She may look sweet and sound folksy, but American singer-songwriter Liz Phair has delivered a mean début album of tough guitar riffs and feisty lyrics — and knows exactly where she’s going. Laura Lee Davies follows her sense of direction.
“If I wanted to slag someone, I’d be real nice and get them to talk, and then I’d mangle their quotes. Wouldn’t you?” Liz Phair, 25-year-old Chicagoan singer and songwriter, is reaching the end of her first day of UK press interviews, and already she’s cynical. “English interviews are more fun,” she relents. “In America it’s the vogue to go in with an air of suspicion. It just comes across as rude and annoying. It’s like, ‘Get your little ferret self away from me!'” she laughs. It’s a good job she’s got the publicity machine sussed; her début album, a tough and raw mix of folk, rock and pop, is already sending the kind of ripples of interest you could surf on through the cred music biz, and she can expect a fair few more interviews before she’s done.
Bravely setting herself up by giving her first album the title Exile In Guyville, as a reference to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (because she wanted it to be “something classic”), Liz Phair might sound the kind of rash, foolish pop star tyke who too often gets press because they make good copy. Phair is, however, one of the rare breed of intelligent, eloquent songwriters, and while her ambitious gesture might be a little overstating the case, her varied and imaginative début is certainly a promising and feisty effort. Her lyrics — laden with outspoken sexual content and bucking, unromantic love songs — suggest a budding talent more like the shaven-headed Sinéad O’Connor than the polite, lively and remarkably positive-thinking intellectual sitting opposite me.
“Compared to most of my musician friends I am quite conservative,” she confesses with a grin. “I’m completely like, ‘Don’t tattoo your body, what a disgusting thing to do.’ But my lyrics are my safe ground. In other areas of my life I’m very paranoid — about the sudden attention I’m getting, about my musical style, how I wanna produce it, what I’m saying with the sound. But I’m never paranoid about the melodies, the structure or the words. It’s just total natural luck. I totally care about what my words say but I don’t care about what people think of them. Maybe I was encouraged to speak as a child or something.”
In fact Phair was being encouraged to speak in several languages as a child. By the time she was nine, her press biog proudly boasts, she wrote and spoke both Latin and Greek. Daughter of liberal, well-educated parents, Phair still lives at home most of the time. “They’re probably the people I most like on the planet. The only times I didn’t get along with them was when my life wasn’t running the way it should. But they’re fun, they take me out to dinner, we drinkl, get into arguments… I just think my dad wants me to be able to pay for my own health insurance, that would be the happiest thing in his life. He’s not gonna sleep well till then.”
A rosy domestic background might not sound the stuff of great, angst-ridden rock ‘n’ roll, but then Michael Stipe’s dad wasn’t Homer Simpson either. The spirit “Riot Grrrl” — the no-messing, female-led, female-politics hardcore rock scene that has slapped America and Britain in the face — is being carried into more accessible musical areas, by the likes of Phair. She might not be the flag-bearer of anyone else’s movement, but she’s got a brain, an eye for a tough riff, and a message for a male-dominated music business. “I still live in a very safe world, where I feel valued for who I am most of the time, regardless of my gender. I’m living in this perfectly supportive world. Even on bad days, when I feel like the world is against me, I know for a fact that I can move through society and find safe regions. That’s a real luxury. Liz Phair music wouldn’t exist if that weren’t true.”
Being able to articulate her attitudes, Phair has already gained a reputation as a bit of a radical “rebel”. It’s a tag that mouthy artists, especially female ones, seem to get regularly. “Good topic,” she leans forward, “Baby, let’s talk. I am considered unruly and rebellious ‘cos I don’t do what people tell me to if I don’t think it’s the intelligent thing to do. If a doctor is working on my teeth, I ask him what he’s doing and why. I’m not a nag, I just have opinions on things I know about, and I can speak those thoughts, and it drives people nuts. They have marketed me as a brat, a princess, as brash and rebellious. I would love to invite those people to my town to meet some real princesses, to show them some real brats at my high school, get some perspective here! I was the brainy academic one!
“I went to see Thelma & Louise, after all the furore, and it fuckin’ blew my mind. I couldn’t figure out what the hell had pissed everyone off. It threw into a whole new light how people really feel about intelligent women. It’s like Alien wasn’t a feminist movie, the protagonist was a woman! That’s all you have to say. It’s like, “derr!” When it comes to interaction, I don’t hang out with guys who don’t listen to me. It’s important that public taste doesn’t push out the female viewpoint. I don’t lie awake worrying about it, but if anybody asks me if I ever feel the need to polarise myself according to gender constructs, I’m very adamant about it. It’s like, why people even question why we need a bunch of Riot Grrrls on stage screeching? I don’t think they know what they wanna do musically yet. I don’t think they know what they’re doing, except they’re doing what they feel like, and I’m gonna support that all the way. Pathetic as it may sound, at least that way we’ve got a category.”
So don’t expect a “girl who just wants to have fun”, or the kind of performer who decides to do a Bob Marley song at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. Liz Phair takes all the decisions about her videos, what goes on her albums, what her record contract contains. She also says that her album took a year to come out because she didn’t get round to the artwork for ages. From bra and panty shots, to the picture of “female with Fender Stratocaster”, the album sleeve mocks the females-in-rock images that Liz Phair loves to play footsie with.
“I like to play with my image. It’s sort of down-home Madonna,” she laughs. “You know, like how she keeps changing her style? That looks like an awful lot of effort to me. But I’ve always been game to transform myself in more subtle ways. I keep all my drivers licenses so I can see the changes. So if someone asks me why I let someone put make-up on me for a photo, or I’m wearing Pepe jeans in a interview, it’s ‘cos it’s fun at this point, till I know for sure what I wanna do with myself. I like the fact that I don’t look the same all the time. It’s so ridiculous when people say, ‘I have no image.’ What’s the difference between that and walking into a dinner party and trying to be likeable, it’s the same goddamn thing. ‘I have no image,’ ha! Then I don’t want you at my dinner party!”
“More than anything, it’s a natural safety mechanism. That no one can box me up and put a bow around it. You start putting me in this stuff and I’m gonna break out. The downside is that if you’re always changing, people perceive you as flaky, ditsy, or without a centre. The upside is that you get the unpredictability trump card, which I think is a real valuable one. It’s like your ‘Get out of jail free’ card.”
Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get any gigs out of this rock/folk/pop brainbox with an image obsession for some time. “God no! I suck live! I’ve got a ton of stage fright, and I forget songs in the middle of playing them. Because I write songs in a kind of patchwork, taking riffs from other songs I’ve done, changing them around, I can be halfway through a song and I’ll be like, ‘Which line ended up in here?'”
Exile In Guyville is out now on Matador Records this month.
By Laura Lee Davis
Time Out (London), August 4-11, 1993