It’s the morning after the Chicago Bulls won their sixth NBA championship in eight years and all of Chicago seems hungover after the previous night’s celebration. Michael Jordan and the Bulls may have defined this city’s image throughout the ‘9Os, but a decade ago Chicago belonged to director John Hughes, who set coming-of-age classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in and around the Windy City.
Both Hughes and Liz Phair graduated from suburban New Trier High School: Phair in 1985, the year The Breakfast Club was released. Sitting down to a breakfast of skillet eggs at Chicago’s West Egg Café, Phair theorizes that she owes Hughes and New Trier for more than Sixteen Candles.
“Better than that,” she enthuses, looking radiantly foxy in a white t-shirt and black mini-skirt. “Risky Business — written by a New Trier grad, totally based in Chicago. So is Ordinary People. All the John Hughes movies are based on New Trier. My high-school experience was the national consciousness of high-school experience in the ’80s. Now, do we want to parley that into Exile In Guyville‘s success? Do we think it’s possible that they knew where I was coming from because my experience growing up was very akin to everyone else’s projected ideal of what all this stuff should be? Cha-ching.”
She claps her hands and sits back in satisfaction. It’s like having Ally Sheedy make an album in Breakfast Club. Isn’t that brilliant? All the issues I grappled with in high school are the issues the nation was living through in the movies.”
Indeed, Phair, 31, is living through very different issues these days. Just five years ago, on her debut sensation, Exile In Guyville, Phair told a lover, “I want to be your blow-job queen,” and wondered why it was always “Fuck And Run”. Not these days. If on Guyville Phair wondered why she couldn’t get her relationships together, her brilliant third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, has Phair reflecting on her stable life with her husband and her 18-month-old baby, Nicholas.
It’s as remarkable a three-album journey as any recent American songwriter has made, from Guyville‘s angry singlehood to spaceegg‘s domestic security. The new album is about lacing adulthood’s difficulties even if you do get everything you want, and it’s an especially strong, tuneful and articulate set of songs-funny and insightful in “Polyester Bride” and “Uncle Alveraz,” deeply personal in “Only Son” and “Go On Ahead,” saucy and flirtatious in “Johnny Feelgood”.
“I gained a whole new sense of respect for myself,” Phair says of motherhood. I really didn’t feel like I had taken my adulthood seriously. I hadn’t said, ‘Okay, I’m going to accomplish something.’ I did Guyyille, but the success of that was luck. I meandered through [1994’s] Whip-smart. Rock and roll allowed me to squander my 2Os.”
Now, instead of avoiding middle age, I want a middle age. I want to be in control of my life and to do something interesting with it.”
Most people would say that Liz Phair has done a good job of that already. Elizabeth Clark Phair grew up in well-heeled Chicago suburbs, graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College with an art-history degree in 1989, and wandered from New York to San Francisco hoping to make a splash as a visual artist. When the romance and the money ran out, she returned home, recording the songs that would become Exile In Guyville in her bedroom. Her parents — Dr. John Phair, a renowned AIDS researcher and the head of the infectious-disease department at the Northwestern University Hospital, and Nancy Phair, a historian at the Art Institute Of Chicago — had no idea what their well-scrubbed daughter was recording upstairs.
After Guyville‘s explosion and the resulting media frenzy surrounding Whip-smart, Phair found the old-fashioned love about which she’d written, marrying film editor Jim Staskaukas. Nicholas arrived in the winter of 1996. Recording then took a back seat to motherhood.
“If I was going to take away from something, it was going to be music,” Phair says. “But once Nicholas was on his feet, I readopted myself as my focus. I’m not just a mom, I’m Liz Phair. I remembered how to be Liz Phair.”
Still, sometimes Liz Phair feels a little like Barney. Her friends’ children insist on hearing spaceegg on car trips. Even her mom — who cried when she heard Guyville — likes the new album. That concerns Phair.
“Does that makes it less of a good record?” she ponders, laughing. “If they don’t have anything to worry about, is it really that good?”
Actually, that just means she made exactly the album she intended — for herself and her friends.
“No one was taking me seriously,” she says matter-of-factly. “I had no means to generate music. The Guyville thing was someone else. So the third record was really for me. I felt pretty much over. When I was fully pregnant, everyone was really supportive: ‘Good for you.’ ‘We’re trying to have children, too.’ Then, bye-bye — I was gone. So I was just like, fuck it. I want to make an album that I would really love, and I didn’t give a fuck what anybody else thought.”
That wasn’t the case when she made Whip-smart.
“The second record, all you can think about is how everything you say could be heard by thousands of people,” she says. “It’s very unproductive. That’s why second records suck.”
Phair neatly avoided that trap. I offer her my theory that she simply dipped back into her early Girly Sound demo library for Whip-smart, recycling older songs while trying to pass on sophomore-slump pressure, knowing full well the scrutiny she’d be under.
“Right on,” she says, high-fiving me across the table, “That is absolutely 100-percent on the money. I was all about just getting past the second-record thing. I could hear what everyone was thinking, and it really killed the whole career for me. There are so many issues around a sophomore record; so many people kept trying to define me. I really did try to pass on it and use the old stuff.
“I had so many songs about public perception, about being an artist. They were so terrible I had to use old material because all I could write was songs about how hard it is to be a rock star. Nothing else was going on in my life.”
By side-stepping sophomore slump issues with Whip-smart, Phair bought herself time to step back from the media miasma. She finally found herself able to go out and observe others again, rather than feeling all eyes were on her.
“The sense of observation returned, the sense of being part of the world and looking at it,” she says. “That’s all I have to offer, really. I sing, kinda, play guitar, ehh…. Marriage and the baby — as much as everyone’s like, ‘Why did it take four years?’ They’ve never had a baby, like, duh! — gave me a life. It gave me songwriting again.”
Still, Phair frets over how her songwriting has changed.
“I was singing ‘Stratford On Guy’ to myself recently because I was flying into Chicago at night. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write stuff like that again. It was so intensely observational, so perfectly descriptive of a little moment.”
She’s talking less about Guyville than about Girly Sound, the lo-fi sketches of Guyville and Whip-smart that earned Phair her deal with Matador Records. These were probably the most talked-about home recordings of the ’90s before Linda Tripp taped a slightly less explicit Monica Lewinsky. About half of the Girly Sound tapes surfaced on Secretly Timid, a scratchy but wonderful CD bootleg that Phair had never seen prior to rifling my bookbag after we moved from West Egg to a park off Lake Shore Drive.
“This is so wild,” she says excitedly, sprawled on the grass. “I don’t have to worry that I can’t find any of those tapes. These are all the good ones. ‘Elvis Be True’. I loved that. ‘Speedracer’. ‘Black Market Baby’.”
She grabs the headphones, fast-forwards straight to “Elvis Be True” and starts singing along.
I can hear who I was then,” she says with wistful delight. “After this album, I’m just going to make my own recordings with no production. This is what I love to do.”
Listening to these songs again is like revisiting a stash of long-forgotten high-school photographs, and Phair immediately zeroes in on how she’s changed.
“I’m so in touch with unhappiness and pain. I’m in touch with hard decisions now, truths about life. Your dreams may not work out quite the way you think. [Girly Sound] is all about loneliness, thinking about dying. I don’t think about dying at all anymore. I think about having more babies.”
With spaceegg, Phair has been offered a new layer of selfconsciousness, knowing not only impersonal thousands would hear her innermost thoughts, but that her most beloved would as well.
“My husband doesn’t pay any attention to lyrics, which is lucky. But I feel like I would hurt the people I love, and I feel I have to somehow step back from being as direct. The way I was writing back then is so appealing. It’s so right there. I may have lost that. Now I’m cutting out the details and writing more archetypal moments. You lose the sense that this is very personal and intimate.”
“Love is work. It’s harder than you think. That’s what my new stuff can’t help but be about. That’s what my age does to my songwriting.”
“I really want to go back here,” she says. “I want total unselfconsciousness in the public eye. Can you get that back? You’d have to be pretty damn unselfconscious. The trick is to hold to the public’s eye just enough to keep getting less and less self-conscious. Can I hold on to a career-long enough to get past the inhibitions so that I can actually be a true performer and entertainer the way I d like to be?”
Either way, she’s going to have a remarkable, singular journey.
“I don’t feel competitive anymore,” she says, heading home to rouse Nicholas. “I used to feel competitive with Courtney Love and PJ Harvey because there were only three of us, and everyone makes you feel like there’s room for one prom queen. I’d like to be an important part of the team. I like to play second base in softball.”
She laughs. “I like to do my own thing — and get a lot of attention for it.”
Alternative Press, September 1998