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Liz Phair: Mom’s the Word

Exile in Momville

Phair and Square

Dark Light

Maternal sweetness hasn’t spoiled Liz Phair

After a three-year absence, she’s back with a new baby, a maturing attitude, and an exquisite new record, whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador). The album is a complicated knockout, a timely reminder of the difference between a songwriter of mere talent and a rocking mother afflicted with genius.

“[Motherhood’s] probably been the most joyful experience I’ve ever had,” says Phair. “But it’s also been the hardest. It’s made me stronger, with a stronger sense of my own identity than I’ve ever had.”

Not that she’s ever been accused of lacking identity. Labeled a “post-feminist” and a “grrrl” in the early 1990s, Phair still admirably refuses an oversimplifying political-poster-girl crown.

“I don’t even know what ‘post-feminism’ is,” she says. “I believe women should be treated as well as or better than men because we’ve been dicked around for 20,000 years.” She wonders aloud whether sexism started in the Iron Age, then adds: “as soon as there was a hard currency.”

Recorded in several studios with wildly varied producer-musician combos, whitechocolatespaceegg remains magically cohesive, yet beefier, more complex and more sure-footed than both 1993’s Exile In Guyville and 1994’s Whip-smart. Some of Phair’s new songs confirm old obsessions with the treachery of many boy-girl relationships. The first single, “Johnny Feelgood,” is classic Phair, outlining the thrills and horror of a woman’s masochism. But songs such as “Polyester Bride” project a new, rugged warmth, even a willingness to deal with life on life’s terms: On “Love Is Nothing,” she sings: “Love is nothing what they say. You have to be pick up the little pieces every day.”

“I’ve been through a lot in four years,” Phair says in her slow, carefully pronounced words. “A lot of changes.” The morning of the interview, Phair is still relishing “sleeping in” until 7 a.m. She seems pleased to talk and unexpectedly sunny. Her new blonde-haired, blue-eyed alarm clock is named Nicholas, age 18 months. “He’s a good, mellow humor,” says Phair, “but, like all babies, he’s curious and demanding. Nick was born in December 1996 — right in the middle of making whitechocolatespaceegg.

During her pregnancy, Phair says she became prone to daydreaming. But these fanciful tendencies, quite evident on the imagistically titled new record, haven’t ended. She seems to put great stock in a birth-like psychology, in waiting for good things to emerge in due time. With whitechocolatespaceegg finally finished, the rest of us, luckily, won’t have to do the same.

She pauses, then relates a dream she had the previous night. She was on the patio of a sort of Italian basilica. Hundreds of insects covered the floor. Next, an old man, a kind of merry entomologist, surrealistically arrived in the scene with tweezers and began picking up the bugs to describe their various properties. Phair says she’s written it down, but she’ll put it away for a while before seriously considering its meaning. “When you look at [dreams] after the fact, it’s so apparent that larger issues are bursting forth from your subconscious… It lets me know where I’m going as a person.”

As the interview closes, Phair seems quite willing to talk longer. It’s been a few years since she was plastered on the covers of magazines. She’s ready to gab — about the new album, about her dream log, about upcoming touring. She’d like to discuss the classical Greek woman poet Sappho. She suddenly scampers downstairs, trying to find something. She wants to locate an ancient verse from her favorite book of poems, the anthology Women Poets From Antiquty To Now. “It’s so modern you’ll die,” she says.

Before she can find it, a big and very real bug — a time-limit agreement — ends the interview. Clearly, here is the constraint of a busy mother with two new, demanding children — Nick and yet another rock masterpiece.

By Bill Broun
Alternative Press, August 1998

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