Is She Weird? is She White?
“I’m thrown off by people who know exactly what they want me to do, right now,” says Liz Phair, “because I simply don’t have a clue. I’ve always changed my mind a lot. And now I’m having changes of heart at a rate I never had before.”
The words — cautious, confused, self-aware — are typical of Liz Phair. The Chicago singer-songwriter has entranced tastemakers from one coast to the other with her debut album Exile In Guyville (Matador), a brash but nuanced song cycle on the trouble with boys, girls and with Liz Phair herself. The previously unknown (even in Chicago) artist is showing off what may turn out to be a volatile belnd of talent, smarts and looks, and the circling industry is already causing problems for her.
It shouldn’t hurt that Phair, in this post-Madonna era, not only possesses strikingly photogenic looks but knows how to use them, whether she’s undulating among lush greenery in her first video (for the song “Never Said”) or proffering a skillfully cropped topless photo-booth shot for her album cover. Since the album came out, she has been under siege. From local musicians and friends to the big-money boys on the coasts, the 25-year-old musician’s a hot property. To cope with the sudden attention, Phair did the sensible thing — she promptly isolated herself.
“I try to keep a low profile,” she says, relaxing over coffee at a Chicago café. “At this point, there are more people telling me that people want to get in touch with me than people actually bothering me. I’m always hearing that so-and-so does videos and they want to work with me, so-and-so has a movie and wants to use my songs on the soundtrack, so-and-so wants me to talk to their fanzine” — she takes a breath — “so-and-so wants me to listen to their tape.”
But those are things that, on one level or another, are frivolous. It’s the important issues that are bothersome, the ones the methodical, careful Phair has had to make decisions about over the last few months. What about the second record: Will she do it on her own or let a major label fund it? Not helping matters is the industry’s incessant knocking — to its own ultimate frustration, as Phair takes her time responding. “There are just calls for me everywhere,” she continues. “I don’t have a manager and I don’t intend to get one. I just don’t want to be bothered. I don’t like this lifestyle and I’m going to surmount it,” she vows.
In solo shows around Chicago, Phair has treated audiences to glimpses of a promising but rather unfocused live talent (she has the reviews to prove it). But a good portion of Exile In Guyville shows her as a rocker, potentially an important one. A crucial part of the album was the work provided by co-producer Brad Wood, who created an enormously sympathetic setting for Phair’s luminous songs. But now, other local pressures nag as well. Should she form a band? If so, who should be in it?
Such talk may seem premature or hyperbolic; indeed, Phair had the distinction of generating some hometown backlash before her album was even released. But as bootleg tapes, and ultimately the record, made the rounds, her detractors found themselves eating crow.
Elizabeth Phair is the adopted daughter of a prominent family on Chicago’s tony North Shore. Her father, Dr. John Phair, is the nationally known AIDS researcher and head of infectious diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her mother teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
After high school, Phair did the liberal arts thing at Oberlin College in Ohio, which she bemoans as “a total P.C. training ground. I’ve been put through the rigors.” She also spent time hanging out in San Francisco and Boston. In the latter, Come guitarist Chris Brokaw persuaded Phair to record some of her songs, and the resulting tapes circulated on the East Coast. Meanwhile, she drifted back to Chicago and ended up hanging with the likes of Urge Overkill and former Shrimp Boat drummer Wood, who runs a recording studio called Idful (the word is the detritus from Wood’s psychology-major days, as in, “What a totally idful guitar solo!”). Some preliminary tracks the pair laid down got Matador interested, and Exile In Guyville was soon under way.
“Guyville” is Phair’s ironic name for the band scene in artsy, multi-ethnic Wicker Park, north and east of the Chicago Loop. Thw word has a lot of overtones: It comes from Guyville’s clown princes, Urge Overkill, whose “Goodbye To Guyville” (from the Stull EP) is a sarcastic farewell to the trio’s estranged brethren at Touch & Go Records. For Phair, Guyville is at once her neighborhood, the nation of boy-rock typified by her friends in Urge, the world of men generally, and the music industry in particular.
Since the record came out, Guyville has bitten back. As Phair went, in just a few weeks, from local club munchkin to being hailed by the editor of Billboard as “(leading) alternative rock’s postpunk 90s naturalism to a captivating new pinnacle,” she’s left a great deal of griping in her wake, from rumors and insults about her personal life to public manifestations of “her mercurial, obfuscating and ploddingly genius-to-be self,” in the words of a local fanzine writer who worked with Phair at a benefit. “I hate being hated, and I already am,” she acknowledges. “I don’t think I’ve even done much of anything, or gotten that much in a worldly sense, yet I’ve already had people I care about disapprove of me vehemently.”
One incident really drew criticism. When Chicago writer Peter Margasak gave her album a positive but brutally worded review in Spin, Phair got on the phone with publisher Bob Guccione, Jr. The result? She ended up tripping around Manhattan and Chicago with one of the more influential friends a young recording artist could have — and young Margasak was banished from the pages of Spin. “It was just me being stupid: ‘What the hell, I’ll call Spin.’ And it was perceived as entirely a power play.”
Phair’s record is a pretty persuasive document, the work of an instinctual and ambitious young artist who pulls off such a high percentage of what she attempts that the occasional misses seem failures of attention rather than nerve. Not only is the album’s title an homage to Exile On Main Street, but Phair says she self-consciously modeled Guyville on the 1972 Stones classic; it’s a double-length album whos 18 songs, Phair says, should be taken in 5-4-5-4 doses to match up with the original Exile‘s four sides.
Phair can cheerfully illustrate the connection between any two Main Street and Guyville songs with rapid-fire lyric recitation, breathless thematic analysis, and accompanying bursts of air guitar to illustrate this or that musical point. Her songs are not answers to or mirror images of the Stones’; the relationships are almost always conceptual, having to do with odd thematic twists or the way the music, production, and lyrical themes of a particular song combine or work off one another to deliver the song’s effect. It’s possible that the real relationship between the two records exist primarily in Phair’s head, and she balks at talking about the meanings of her songs.
“You can hear what ‘6’1″‘ is about if you listen to ‘Rocks Off’ and then you listen to ‘6’1″‘ and then you think about it,” she claims. “Just as the lyrics and then the guitar parts on Exile On Main Street lead you to an impression rather than an actual image, in my songs — and in the juxtaposition and sequencing — I tried to do the same thing.” But one element of the comparison stands out: take the original Exile‘s most timeless songs (say “Rocks Off”, “Tumbling Dice”, “Happy”), and note not only that Phair has unfailingly (and riskily) put up her own best compositions in opposition (“6’1″”, “Never Said”, “Fuck And Run”, respectively), but also that, far from embarrassing herself in the process, she comes off pretty well.
And yet Guyville‘s bubbling emotionalism and carefully manipulated carnality quickly overshadow and ultimately render irrelevant the epic contextualization. (Lines like “I want to be your blowjob queen” and “I’m a real cunt in spring” tend to do that.) Puasing for this or that propulsive pop anthem (“Never Said”) or lilting mood piece (“Stratford-on-Guy”), Phair delivers a lacerating recitation of romantic pathologies. To pull off the stunt, she has an impressive arsenal: extended metaphors (boys as unruly houseguests in “Help Me, Mary”, love as a road trip in “Divorce Song”); an obsessive talent for diagnosing behavioral hiccups on the part of men (“6’1”), women (“Fuck And Run”), and the singer herself (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”); a distinctive and friendly gal-next-door style of guitar playing; and, not least, a malleable and protean voice that self-consciously toys with the unapologetic intellectualism of Joni Mitchell, the romantic depth of Christine McVie, and the rock credibility of Chrissie Hynde even as her straightforward delivery and piercing sincerity conveys an enormous emotional authority.
Are these influences? “I like anything that seems to stimulate me, anyone who seems different, someone who’s working with an idea — or sometimes even when they’re not. The Monkees are genius. Led Zeppelin is genius. I don’t have a formulatied, belong-to-a-movement school of thought on songwriting. I just know what’s good. You can say I like classic rock.”
Phair’s bravura compositions are difficult to limn. The compact “Fuck And Run” at first seems a dull, “I’m falling in love with you again” song; but after a couple of lines you realize the boy the singer has just woken up next to is her latest one-night stand. Exasperated, she makes a plea for connection: “Whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?” And then the chorus, delivered in Phair’s unaffected voice, kicks in: “Fuck and run/Fuck and run/Even when I was 17/Even when I was 12,” and all of a sudden she’s created a sad, almost chilling portrait of a lifetime of emotional dysfunction.
It seems as if Phair was lucky to meet up with Brad Wood, who helped her marry her hugely melodic songs to homey but sophisticated settings, from the haunting, discordant pianos on “Canary”, to the steady, Stones-like beats on “6’1″”, to the ineffable Big Star theatrics on “Never Said”. The songs are immensely varied, but never stray far from Phair’s description of her sound as “me, my guitar, and a feel”. Phair, says Wood, is one in a million. He makes it plain he’d like to keep working with her and help her form a band. Phair initially wasn’t so sure: “He knows me well enough now and understands that it may or may not happen,” she said some months ago, symapathetically but firmly.
Now, having gotten a good strong whiff of the star-making machinery at work, Phair is staying with what she knows. Her next album will again be on Matador (“They’re the coolest. They don’t bother me at all. I love them.”) and Wood will again co-produce. Recording sessions are under way at Idful for what Phair hopes will be a spring ’94 release. “I don’t think I should be on a major label,” she says. “I think I’m an artist who needs to be developed, and that’s something the majors are notoriously bad at doing.”
And what about touring or forming that band? Phair always acknowledged that her sometimes halting performances need work (“I wouldn’t come to my own shows”), but she likes playing live and isn’t intimidated by criticm. “If I get good, I can carry it,” she explains, “and how will I ever get good if I don’t get to practice?” She is also wary about what she calls “jumping on a band bandwagon”: “It’s not that easy. If you put the wrong band together your skills can get drowned. You start to adapt to someone else’s ideas before you know your own work.”
Cautiously, she has decided to take a chance, with Wood, Idful assistant Casey Rice, and drummer Leroy Bach from the Chicago band Uptighty. The foursome played the New Music Seminar in July and is contemplating a small number of fall shows in England and America.
Despite her best efforts, Phair is still finding herself waist deep in the industry’s big muddy. She’s going to try to forge ahead and keep her sense of humor and self. “It’s like a political campaign,” she says. “It’s fun to watch, in terms of me being a case study, being a little mole ferreting through the system: Will I become a part of it? Will I know it when it happens? Will it be too late when it does?”
By Bill Wyman
Option, September/October 1993
Bill Wyman, a Chicago Reader music columnist, has written for various publications. This is his first piece for OPTION.