Liz Phair reports from the other side
“I have written so many songs that have nothing to do with sex,” says Liz Phair, and true enough, most of the tunes on her brand-new album, Whitechocolatespaceegg, don’t even broach the topic. And, despite the media tornado that surrounded her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, much of which dwelled upon a particularly raunched-out lyric or two, most of those 18 songs didn’t either.
In fact, according to Phair, even the handful of past and present lyrics that explicitly refer to sex aren’t necessarily about sex. “They really just have to do with the human condition and emotions,” she notes. “It’s always about emotions, in one way or another.”
It’s been four years since Whip-Smart, Phair’s last album, which has given the Chicago resident plenty of time to get in touch with her feelings, and she says they’re taking more of a forefront this time around. “Each song delineates one specific part of my emotional makeup,” she says. “It’s not about specific situations, where Exile was.”
Perfectly drawn detail was one of the hallmarks of Phair’s debut, and lost sheep everywhere found themselves passionately relating to all the gut-spilling: the tormenting roommates; the stolen lighters and lost maps; the feeling of being trapped in a music video; those frustratingly sexy band guys who, to borrow from another direct lyricist, get what they want and then never want it again. Men zeroed in on Phair’s sexual frankness, women finally heard their own everyday girl-talk, and critics of both genders received the album well, to put it mildly, propelling the then-26-year-old into celebrity.
But by the time Exile‘s highly anticipated follow-up, Whip-Smart, came out the following year, Phair’s postcollegiate, bedroom-strumming and navel-gazing lifestyle had become a hazy memory, replaced by a blur of rock-press interviews, nerve-jangling touring, recording — and falling in love with now-husband Jim Staskauskas. A less pointed album that also ended up less lauded, Whip-Smart – maybe by necessity given Phair’s look-in-the-mirror lyric style — represented a completely different and much more mature narrator. The pissed-off, frustrated single girl was gone.
Legions of fans, many of whom were presumably still chasing their own maddening fuck-and-run musicians, found themselves befuddled by gleefully effusive love declarations like those in the album’s first single, “Supernova,” and the dearth of familiarly painful scenarios. Not surprisingly, Whip-Smart didn’t make Phair the megastar that the press and her label folk were gearing her up to become. Plus, her live performances weren’t getting the greatest reviews, thanks to a particularly well-documented case of stage fright. After the tiresome round of promotion for Whip-Smart, Phair prepared to pack the whole thing in.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing it professionally,” Phair admits, “like having a ‘rock & roll career.’ I wasn’t a performer, and I didn’t want to be. I was like, ‘I don’t want to deal with these photo shoots…’ So I settled back into my life, and I got back connected with my friends and had a baby and was really, really involved in that. That’s why this album took a long time, because my focus was elsewhere.”
It wasn’t until she was well under way on sessions for the new album that Phair seriously reconsidered the idea of becoming an actual touring musician again. “Oddly enough, I started to become interested in singing again because of doing the vocals for this album,” Phair says. “I found that without people watching me and without scrutiny, I really do love to sing and make songs. I really realized that at the bottom level, even if there is all the business crap, I love what I do.”
The end result is a “totally emotional album,” with the singer expressing herself in gentler generalities rather than the Technicolor diary entries that characterized her earlier work. And Phair’s the first to admit that the shift comes courtesy of her newly content lifestyle.
“People are talking about the new album,” she observes, “and they’re like, ‘We don’t see that directness.’ But really what they don’t see is the anger, the specific finger-pointing at groups of people that you can identify in society. That’s really true, because that’s not what I’m going through now. Now, I’m looking at the larger picture and feeling a lot in common with a lot of people and how they struggle with situations emotionally.”
Still, just because Phair’s fallen in love, gotten married and had a kid (son Nicholas, age 1*) doesn’t necessarily mean her listeners have moved in that direction. Phair herself admits that any new fans she gains at this point aren’t going to be the slacker-intellectual types that were with her at the beginning. “It’s a different music now,” she says, “so who’d be attracted to this album would be a different kind of person.” As standing testament to her new in-touch-with-her-inner-selfness, the onetime Girl Most Likely To Sing the F-Word just completed a stint with that touchy-feeliest of music festivals, Lilith Fair.
Though Phair’s focusing more on vibes these days, Whitechocolatespaceegg still has the lyrical bite she’s got a rep for, complete with many of her pet subjects: dysfunctionally obsessive love in “Johnny Feelgood”, pompous patriarchy in “Uncle Alvarez”. Phair’s also making a conscious effort to expand her often-sparse sonics by enlisting help from other producers including Scott Litt, best known for his work with R.E.M., and usual Phair collaborator Brad Wood. Channeling her onetime semirambling melodies into fairly traditional three-minute pop structures, Phair and team constructed a brighter, generally more radio-friendly sound this time around, not unlike Whip-Smart‘s full — and fully accessible — arrangements.
Phair’s come to terms with the fact that she may never produce another work that has the critics-poll significance of Exile — and gets her on the covers of Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly. At the time, critics pegged her the poster child for the ’90s Angry Young Woman and godmother to later female non-niceties like Jagged Little Pill.
“The hardest thing for my career was all this attention about this stuff that I didn’t mean to do,” she says of her quick status as icon. “I always kind of buckled under that sense that I represented something, and that I was voted to be Alternative Girl. I just made a record because I was pissed off at a bunch of guys, and it turned into this whole political campaign.”
“Exile was just a one-shot. I was so angry, and in this perfect frame of mind, and hungry and starving, right out of college — though very well-trained from private schools. It was a coalescing of all these things that gave me a kind of brilliant mark.” And that particular convergence is unlikely to happen again — to Phair’s deep relief (not that she didn’t work it to her advantage).
“When you’re younger, there’s this bombastic sense about things,” she says, explaining the wane of her personal dramas. “I don’t know if you want to call it a serenity, but there’s kind of an equanimity about life that takes hold of you. And you’re kind of like: Okay, this is the deal, I understand the old people now, and I understand the young people now. And I see that life is complicated. It’s not just something you can push around and bend at your will.”
By Mara Schwartz
L.A. Weekly, August 21 – August 27, 1998