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Uncovering the secret behind the phenomenon that is Liz Phair

Q+A Noise: Liz Phair

What I’m listening to now: Liz Phair’s latest CD picks

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It seems funny now when I look back that I was almost intimidated to garner an interview with Liz Phair.

By Naughty Mickie
DaBelly (Issue 69), January 2006

It seems funny now when I look back that I was almost intimidated to garner an interview with Liz Phair. She is a legend in her own time and not afraid to be herself, which has sometimes caused a big stir. She was on tour touting her October 2005 release, Somebody’s Miracle (Capitol), yet despite a hectic schedule, she was sweet as pie.

Phair currently lives in Los Angeles, but was born in Connecticut and adopted and raised in Chicago. She studied art history/studio art at Obelin College in Ohio and sold charcoal paintings to support herself while working toward music career. In 1992, Phair was signed to Matador. She had problems with stage fright on first tour in 1994. She married Jim Staskausas and had a child, James Nicholas Staskausas. She is now divorced and Nick is eight years old. This is just a quick look at Phair, but it’s only part of the story…

I try to keep my excitement in check, which grows easier as we speak. Phair makes me feel like an old friend as I discover she is warm, intelligent, funny and interesting. I begin our talk by asking her what made her change from art to a music career.

“Honestly, they paid me,” Phair replies. “I was selling my art for $300 a picture, which is probably an inflated price for what it was worth, but I was making like one sale a month. I pretty much was starving in Wicker Park. I didn’t want to take any money from my parents, so I was checking it out. I had so many songs and all these people that had written once I put out the Girly Sound tapes how much they liked it, so we were talking about producing and then I just wanted to make a record. I was like, ‘That’s great, you’ll give me 10 thousand bucks to make a record? Sounds good.’ And we went there and when the album took off I was like, ‘This is nice, a check for $250 thousand. Thank you very much.’ In the beginning I would make my art, I would direct my own videos, it had a visual component to it, but it overtook me really, kind of accidentally.”

“Were you into music as a child?” I wonder.

“I loved music, but I was never a music buff,” Phair says. “I wrote for different reasons. I didn’t write to be on stage, I didn’t write to have a career in music, I wrote as therapy or because I like to create things. It’s always been a very natural thing.”

I prod her to explain how she writes her material today.

“The same way,” she states. “When I’m home, you get that feeling, it’s almost like there’s a tension inside you and the way I can release it is to write a song. I’m always surprised by what comes out or what I’m writing about. It’s a very zone-like place just like the way I draw. I would make a drawing, I used to work in charcoal and it was fairly large, very messy. I can remember saying to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of this because the lifestyle is not working.’ It would get into your pores; it would ruin a room. I don’t know how they cleaned up the room where I worked in college.”

“But isn’t it therapeutic making art?” I counter.

“It is,” Phair agrees. “I get that zone very easily and I can also get that when I’m at home writing a song and I like that.”

I feel bad with my next question, but my editor feels it is important, so I apologize and then tell Phair that her material has been called musical porn — “How do you feel about that?”

“I think that’s silly,” Phair responds. “I think that’s just ignorant because it’s really only two songs they’re talking about. They’re talking about two songs out of 65 or 70. I can’t imagine any porn businesses that would do well with two minutes out of 70 of sex.”

I think it’s a sexist comment.

“It’s like saying that Aerosmith wasn’t singing about sex and the Stones weren’t talking about sex. All male rock bands have always used sex, either on stage with their bodies or in their lyrics or backstage with their fans.” Phair goes on, “Rock and roll is rampant with sex and I just appropriated it in a semi-shocking manner, but it was always if you got the record, you could conceptualize it appropriately. I think someone that would call it musical porn doesn’t actually know the material.”

We discuss women in music.

“It’s not a very enlightened profession,” Phair says. “It’s a blue-collar small town mentality basically run by men and it’s pretty much still the same thing. I see that reflected even in label hierarchy. It’s not the most forward-thinking of professions.”

As a performer myself, I am curious as to how Phair conquered her stage fright.

“It was a combination of just doing it again and again and again and again,” Phair explains. “If you get that experience like anything that already has gone wrong, then you’re like, ‘I’ve already gone through all of that. How bad can it be?’ You know you have resources you can fall back on if something embarrassing or terrible happens.

“But it also came when I had my son.” Phair continues, “It was this moment when I tried to go back and continue my career because I look at it differently. Once I had my son, things for him like talking and walking as simple as that were miraculous and really exciting. Life became new to me again and I looked at life differently. Then the idea of it’s my job to go on stage and make music for people seemed like a joyful positive thing rather than the way I used to look at it. I was totally unprepared for the amount of attention I got in the beginning and I felt like I made a record a couple hundred people would hear and I became like a symbol in America for standing for something that I didn’t even know.”

“When I had my son, I let go of all that, ‘They’re looking at me, they’re judging me, what do they think of me’ and I started thinking just about the act of getting up and making music,” Phair goes on. “It’s something I believe we would have in our homes and in our families for everyone to try to relate, like a sub-culture. I tried to look at it that way, less about how well I did any one time or what they thought of me or just like I’m part of the larger group of people that does this.”

Phair doesn’t dabble with her art any more.

“I take pictures, but if my battery needs to be charged in my camera, I forget about my camera,” Phair laughs. “I’m creative, it doesn’t matter what medium.”

She shares hobbies with her son, Nick.

“We do lots of outdoorsy stuff, we go hiking, I love to boogie board, I love sailing, I love swimming, I love diving.” Phair tells me, “We go play basketball together. He likes to play Legos all the time which drives me nuts, but we do a lot together. He’s kind of a pain in the butt, I’m like ‘Can we do anything besides Star Wars?’ We read a lot, I read to him. We’ve gone through all the Harry Potter stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, we’re in the middle of The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. We really enjoy that stuff.”

I return to the album and tour and what excites her about them.

“What excites me the most right now is playing with the live show,” Phair bubbles. “I’m a little thwarted at the moment because I really got excited about making music in a live form and what happens is, in my business, you get too much too fast. You can’t settle down and follow a train of thought very well because you’ve got to VH1, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to go look over the checklist, blah, blah, blah.”

“We started off working really hard at sound check to balance each other on stage, settle back into where my guitar leads, we just got it back last night, but it was a week since I had a really decent sound check.” Phair continues, “You get thwarted by business. Business muddles everything, but you just persevere. We’re just going to settle down and try it again. I’ve very doggish, that’s why I survive.”

She has a few favorite tunes, like most artists.

“‘Lazy Dreamer’ is one of my favorites, that was because I’m a prophet-oriented creator and for me the way that song was recorded. It’s like when you get your favorite snapshot anyone else can see two people holding hands, but you remember the day, you remember all that about it. My songs are like that to me. ‘Tales for One’ is another really big one for me and ‘Wind in the Mountain’ is a big one for me.” Phair says, “‘Lazy Dreamer”s really fun live and so is ‘Somebody’s Miracle’.”

Somebody’s Miracle is probably my favorite live.

“I like to strip the big songs down when we’re live, juxtaposition is exciting to me. (Guitarist) Dino Meneghin does a really good job of reining me in and making it sound like the album. He’s the organized force and I’m the chaos. We work together like that,” Phair laughs.

We turn to the music scene.

“I wish I could comment more,” Phair sighs. “I just turned down the opportunity to be on the panel of the Short List, it’s an award for music that doesn’t get it. I think I’m turning it down because I’m not plugged in enough because I’m a mother. It goes like this: mother, relationship and career, friends, pop culture. I’m a victim of that exact reason why my career’s not moving because I’m the same people that don’t buy me. This group has to many things to do to be on top of it. I always believe that no matter what the culture is like out there, there’s always gems coming along all the time. I feel like I usually find them. I find the ones that really mean something to me. I think the business should switch over to the new media arena faster.”

Phair says that fans should take time to check out the pod cast at her Web site.

“I think everyone should be pod casting, it’s really fun,” Phair states.

But she’s not totally pro when it comes to the Internet and computers.

“I’m not very good at it (the computer), but everything that I master I really enjoy. It changes my life for the better and I don’t want to go back,” Phair says.

“And Nick?” I ask.

Phair chuckles, “He’s very good at that, he’s better than I am. He’s very computer savvy as all young kids are today.”

With all this talk about the future of the music industry, I ask Phair what she feels has been the biggest change.

“I never thought that there wouldn’t be heroes and the whole ’60s, ’70s, even the beginning of the ’80s, there were sort of mythological creatures, now you’ve got U2 and Dave Matthews Band,” Phair muses. “People don’t follow a long story, nothing gets epic any more. Everything has that feeling of here today, gone tomorrow. I miss that. I miss having the mythological rock hero.”

So what kind of advice would she give aspiring artists?

“Advice that I was given last year by my head of marketing,” Phair replies. “Here’s someone who’s fully accomplished in the major label system and still, even at the top levels, there’s this sense you’ve just got to do it yourself. You can apply all the current wisdom of the day to a project and if there isn’t something that’s being generated from the artist themselves, the passion for it and persistence, it just doesn’t pan out. You still are, a young artist still is their best asset. People can’t do this and capitalize on what you generate. They can’t think it up for you. Maybe some people can, like David Foster, but that’s not often. Keep believing in yourself and do what you’re passionate about because by and large that will open doors or keep you alive.”

I ask Phair what’s in store for her in the future.

“I’m concentrating on what I’m doing right now,” Phair says. “I have ideas about what I’d like to do, but I wouldn’t want to say them. I say them sometimes and then I feel stupid that I said them. It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about what you haven’t done yet. I’ll always make records; I have ideas about the kind of record I want to make next. In the future I would like to get off the track of having to bend to commercial needs all the time. It’s frustrating. I’d like to finish the art that I start.”

She adds that she is constantly writing, whether on tour or recording. It’s when the mood strikes. Is there a key to all this inspiration — where does it come from?

“I don’t even know. I really don’t,” Phair shakes her head. “I have trouble with follow-through, but I never have trouble with starting. I don’t know where it comes from, maybe I’m an Aries. I really don’t know.”

Well wherever her ideas are sparking, Phair is shining.

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