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Return Of the Exile

An Interview with Liz Phair

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Liz Phair: The Playboy.comversation

By Jim DeRogatis, June 2003

In 1993, Liz Phair knocked rock cognoscenti on their ears with her ambitious debut, Exile in Guyville, a double album she constructed as a song-by-song, post-feminist, alternative-rock “response” to the Rolling Stones’ decadent 1972 classic, Exile on Main St. Hailed as a masterpiece, it was named album of the year by the Village Voice and it paved the way for a wave of imitators, from Alanis Morissette to Fiona Apple.

Phair grew up in the posh Windy City suburb of Winnetka. She famously attended summer camp with Julia Roberts, studied art history at Oberlin College and evolved into a beatnik, artist and self-described “Sassy-style quasi-good-girl slutty type.” Her first passions were painting and charcoal etchings, and she only started making music in her bedroom as a lark, joining the four-track DIY underground with a release called Girlysound.

The enthusiastic response to that tape and to Exile in Guyville prompted Phair to change career goals, and she followed that disc with two more conventional releases: 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg. Since then, she’s been missing in action — distracted by the birth of her son, Nicholas, the end of her marriage to filmmaker Jim Staskausas, and a move from Chicago to Los Angeles. Now she’s back with a self-titled album on Capitol and a driving ambition to achieve pop stardom on the level of her friend, Sheryl Crow. (Parts of the new disc were produced by The Matrix, the platinum-selling production team behind Avril Lavigne’s Let Go.)

Recently, spoke with Phair as she was gearing up to tour, touching on touchy topics including selling records, selling out, marriage and turning warm semen into a hit song. You live in LA now, and your fans are already contending that you’ve “gone Hollywood”. What are you going to do about alienating those people?

Liz Phair: [Laughs] They’re partially right. I mean, there’s definitely a step I’m making that’s trying to sell records. But at the same time, I feel like if I tried to just write stuff I had written before, from the same kind of point of view… When I was making this record, my lawyer asked, “Are people ready for the happy Liz Phair?” I remember thinking, “I can’t make them angry!” It’s hard to know what exactly “honest” is. Is honest when the public perceives I’m being honest to their expectations? Or is honest me being true to how I actually feel? It’s hard to know, and I think it’s a fine line.

PB: Why are you suddenly concerned about selling records? Ten years ago you never discussed how many copies of Exile people would buy.

LP: That was natural in the beginning. Back when I made Exile, I really was a visual artist who was very much trying to be successful and trying to make a big splash and be provocative. I was interning for these famous artists, and I was hell-bent on becoming a big, splashy, famous artist, too. So the music was just sort of an aside, a hobby. It wasn’t something I’d invested my competitiveness in. And now music has become something I’ve invested my competitiveness in.

The last record, whitechocolatespaceegg, might have seemed like a sell-out to people. But after [the birth of] Nick, I was writing songs that were softer and mellower because that was where I was at. So what happened to me after whitechocolatespaceegg is that I got that competitive spirit up again, and I think it’s because the industry itself was telling me I was over. We were trying to shop [my record] at DreamWorks or something, and they all looked at me like, “Nice piece of art, hang it on your wall, but it could never sell.” I kept hearing that from everyone and I kept not getting my calls returned and I just got competitive. Like, “Fuck you, watch me do it! I can blow your fucking pants off, asshole!”

PB: You’ve always wanted to prove people wrong if they say, “Liz, you can’t do this.”

LP: Yeah. And it doesn’t mean you can go through life just with that motivation and not deal with the consequences of what that brings to you. I just wanted to make a record that woke everybody up again and was still my point of view.

PB: But you came to mean a lot more to your audience than other artists. People had a connection with Alanis Morrissette, but not the same way they had a connection with you; it was on a much deeper level, especially with young women. You have this burden of having been one of the voices of a generation — voicing what it was like for smart young women to come of age sexually, politically and emotionally at a certain point in time. Now, 10 years later, they’re going to want you to give voice to where they are now.

LP: I think I did. I mean, more or less, that’s what I was trying to do. Songs like Extraordinary, I live and die by that. That is me. And Little Digger — I mean, it’s there. I cannot make art, whether I want to or not — and sometimes I have wanted to — for an audience’s expectations. I can’t. I’m not capable of it, or Whip-Smart and whitechocolate wouldn’t be the way they were. I can only come from the place where I am at that point to satisfy my own needs.

PB: You’ve said you had 40 or 50 songs to choose from for this record. How do you know when you’ve written a good song, a keeper?

LP: It usually has a kind of sophistication in that it’s a little bit conceited, but everything falls together without much difficulty. The lyrics, especially, will kind of fall into place, and they’ll surprise me a little bit. The music will be the same way. I always recognize a successful song because it feels bigger than the sum of its parts. Some songs are good, but they feel crafted. I’ve got a lot of those, and usually the ones that I’m looking for have moments that can’t be defined by any one part. That’s what I like.

PB: What’s the wildest song that you left on the cutting-room floor this time?

LP: Wild like…?

PB: Is there anything that goes farther than H.W.C., a.k.a. Hot White Cum, your collaboration with Pete Yorn that includes the lyrics, “It’s the fountain of youth, it’s the meaning of life/So hot, so sweet, so whet my appetite!”? If you put that on the album, we wonder what you could have left off.

LP: Actually, in terms of sexuality, that’s the most explicit song that I’ve written in a while. But that was just effortless. That was written in Chicago, up in my third-floor room in my house, with no intention of actually putting it out until a bunch of my girlfriends were like, “Oh my god, that’s the best song!” Then I started to think about it: “Could I really do it?” And then when all the male [record] executives heard it and were like, “Great song, can you change the chorus?” Then of course, I was like, “No! I want it on the record.”

PB: When your girlfriends were high-fiving you, what exactly were they reacting to? One female critic tore into you in the Austin Chronicle when you played the song at South by Southwest — she said, “I’m sure glad she has a son and not a daughter!”

LP: Well, I don’t know what to say. For me, that was just purely how I felt. If she can’t relate to that song, I wonder what kind of sex she’s had in her life. I didn’t have that kind of sex until I was older, and age does play a role in all of this. It’s about how comfortable you are with the male/female dynamic. I’ve had some great, loving relationships where the sex was fantastic and the best thing ever, and that’s what Hot White Cum is about. It’s about being able to take back and be empowered by the very thing that might make you feel hurt and victimized.

PB: There’s still an element of something threatening about male ejaculations. Look at the whole Japanese bukkake phenomenon. You can see how that would be somewhat offensive to a woman.

LP: But what the hell does that have to do with my song? That’s like saying because there are images of rape in society that sex between consenting adults is necessarily a harmful thing. There’s no correlation whatsoever. This is important! That’s why I’m provocative! Just imagine yourself to be in a perfect world for a second. How would it feel to have sex with a man? If a woman was all-powerful and not threatened and didn’t feel unsafe and she was with someone that she liked being with, what do you think she’d say about that and what do you think she’d be into?

PB: Um….

LP: What are the fun things about having sex with a man?

PB: Well, you know when a man feels pleasure by the way that he comes….

LP: Right! And what is fun about that? He came inside of you, and you can make a baby with that. One of the reasons I love that song so much is that it actually shows you a window for women, myself included, who have had long struggles with sexual windows. But it shows you a window into how it can be, how it should be, and that’s what’s so powerful about it. That’s why I feel it’s really liberating for women. Obviously, if that’s not what you’ve experienced, it’s not that liberating, and it may be threatening on a number of levels. But it doesn’t have to be. That was the thing about Oberlin. It was so tiresome because it was always, “Men are the aggressor and they’re evil.” It’s not always like that between a man and a woman. In fact, ideally, it shouldn’t be like that ever. Even at 18 I knew that I was in love with my boyfriend and we loved each other and we adored each other’s bodies, and that’s what how it was supposed to be.

PB: How has motherhood changed all that?

LP: Changed my sexuality?

PB: Changed your views about sex and your comfort level.

LP: I don’t do what I don’t want to do anymore. I don’t do things because other people want me to do them or expect them of me. I do things because I expect them of myself, and I don’t have sexual intimacy with someone so that they’ll like me or so that I’ll like myself better. I have a rock-solid priority system. What I’ve struggled with on a daily basis is just the amount of responsibility that I shoulder on any given day. Gone are partying and checking out for a couple of days. It’s all about being reliable and making sure you pick up the phone and being available at all times and being your best self in case something should happen to your child. It’s thinking about someone else before yourself, and integrating into a community because that’s what you need to do so that this person grows up healthy. I don’t know that having Nick did anything to my sexuality; I think having Nick did a lot to my self-esteem. My self-esteem rose so much because I met the challenge.

PB: He’s only six now, but have you thought about how you’ll introduce Nick to the whole subject of sexuality and how to interact with the opposite sex?

LP: I’ve been honest with him. He’s asked a couple of questions, and I just describe it in simple terms that he can understand without getting into detail. I don’t want to sit down and say, “You know, honey, I’ll draw a diagram.” [Laughs] You just want to make sure that you’re honest about it without giving them more information than is appropriate at their developmental level. One of the worst things I’ve struggled with my whole life was fear and low self-esteem. Those are the two things that made me make all the bad choices I’ve ever made. Above and beyond sex, I need to make sure Nick feels good about himself and makes good decisions for himself in his life. That’s tough when you yourself had to reach your mid-30s to develop good self-esteem.

PB: What about your marriage and divorce? How did that affect your worldview? Do you ever see yourself being married again?

LP: Oh, I definitely do. I really hope that I can get married again. I just want to make sure this time that I am… I didn’t know what marriage was. I got married because I was in love and because everyone else was getting married then. And now I have such a clearer sense of what it takes to be a good person in a marriage. I wasn’t living up to that because I didn’t understand it, and I want to make sure before I get married again that I’m the person I want to be, so that I’m bringing to the party what can help us grow and last.

PB: We have to ask you one more question: Have you ever thought of posing for Playboy?

LP: That’s so funny, because someone asked me that yesterday, too.

PB: But this is actually Playboy asking!

LP: Well, I personally wouldn’t, just because I don’t think that’s the right forum for my nakedness. If I wanted to be naked sometime somewhere, I don’t have a problem with that, if that’s what I wanted. But Playboy isn’t the way I’d like to be naked. It’s really not to me what sexuality is about. It’s so obviously from a very sanitized male perspective; the women just aren’t erotic to me other than the fact that, “Wow, young flesh.” The way they’re posed kind of makes you see the male point of view. Like, it’s arousing, but it’s not what I find satisfying. [Imitates Austin Powers] It’s not my bag, baby. [Laughs]

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