Liz Phair talks as frankly as she sings
Last year was a heady one for singer-songwriter Liz Phair. She won mounds of critical acclaim, sweeping the Village Voice’s prestigious “Pazz and Jop” awards. Magazine after magazine profiled her; even People named her one of 1994’s “50 Most Intriguing People”. And once she made the cover of Rolling Stone, it was clear she had arrived.
Though Phair, 27, may not be starving for media attention, she’s still hustling to maintain a high profile. And as a recent stop through Washington revealed, she’s adept at turning on the charm for the press. When I arrive at her suite at the Ritz-Carlton, she puts down the makeup she is applying for a photoshoot, bounds across the room and embraces me like an old friend.
Seconds later, curled up on the couch for the photographer, she turns to me and coyly inquires, “What’s your name again?”
A product of Chicago’s upper-middle-class suburbs, Phair left her indie-rock peers behind when the small New York-based label Matador released her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville. That double album was her “female” answer to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic album Exile on Main Street. Her sophomore effort, last fall’s Whip-Smart, was also released by Matador but distributed by the more formidable Atlantic Records.
Whip-Smart has already surpassed Guyville‘s numbers, and its reviews have been warm, though not as effusive as those for Guyville. But Phair says the hype that accompanied Whip-Smart‘s release has put her into a slump.
The problem, she explains, is that she’s cowering under her own overblown image. “The more everyone told me how great I was, the less I believed it and the more my self-esteem plummeted,” Phair says.
“I’d think, ‘Oh, what did I do today to make myself a better person?’ I got my picture taken.”
Most frequently, Phair’s magazine and newspaper photographs depict her in a sexy pose — say, curled up on a couch. Such pictures play up her pretty blond homecoming-queen looks and tend to exaggerate her pint-size figure.
“I am using all of my tools,” Phair explains matter-of-factly. “I figured it was just part of my job. I grew up around very appearance-oriented people. The packaging in this business is like Christmas — it’s all wrapped up and here for you.”
Phair’s “package” happens to include sexually frank lyrics — her songs take on such topics as sex, oral sex and other kinds of sex. Whip-Smart‘s eerie opener, “Chopsticks”, is reminiscent of the standard piano drill; the song depicts a car ride after a party as the awkward beginning of a potential relationship. Phair tells the guy that she knew Julia Roberts when she was 12 in summer camp; he tells her how he likes to “do it”.
Her lyrics are full of expletives.
Phair’s signature style is characterized by intricate guitar playing and sparse production; her songs let the listener in on little conversations that sometimes fall flat. They’re like Quentin Tarantino movies without the violence.
Critics have compared her to such rock legends as Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde and Paul Westerberg — artists known for their musicianship as well as their intensely honest and personal lyrics. From the beginning, though, Phair has also been depicted as an “alternative Madonna”, which has led to some unfortunate stereotyping.
But for Phair, her image is not as important as her work. “I want to dazzle with what I do, not with who I appear to be. I never wanted to be a ‘rock star’. My big challenge is to get paid to be a [expletive (fucking?)] artist in this country.”
In conversation, Phair talks about “credibility” and “the use of my brain”; she also uses phrases like “quasi-lucrative adult”. And she’s not exactly humble: “I grew up great and wanting everyone to recognize how great I was,” she explains at one point, “but more for intellectual reasons.”
And that was just moments before this one: “Art should be a valuable service in its pure form, not in its muse-given emblematic nugget.”
Phair seems to choose her words carefully; still, she uses almost as many dirty words as she does in her songs.
On the road you’re like a political candidate, you’re of the people, you change and become one with your image,” she says, explaining why she’s giving up touring and live performances — for now.
“People forget that I didn’t play live until I absolutely had to. For me to live the way I want to… I want to sit around my house and make things. I never work on the performance. I never get the presentation right. It’s hard to prepare so much and have patience for something you don’t give a [expletive (fuck?)] about, like getting the band together and showing them my songs. I want to create the fantasy world, but I don’t want to go live in it. To be creative, I have to be very attached to my reality.”
Nowadays, Phair says, she’s not so attached to the cliquish art-rock circles she moved in back when she was a liberal arts major at Oberlin College and then a budding songwriter in Chicago’s alternative music scene.
She still lives in the Chicago suburbs, where her “reality” is a private, ordinary life with her new fiance and the ideas in her head.
Why then, something so public as a promotional tour?
“I took a certain amount of money from Atlantic to make Whip-Smart. This is the very minimal I could do to promote it. I’m already an irresponsible little brat — the industry is going nuts with an artist like me.”
“This is my graph: The industry needs to function at a 55 mph pace, so when an artist loses speed, the next one is ready to come in at 55,” she says. “I’m at about 30 [mph] — they expected more from Whip-Smart, but I need time to develop.”
Before her self-made demo tapes were discovered by a friend and delivered into the right hands, Phair was what she describes as a “closet musician”. She says she “dated musicians and just hung out”; at the same time, she was venting at home in her bedroom with her guitar, poetry and a four-track recorder. She secretly had something to prove to all of them.
Guyville‘s mystical journey was decorated with jaded “scenesters”, destructive personalities and a mystery man who always seemed to elude Phair.
“I always wanted to be a voyeur in bizarre people’s lives. When I found out I could make money from these songs, I just went with it, not fully realizing the consequences.”
Now, she says, she’s back on the right path, coming up with new songs that excite her. And she’s slowly getting over the writer’s block that consumed her after she recorded Whip-Smart.
There was a time when Phair “had to be the femme fatale. I broke a certain amount of hearts in a not-so-flattering way.” But her recent engagement to film editor Jim Staskausas has given her a new perspective. “What am I going to do now that I’m all dumb and in love? I’m giving myself a quiet life to get my subconscious boiling again,” she says.
In the future, she’d like her songs to speak more to women. “I have all these [female] friends that write this great poetry and never take it out. If your art form mirrors your actual self, that stuff is valuable, and you should get it out there like the men do. I’ve proven you don’t have to adapt it to the male world.”
And yet, with the makeup for the photographer still on her face, she says, “I definitely sell myself. It’s a lot easier to sell myself with a product to back it up than it was to sell myself for a paycheck.”
“I don’t know anybody who’s supporting themselves,” she says, “that isn’t selling themselves out massively every day.”
By Dana Cerick
The Washington Post, sometime in 1995