NEW YORK — Liz Phair, the mastermind behind two gold records and a trailblazer for this decade’s modern rock artists (see story, page 95), returns from a four-year hiatus with the hotly anticipated whitechocolatespaceegg, due Aug. 11 in the U.S. on Matador/Capitol.
The journey back has been no small feat for the artist, the mother of a 6-month boy. “People can’t understand why it would take so long to make the album, and I’m like, ‘I had a child!'” she says.
But artistic concerns also kept Phair’s fans and label sitting on their hands. She explains, “I wanted to reach another level, but what I forgot is that to get to another level you have to climb all the stairways in between the levels. I really had to learn and grow and make a lot of mistakes to do something bigger.”
Phair, who on previous albums worked closely with noted producer Brad Wood on songwriting and arranging, teamed up this time with Scott Litt, best known for his production work with R.E.M. The two rehashed the songs on the album until, in Phair’s estimation, they were right.
“I needed to find the sense of myself that didn’t stem from other people’s opinions of me,” she says. “It took a while to have a life again that was worth poetry.” That process was as integral to the album Phair has delivered as the equipment it was recorded on. “If you want a quality product, you really need to give it time to ferment, evaluate it, let it grow.”
The Gift of Time
Matador allowed Phair the time she needed to make the album — and her personal life — the best it could be. “They were incredibly patient, loving parents who supported me, when behind my back they were probably cursing me,” says Phair. “But it paid off.”
Says label co-president Chris Lombardi, “As Matador has grown, so has the pressure [on us] to sell records and keep the company afloat. So it’s difficult to sit back and hold your breath, but at the same time we thought it was important for Liz to have her space.”
Whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair’s third effort, retains her signature intimacy while delving into lush production. She presents confident vocals over pop-conscious blues (“Baby Got Going”), uninhibited rock (“Johnny Feelgood”), lullaby-esque guitar strummings (“Fantasize”), and ’80s-style synth (“Headache”).
Coming into her own as a versatile songwriter, Phair varies her style from one song to the next, but her presence on each track is inextricable. Conspicuously absent, however, are the four-letter words that peppered Exile In Guyville and Whip-Smart. “This record isn’t as blatant from a lyric-content standpoint,” says Phair’s manager, Scott McGee. “But the record has more depth; you have to reach a little bit more. She’s dealing with the same issues, just differently.
Phair explains, “Let’s just say the smut turned to smolder. Exile was who I was then, and Whip-Smart was, for better or for worse, who I was then, and this is who I am now.”
But Phair has been silent during four years of rapid-fire change in alternative music — women musicians don’t turn head simply because of their gender in the way that Phair did in 1993, but a wider modern rock fan base makes for greater sales potential.
Christina Zafiris, Matador’s director of marketing, says, “Granted, the marketplace has changed a lot since her [first] two records came out, but I think that the market is now much more friendly and enthusiastic toward female artists. Both Matador and Liz are ready for the challenge of bringing her to the next level commercially, saleswise.”
The media has never been short on opinions of Phair, whose sales were driven by press from the beginning. Matador hopes to attract similar media attention with whitechocolatespaceegg.
The album is Phair’s first Matador release under the auspices of Capitol Records, which that label’s senior director of marketing, Stacy Conde, says will enable a larger press outreach and the potential to work more singles. Conde calls Phair “one of the forerunners” of this decade’s romance with rock women.
“She was one of the people who started the whole thing, and it’s time for her to take what’s due to her,” says Conde. Internationally, the album will be released Aug. 7 in Japan by Toshiba-EMI and is expected to hit Europe, where Phair has yet to develop a large following, in January. Phair’s music publisher is Sony/ATV Tunes LLC (ASCAP).
MORE LIVE SHOWS
Phair has infrequently performed live in the past but will play more dates for this album. She is booked for 14 Lilith Fair shows before the U.S. album release and is making plans to tour major North American markets following the release. Her booking is handled by Marty Diamond.
“Polyester Bride”, the first single, will be worked to modern rock and triple-A stations beginning July 21, and college radio will receive the album simultaneously, according to Zafiris. A video for “Polyester Bride” was being planned at press time, with the goal of an August availability.
Jim McGuinn, PD at WPLY (Y-100) Philadelphia, says, “The market is flooded with Lilith Fair artists, but a powerful, aggressive songwriter and performer like Liz has a real chance of standing out. She’s got a little more of that old-school alternative cred.”
Bob Bell, new release buyer at Wherehouse Entertainment, says, “I think there’ll be a lot of anticipation for [the album], and her Lilith Fair dates should be some good exposure for her and open her up to some new audiences.”
Tom Overby, senior buyer at Best Buy, adds, “Liz Phair is still hip, still intelligent, and still writing great lyrics. That’s what the fans are looking for.”
By Dylan Seigler
Billboard, July 4, 1998