For an artist who supposedly isn’t dying to do interviews (she did very few while promoting her first two albums), Liz Phair is charming, chatty, and — dare I say — girly on the phone, as if ready to discuss our junior high trig homework as much as her new album.
“Hi Gwen. Isn’t it beautiful out? Can you believe this weather?” Phair is speaking from her home of domestic bliss, with film editor husband Jim Staskauskas and son Nick, who was born December 1996. I’m trapped in an office, so nice weather chat is kind of notorious for me.
“I remember working in the summers,” Phair empathizes, “getting sent on an errand somewhere and stopping in the stairwell for five minutes and longingly looking out the window. That is the one great thing about rock ‘n’ roll.”
Phair used to sound kind of angry, at least on her records, particularly the landmark 1993 release Exile In Guyville (Matador). All she sound now is happy. As listeners of her new album whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador / Capitol) can attest, this is a whole new Liz.
Not that there was anything wrong with the old one. A quick summary: Elizabeth Clark Phair was born on April 17, 1967 and raised in Winnetka by her doctor father and art historian mother, a couple reportedly so liberal that poor Liz was forced to dabble in Scientology as a teen as a way to rebel. She attended New Trier High School and then Oberlin College in Ohio as an art history major, but eventually switched her interests from art to music. After spending some time in San Francisco, she made her way back to Chicago, where she began working on songs that would become Guyville. The thesis was brilliant: she listened to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street over and over and wound up writing 18 “response” songs.
Producer Brad Wood, head of Chicago’s now-famous Idful Studio, said of Phair in 1993 that “no one ever walked into this studio with as much preparation as Liz Phair.” Phair says that it was Wood, in fact, who suggested that she send her songs to Matador, the label that quickly signed her and has since released Guyville, 1994’s Whip-Smart, and the new whitechocolatespaceegg.
Recalls Phair, she met Wood in that whole “Rainbo [Club, near Division and Damen] scene, with Jim Ellison, and Urge [Overkill]. It was all proximity. I went up to Brad and I asked him, ‘What’s the best label?’ and he’s just like, ‘Call Matador.'”
Liz Phair would make that “Rainbo scene” famous as Guyville, where she felt like an exile because the music crowd was mostly all-male at the time. The songs on Guyville cut to the quick of male-female relationships, and responses to it separated the genders as well. Girls clung to songs like “Help Me Mary”, where Phair hilariously writes off the male populace as disgusting because “they leave suspicious things in the sink” and complains that “I want a boyfriend / Some guy that makes love ‘cuz he’s in it” (from “Fuck And Run”). Boys, however, salivated over a few select songs and lyrics wherein Phair was unnervingly sexually frank.
“The blow job queen,” she says, referring to the notorious line from “Flower” (“I want to be your blow job queen / I’ll fuck you ’til your dick is blue”). “It was very frustrating,” she says, to have her whole album overshadowed by one or two racy words that men seemed to jump on. “It also justified any bitterness that I had. Because that whole scene looked exactly like the way I was picturing them: they were confusing the whole premise of the album. I had felt for so many years that guys just don’t listen to women — on the whole. That’s part of what really pisses me off, because that’s where they were again with the whole album. Not really listening to it, just picking it up on the things that were sparked with testosterone. I was really very happy and thankful for all the women who saw the humor. Men would just be ‘She’s an angry slut,’ y’know? And I was like, ‘No.'”
Give or take a few hundred thousand teenage boys’ sexual fantasies, Phair reflects on the Guyville days with fondness. She, along with the Smashing Pumpkins, Material Issue, and Urge Overkill, spearheaded the crazed “Chicago music scene” days in 1994, leading flocks of label scouts to invade the Windy City for the first time in over a decade. A rash of Chicago bands with record label contracts, like Veruca Salt, Triple Fast Action, and Loud Lucy quickly followed. (Except for the Pumpkins, all the above bands have since dissolved, attesting even more to Phair’s staying power.) Guyville went on to win “Album Of The Year” honors from Spin and the Village Voice.
“It was exciting,” Phair remembers. “The Guyville days were really fun, when I was young and hot shit. I loved to try to climb that social ladder. And I could never do that again. It was a whole new experience for me. It was like play, like pretend, dress up. It was fun to be very involved with being cool.”
“I don’t know… knowing interesting people, having a friend in every restaurant. I could probably get a whole lot more now, right?” she asks, laughing.
Phair followed Guyville quickly with 1994’s Whip-Smart, which contained the cheeky hot single “Supernova” and a more hi-fi approach than the her debut (it far outsold Guyville as well). Lacking an Exile-like thesis and songs as sexually frank as Guyville‘s “Flower” (it’s hard to imagine anything as sexually frank as “Flower”), Whip-Smart was unfairly termed a disappointment by some critics. You could spot Phair on MTV in the “Supernova” video, or showing her massive engagement ring to David Letterman on “Late Night”. But she balked at the thought of a major tour and cancelled it, leading to a rift with Wood, who had cleared his producer’s schedule for the tour. Then she got married and had a baby, but contrary to popular belief, she was not musically idle the entire time. In fact, she recorded several songs with producer Scott Litt, who wound up producing some tracks on whitechocolatespaceegg.
“There was a lot of stuff that I had recorded over these four years that didn’t make the album. But working with different people and then arriving back with Brad, it was like a full circle. It really felt like that.”
Phair had patched things up with Wood for whitechocolatespaceegg, and he somehow brings out her music like no one else. Whether using lo-fi as a weapon on Guyville, introducing effects on Whip-Smart, or weaving a mastery of deep, different songs on the new album, Phair and Wood have a symbolic artists/producer relationship.
“I’ve given this some thought,” agrees Phair, “and what it is about Brad is that he has all of his own ideas, and his areas of expertise do not overlap with mine. He wouldn’t have all the tools, ideas I would have. The way I like to write songs in my room, very quietly — he maintains that all the way through, in production. Somehow they’re still Liz Phair songs. I did so many recordings over the past four years, I really realized that Brad must understand me or have respect for me and the songs and songwriters.
The fortunate reunion with Wood led to Phair’s most deeply layered album yet. On whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair’s lyrics read like journal entries, painfully personal yet thoroughly engaging. She still explores sexual obsession in the Guyville throwback “Johnny Feelgood”, but she also talks her new roles as wife and mother, harkens back to her teen years in “Girls’ Room”, or writes from the perspective of a grass-cutting man on “Big Tall Man”. The energetically poppy “Ride” contrasts nicely with moody tunes like “Fantasize” and “Perfect World”.
“This one was more of an odyssey,” Phair describes. “This one was a lot like Guyville, but was even more searching, because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. But I knew when one of the songs happened; it was [’80s-organ-laden] ‘Headache’, and I was making that with Brad, and I remember the day we made it. That feeling that we created something that was original that had kind of arrived.
“No one is really open and clear about what it takes to run a marriage,” states Phair, who explores her new marital commitment on the new disc with tracks like “Go On Ahead” and “Love Is Nothing”. “Like what do you do when things fall apart? It’s difficult to find a manual for marriage when shit hits the fan.”
It seems as if motherhood has come a little easier to her. “Motherhood surprised me,” Phair admits. “I thought that motherhood would turn me into the baked cookie angel. But I’m still the same person. At first I was so preoccupied with learning how to be a mother that I wasn’t really myself. Now I’m stronger, and I like myself a lot better. It’s being able to accept the fact that my mom and her friends are still the same people inside, but I don’t know… they look so motherly,” she laughs. “It seems like an obvious thing to say, but when you’re inside of it, it doesn’t seem that obvious.”
Phair didn’t worry that being a mother would make her lose her edge or stifle her creativity. “I was gunning for it [the pregnancy]. I was actually disappointed when I didn’t turn into this angel. I was really excited about Mommy groups and play dates. I have a big imagination,” she admits. “I get lost in ideas.”
Many of her ideas surface on the new album. For example, she wrote “Big Tall Man” from the perspective of a grass-cutting “complicated communicator” of a man. “Songwriting,” she explains, “is kind of like you’re a little mystical — like you’re channeling in a way. In earlier years, I would be like Elvis in a song, be other people.”
But on whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair “let myself be myself more. I didn’t cloak [lyrics] in what I thought people would think was cool. Before, I was more conscious of this trying to be cool.” When asked if that vulnerability made the new album more frightening to release than the previous two, she says, “I didn’t know what to expect. I kind of made peace with it, which made it all the more special, more rewarding. I was so self-involved before I had my son. Now I see the world as bigger, that we’re lucky to be here, we’re lucky to be living,” she says, sounding like the bartender in the single “Polyester Bride”, who tells her “You’re lucky to be alive.”
Phair has a reputation as being plagued with stage fright (although the few times I’ve seen her in concert, she showed no signs of it), so many were surprised when she signed up for the massive Lilith Fair tour this past summer, touring with Sarah McLachlan, Missy Elliott, and Paula Cole. Was it a way to overcome stage fright in one fell swoop? “Well, that’s not why I did it, but it worked. It’s kind of jumping off a high dive. How can you possibly — after being away for three and a half years — get your mind around 25,000 people who may or may not know your music? There’s no way to prepare for it. It really helped though.”
Lilith Fair also helped the songwriter by bringing her in contact with other women that are making music, putting themselves out on the line the way she does. “Can I just say what a huge thing that was?” stresses Phair. “It was really, really great. It changed my whole attitude: for the first time in my life I felt like I had a group, like I belonged. I felt that they were seniors and I was like a sophomore, and every night I’d watch them and be like, ‘God, can I ever do that?’ It was so cool to be all women learn stuff. It was so normal and common to all of us. I kind of translate that into this sense of belonging. It’s kind of lonely that there was no one in the whole city that I can call up and say, ‘Can you believe this happened?’ and who would understand.”
So things seem to have come full circle for Phair. After being exiled in Guyville, she now has strong female backup from her Lilith Fair friends. After longing for a “guy who makes love ‘cuz he’s in it,” she’s now married and the mother of a baby boy. And after a sophomore slump that was inevitable given the incredible accolades heaped on her debut, she has come back into her own with an impressive third release.
The new confidence is evident on whitechocolatespaceegg‘s CD cover. She’s more gorgeous than ever, wearing gym shoes with a gown or a blanket with high heels. (Those amazing pictures were taken at the “Red Rock National Park in Las Vegas,” Phair reveals, “and it’s more beautiful than the pictures. Go any time of the year except for spring and winter, when it dries up.”) And for the first time, she has included her lyrics in the CD booklet. With the first two records, says Phair, they printed these “stupid songbooks, and I didn’t bother to O.K. the lyrics. And what they inserted for the correct words — I was laughing hysterically [see sidebar]. And people argued with me — my manager was like, ‘Don’t print the lyrics.’ But all the women were like, ‘Do it, do it, do it.'”
“When I like an album, like Madonna’s new one is on right now, I read it. I got into Lyle Lovett’s album [The Road To Ensenada] when the baby was born, with the whole thing about him and Julia breaking up,” she says, referring to her old summer campmate Julia Roberts, “and I’d stand there with the lyrics and read it. Every time I love an album, that’s what I do. So I just thought, fuck it — that’s what I like.”
She sounds like the Liz Phair you’d expect, the Liz Phair of 1993. But in the five years that have passed since then, evolving into marriage and motherhood and a grownup new album. Phair has proven that life changes needn’t mean the end of edge or creativity. When she says, “I land on my feet better than if I’m given time to think about it or worry about it,” you are inclined to believe her. No one has landed on her feet more impressively lately than Liz Phair.
Appearing: October 25 and 26 at The Vic Theatre (3145 N. Sheffield) in Chicago.
‘Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy”
When, during the course of this interview, Liz Phair explained her reasoning for printing the lyrics on her third album, I felt a little guilty as the author of a huge Liz Phair misquote. My 1994 Whip-Smart review in this particular publication contained a doozy: “Your lips are red and slippery as a sheriff’s bare red ass,” as opposed to the correct “cherub’s bare wet ass.” My fellow IE staffers howled at me for weeks, and rightly so.
In the interest of full disclosure, I felt honor-bound to confess my gaffe to Phair.
“No! I can’t believe you’re saying this — you were responsible for the biggest fuckup in that [song] book: they must have gotten that from your review! That was the one I was going to tell you about! Who would want to kiss ‘a sheriff’s bare wet ass’? I can’t believe that was you. That is so funny!”
Phair, to her credit, was laughing during this exchange, but I could feel myself rapidly shrinking to the size of a walnut. I slunk off the phone soon after.
So, to apologize to Phair and to every music student who tells his piano or guitar teacher he wants to learn the song about the sheriff, let’s set the record straight: it’s “cherub’s bare wet ass.” Which is a lot more appealing a thing to kiss than the hind end of a sheriff.
By Gwen Inhat
Illinois Entertainer, October 1998