EVEN if they’ve never heard a note of Liz Phair’s music, many people know her name from People magazine’s year-end list of the “25 Most Intriguing People of 1994” (where she ranked among the likes of Tonya Harding, Pope John Paul II and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) or from the hundreds of column inches devoted to her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville.
“I thought (appearing on the People list) was hysterical,” says Phair, who performs Sunday at the Warfield in San Francisco. “‘Cause at some point, you know what? People writing about you — it all blurs. So the funny articles, the very pop-culture and way out-there ones, really stick out.”
Phair’s two-year rise to prominence started with Guyyille, a musical response to the Roiling Stones’ classic 1972 Exile on Main Street double LP.
With its intimate, lo-fi sound and Phair’s reflective, sometimes sexually frank lyrics, it was given the kind of analysis usually reserved for literary best-sellers. So much so that Phair herself, touted by some as a new revolutionary feminist voice, was the focus of discussion as much or more than her music.
“Everyone was writing about ‘girl next door says shocking dirty filth,'” recalls Phair, speaking by phone from her home in Chicago. “They weren’t really getting just the sit-in-the-rocking-chair storytelling aspect of it. They didn’t hear what I was saying – that it was in a long tradition of songwriting.”But once the buzz quieted down, listeners found her to have more in common with musicians like folkster Billy Bragg than X-rated performance artists like Karen Finley.
Much to her relief, critics are listening more objectively to her latest album, Whip-Smart, released last October. “People have wised up. I don’t think anyone’s making these great statements about what I represent anymore.”
Guyville city limits
Rocker Liz Phair finally comes home from exile
One quality she does embody is a spirit of independence. From her label, Matador Records (home to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Bettie Serveert and Pizzicato 5) to her current tour as a solo artist, the 27-year-old Phair tries to do it her way as often as possible.
“If this were a promotional tour, I’d have some hot… pro band that we threw together. And I’d be doing photo shoots and tons of press,” she says. “And really, I’m just doing a bunch of interviews over the phone and coming out solo — not exactly a publicist’s dream.
“It’s really me just showing up, playing my songs because I wrote them — not because I’m trying to create a show. I mean, it ought to be called the ‘Songwriter Tour’,” she says “I’m just coming out because I feel like I have to do something to stay visible to help the people that are working on the album. And it sounds corny, but you do feel like fans should be able to see you in person, see who you are.”
Though she had early bouts with stage fright, Phair is touring solo “mostly because I’m trying to figure out what to do next, giving myself some time. I started out solo in teensy venues, and then I started playing with my band. Now I’m back to solo.”
Recent changes in Phair’s life, including her marriage to film editor Jim Staskauskas, have brought about a need for reflection. “Obviously, I got a lot more contented. I used to think of making tapes, in a weird sort of way, like an advertisement for myself,” she says, shifting to a sing-songy voice — one of several she uses throughout the conversation to illustrate her points: “Here’s all the sides of me, and you’d really like to go out with me.”
“Now it’s a totally different feeling, when I sit down and think about songs. It makes you a little lamer and older, and it all changes how provocative you’re going to be. ‘Cause I really don’t feel up to going and finding experiences with other men that can be fodder.
“It’s a transitional period, from like ‘Hey, look at me!’ to more like ‘Hey, don’t look at me — I’m fine!’ I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but it’s definitely been a plus in my life, so I’m sure it’ll work out for the best.”
Let’s get visual
Another concern is that her success as a musician has cut into the time she spends pursuing another passion, the fine arts. “That’s something I’m going to delve into again. I get to do it a little, but it’s not the same. My whole life was spent gearing toward visual art,” says Phair, whose mother is an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago. “It was way more of an emphasis in my life than music, and I miss it.”
Talk of other musicians such as Miles Davis and Tony Bennett, who painted as well as recorded albums and toured, prompts her to add, “That’s ideally what I’d like to be — a long-term musician, someone who has an audience and a kind of respect that lets them be an artist instead of a celebrity.”
By Yoshi Kato, Special to the Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News, April 7, 1995