On the liner notes of Liz Phair’s new album, Whitechocolatespaceegg, there’s a huge gatefold picture of Phair huddled at the edge of a deep cave. The look on her face is one of caution: she seems to be looking around to see if it’s okay to come out.
The metaphor here is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t intentional. When Phair shocked the indie-rock world back in 1993 with declarations like, “Everytime I see your face I get all wet between the legs,” indie-rock stood up and paid attention. The album sold 200,000 copies, a remarkable achievement for an independent release from a suburban Chicago girl no one had ever heard of, and vaulted her into the media spotlight as everyone’s favorite naughty little rich girl. Her 1994 follow-up, Whip-Smart, was largely just a collection of outtakes from the first album, and seemed aimed only at getting past the dreaded second album jinx. And then she disappeared inside the cave….
Back in those caves, all sorts of things were going on. First, of course, she was trying to come to terms with the image she’d created: Liz Phair, Blow-Job Queen. Second, she was trying to figure out, if she wasn’t the person everyone thought she was, then who was she? Back in those caves, she found a husband and a baby that helped her sort through these questions, but when word of her third album started reaching indie-rock’s ears, the same question was on everyone’s mind: Could Liz Phair emerge from that cave as something other than the girl who was fucking and running when she was 12, and even if she could, would people still want to hear about it?
When Exile in Guyville came out, everyone was talking about its sexually frank lyrics and brash tone. Looking back on it, do you think that, to a certain degree, you did that to catch people’s attention?
No, not at all, because when I made that album, I had in mind literally a handful of people that I thought would hear it and that mattered to me. I kept saying, “This is going to do very well. People are going to really catch hold of this.” In my mind, I was thinking 1000 to 1200 people. So it was more about trying to be cool and ballsy and up to the boys than it was about trying to shock anybody.
How much a part of your personality was the persona that everybody heard on Guyville?
I guess a lot of it. It was like this point in my life when I was trying to be like the Shirley MacLaine of the Rat Pack. I wanted to know all the coolest people in the neighborhood, and I wanted to be someone at the bar that people would want to talk to. My imagination was running overtime at that point, so I was really into the whole “scene.”
Were people who knew you surprised when they heard Guyville?
Very much so. The people who had known me my whole life were really shocked, because they didn’t know about this post-collegiate stint that I was doing downtown, trying to be, like, “rock girl”. That was probably the biggest shock to people who had known me through school — the reinvention of myself. People in the music scene were shocked that I could make songs with intelligent lyrics. That was the whole point of Guyville. I wanted them to be embarassed for all the nights they sat around, lording over the conversation, talking about music, never including me, and never asking my opinion.
At what point did you realize that the image you created on Exile in Guyville was painting you into a corner?
When big magazines started to review it. When this became something on a level that I never even imagined, and my parents were getting word through their friends. Suddenly I realized this was a phenomenon. I had become representative of a thing. It was pretty clear that it boiled down to a relatively narrow understanding of what the whole album was about, and I felt what it’s like to be taken up in the national scene and given a label and used so writers could write about certain issues that they wanted to write about.
How did you react to it?
At first I was really excited. I thought it was really pretty impressive, in that I always read about people that come out of nowhere and suddenly catch hold. But it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought was coming down the road for me. I had all these other ideas, all these other visions of grandeur that had nothing to do with music or that kind of popularity and notoriety and press. So it was really kind of exciting, like, “Wow, I must be special!” And then it became harder and confusing. I felt really alone and like I wasn’t the one driving this thing anymore. I was just kind of dangling from the back.
Do you think you’ve been able to work your way out of it to a certain extent?
Yeah, I think I have. I’m not sure how much I have in the public eye, but I have for myself. It took a lot of effort, but it was stuff that I needed to do anyway. What it took to dig me out of that corner was to get a life, to create things within my life that people do as they become adults and take on responsibilities and work for things other than my own vanity. It was all really normal things, but it really helped because it gave me a solid identity that had nothing to do with what other people said about me. At the time of Guyville, what people said about me was pretty much all I had.
Do you think of the new album as a conscious attempt to get people to think of you in a different light?
Not at all. Honestly. When I left the rock world after Whip-Smart, I really didn’t think I’d come back. I made the album because, after the baby — even before the baby — I really wanted to make an album the way I made Guyville. Because I love music. It’s kind of magical to make albums. I like making the art, and I was really conscious of saying, “Screw what everybody else thinks! I’m gonna make songs that excite me and feel experimental to me.” That’s all I cared about. I knew that the label would want it a different way — they’d want me to work with Brad [Wood, Guyville‘s producer] and do the same thing, but I really didn’t care. Believe me, this is not what they had in mind.
Do you feel like you’ve become less personally forthcoming with the new album?
No, not at all. I feel like people are getting insights into my real personal life and my real emotions. I think that on Guyville, I was much more conscious of putting on a persona and making myself appear a certain way, whereas on this album, I really kind of let me be myself. I didn’t censor it or rewrite it to make it a little tougher or cooler. Exile pushed forward a lot of myself that I wouldn’t have brought into the light, while this is more of an opening up and letting you look in.
I read an interview where you said you were unable to be as intimate in your songwriting now, for fear of hurting people close to you.
That’s definitely true in the sense that sometimes it’s harder for me to put the songs on the album. “Go On Ahead” and “Only Son” and stuff like that, everyone who knows me personally knows what that stuff’s about. It’s one of those things that you do because you have to do it, because artistically, it has to be there. It’s a lot scarier, and it took a long time. It’s very real and very personal. If you read the lyrics and understand them, you can see that, to a great extent, this is probably not what the people in my life wanted to hear. But I think it’s really important when you’re putting albums together to have stuff that really gets to the truth of things.
Do you think there’s still an element of that Guyville personality in you?
There’s a lot of it (laughs). It’s something that’s mitigated with a wisdom that I’ve gained through doing some hard things. The thing that strikes me most about motherhood is that, on the other side of it, I still feel like the exact same person. A little bit less dysfunctional, and a little bit more uptight. I really feel embarrassed to have looked at my mom and her friends and felt like, “They don’t get it. They’re moms.” It’s really embarrassing, because I realize now that you can put the garden together and paint the house and look perfect, but you’re still the same person inside. You’re still going through the same crap. The people who are boring in their middle age were boring as young people. Those conflicts exist and go on forever. You’re gonna yearn for the same things, and you’re gonna fuck up a million times. And that’s really scary to me, because you can’t jump over a bridge and never look back. It’s always with you.
Have you found new outlets for that Guyville side of your personality, or have you just learned to keep it bottled up inside?
Well, I’ve got outlets… I’m not a big bottler-upper (laughs). The outlets are different, and there’s something kind of fresh and wonderful about that. Even if you try to tidy up one area of your life, you’ll sprout new humps on another part of your body (laughs). And this is the best part about that realization because it’s a frightening one in a way: everybody’s doing it. Just because you’re over forty doesn’t mean you’ve got it all together.
One of the songs on the new album, “Johnny Feelgood,” doesn’t really seem to fit in. It sounds like it could have come right off Exile or Whip-Smart.
I think you’re just picking up on the aggressiveness of it. That’s a more aggressive song, which makes you think of Guyville, but that was actually written very recently. I think the song’s protagonist is a little more in control of getting what she wants. On Guyville, even on “Girls, Girls, Girls”, there’s that sense of “Yeah, I could get what I want,” whereas “Johnny Feelgood’s” past trying to prove that. It’s almost going against what convention would approve of and saying, “This is what I want. This is what I’m going for. And this is what I’m getting. You make your own choices.” I think a lot of Whitechocolatespaceegg is about that, and that’s a lot of who I am now. Things that I want are what I want because I want them, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else wants. That’s always a tough thing, because we’d rather fit in. But I think getting older gracefully is about accepting that you don’t always fit in, and enjoying life in spite of this.
Early on, you caught a lot of shit for accepting the marketing side of music and creating an image. With the new album, where the songs weren’t initially as shocking, did you feel like you were giving the music more of a chance to stand on its own?
I’d love to help you out here, but none of that was in my thinking. I’ve always liked to market stuff. I like doing interviews, I like to talk about stuff, I like taking pictures, I like getting dressed up. I really enjoy the process. I see the art in it, even though it’s somewhat bastardized. I see the other side of the camera or the other side of the interview as much as I see my role. I just enjoy it. I’ve always had to come up with explanations for that, because alternative rock really shuns selling itself and shuns the process and shuns the industry. But it’s just to my benefit; it’s how I grew up. So it was natural and fun for me to do all that stuff. And this album, the whole idea of shocking and not shocking — what you don’t know about me as a person is that I have a lousy memory. I have a really crappy memory. I can’t remember very well how I felt four years ago. I’m always looking towards the future… to a fault. I won’t go back and examine what I’ve done and build off of it. If something’s not working, I want to scrap it and start something new. I chase after the high that you get, which is really quick and exciting, and you feel like there’s some sort of divine intervention. So to analyze it in terms of… y’know, that’s a very noble way of putting it, and I’d like to rip that off for future interviews — “I wanted to give the music a chance to stand on it’s own!” — but I was just making music for the person that I am now. And when I made Guyville, I was making it for that person I was then. I’m not thinking of the audience that much when I’m making music. Whip-Smart was the closest I came to thinking about the audience and worrying about the perception. Now, when I listen to Whip-Smart, it’s a really good album, but at the time I [felt] like my creativity was polluted by worrying about what other people thought. I hate that state of mind. I hate to think about whether I’m shocking or not shocking. I just write songs because I get a high off of doing this. I mean, I jump around in the studio and shriek when things are going well. It’s a really exciting thing for me, so I hope that this music is more noticeable for the sense that it’s really pretty authentic for what I’m going through. If I’m not as shocking on this record, it’s because I’m not interested in being shocking anymore. There’s a lot of other things that are more interesting to me in life. When I was younger and kind of searching for myself, I think I wanted more attention.
So now that you have a family, you’re in your thirties, and you don’t want to shock people anymore, do you still want to be a rock star?
Yeah! Sure. I love access. I like the glamour of being able to meet people that are un-meetable. Or being able to travel a lot. Or when they bump me up to first-class or something. I get a real kick out of that. It’s a really exciting thing for me because it makes me feel like a princess or something. That part of it’s really appealing. I love all the stuff that goes with it, and it definitely keeps me working in a way, because it’s an exciting job. It’s like anybody’s job, only the perks are perkier and the lows are lower. I’m chasing after the ring just like everybody. I want to be having the private lunches with the VPs or whatever. I’m one of those people who’s an excitement junkie. If I’m not a rock star, I’m gonna go chase storms for the Weather Channel.
Well, that sounds like fun. Besides, some of the people they have hanging off the docks in North Carolina are getting pretty sick of it, so there might be an opening there soon.
I’ll come in right there. “The storm started at 12:30…” (Laughs)
Insite, October 1998