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Still Phair a Decade Later

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In the early 1990’s rocker Liz Phair began melding lo-fi indie rock production with a classic singer/songwriter sensibility, influencing an array of artists including Lisa Loeb, Paula Cole and Shaun Colvin.

By Joshua Rotter
MacDirectory Music, February 2005

In the early 1990’s rocker Liz Phair began melding lo-fi indie rock production with a classic singer/songwriter sensibility, influencing an array of artists including Lisa Loeb, Paula Cole and Shaun Colvin.

The only difference being that a decade later, the ever-evolving-yet-constant Phair, currently at work on her next release, is still a popular presence on the music scene.

“I’m funny like that,” the 37-year-old singer and G4 PowerBook user, said in a recent interview from a tour stop in Dallas, TX. “More than anything else, I’m a survivor. My idol is David Bowie. He has done so much, and still keeps creative, and keeps interacting in creative ways. I don’t think I’ll ever be a giant, or sell tons of records, but I’m always motivated again to try. But if your whole identity is to be popular in the business, then you’ll have trouble, because there is a point where it gets too painful to be ahead, unless entertainment becomes about making some art and having fun. It’s such a fun toy to play with.”

The New Haven, CT native, raised in the Chicago suburb Winnetka, first played with paintbrushes as an art student at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she became interested in underground indie rock. Back in Chicago, she began releasing homemade tapes of songs under the name Girlysound and became involved with the local alternative music scene. After her tape found its way to local label Matador in 1992, Phair was signed and began recording her debut album.

Through Exile in Guyville (1993) Phair built a dedicated following, both among critics and alternative rock fans. By year’s end, the record topped many critics polls, and in early 1994 the singer launched her first tour. Around the same time, MTV first aired Phair’s “Never Said” video and, as a result of all the hype, the album briefly appeared in the charts. But by the spring of 1994, it had sold over 200,000 copies, remarkable for an independent release.

As Phair began work on her follow-up, Matador had signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, which meant heavy promotion for the record. In fact Whip-Smart (1994) was released to great media attention, only aided by Phair’s sexy Rolling Stone cover, donning a negligee, which proved that intentional or not, sex sells.

“That’s always been misunderstood,” Phair explained. “I always thought of it as art. Art is supposed to be provocative. I went to Oberlin, which was politically active and norm-breaking, so the reason I do it is because of my provocative visual arts background. I even use my guitar as a paintbrush.”

But is sexuality a marketing tool for female artists or an expression of women’s liberation? “I think we’ve come somewhat along in that area,” Phair offered. “I feel more people accept that women are going to flaunt their sexuality. But I don’t know how many are trying to change the perception, though, which raises two questions: ‘Do they use the prescribed way for a marketing advantage or to turn the issue on its head?’ I play a lot during a photo shoot, where I usually take control and use a more aggressive approach. At the same time, I play into the standard. Women are feeling it out, because they have a formula they’re expected to follow, and are often punished for not playing along.”

Though Whip-Smart debuted at no. 27 and “Supernova” received heavy airplay on MTV and radio, becoming a Top Ten modern rock hit, the album received lukewarm reviews and never met popular expectations. Phair quietly retired to a life of domesticity in 1995, marrying her video director Jim Staskausas, and by late 1996 Phair gave birth to her first child, James Nicholas, which she describes as a life-altering experience.

“It’s Alice in Wonderland going to the looking glass,” she said. “It’s like BC and AD or FM or AM. It’s like two of you out there. It changes how you look at everything. A lot of what I’ve done would not be possible if I were not a mother. It creates that spirit, of ‘Hey, it’s your life,’ and makes you do cool things.”

So when her long-delayed, much-anticipated third LP, whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) finally appeared to little notice, Phair knew it was time for an image make over.

For a slick, new sound the by now divorced singer turned to singer/songwriter Michael Penn and popular producers The Matrix for her self-titled effort Liz Phair (2003), made using ProTools.

According to Dino Meneghin, 26, Phair’s current boyfriend and musical director, Phair’s production techniques were updated for the release, including such Mac software as Abelton Live® and Reason®. Phair even uses a Midiman Radium as a keyboard. With 14 brutally candid and clever confessionals, including the moving ballad “Why Can’t I?”: “If people say you can’t do something, I’m always asking ‘Why'” – to the playful and pointed, “H.W.C.” which commands, “Give me your hot white come,” Phair has re-emerged as an edgy, more mature artist with fearless lyrics that rock with great authority.

“I’m always trying to do new things, so it’s more of a progression,” she said. “I worked with a number of different producers, so it’s more of a highlighter of the production. To some extent, it’s my first-time entry into the mainstream music industry world, because of the radio success its received.”

To further please her fans on her recent tour, Phair, who purchased iPod® and iTunes® gift certificates for her entire band, performed one freeplay section per show, where the band chose familiar cover tunes, downloading them – everything from Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” to GNR’s “Paradise City,” to perform onstage with audience participation.

But even with mainstream popularity, Phair claims that she is still an independent indie-rocker at heart. “I’m still the same person, but I’ve had a child, been married, and become a functioning person in business,” she said. “I’m approaching middle-life. For Guyville, I was fresh out of being underneath authority, such as school and parents, where the whole time I was working with or rebelling against authority. But now I’m my own authority, rather than fitting into someone else’s. It’s liberating, but it’s a lot of work. Actually, it’s three times as hard, because you make your own mistakes.”

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