It’s four in the afternoon, and Liz Phair is itching to go jogging. But there’s plenty of time; this is her first bout of UK interviews, and Phair can’t help but acquiesce to the sprouting interest in her. This is one ambitious, sussed, sassy individual, currently undergoing such pithy (not) epithets as ‘best female singer-songwriter since Polly Harvey’ (“those comparisons are fine by me, she’s pretty cool, I have a lot of respect for her, and empathy for the bullshit she’s gone through”), ‘the indie Madonna’ (“those comparisons are a mindfuck”), etc.
The matter at hand is her debut (double) album release ‘Exile in Guyville’, a record wonderful for myriad reasons — not least its premise as a female response to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ (a “tour de force of sexual politics” said Chicago Tribune). But what about 18 prime melodies, its rock-folk-pop simplicity, the sparsely telling instrumentation, the fluid mesh of electric and acoustic, Phair’s thin but punchy, sailaway vocal, her provocative, stinging lyricism, her self-revelatory frankness and humour and her droll, sensual, knowing delivery? (“a total diva” said ‘Sassy’). And while it’s crass to isolate quotes like “I wanna be your blow job queen… I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue” (from ‘Flower’) or “Johnny my love… I’m a real cunt in spring” (from ‘Dance Of The Seven Veils’) and songtitles like ‘Fuck And Run’, it’s nigh on impossible to miss them; the sexual politic here feels as confrontational as Polly Harvey’s, but from another radical angle. Whichever way, Phair is a future star. It has to happen.
Some history. From Chicago, Phair studied at the prestigious Oberlin college before heading home. She got seriously involved in music around 1990, producing a series of cassettes under the moniker ‘Girly Sounds’ (the first was titled ‘Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Your Mother’, a parody of rap linguistics and assholes like Vanilla Ice) which a couple of friends kept dubbing for their friends until Matador offered the ubiquitous deal (as a launch for Matador’s new European arm, overseen by the Real Time sales/marketing operation, there is no better curtain raiser).
There is just one hitch; after a mere 15 stage performances, Phair readily admits she is no stage natural. “Brutally, mortally embarrassing,” she’s said before. “I’m stage-struck,” she adds today. “It’s so odd — I’m great in front of a camera, I’d love to act in a movie, it’s just that I can’t handle playing my songs in front of a lot of people. I’ve been known to forget songs midway through, which is sort of funny, but having to play guitar and sing songs at the same time, while you’re feeling that exact emotion, is really hard.”
Asked if she knows why she’s pushing herself down this avenue, she replies, “because I have to make a living somehow, and this seems to be working so far.” Isn’t that a bit mercenary? “Not at all. I don’t like jobs, I like expressing myself through some form of art. I was a visual artist before, doing these big charcoal drawings, dealing with medical textbooks and photographs, where I’d take photocopies and distort the images in some way, to convey a psychological or emotional content beyone just a distorted face. I’ve been doing that and music at the same time, but that was how I lived, selling my art. An opportunity just came along — someone said I could make an album, and would pay for it, so hell, yes.”
You weren’t driven then? “Yeah, I feel driven to make records. Before, I was driven to make songs. But it’s extremely challenging to be embarking on the industry side of this, and challenging to think like an album maker, and to be in a studio. But it’s not a gas to be challenged by the industry. It’s been a really rough year in terms of being willing to play a certain game that will get me into a position where, umm…”
Do you have to play a game? “Oh please, are you kidding me? Do you think I want to spend every day sitting down, telling everyone what I think? That’s just because I know that way, I can make more albums. I don’t have any need to explain my music at all.”
Interviews are weird, aren’t they? “Isn’t it bizarre? I tell my mother and my friends what I think, not even that often. I have my reasons for doing what I do, and I don’t think that hard about why I do it. I’d like to write a book too. Writing sounds like it has a better lifestyle because you don’t have to do all this public stuff. You can be respected and be heard and don’t have to get on stage or explain yourself too much. You can go anywhere and do it, write about anything, all you have to do is get better. I just want to do some art in my life that is really great.”
In the Phair book, indulgence is a virtue — “it adequately describes a lot of stuff I’ve been thinking about: you couldn’t have creative process without self-indulgence” — yet her work resonates with a punishing clarity and brevity. “That’s practise. I’d go through periods of flatulence and then constipation, until you temper it into a mature practice. I want to be able to get an essence of images, as much of an image and as colourful an image as I want, in as few words as I feel are necessary, or is fluent. You can’t extend things endlessly because I don’t find it interesting.”
Did she avoid any subject matter? “Not that I know of. I don’t spend much time thinking about what I don’t like to do, I just set drawn to what I do like doing.” How about politics? “I do write politically. I went to Oberlin, which is a very politically correct campus, where you spend a lot of time having to explain yourself, what your motives are.”
By her own admission, Phair has described her work as ‘quasi-slutty’. Come again? “What I meant by that was that I embrace lust to some extent, which everyone should. People who make me uncomfortable are those you can clearly see are uncomfortable with their own sense of sexuality, and sure as hell don’t want to explore why they feel the way they feel. Not that I’m shock-addicted, but I do like to make comfortable people that are uncomfortable with things that seem to be necessary, so I’ll be the one who brings out my vulnerability.”
But why ‘slutty’? “Because the word carries connotations that it shouldn’t. It applies sinfulness… it has negative connotations, especially regarding women. They mistitle what is healthy desire, and also what is maybe unhealthy desire. Sluttiness, to me, defines someone who uses sex in a manipulative way. Everyone has done that, though I don’t think I do that any more. I usually get involved with people I want a relationship with. I’m usually boyfriended, if I’m coupling, and it’s usually very happy. I have quite positive feelings about my sex life: I don’t regret very much of it.”
Don’t ask why I asked — probably a hangover from kd lang’s ‘Vanity Fair’ interview — but has Phair ever suffered from penis envy? “God, no. I suffer from power envy every once in a while.” Is that the same, in one respect? “Penis envy means you wanna have one. I don’t need one at all. You know what I think of penis envy, in any context? I don’t spew the wrote doctrine anymore, or look for the instances where people have been sexist on each side, but it’s a typical example of how men still tend to analyse everything from a self-centred point of view. Is penis envy any more prevalent than vagina envy? It’s curiosity, or a grass-is-greener scenario, which is perfectly natural, and to categorise things as suddenly, like, everything thinks phallically instead of thinking, ‘oh, vertical object.’ I’ve never seen a penis standing vertically, and they’re not that big most of the time. I don’t call to mind any national monuments when I see one, erect or limp, and to have this penis envy as a term we use in pop psychology is just so clearly a case of everything analysed from the point of view of ‘why don’t you like men anymore?’, if women are grouping together, or ‘why do you want to be men?’ if women want power. It always refers back to men, to themselves, when they’re trying to understand something. That drives me nuts.”
As for power envy, “I really hate it when privilege is denied, for silly reasons, like gender. Like education.” Do you wish you didn’t have to be judged on gender? “I wish I didn’t have to be judged unfairly. I’m one of those people who say there are biological differences between men and women – — tempermental differences — and I think there should be, but I don’t like unwise judgements.”
But people will always write about you, and others, as a female pop star, or an all-girl band. “But that is significant, because there aren’t that many. I used to harp on about it, until I realised that every single case is specific. It’s the conext in which this person means it, you have to read the next three sentences, you have to understand why they said that. It can be a woman saying that. It can be saying that this is a phenomenon that is rare and that you should take notice of this. It can be positively intended. It’s laziness too, a way to categorise someone that doesn’t take a lot of time, and you don’t need to think about the music.”
Does she feel any empathy with the likes of Bikini Kill? “You mean Riot Grrls? I don’t buy records, about four in my whole life, I think, though people give me tapes, and I don’t read music magazines, so I get exposed to things in a more peripheral way. But I think they’re doing something totally different. Bikini Kill are more chaotic, and aggressive, on stage. When I come across aggressive on stage, it’s usually because I feel threatened by the situation at hand (laughs). There’s definitely anger in me but I don’t express it the same way. I’m trying more to control my dynamic, so that when I rant to move into a mood, I can move readily. Sometimes I want to be real quiet, or start splaying out the guitar into some blurry electric fuzz, and bring my voice down, stuff like that. Bikini Kill are way more spontaneous in that sense, that they’re just out there, freaking out on stage. I’m not even sure what their goals are but that’s what comes across.”
Neither fish nor fowl, neither folk nor punk. “No, that’s right. I think of myself as like a classic rock songwriter. I wanted to be The Rolling Stones when I grew up. I don’t necessarily want that sound, but I want to be an institution like them. I would love to have a career that lasted for a duration of development, so that you could hear a clear progression, so that you wake up at 40 and have a retrospection, with these years, and those years. Wouldn’t that be a gas? Then you’ve done something with yourself.”
Achievement and ambition are volatile areas. “Yeah, I know, it could all be over in a year. But you have to want something big to get something above average. Yourself-average, that is, not everyone else. I don’t do nearly as much as I should to get famous. It’s more like I want to be someone who stands out, which is where my megalomania comes in, as being a voice, or mind, or talent, that was exceptional in value. And if it doesn’t work in music, I can switch back to visual art.”
So you aren’t a crazy, obsessed muso? “No, I’m totally laid back. You say vacation, and I’m there. I just want to be considered. But when I say an institution, I don’t see this pyramid thing that other people do. I don’t wanna be famous, I want to be around. That’s the big challenge. I think it comes from when I grew up — if you were female and cute, you either classified a brain, in which case you weren’t attractive, or you were passed over. I spend a lot of time feeling that I wasn’t heard, in situations where I should have been, or looked to for a viable response. Especially in rock ‘n’ roll. I remember being a band wife, dating all these rock musicians who did double-takes when they found out I even played, watching all this go down, never being asked anything, watching other women being equally ignored – — intellectually, in college and institutions too. I asked one good friend if women could be geniuses, and he is a great supporter of women, and he could have been irking me, but he said no, and meant it, which pissed me off. This is the kind of thing that goads me into my competitive self, like, goddamit, if you can achieve genius, then I’m going to do it. And I’ll fuck up, I’ll get frivolous and stupid because I’m not disciplined enough to carry it out.”
As a concept, Phair saw ‘Guyville’ — the term coming from an Urge Overkill song — as a representation of smalltown mentality and isolation. It sounds like she’s expounded a lot of time and energy trying to escape Guyville. “Guyville,” she concludes, “is like every question you’re asking me! Not that you’re Guyville, but my answers are describing Guyville in their very tone. It’s all that stuff: do I have something to prove, or is it because I’m short. Like, what’s my hunger? The thing about Guyville is that it pissed me off for many years, and certainly has played into a need to be like, ‘look, I can do this too’, but what’s hard about talking about Guyville in interviews now, is that that was a phase. I swear to God, I proved a lot of that to myself, and mostly in my daily life now, I’m not in contact with the Guyville scene. My next album won’t reflect that, it’s going to be far more carefree in a sense, more like Girly Sounds. Guyville was a very arduous album to make because it was under the guise of having to prove something. Now I feel pretty cool about the fact that I’m just mostly around.”
By Martin Aston
Independent Catalogue, September 1993