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Q&A: Liz Phair

Artist of the Year – Runners Up: Liz Phair

Liz Phair

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In a conversation with Liz Phair, there are few pauses. Nor is there any of the careful weighing of words that afflicts so many interview subjects. With Phair, it’s processed, it’s dealt with, next question. The 26-year-old Chicago native skillfully parlayed this refreshing bluntness and blazing intelligence into her debut record, Exile in Guyville, which has subsequently made many a critic’s Best of ’93 list. Chatting from a friend’s house in Santa Monica, Calif., as she thumbed through a recent issue of ROLLING STONE (“We’re looking at Cindy Crawford, and it’s hot”), Phair displays the kind of candor that has enabled her to shoulder through the residents of Guyville, a term she borrowed from fellow Chicagoans Urge Overkill to describe the testosterone-infused indie-rock establishment. But then, this is someone who sings, “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue.” You were expecting Shawn Colvin?

Have you heard from anyone in the Stones’ camp about your record’s twist on Exile in Main Street?

Nothing. Not a thing. Isn’t that sad?

What would you say to Mick if you could?

I’d love to have dinner or something, I’m totally fascinated by the Stones as people. I’d just like to hang out with him, really. I don’t think about it that much. I just want to hear what they have to say.

Who do you feel is the most evil person in America?

Evil? Truly? I don’t know. Name some people.

Kathie Lee Gifford? Rush Limbaugh?

I think Limbaugh’s a little bit impotent. There’s nothing about him that’s really that horrifying. I only run into evil really in that personal sense. There are certain people that come backstage who are so deeply manipulative and needy that they seem evil to me. Anyone who is fixated in the power dynamic beyond what they should enjoy.

What’s the strangest thing that a fan has ever said to you?

When they want to hug me, that’s pretty weird.

And do you comply?

Sometimes, if they seem benign.

So I hear you’re kind of a gypsy and don’t have one permanent home.

I’m pretty solidly living with my boyfriend at the moment, but it’s still his apartment. Every time I’ve had a place of my own, I haven’t stayed there much. I’ll use it more like a studio — go there to work and think. I get antsy, restless. I like to be in other people’s homes.

Do you do any volunteer work? Or have you?

No, not really. I just played an AIDS benefit show. Does that count?

Well, I guess. I take it you’re not a soup-kitchen kind of gal?

No, but I have friends who have volunteered [laughs]. My friends are better than me. I was always around the politically correct and failing them in some way or another but providing a refreshing, fascistic point of view to the conversation.

You have a strong public persona. How often would you say the press has been right about you?

Very few people have [condensed] in an article what I consider my music to be about. When they start making conjectures about who I am or where I grew up or how I behave, they’re bound to get it wrong. And rarely do they touch on my interest in music itself and my song crafting.

You haven’t done many live shows. Do you get stage fright?

Totally. Oh, God, yeah.

How does it manifest itself?

My voice warbles, my projection diminishes. I have more of a sneer, I’ll get threatened by the crowd, I’ll look like I’m really angry. Inability to remember songs, that’s a good sign of stage fright. [Laughs] I’ll abort a song if I’m fucking up.

About your lyrics, you’ve said men aren’t aware that these are things that nice women from good families are thinking. Why do you think that is?

Because women have been taught to disguise those parts of themselves. It’s literally to maintain appeal. Men would prefer to ignore women’s complications, because it’s a natural instinct to ignore any complications that aren’t your own. For women that grew up being male-fixated, it’s long been appealing to keep it to yourself and make sure honey’s happy. I don’t think you can unravel this in 30 years. You can’t unravel millennia in 30 years.

What’s something that your friends can’t tease you about?

Stumpiness. If they called me stumpy. If the called me too masculine, I’d get really bummed. There’s lots of stuff. I’m a bad dresser. My nose would really upset me.

Your nose? I’m looking at a photo of you…

You can take either a really good photograph of me or a really bad one. I can range from being quite hideous to being very attractive.

Are you in the studio yet?

January and February. I’m recording on my own; I like that four-track stuff. It’s going to be more experimental sound collages. There’s going to be some beautiful rock-pop classics that can’t be played on the radio. There’s going to be two slots for those songs about the industry. [SingsOh, the industry, counched in metaphor. Look for a big video project surrounding it, too.

Last question. What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve purchased with the money your album has made?

I laid down 650 bucks for a thermal outfit, because I hate Chicago in the winter! I didn’t need any of this stuff, I just wanted every fabric that was wind blocking. Head to toe, I’m outfitted. I’m highly flammable, but I’m really warm.

By Jancee Dunn
Rolling Stone, January 27, 1994

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