treated before, so it’s very clearly about who I am now in their eyes. I’m just thinking “boy-girl”, and they’re like, “So, you been on the road long? You selling places out? You know, we used to tour,” and you’re like, “Oh, God. Give me a fucking break. Like I care.”

WR: Most music journalists are male, too.

Liz: Yeah, I think they get really freaked out by the lyrics. Some people even get offended to the point that you’ve done something wrong and they are incredulous that you don’t realize this. And you can see that they are quite literally very, very upset that you’ve said this. I went to an in-store down in DC and it was all adults. There were no children there whatsoever, and they programmed the CD to play certain tracks. I don’t even want to think about how many CD programs for my album go like 1,2… skip, skip. It’s totally silly.

WR: It’s not as if 3-year-olds are going to be like, “Oh, Liz Phair!”

Liz: And they don’t even get it. My friend, who directed my first video, she played it for her kids all the time. And Erin, who’s about five, was like, “flunk and run, flunk and run…” She was dancing all around. To her, the song is clearly about getting out of work or getting out of school. She’s really bright; it’s not like she couldn’t figure out what I was saying, but she doesn’t really care.

WR: Where did you do that video (Never Said)?

Liz: The Garfield Conservatory in Humboldt Park. It’s in the middle of this trashed area of town, and it’s just beautiful. Instead of being really particular about what species they put together and what “zone” they’re trying to portray, Garfield’s like, “This grew really fucking well right here and this looks really good right there.” So, it’s just this beautiful profusion.

WR: It seemed like it was meant to be a spoof of itself, with all the costume changes etc.

Liz: It was. It was supposed to be a total parody. It didn’t come out as funny as it was meant to be. We both ended up compromising, so neither of us got out vision done. What ended up was a halfway point between the two instead of one or the other. Plus, I thought I was totally acting, but everyone thought that’s just how I am!
Do you want to see a splinter that’s lodged underneath my nailtip there? Isn’t that gross? No, I won’t show you that. That’s a really dumb thing. “Do you wanna see my spwintuh?”

WR: We interviewed Liz Phair and all we got to see was her stupid splinter! What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on tour so far?

Liz: The most shocking thing was walking into that in-store, and we were an hour and a half late, and we didn’t really think much of it because we’d gotten bad directions. We’d been joking on the road, not even thinking, and it was just like back in high school, when you came home two hours late and your parents would just glare at you. It was dead quiet. You could hear every little sound. I whispered to Casey, “They’re really pissed” and it echoed throughout the whole place. It was so fucking awkward.

WR: ‘Where have you been, Missy?!’

Liz: And then you have to play for them! You can’t just stand there and talk to them. And there was this psycho Vietnam Vet who wouldn’t shut up. He was standing right in front of me, didn’t have any idea who I was. He was hassling me, saying, “C-c-an you play the blues? I think you could. You could probably play the blues,” and everyone was staring at him. I was like, “Oh, I wanna go home now!” Nightmare, nightmare. It was like going to school without your shirt on in your dreams or something.

WR: And then these people expect you to stand there, without your shirt, and play for them!

[Matador person arrives to say that the band is here.]

Liz: I don’t want to go down right away. I hate carrying heavy shit. That’s another thing that sucks about the road.

WR: But don’t they carry stuff?

Liz: Yeah, but as Casey puts it, “Liz, I don’t fucking care if you don’t carry anything, I just want you to stand around!!” He just wants me there so he doesn’t feel like he’s working like a peon. I just have to stand there and go, “Whooo… that looks heavy!”

WR: Do you write together as a band?

Liz: I write the whole song and then they come up with their parts around it. You need other people’s input; you need their feel to it. But if we work it out in a band rehearsal situation, we’ll go with something that probably isn’t so great because we’re not thinking orchestrally. We’re just thinking, “Good jam. Everyone likes to play at the same time.” So everyone’s going to be playing at the same time. I don’t write their parts for them, but if I don’t like something, it’s gone. I have ultimate veto power.

WR: You dictator!

Liz: Totally. It’s my song. I don’t want to be told what to do. I want to make the bad song and edit it myself and learn. They’re my songs and I have lived with them personally for years and years. Taking them out in public was a decision that I made tentatively. And it isn’t worth having the only thing that really matters to me, which is the song, fucked up. Anything that touches that, or makes it a song that I don’t want to listen to is not going to happen. I’m doing it for me.

By Andrea Feldman & Susan Curran
Warped Reality #3, Summer 1995

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