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Liz Phair

Q&A: Liz Phair

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This is the story of Liz Phair, the ‘new’ gal in town who shocked the music biz flack and functionaries when she gave Gerrie Lim a real good smackeroo right on the lips when she played the Troubadour in Hollywood. Meet the hot new babe in boyland.

“I eat a lot but never at one time,” Liz Phair says, explaining her unfinished Eggs Benedict, as the midday sun backlights her sandy-blond hair and turns her blue-gray eyes a misty turquoise gree. It’s a warm beautiful Saturday, typically unwintry for December, and we’re lunching alfresco outside La Belle Epoque, a French-Continental restaurant on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz — not far, interestingly, from where Sinead O’Connor had once lived, just a few years ago when she’d moved to LA as the ingenue belle of her own stormy epoch.

So, how fittingly then are we gathered here, at La Belle Epoque (French for “beautiful era”), since the big-time for Elizabeth Clark Phair, 26, has only just begun.

One year ago, she was completely unknown outside of her native Chicago — until her demo tapes reached Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi of New York’s indie Matador Records, who signed her and changed all that. (Ed: Those who’ve read Gina Arnold’s Route 666: The Road To Nirvana — see Page 68 — would realised that Cosloy/Matador Records are not new to hip folks way before they become happenings. After all, Cosloy was instrumental in organising the phenomenal IPU indie convention in Washington.)

These days, praises are sung and notices writ large over Exile In Guyville, her spunky double-LP debut released in May 1993, which Spin magazine recently called its Album of the Year. (Ed: Exile In Guyville made No. 18 in the BigO Critics Chart.) “I think Liz Phair will ultimately turn into something huge,” declared DJ Bob Boster in Us magzine. “Five years from now, we’ll look back and think, ‘Wow, I remember when that first Liz Phair record came out.'”

But, as befits her style on things cuisinary, Liz Phair herself prefers to digest it all a bit at a time, in bite-size pieces, thank you. The fasttrack rise from obscurity still amazes her, mostly amuses her, and no longer fazes her. “Liz Phair research! Don’t you think that’s funny? I have a press kit!” she declaims, laughing as I plunk down onto our table the LA Weekly with her on the cover (featuring the clever headline: “Liz Phair explodes the canon”). The paper’s writers love her — Gina Arnold calls her “the female Paul Westerberg”, Sara Scribner deems her a “folk-punk genius”.

“Folk-punk genius, that’s great!” the object of ardor herself exclaims. However, genius-sightings have since occured; 14-year old girls have been known to faint upon seeing her on the street.

“It was totally very, very strange for a while,” she admits. “I’m now in this period right after — after getting over it. Where it just seems so silly, when I think about it. It is about you, but it’s not about you. It’s about human nature and what we do with our projections.

“When a 14-year-old girl comes up to me,” she says, “part of me is really happy because I remember being 14 and sitting in my room and having those moments, getting through things by songs — the radio was the diary of my life. So that’s really cool, that’s amazing. But the whole kind of blur about it, like signing autographs through the day, that’s just…” she pauses, looking resigned, “that’s, you know, just what you do. It’s like anything, there are good points and bad points. There are times when it’s like, ‘To Mary Jo: Good luck with the baby!'” She laughs, zestily signing an imaginary autograph.

“I look at it like my job. It’s my job. It’s weird, it’s unusual, it’s work… it’s social work! But it’s not that bad. I’m doing mostly what I want to do. So this,” she emphasises, “is not bad.”

Not a bad assessment, since she’s also written and recorded a wonderful song about it, “Explain It To Me”, pondering what she calls “the fame injection”. For much of her current newfound status as indie-rock darling is founded on perverse speculation over Exile In Guyville itself, the cover of which she appears topless (photo cropped to reveal just the tiniest flash of her left nipple), the songs of which detail her ruminations on life, love and interpersonal warfare with oftentimes gritty, X-rated detail.

Seldom have I read reviews of a debut album whose lyrics have been so frequently quoted, particularly the disarmingly mellifluous “Flower” (“Everytime I see your face, I go wet between my legs/Everytime I see your face, I think of things unpure, unchaste”), the quasi-Joni Mitchell refrain of “Dance Of The Seven Veils” (“I ask because I’m a real cunt in spring/You can rent me by the hour”), and a rockin’ romper-stomper on multi-lover miasma aptly entitled “Fuck And Run”. Small wonder that Interview magazine’s full-page Liz Phair piece carried the headline “Folk-rock that could make you blush” (the big, bold “blush” appearing nicely, naturally, in vaginal pink).

“There are certain tried-and-true methods about the sex industry,” is all she drolly offers, giggling, when I asked her about all this hoopla that has made her a protean sex symbol of sorts for Generation X. She did not anticipate the album’s immense outreach. “Totally not, cross my heart,” she says.

“And I hope I don’t forget where my head was when I was making it. I make this joke — If you took a mile radious around that studio, that was as far as I needed that album to go. My neighbourhood. I don’t have to be loved by the whole world. I just have to have reached the people that I wanted to reach.”

Reach them she apparently has, and more. This three-day LA stopover marks the end of a three-city West Coast jaunt (she’d earlier played Seattle and San Francisco) prior to flying home to Chicago, for Christmas as well as the wrap of a new video (“Stratford-on-Guy”, the follow-up to her first video “Never Said” — true to the marketing adage of our MTV Age, it’s videos only; no actual singles have yet been released) and then the final tracking and mixing of her next album, still untitled but already half-recorded.

The previous night she’d played at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, and every musicbiz flack and functionary from every major label in town attended, all wooing her knowing that her current contract with Matador is set to lapse — after just one more EP and the aforementioned next album.

Rather apt, since Guyville is the nickname for Wicker Park, Chicago’s mostly white-male, indie-rock slacker enclave celebrated in Urge Overkill’s Stull EP, and the area where she now actually lives.

She makes her exile, and entitlement, known in songs like “Help Me, Mary”, about irksome roommates, presaging somewhat the present A&R feeding frenzy, but laced with her wicked wit:

I practice all my moves
I memorise their stupid rules
But I’m asking you, Mary, please
Temper my hatred with peace
Weave my disgust into fame
And watch how fast they run to the flame

That flame’s now been lit, and she knows it. “Sure, I would love to be on a major label,” she tells me excitedly after lunch as a drive her around, her favourite band the Rolling Stones (Exile In Guyville being her poetic response to Exile On Main Street) riffing forth from my car speakers. Ry Cooder’s guesting slide guitar on “Sister Morphine” makes her hum happily along. “What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face?” Mick jaggedly croons, and so we talk about her current state of place. Previously unused to mass attention (she once cried after a Chicago critic savaged her live show for “incessant strumming”), she has now developed her own idiot-proof method for staying sane.

“My theory of the puppet,” she says, holding up an imaginary puppet. “There’s Liz Phair now, and when I’m holding her and I’m doing it, then I’m saying whatever I’m saying, and I get to hold her most of the time — I’m the one who’s the main puppeteer. You use the puppet to say what you want to say, so you’re in collaboration with yourself, as a performer and as an artist.

“The same thing you do in songwriting,” she adds, “only I didn’t get it until I had to do it enough times, and I figured out it’s just the same thing: you do as much or as little as you choose. You should be aware of it. It’s a medium. And it’s really horrible if you totally let yourself be submerged by it. So you don’t let yourself be submerged by it. You don’t get crazy. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. If you feel weird that night, don’t do it. You don’t read stuff about you all the time, you don’t ingest it, you don’t believe things all the time. You kind of keep it separate.”

“But it’s really hard like a drug,” she admits, having quit smoking cigarettes (a pack a day) for a year now and presently preferring to munch on green apples (I see her munch through two). “You have to, you know, know moderation, keep level-headed for as long as you can. I have friends who make fun of me, and it makes me laugh, in a good way. So many people surround themselves with people who indulge them, cater to them, all the time.”

Her own eclectic background explains much. She was born in 1967, of mostly German (and lesser English-Scottish-Irish-French) ancestry, and was adopted at birth. She has never known her biological parents and has never traced them. “If it ever did matter, I would,” she says. “But now it doesn’t. It motivates my songwriting. It gives me that free space — I’ve got this mental idea that I’m not really, deep-down, fully attached to anything, like that floatable world that artists create for themselves. I’m a member of that world, intrinsically.”

“My parents are always shoving books in my face, they read constantly,” she says of Dr. John Phair, prominent AIDS researcher and the chief of infectious diseases at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and his wife, an art teacher who works at the famed Art Institute of Chicago. Liz’s main cultural inspiration still remains not music but books. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View Of Hills is a favourite (for good reason, in my own analysis: Ishiguro’s prose style is spare and elliptical yet very loaded with devastating meaning, paralleling her own deceptively simple but emotionally implosive lyrics).

The Phairs still live in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka. It was a hip, iconoclastic and neo-bohemian household (“conservative liberals, and I have a lot of that in me”, she notes), and so, she’d grown up with virtually no reason to rebel. “My parents were Episcopalian and they would take me to church because they thought I should understand it,” she recalls. “They would never take communion. They’d just sit there, and you could tell they were kinda bummed that they were in church on Sunday!”

“They were honestly great,” she sighs. “They let me get away with too many changes of mind. In return, I’m really comfortable trying a lot of things — I don’t feel like I can’t do something well. I was prodded only and wholly in the direction to do something I liked. The have a big respect for loving what you do. You shouldn’t do something your whole life if you don’t love it. And that also means that you have to make what it is you do lovable.”

She says it as “love-able”, stressing the break. “You have to figure out your place in it. How much you can do, how much you can’t do. WHat time, who you want to do it with, what you’re going to say. All that crap.” She laughs, and I suddenly saw in her this spokesperson for post-modern zen novices who know Nirvana as not merely the sound of one band grunging. “I would call myself deeply spiritual,” she says, “but there’s no way I could say it in any way that wouldn’t be laughable. I definitely have strong connections to large things, that’s how I like to phrase it.”

Like her own unique connection to feminism, a connection she’d made as an art major at Oberlin College, “a really moral institution, with a lot of stress on virtue and social ethics,” as she recalls, “largely full of shit because a lot of it was self-indulgent.” The school had “a completely weird inverted social status structure,” a politically-correct feminist bent that, ironically, prompted her own world-view.

“I’m a pretty strong feminist,” she explains. “I just don’t follow dialetics. Most feminists I know that are worth their salt understand that sex is not the enemy. And words are not the enemy. They’re tools. And, in the context of what I mean, if you listen to my whole album you’d understand.” She agrees with me that Exile In Guyville is best enjoyed, and best understood, if listened to in its entirety — the rock album as sociology dissertation, or, as she puts it, “my artist’s thesis”.

“Don’t you think it’s laughable?” She says of the pop media’s fetishism over her album artwork — the film of still Barbie dolls in water on the actual compact disc, her topless pose on the cover, the use of model Kristi Stevens as a stripper on the inside sleeve. “The game ws that people would spend a while wondering if that was me. That was fun.”

“Think about it,” she continues. “Why did Janet Jackson come up with one? Why did PJ Harvey come up with one? Why is everyone topless?!! Why these women, who are not, like, original sex-hawking babes in Hollwood? These are intelligent women, who know what they’re doing and who know the difference between exploitation and freedom. Think about it. I would like to think that it harkens to something. It’s a vote.”

Well, she gets my vote, all five feet two of her (so goes Exile In Guyville‘s opening song, “6’1″”, with its much-quoted couplet: “And I kept standing six feet one, instead of five feet two/And I love my life, and I hated you”). She’s smaller than she photographs, I tell her, and she laughs, “Small? I’m tiny!” She corrects me. We toast, to small-as-beautiful and less-is-more, as we regard this city she’s come to newly visit and love. We drive past eucalyptus trees and she rapturises over the smell. The beauty of LA’s vast urban sprawl, she agrees with me, lies in the vibrant need it inspires to make connections and build community, in spite of and not because.

“I like LA a lot,” she says. “It’s a really raw environment in which to work. Chicago makes you oppressively that you’re connected. You’re totally connected — you can’t get out! Whereas here, it’s like everyone’s doing their own thing. Their movies are going along in their own heads, and they’re going, ‘Hi! Great! So cool!’ And when they actually talk about it, it’s like you get the sense that we’re breaking the silence barrier.

“This town is about trust, she concludes, after just three days here. “It deals largely on issues of trust, in one form or another.”

“I see it as a huge generator, like electricity, I see all this networking — like Neuromancer, only more like Brazil. People here keep everything really pleasant. They keep everything happenin’, roll along, feel good. ‘Are you feeling good?'” she mimics. “‘Can I help you feel good?'” We laughs and discuss Merchant Ivory’s elegiac adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day and she does her Emma Thompson imitations for me. She certainly helps me feel good. I’m smitten. Juliana Hatfield, eat your heart out. That evening, at the famous Troubadour in West Hollywood, she straps on her off-white Fender with its blood-red pickguard and plays to the full house, doing most of Exile In Guyville plus three new songs. She coos the Stones’ neo-falsetto “Emotional Rescue” during her own “Divorce Song”, bucking her hips in mock sex parody. “It reminded me of watching Patti Smith when she first played CBGB’s,” someone said to me the next day, “watching a raw talent in bloom.” The Los Angeles Times agreed, Lorraine Ali’s review noting “an empowering drive to the music, which combines folk-rock simplicity with post-punk aesthetic of imperfection” and lauding “her restless, probing intelligence, her cool tones and smart lyrics.”

Cool and smart she is, this Phair one. My hunch is that, with this debut album as ground zero, she’s here to stay. Dare I swear on that? Sure, since I’ve also discovered that the name Elizabeth actually means, in Hebrew, “oath of God”. But pardon my poetic license, and consider this offbeat aside from our day in LA: Of her fan mail incoming thus far, one piece has been (so to speak) noteworthy — “I got a card from five Marines,” she told me, a torchy glint smoldering those blue-gray eyes. “Matador wants to use it for a poster or something, and I’m going to put down my vote for YES!” Yes indeed, she’s torched the hardened hearts of five Marines, bastions of machismo exiled in their own Guyville, impressed enough to scribble lines usually reserved for a Playboy Playmate. Sympathy for the devil, the Rolling Stones say. Mesmerizing, I say. All Liz Phair in love and war.

By Gerrie Lim
BigO, February 1994

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