The celebrated post-feminist songwriter finds a calmer life and a richer musical voice
Liz Phair burst into rock ‘n’ roll notoriety in 1993 with Exile in Guyville, a sharp-witted, foul-mouthed, post-feminist answer record to the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street. Hailed in many quarters as a masterpiece, the record won the Village Voice‘s national critics’ poll and inspired reams of high-toned psycho-social analysis. (Billboard editor-in-chief describing how Phair’s “ethereally explicit compositions . . . employ the protocols of puberty to evoke the mysteries of sex and socialization” actually counts as a straightforward example.)
But Phair, a smart, inspired novice who began making home tapes of her songs while attending Oberlin College, didn’t have a easy path to stardom. She termed live performance “brutally, mortally embarrassing,” and her early tours couldn’t live up to the Guyville hype. Nor did the 1994 follow-up Whip Smart match commercial expectations.
Album No. 3 was preceded by rumors of creative confusion. But Whitechocolatespaceegg, released in late summer, is musically her strongest yet, providing a variety of creative pop settings for challenging, emotionally complex lyrics and a voice finally gaining heft and confidence.
Now a wife and a mother as well as a rock star, the former indie-rock dream queen spoke with The Oregonian by phone recently about her new album, her new tour and her new outlook on life. Here are some excerpts.
We’ve heard reports that you’ve conquered your stage fright. . . . Was that a lot of woodshedding, thinking about the way you would present things, or just getting used to playing in front of 1,000 people?
All of the above. A little bit of it is feeling like I know what it is I have to go out there and do. When I first started, I had no idea what it meant to perform. So it was really nerve-racking. I think I got more comfortable when I toured three years ago by myself. Being up there with just a guitar, I could concentrate, do what I do and get a feel for an audience.
And this summer, it was amazing. I really found myself enjoying it. Also after four years, having a child, pulling my life together and being an adult, I realize I’m really lucky to be able to go out and make music.
And then, according to various reports, you had some unhappy about the work you’d done with Scott Litt, R.E.M.’s longtime producer. What really happened?
I was only unhappy in the sense that both Scott and I got the point where we didn’t have a clue about what to do next. I was frustrated with him, he was frustrated with me. And I felt like I wasn’t able to provide enough for him to work with. He’s used to working with a band, and he can take songs that they’ve already arranged and then rearrange them. With me it was like taking nothing and building something from scratch.
It’s also a feature of how we work. I like to work spontaneously. The way I’d worked with Brad Wood, we’d have instruments laying around, and he or I would suggest something. And we’d say “Hey, that’s a good idea. Let’s try that!” So, with Scott, the stuff that made the album was the stuff where he and I sat in his studio and kind of created something from scratch. “Fantasize”, “Headache”, “Ride”, “Perfect World” – things like that were very spontaneous. He wrote parts and I wrote parts, and it was like being in a lab. The stuff that didn’t go well was when we had a bunch of hired musicians trying to play like a band for the big rock stuff.
The effect of having a child has been a big focus in recent coverage of Madonna. Do you think that change will have a similar impact on your creative life?
Very much so. It’s about, I suppose, people who are relatively self-centered in their 20s becoming part of the larger world and writing from that perspective. It’s also about coming to a point of equilibrium with yourself. There’s something about having a child that just nails you down to the earth really hard, and soars you way up into the sky. The feelings that you have are so beyond anything you thought you’d ever have – the love and the sense of awe at life. It’s very lofty in some senses. But at the same time, what it takes to raise a child and the lifestyle change – like when they throw a fit and there’s . . . all over the house – that’s really mundane, get-your-hands-dirty living. I feel a little more a part of life than I did before.
Rather than being detached and intellectualizing what you saw?
Yeah, I think kids that grow up and go to private schools and are supported in using their brain analytically – that’s not the real world. And there’s a kind of self-centeredness in that. And you don’t really realize that all those people were getting paid to pay attention to you.
Has all the rock-crit deconstruction applied to your work struck you as so much blather, or do you write with a mind to the kind of theorizing you know you’ll encounter?
I definitely don’t write with that in mind. I don’t want to go too witchy on you, but it really does feel like you’re channeling, like the song comes to you already written. It’s almost like you’re dreaming while you’re awake – there’s something of a shaman in them. And I really like that my shaman, or my muse, has an eye for the mundane details of life. There are humorous and completely banal details in my songs because they’re also archetypal. So that’s the mystery for me.
But because I have a superanalytical mind, I also enjoy the fact that people who are intelligent look at my songs and find something to think about.
You told the writer Lorraine Ali that you like to “evoke a reaction that unsettles people without actually shoving anything down their throat.” Which is certainly what your new single “Johnny Feelgood” does. Why this approach?
I think it’s just the way I am. It’s a playful thing, but it’s also that I grew up in an environment that valued covering stuff up and making appearances as perfect as possible. And so I always used songwriting as a way to go up to my room and say what I really thought was going on. And it just became a habit.
By Marty Hughley
Portland Oregonian, September 25, 1998