Liz Phair is halfheartedly window-shopping in downtown Manhattan. She’s trying to muster up some enthusiasm, but how much fun can it be if your accountant has taken your credit card because you went on a clothes bender? “I bought shoes, Jil Sander leather pants and the whole set of resortwear for mixing my album down in Miami,” she says. It’s a rare rock chick that can throw around the term resortwear, but that’s Liz Phair for you, a woman with more layers than an artichoke.
Phair is in town from her native Chicago to spread the word about her latest record, the evocatively titled Whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador). The album is Phair’s first since 1994’s Whip-Smart, and with its imaginative songwriting and dizzying array of musical styles (from country to ’70s pop to an Irish drinking song), it is one of the year’s best. During the four-year stretch between albums, Phair married her longtime boyfriend, video director Jim Staskaukas, and had a baby, Nicholas, now one and a half. “It’s a hard and scary thing to do,” she says of new motherhood, “but you come back alive and stronger, and you’re like, ‘I rock!'”
As Phair has evolved, so has her music. On her first two albums, her songs often explored the treacherous terrain of relationships. Exile In Guyville became an instant classic with its spare production, explicit sexuality and world-weary tone; Whip-Smart was clever and ambiguous and much more polished. On Whitechocolatespaceegg, a less guarded Phair is downright playful, wryly telling stories about people she has known. On “Polyester Bride”, we meet a bartender who dispensed drinks and advice to an underage Phair; “Girls’ Room” details a childhood friendship. But Phair has kept her edge, as she proves on “Johnny Feelgood”: “I never realized I was so dirty and dry, till he knocked me down and started dragging me around in the back of his convertible car.” Only one song, “Go On Ahead”, reflects the changes in her life that a new baby has wrought (“One night is lovely, the next is brutal / And you and me are in way over our heads”); and many of the tunes that she wrote while she was with child didn’t even make it on the album. “They weren’t tough enough,” Phair says. “When you’re pregnant, you just feel oceanic and voluminous and warm and smushy.”
With her tiny fat-free frame, it is hard to imagine that Phair was ever in a family way. She has on a white T-shirt and brown cords (the rock-chick part) as well as diamond-stud earrings and a Rolex Oyster Perpetual (the resortwear part). She talks swiftly and intensely, locking her blue-green eyes with yours. Though she is 31, Phair could easily pass for a college kid, the result of clean living and a youth that was relatively carefree.
The daughter of a doctor father and an art-teacher mom, Phair was raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, IL. She began making up songs when she was still in short pants; later, at Oberlin College, in Ohio, she threw herself into the school’s flourishing band scene and learned to play guitar. In 1993, the then 26-year-old released Exile In Guyville, the demos of which were recorded on a four-track in her bedroom. Critics freaked. She rapidly developed a following, particularly among females, who loved her flunt lyrics (among them, “I want to be your blow-job queen”).
Not many fans have seen her live, however, due to her once debilitating stage fright. These days, with 10 dates on the Lilith Fair looming, she is prepared. “I’m taking voice lessons,” she says, “because I started thinking, Shit, I’m going to be playing live with all these people who’ve been on the road for years.” In fact, Phair must now hail a cab uptown, where her voice coach awaits. “Those lessons are kicking my ass,” she says. Perhaps as a demonstration, she sings a Raffi songs that her son likes: “Oh, baby beluga in the deep blue sea….”
Phair, it is clear, is back in the game, rarin’ to tour, to make a video, to plunge deeper into the creative process. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she announces cheerfully. “But you know what? I just feel alive.” With that she zooms uptown, and damned if I wasn’t humming that Raffi tune for the rest of the day.
By Jancee Dunn
Harper’s Bazaar, July 1998