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Liz Phair’s Follow-Up

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Liz Phair’s brash, blunt, and sexually explicit debut album made her a critic’s darling — and a figure of controversy. Moira McCormick visits Phair as she records her follow-up, combats her stage fright, and prepares to transcend cult status

On a balmy April Sunday in Chicago, which happens to be her twenty-seventh birthday, Liz Phair is holed up in an amiably cluttered recording studio, laying down the final track for her as-yet-untitled second album. Swaying slightly, she plucks at her Fender guitar, and an alluring, foreboding chord progression fills the snug control room as she softly sings.

Skywriting with the sweep of a flashlight, I’m driving over that way… Phair’s song is called “Alice Springs”, and in it she steers her car through a humid summer night, windows open and breeze wafting in, caught up in a wordless yearning for mystery and excitement. Spying klieg lights in the sky, she investigates their source: Some pot of gold — it’s just a carpeting store on opening day

Phair, a five-foot-two svelte woman in navy pants and ivory vintage blouse, dark-blond hair cheerfully uncombed, and aquamarine eyes untouched by makeup, is a little edgy — “I tensed up toward the end,” she tells her coproducer/drummer, Brad Wood, after one flubbed take — and who can blame her? She is feeling the pressure of following up one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of 1993, Exile in Guyville; it was voted album of the year by The Village Voice and Spin, while Rolling Stone named Phair best new female artist. Not bad for someone who until fairly recently hadn’t any intention of becoming a performer. Yet since Guyville, on the small Matador label, sold only 200,000 copies, most of America still has no idea who Liz Phair is.

That won’t last. Phair is unique among her women-who-rock colleagues, shunning the humorless, man-hating axis of riot-grrrldom as surely as she rejects that of ether-dwelling, confessional folkiehood. She is neither a wiggy sexual penitent like Sinéad O’Connor, nor a kohl-eyed tough cookie like Chrissie Hynde, nor a fragile, trembling forest nymph à la Tori Amos, nor just one of the guys like Breeders’ Kim and Kelley Deal — and certainly not a self-obsessed cartoon like Madonna, whom she’s been occasionally compared, presumably for her sexual forthrightness.

Her essence is exemplified by Guyville, an audacious double album whose structure deliberately mirrored that of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile on Main Street. It’s startling blast of stripped-down, unpolished, thoroughly addictive guitar pop, a state-of-the-heart report on love, sex, and life from an above average, disarmingly honest American girl. Its eighteen songs, interspersing rock numbers and subdued solo ruminations, seethe with rough-edged, tuneful vitality. Phair’s dogged refusal (she says it’s inability) to fashion a melody in the conventional verse-chorus-bridge mode makes for intriguingly off-kilter song structures. Also surprising is her voice, an untrained, deadpan alto that unapologetically strains for low notes just outside its range, yet is capable of honeyed soprano trills whenever she feels like goofing on the stereotypical girl-singer conception.

But it’s Phair’s words that have gotten the most attention. Like no rock artist before her, she captures the complex, contradictory nature of a brainy young woman in love with an emotionally unavailable man. From song to song, Phair’s persona vacillates between invincible and hurt, pissed-off and pleading — just like women in real life. “We all live contradictions,” she says.

Because of her sexual bluntness, virtually unprecedented for a white female nonpunk rocker, Phair has become a figure of controversy, variously labeled, she says, a “whorish ball-buster psychobitch”, a “sex-kitten sellout”, and a rampaging feminist firebrand. Guyville‘s most notorious track, “Flower”, detailed the singer’s lubricious fantasies in no uncertain terms: “I want to fuck you like a dog… I want to be your blow-job queen.” Such sentiments — and songs like “Fuck and Run”, about morning-after regret — put reviewers (who are, after all, predominantly male) in a tizzy. (One went so far as to call her a “Freudian wet dream”, whatever that means.) Many critics just didn’t get it, mistakenly interpreting Guyville‘s major theme as a struggle between love and carnality. Phair doesn’t see it that way. “All of my friends my whole life have had these feelings,” she says. “That’s what we talk about. It shouldn’t be so mysterious or freaky or unsettling.”

What none of the critics deciphered, Phair reveals, is that the songs on Guyville addressed “a specific person that I had an undefined relationship with”. While scrutinizing Exile on Main Street, she realized Mick Jagger’s lyrics reminded her of “things my ‘love object’ would say. So I compiled songs to answer him.” Doing so was ultimately as therapeutic as it was artistic. “Mick became the man in my relationship, the explanation for all his actions,” she says. “Making my album helped me define my relationship with this person — and that was all I needed. It didn’t get me what I thought I wanted, but it gave me peace of mind.”

In fact, she’s been immersed in a stable, mutually starry-eyed relationship for more than a year with her video-editor boyfriend, with whom she shares a second-floor carriage house in Chicago’s Bucktown area — her first cohabiting arrangement, Phair notes. “Living there with him [and his fourteen-year-old son] is what keeps me sane, normal, and not into celebrity bullshit,” she says, adding that she shortened her spring tour by a week to spend more time at home: “I’m making sure I have a life here that’s more important than my job.”

Phair spent her childhood in Cincinnati, with her adoptive parents John (now a prominent AIDS researcher) and Nancy (who currently teaches museology at Chicago’s Art Institute), and an older brother, also adopted. The Phairs moved to Chicago in 1976, settling in the affluent North Shore suburb of Winnetka. An imaginative, creative kid, Phair showed a flair for visual art at an early age. She majored in the subject at Oberlin College, hoping to “open up a new way of looking at visual art. And then — wacky! — it turned out to be music.”

The Stones had been only one of her favorite bands growing up. “It changed all the time,” she remembers. “I loved Elton John, the Kinks, ELO — I loved everybody.” Actually it wasn’t so much performers that captivated her as songs. Not just pop songs; her songwriting was shaped by everythng from lullabies her mother sang to her to the rounds and folk airs she warbled year after year at summer camp in Minnesota (alongside fellow camper Julia Roberts: “We used to sneak out of our cabin at night,” Phair says. “She taught me how to sunbathe with baby oil”).

Though Phair had been making up tunes on piano and guitar since grade school, she’d never considered herself a songwriter. Even once she started, “no one knew I wrote songs, because I was too embarrassed to play them for anyone.” She did go through a period of dating rock musicians at Oberlin: “I spent some time in the band-wife pit,” she says wryly, “but I never once looked up there and pictured myself onstage. I never thought about doing anything with my music.”

Finally, in December 1990, while living in a San Francisco loft after graduation — “hanging out, having parties, and blowing through my savings” — Phair was persuaded by a visiting musician friend to make a tape of some of her songs. After moving back home to Winnetka in January “to regain structure from my parents, by osmosis,” she gave it a shot.

Sitting in her girlhood bedroom with its periwinkle Laura Ashley wallpaper, surrounded by her books, art supplies, and stuffed animals, Phair recorded a cassetteful of tunes — just her voice and an electric guitar — and christened it Girly Sound. Soon it and two more tapes had been shared and duplicated by many musicians and critics in the East Coast underground scene. Phair moved to the artsy Wicker Park neighborhood, briefly affiliating herself with a local scenester who considered her his protégée, but the partnership was doomed. “He wanted to produce me vulnerable, kind of wistful,” she says, ” and I wanted to rock.”

By May of 1992, Phair had signed with Matador, which proffered a meager (but welcome) $2,500 advance. “I’d been selling my art [mostly charcoal sketches] month by month,” Phair says. “Never knew when I’d have money, eating beans all the time — it sucked, sucked, sucked.” Quite a far cry from her cushy upbringing, but Phair was obstinate about not getting a “nine-to-five — I wanted to be paid for my art.”

Now she’s achieved that, but she suddenly has external expectations to live up to. So, in January, she cut off contact with her label and band and slipped away to Michigan shore to write in solitude. What she returned with was, she says, “a natural extension of Guyville — girl-rock in the truest sense. It’s still boy-girl, and I’m still wanting love all through, but I’m not as tortured.”

While Guyville told a story, Phair’s new effort is more a gallery of vividly assorted pictures, ranging from melodic saw-toothed rockers like “X-Ray Man” to a dreamy, country-flavored ballad called “Nashville”; her songwriting and singing are more accomplished, her band is tighter, and her subject matter is more varied. She’s thinking of calling it Jump Rope Songs, she says, because “you could literally jump rope to it. [Several] songs have a repeated line, over and over, which is something new for me.” She thinks this “jump-rope groove” signifies “my holding on to the girlhood of my musical origins”, as well as a desire to “give these songs some float time. As opposed to Guyville, where I felt you had to pay attention to every single moment, the repeated lines her give you mental space.”

Throughout, Phair delivers characteristically unblinking examinations of romance’s vicissitudes. In the lacerating war cry “Jealousy”, the singer’s gone slightly crackers, rifling through her boyfriend’s drawers and fuming over pictures of ex-girlfriends: “I can’t believe you had a life before me.” Its flip side is the sheer sensual exuberance of “Supernova”, a giddy hormonal paean to her sweetheart’s prowess, stamped with Phair’s vibrantly randy imagery (“You’re… a giant flying friction blast”). A curious motif running through the album is gender reversal, as in the sardonic “May Queen”, about a narcissistic heterosexual man. “It just came out that way,” Phair muses. “Maybe because I’ve been in a serious relationship for a year: Once you get past the superficial boy-girl things, you’re involved with each other as people. You lose your boundaries in a weird sort of way.”

Phair clearly loves men, even as she lambastes them for their cowardice and self-centeredness. So it’s perplexing that many militant feminists regard Phair as one of their own. She’s resigned to this but gets riled when the hard-liners belittle her for expressing vulnerability. “You should never lie to yourself about what it feels like to be a woman,” she says, adding sharply, “You can trap yourself in a sackcloth as easily as you can in a corset.”

If Phair herself feels confined by any aspect of her newfound career, it is the necessity of performing live. Confident and assertive on record and in person, she suffers from debilitating stage fright, “the kind where you’re so scared you can’t really see”. During her first tour, this, coupled with her three-piece band’s lack of experience playing together, resulted in a number of decidedly unfavorable live reviews, which naturally depressed her. “The only thing we can do is keep playing till we get better.” And, in fact, the notices have been steadily improving. “But I’m not willing to go out on the road for months at a time. That’s for the perpetual teenagers.”

Phair’s greatest strength could very well be the fact that she never bought into the conventional rock ‘n’ roll mythos. “My identity is still largely divorced from rock,” she says. “This is a really good opportunity to do something with my twenties, when I know a lot of friends who are floundering. But I had a lot of self-worth before I got to music. I liked my life. I don’t think I was a loner, I don’t think rock ‘saved’ me.” Instead, she has a democratic view. “My whole thing was, ‘I was a college kid who wrote songs, and you can too.’ Some day another girl will say, ‘I can do that,’ and it won’t be because she saw a boy up there — but because she saw me.”

By Moira McCormick
Vogue, August 1994

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