FRIDAY, 2:40 PM
Liz Phair will not let me off the phone.
I’m at the end of a candid, very animated interview with the queen of sexually charged, confessional indie rock, which was set-up to talk about the release of the third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, and Phair is refusing to let me end our conversation until I divulge some deep, dark secret about myself. In an instant, our interesting but fairly by-the-book interview, has devolved into a little game of True Confessions, because just moments before, at my prodding, Phair gamely told me something she’d never told anyone.
She had politely begged off the first time I asked the question, but now — just as the interview was winding down — Phair was ready to volunteer her answer. Her voice got very quiet.
“Sometimes when I’m alone, in the mirror I like to do erotic poses,” says Phair. “I really like doing that… And I pretend I’m taking pictures every time… It’s kind of like athletic stretching, but it’s erotic — like weird body poses that aren’t just about sex and masturbation or touching yourself, but seeing your body or muscles in an erotic way.”
I pondered her answer, feeling quietly satisfied with myself for having elicited the colorful revelation. Then I started my thank-yous and tried to say good-bye.
But Phair is not having it.
“Now you have to tell me something you never told anyone,” she says, playfully but insistently.
I laugh, “Hmmm.” Long pause. “Let me think.” I’m slightly embarrassed to have our roles suddenly reversed, and even more astonished that Phair is actually interested in my answer.
“Can I tell you later?” I plead.
“No,” she says. “You have to tell me something you’ve never told anyone. It can be dark or sad. Like, do you cry yourself to sleep once a week…”
Her tone is soft-spoken yet firm and draws me to her. I know I’m not getting out of this without a satisfying answer. And — here’s the thing — I want to give her one, too.
My head is spinning, trying to think of an acceptable secret that won’t embarrass me too much. But my mind is still blank.
“Here, I’ll help guide you,” says Phair, suddenly sounding more like a New Age therapist than a rock star. “Is there any experience you’ve had, like maybe in another city, where you pretended you were someone else and did stuff you’d never ever do… or… did you ever pig out and then make yourself barf,” she giggles.
More silence, but suddenly I want to tell her something more private, something intimate.
I own up to having cybersex.
I confess in some detail (certainly more than you’re getting here) about an online sexual encounter that happened earlier this year. With that, I’ve more than satisfied the curiosity of my inquisitor. I”m off the hook. Now we’re even. Call it bonding. Liz Phair style.
“Did you? Did you really go all the way?” she asks, giggling. “That’s good; I like that.
MY SHARED INTIMACIES with Liz Phair were awhile in coming, however. After weeks of trying to schedule a time with her management, it took me almost two days to actually track Phair down to do the interviews. She had just concluded a West Coast tour, and for one reason or another, our planned interview times kept falling through. It’s a story in itself, and the details betray as much about who this woman is as her persuasive ways with the telephone.
WEDNESDAY, 9:34 PM
It’s getting late, and I’m waiting for Liz Phair.
By the phone in my New York City apartment, of course. But when it finally rings, it isn’t the 31-year-old rock grrrl — an established cult goddess for the single, smart and slightly bitter young female set — but her manager, Scott McGhee, who apologizes profusely, explaining that Phair’s appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno has been delayed, and that she can’t talk at our appointed time.
When we try and reschedule for the next day we also run into problems, mainly because of the unpredictable schedule of the newest man in Phair’s life, a 21-month old, gurgling, personal alarm clock named Nicholas. His wakings, feedings and nap time dictate his mother’s daily schedule as much, if not more, than her day job.
Yes, it’s true. Liz Phair, once crowned the queen of lo-fi pop, simultaneously a heroine of sorts to sorority sisters and fantasy figure to horny frat boys, the Liz Phair who penned the brutally honest, expletive-laced songs like “Fuck and Run” and growled lyrics such as, I want to be your blow job queen, on her universally lauded 1993 indie-rock debut, Exile in Guyville, is now a wife, and a new mother to boot. She drives a sport utility vehicle and is in a mommy’s group in her native Chicago.
but while hard-core Phair fans may lament her inevitable maturing and growing sophistication as an artist, her recent exile in babyville has hardly domesticated her mind. Though it’s been four long years since she released her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, the time away in virtual semi-retirement has only seemed to sharpen her already formidable ability to mold life, love and, yes, sometimes sex, into instantly catchy, conversational pop tunes.
Proof positive of that is Phair’s critically acclaimed new CD, whitechocolatespaceegg (no, that’s not a misprint — Phair says she dreamt that very title one night in her sleep). It’s a delicious, upbeat collection of pop and rock; a character-rich assemblage of short stories with enough lyrical wit and memorable hooks to land Phair on the women in rock A-list, right next to formidable, mega-selling artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette and that other rocker mama, Madonna.
Phair has already taken some substantial steps into the musical mainstream. Yes, that was Phair, shoulder to shoulder with McLachlan, Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls last summer as one of the headliners at Lilith Phair. And while her buffed, well-scrubbed good looks (Phair could still easily pass for a college kid) fit right into the arena-scale festival of sister rock, the tone of some of her past and even current lyrics (He knocked me down / started draggin’ me around / in the back of his convertible car / …and I liked it) ensured she stood out firmly, if a bit awkwardly, from most of the politically correct Lilith gal pals.
But Phair is not a household name yet. In fact, she has yet to go platinum (though Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart have both recently gone gold) or have a single reach anywhere near the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Still, the intense critical acclaim for Exile and her perchant for conversational lyrics and in-your-face sexual subject matter, have left her an indie rock darling, the essence of cool, a brilliant, if turbulent, voice for the ’90s, a potty-mouthed johni Mitchell of her generation. Living up to all the hype was, understandably, a daunting, unenviable task. It’s no wonder Phair decided to walk away from the chaos to revel in the joys of domestic bliss and motherhood for a while. But then just who the hell, exactly, is Liz Phair today?
Or perhaps more importantly at this point in the game, where the hell is Liz Phair today?
Because it’s late the following afternoon and I’ve yet to track her down, despite the best efforts of her manager and publicist. I try to be understanding and imagine a day in the life of a rising rock queen the day after wrapping up a bevy of West Coast tour dates with a Tonight Show appearance, and imagine Phair, masked in the mandatory shades and garbed in an appropriate “I’m a rock star” outfit, strolling down Melrose Avenue, just being fabulous and carefree.
The truth, it turns out, is a tad less glamorous.
THURSDAY, 11:12 PM
Hey Mitch, this is Liz Phair calling. I’m really sorry to call you so extremely late. We just landed and I’m on the car phone. I didn’t call you from the plane because we had a really turbulent flight and my son got sick and pretty much barfed everywhere. It was really awful and it took us a long time to clean it up. And then he wasn’t really in a state where I could put him down. I just had to hold him and love him. I’m really sorry and I hope you’re not asleep and I’m waking you up. Here’s my home number… so call me in the morning. I’ll be up… give me a call. I’m sorry.
I PICKED UP THE MESSAGE the following morning (being slightly under the weather myself, I was asleep and hadn’t ever heard the phone ring), and, of course, forgave Phair immediately for any minor inconvenience I’d endured in the past 36 hours or so. Suddenly, I was more eager than ever to find out more about her. The sincerity in her apology was real, the softness in her voice seducing, yet, more than anything, betrayed a loving mother’s voice.
So when I finally caught up with Phair the next afternoon at her home in Chicago, I was primed for the conversation. I found myself more intrigued by the person, the woman, behind all the fuss. I wasn’t that interested in exploring the meaning of her lyrics or the obvious duality of her life as a woman in life vs. wife and mother. Instead, I wanted to find out what makes her tick, what’s beneath the outdated, fuck-and-run image she’s obviously outgrown and left behind.
I want to talk about you as a person, OK?
OK. I know me well.
How would you describe yourself?
Aggressive. Creative. Fun. Pain in the ass. Maybe energetic.
Is that what your friends would say about you?
They would probably say, really nice, a pain in the ass. They worry because I don’t keep myself on the straight and narrow. I don’t do the thank-you note thing fast enough or have myself situated in the suburbs, and I haven’t quite done the full-on preppy thing.
What do they think of you being a rock star?
I think they like that a lot. They think that’s really great. They’re really proud of me. They like going to the shows, they think it’s wild and really unusual.
What about you makes you really, really happy?
I’m kind of into going out and doing things. I’ll rally everyone together and motivate them to go on a day trip, to take the ferry out somewhere or find a really cool aquarium and go there.
What makes you unhappy about you?
I’m impatient and think my way is the way to do things. I have double standards for stuff. I expect people to know what I would do in a situation. I really wish I were better at acknowledging… you know, the thank-you note thing really bothers me.
You just don’t like doing that?
I don’t know why. It’s probably because my mom made me do it my whole life. I’m really bad about that.
What do you have to write thank you notes for?
People send me gifts or invite me places. Other people seem to write a thank you note in five seconds — a great note — and I appreciate it very much. And yet I cannot seem to do that.
Well, what can you do about this?
Be better. I gotta be better.
What are your guilty pleasures?
Well, some I won’t tell you about [laughs]. I love movies. After this interview, I’m gonna look for a dress movie, with like, women and dinner tables and stuff. I love the chocolate thing. And I love to totally blow-off all responsibility and run off and not answer the phone and not do anything. I love to go out with friends and drink chocolate martinis. And I really like nights where I can go see and be seen — and not be tied down to one table. I got in trouble for this in L.A.
Where did you do that?
A place called Dominicks. I ran into my friend Rosanna Arquette, which is why I went there. And I ran into Mike Mills from REM. We just did Leno’s show and so I was into going out.
So you wanted to be a little fabulous?
I like nights of fabulousness! And when I’m being fabulous, I can’t be tied down.
Can you tell me something you’ve never told anyone else?
[Long pause] I tell a lot. Can we come back to that?
I think I read somewhere that you’re really proud of your biceps. Are you into working out?
I said that? I’m really embarrassed by my biceps. My main obsession is that my arms are too manly. I probably said that I wanted beautiful full upper arms, which is the opposite of biceps. I have biceps.
Do you go to the gym?
Yeah, but I swim. I definitely try really hard not to get muscles because I get muscles really easily.
[Laughing] I’m so serious! I would never say I wanted really big biceps! I hate my muscles. People always compliment me on my arms and I despise them.
Are you comfortable with your body?
I’m very comfortable with my body. I have little areas, though. Like, I always have to work on my butt to keep it kinda perky.
Are you comfortable with being naked then as well?
Yeah, very much so.
Musically, who do you love to listen to if you want to run around the houseand dance and scream?
I love listening to G-Love [and Special Sauce], Katell Keineg, Madonna’s Ray of Light — I really whip around the house to that one. Sometimes I’ll put on Tom Petty.
Is there anything you listen to that would surprise people?
Everything! People always laugh because I love stuff like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and great dance songs on the radio. I totally love it. But I don’t buy albums ever. I don’t go to record stores. Sometimes I’ll buy gifts for friends and keep one, that’s how I got Ray of Light, but I’m just not into shopping for music, because it’s my job. I just got a really excellent new CD by Jude that a friend gave me and I heard a couple of tracks from the new Alanis [Morissette CD] and what I heard was really amazing.
Do you think your honest, conversational style has inspired women artists such as Alanis? You broke through before she did.
I have no idea. A lot of women I know may have different perspectives and opinions, but if you could get them to put their thoughts to music, it wouldn’t be that far from my music. I’ve always felt that way. So I don’t know if I’ve inspired people to actually bring it out into the light, you know, but I don’t thnk what I did was that far off the mark of normal, average women’s thoughts. I was angrier than most when I did Guyville, that’s all. I mean, most of my friends think these things; they just don’t put it to music and sell it.
Exile in Guyville was treated like some kind of minor revelation in the music industry.
I never got that. It wasn’t until I played Lilith Fair that I got it. It really was a striking moment for me. It wasn’t until I played for this more neutral audience that was maybe a little more sedate than my normal audience that I realized what impact my words had. When I was speaking my language in front of these normal Americans, I realized how totally aggressive it was. Until then, literally until this summer, I thought, yeah, everybody thinks this stuff.
Are you getting tired of the whole foul-mouthed label?
I think I was until this summer. And then at first I thought, Jesus Christ, I’m gonna be fired, because this is not gonna go over to this [Lilith] audience. They’re not gonna get it. They’re just gonna see me up there being this angry woman. I really did think that for the first week. I thought this is not gonna work at all. I was totally afraid they would say, ‘OK, you can’t be saying that.’ It was kind of a more feel-good type audience and I was coming at them, doing battle.
Did you feel like the odd woman out at Lilith?
The angry stepchild? Maybe, but at the end I didn’t feel that way at all. After an adjustment, I really saw my place. Now I’m proud of how my lyrics have been noticed and the affect they have. They stir things up. I was teased a lot on the tour, ‘Oh, Liz Phair, mixin’ it up,’ like I’m a little bit of a troublemaker without meaning to be.
But you must love that.
You know, I do now. I really do. It’s fun to be someone who stirs it up.
OK. Ready to play the word game?
[Sighs] I like his new ad campaign. [Laughs] I’m happy that he’s actually working shows using his real name — having never actually seen any of his videos or heard any of his music. I don’t really like people that put on the big rock god show. [In her best Austin Powers voice] It’s not my bag, baby!
I’m really depressed that America’s going to bring someone down for their sexual habits, when I would rather they brought them down for their betrayal or arms deals and stuff.
Madonna or Courtney Love.
Madonna. I’m sorry. Madonna.
Monica or Brandy.
Whitney or Mariah?
Liz Phair or… who would that be?
Donald Duck? [Laughs] I don’t know.
What’s your take on Madonna?
All of a sudden, she’s the newest person I’m dying to meet.
Well, she’s a mom now, of course.
That’s why! And I’m sitting here thinking there’s something about her album, where she took her album and where I took my album, that I relate to. It’s not that they sound anything alike, but I get why she went there. And there was something that changed in both of our lives and I sense some kind of common thread. She’s really facing herself this time around, and that’s what I felt I did this time. She’s seeing herself in a larger context and grappling with that. I’m incredibly curious — for the first time ever — to meet her. I never wanted to meet her. I was appreciative at different moments in her career, and bored and annoyed at other moments, and, all of a sudden, I really, really would love to meet her.
When do you think it’s gonna happen?
Oh, probably never. I’m still waiting to meet Mick [Jagger]. Nothing ever happened with that. I never met any of the Stones. So if I didn’t meet the Stones with Exile in Guyville [which was a song-for-song rebuttal to the Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street] I don’t know if I’m gonna meet Madonna because she’s a mom.
Somebody must be able to arrange that for you?
We tried, but various mishaps got in the way and they never seemed to care that much. You’d be surprised.
I thought someone like you could meet anyone you wanted?
Oh, not at all. But you know, I relish that. It’s that troublemaker thing, I really like the challenge. I still like to go to a concert [by an artist] that’s way bigger than me and try and sneak my way backstage, just like I did at 18 when I had no name to trade on. It’s really fun to see how close you can get to a famous person.
Who would you want to do that to?
Well, Madonna is one. I’d like to sneak my way back and check out Alanis right now. It has to be someone I couldn’t get to, it can’t be someone I already know or who doesn’t really care. And, oh my God, Will Smith — I’d like to go there.
What are you doing the rest of the day?
I just got back from the park with my friend and her son and we were running around. Later I’m gonna see my mom because they’re leaving on a trip and then I’m gonna see my friends at the TGIF. The moms get together — my old high school friends and stuff — and you bring white wine. We let the kids rampage at someone’s house and we hang out there. And mom and dad are gonna baby-sit.
So are you totally immersed in suburbia right now?
No. No. It’s like the game I’m playing right now. What I realized when I became a mom is that as much as I can acquire the trappings, I’m still the same person, and I always require some kind of authority to rebel against. When you are an adult and out there and working, there isn’t a bad guy to point your finger at. My attraction to suburbia is very primal, to have a strict context in which to differentiate yourself. Does that make sense? And there’s something perverted in me that likes the idea of being part of suburbia and really also doing… secret things [Laughs].
Do you relish the duality you have between being a woman in rock and also just hanging out having white wine with your girlfriends?
I love it. I absolutely love it. It’s a fine line to walk, and I like to walk it. It gives excitement to my life to have one persona and then another.
So when’s the next baby gonna come? Are you ready for another one?
[Laughs] Personally, I’m totally ready! But my life isn’t quite sorted. I don’t want to go running around on the road pregnant. I’m a big focus person and when I focus on one thing, I focus hard. The album took so long because when I was pregnant I got very into being pregnant, and when I had him I got very into being a mom. And it took a lot of effort on a lot of people’s parts to wrench me back to the person I was before. It’s a happy medium. I certainly didn’t let go of being a mother, but I needed to return to my actual 31-year-old identity instead of flying off into the, ‘I”m a perfect mom and I’m shopping for throw pillow’ mode, which I could do really hardcore for a number of months. I now know what a really big deal that is. So I’m ready now, but I just need to wait a little bit. Probably I’ll be pregnant again in the next year.
Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. I don’t wanna plan it. I like to feel that the baby is like a love child; it has to be special. Special egg, special sperm. Definitely.
So being a superstar is not necessarily on your agenda?
No, not at all. But I want my music to be heard and appreciated. I want it bad. And I like playing rock shows a lot and I can’t see myself doing that pregnant. [Pause] I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna get pregnant again when I’m tired of playing live. That’s it in a nutshell.
So where’s the baby right now?
He’s sleeping upstairs.
Ah, you get a little peace and quiet, huh?
Yeah, I’m gonna turn on that movie. I’ll just channel surf till I find something with women in dresses.
Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
And good luck.
[Pause] But wait, didn’t you ask me something that I’ve never told anyone.
Oh, right. Did you think of something?
Give me an idea and I can work off that.
Well, tell me something that you’re embarrassed about, a desire that you have, an insecurity.
Well, I have a weird bump on my head that really grosses me out. [Laughs] I want to have it cut off.
IT’S SUDDENLY QUIET on the line, and Phair hedges a bit; I can tell she’s seriously searching for the perfect answer. Then, after another long pause, the Phair I’ve read about, the indie rocker, the woman responsible for Exile in Guyville, emerges. Phair says softly, hesitantly, “I can’t go there… I’m about to tell you what I masturbate to.” She chuckles, and I encourage her to continue, perhaps leaving out the gory details. “Oh, I can do better than that,” she says, suddenly switching gears. “Give me something that you’ve never told anyone. C’mon it will help me.”
I laugh, and squirm in my chair. More silence between us on the line. You already know the rest of the story.
By Mitch Rustad
Music Choice, November 1998