It occurred to Liz Phair when she was asleep, so don’t even ask her to explain it.
That would be the oh-so-unusual title of her new album, whitechocolatespaceegg, which Rolling Stone suggested might refer to Phair’s 21-month-old son, Nicholas.
“It could be anything you want — I have no idea what it is — it came to me in a dream,” says the jovial Phair, 31, sitting barefoot and crosslegged as she snacks on pizza backstage recently at the Molson Amphitheatre.
The Chicago-based singer-songwriter, who was in town this summer to play Lilith Fair, does her own show at the Opera House on Oct. 20.
“In my dream it was the title of my album,” continues Phair. “This was before I even made the album. I have no idea where it comes from, it has that pregnancy thing in it somewhere — whitechocolatespaceegg.”
“But it also has this kind of like cosmos. I’ve likened it to some kind of strange word that invokes enclosure.”
Instead of continuing the lo-fi but aggressive dynamic of her last two albums, the groundbreaking Exile In Guyville in 1993 and Whipsmart in 1994, Phair experimented with her signature sound on whitechocololatespaceegg. There’s more diversity and flourish, and decidedly less lustful desire and four-letter words.
“I knew that going into it, that I really wanted it to be authentic to who I was,” says Phair. “I mean I couldn’t have done f— and f— you and now we’re going to do it on the table, you know what I mean?”
“Like (starts singing) ‘I don’t have an orgasm when I’m on top so just get on top of me and let’s bop.’
“I just really think everybody can grow and an artist is almost a dead artist if they don’t.”
Having previously praised fellow rocker-mom Madonna for her baby-inspired work on Ray Of Light, Phair, who is married to a film editor, is convinced the same inspiration applied to her this time out.
“Maybe that’s really ambitious to say that about my own album but I really feel like whatever place she was working from, I was working from the same place,” says Phair. “Because after having a son, the world is just brand new. And it’s something really hard to do, and you feel really proud of yourself after you get him off the ground and you’re still working every day to be a better mom.”
“It’s just this kind of transformation thing. I feel like a lot of the old stuff fell away and I really saw very vividly for a good period of time.”
Still, she knows that not all of her fans will like the more grown-up and mature Liz Phair. So far, a lot of the criticism about the album seems to stem from the fact that she’s not who she once was.
“Artists have never been allowed to do that,” she acknowledges of change. “I remember in art history, you know Picasso, went through another period and everyone was like, ‘Oh! What is that?'”
Making the transition more difficult for Phair is that she made such an impression with her first album Guyville, which was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street.
“I didn’t think anyone was going to hear the album,” claims Phair. “I was really working an album for a neighbourhood. I was mad at a bunch of guys that had always assumed they knew more about me than music.
“I seem to be battling forever to be heard. Because I always have very small goals and people that I want to impress, but I really want to impress them badly. And that’s sort of what motivates me. Guyville just took on its own life because of the time.”
And because of Guyville, Billboard recently declared Phair “a trailblazer for this decade’s modern rock artists” — many of whom she toured with on Lilith Fair this summer.
But she doesn’t see it that way.
“No, I don’t believe that because I was one of the women actually that put albums out like that at the time. I really feel like lots of women have been writing songs like this and have shown up in different ways and different times.”
“But I think in terms of popular culture, myself, maybe PJ (Harvey), Tori (Amos), Courtney Love, all kind of happened at the same time back then, it was a new phase of that.”
“I just don’t think when people say, ‘Oh, you made it possible for these other people to come,’ or people will say, ‘You made Alanis Morissette possible.'”
“It’s like then you’re ignoring the fact that women are out there, living these lives, thinking these thoughts and putting them to music. They’re just not presenting them to you in a CD pack.”
For her own process, Phair admittedly took her time writing and recording whitechocolatespaceegg with several people, most notably with Scott Litt and her previous collaborator Brad Wood.
“I just wanted to find this new sound,” she says. “I was really interested in taking the music further, but I didn’t want it to be someone else’s idea of what music was. I wanted it to be kind of playful.”
“Cause when I write a certain kind of song I think, ‘Oh, now I’m a country western singer,’ or `Now I’m being a punk girl.'”
And despite her obvious happiness with having a son, whitechocolatespaceegg also talks about the downsides to childbirth and marriage.
On the song Perfect World, she sings “Home is very ordinary, I know I was born to lead a double life,” while Go On Ahead is even more frank: “It’s a death in our love that has brought us here, It’s a birth that has changed our lives, It’s a place that I hope we’ll be leaving soon, and I fear for the year in his eyes.”
In fact, Phair says there’s not just one song on whitechocolatespaceegg that best represents her state of mind during the making of the album.
“That’s why that album is what it is,” she says. “Because I needed all those different songs and all those different styles to represent me.
“And I felt like all this talk, and all this writing had been done about who I was and where I came from and why I’d done this. If they’re going to judge me on those criteria, I would like to give them something that I feel does represent me from top to bottom, all my different emotional spaces and those songs all do.
“It’s not that those are the only things going on in my life, it’s just that there’s every emotion that I have on that album.”
By Jane Stevenson
Toronto Sun, October 11, 1998