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If I Were President: Liz Phair

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Liz Phair returns from a four-year break with a family, a Lilith Fair fixation, and a delicious whitechocolatespaceegg

LIZ PHAIR IS ON THE PHONE AT HER HOME IN CHICAGO, and she’s singing. To me. Having listened to Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart, Phair’s previous pair of trash-talking, rough, and tender albums enough times to qualify for a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records (possibly under the “Get a Life” chapter), this personal serenade is something of a dream.

“Ring ring ring ring ring banana phone,” Phair sings, managing to sound innocent and sexy and pissed-off all at once, but I’m confused. Is this a cryptic line from some obscure B-side I’ve never heard, or have I misinterpreted that slurred section of “Supernova”?

“It’s from a Raffi song,” Phair admits, laughing. “It’s my son’s favorite. I sing it to him all the time while we’re walking around town, and people look at me like I’m crazy. I guess I should switch to some cool T. Rex tune.”

Instead of scaring passers-by with a baby-talk rendition of “Bang a Gong,” Phair might be better off entertaining her baby boy with “Only Son,” “Baby Got Going,” or any of the other instantly catchy songs on her just-released whitechocolatespaceegg. Typically brash and beautiful, the album’s release was long-delayed following Phair’s marriage (to video director Jim Staskaukas) and the birth of her Raffi-obsessed son (Nicholas, now nearly two). It’s been a busy four years for Phair, yet in addition to starting a family and recording the new album, she also claims to have logged many hours watching the Weather Channel (no doubt more exciting than Teletubbies and MTV combined).

Cumulus clouds and high-pressure fronts notwithstanding, Phair is happy to be back in the Windy City following her dates on this year’s high-profile Lilith Fair. Although her legendary lyrical candor (“I want to be your blow-job queen”) and no-bullshit attitude might easily lead to some catty dissing of fellow Lilith lasses, Phair — now 31, and having matured beyond her former debutante-cum-riotgrrrl persona — has only praise for Ms. McLachlan’s traveling rock-chick extravaganza.

“I’ll try not to gush, but it was just so awesome to be with these women,” Phair gushes. “They’re all so down-to-earth and supportive and gorgeous, and they’re incredible performers. Erykah Badu gives these spiritual lectures in the middle of her show, and Sinéad [O’Connor] has such an amazing voice. I’d watch Sarah [McLachlan] and Natalie [Merchant] and the Indigo Girls, and wonder, What the hell am I doing? I actually stole a lot of their moves” (fine, but let’s hope she didn’t cop even the slightest gesture from Paula Cole).

Phair’s Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott homage is bound to be a highlight of her upcoming international tour in support of whitechocolatespaceegg, a pivotal album that successfully embellishes the casually perfect D.I.Y approach of Guyviiie and Whip-Smart with more polished production values (courtesy of R.E.M. knob-twirler Scott Litt on half the tracks). With her vocals pushed way up front and wrapped in an organic blend of keyboards and warped guitars, all melded into rock-steady yet experimental arrangements, Phair once again sounds like no one else (even though Alanis, Fiona, and other pouty waifs have tried desperately to sound like her in recent years).

“The album took a while to reach its final form,” Phair explains of this slow-cooking egg. “It started out sounding mellow and dreamy, which had a lot to do with me being pregnant. But then I wrote a whole bunch of additional songs after the pregnancy. Out of 38 total, I chose 16 for the album. Each one plays off of a specific aspect of my emotional life.”

Not surprisingly, several of the new songs reflect Phair’s experiences as a wife and mother. With its hints of domestic crisis and maternal uncertainty, “‘Go On Ahead,'” says Phair, “was really hard to put on the album. Now that I’m married arid have a child, I don’t want to rock the boat as much, or hurt people. At the same time, I wanted this album to be entirely authentic.”

Lovely new songs such as “Fantasize,” “Uncle Alvarez” and “Girl’s Room” — a paean to high-school friends Tiffany (“wearing her size-too-small sweater”) and Trisha (who “oughta learn to shave her bikini line better”) — certainly sound autobiographical, and who else but Phair could croon, “I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious,” on the delicate “Perfect World”?

Elsewhere, Phair plays rough-and-tumble in the back seat of a convertible on the lowdown “Johnny Feelgood”, goes for the big bucks on “Shitloads of Money”, and receives dating advice from a tough-cookie mama on the propulsive “What Makes You Happy.”

So what makes Liz happy? “My son, of course,” Phair says with certainty. “Having a baby made me appreciate life so much more. I don’t want to sound New Agey, but everything seems to work out OK if you just follow your own path.”

Before she drags out the crystals, I ask Phair if anything else is scrambling her spaceegg these days. “The new album, definitely,” she says. “And summer makes me insanely happy! It’s perfect right now. Eighty degrees with a cool breeze and everything’s green and lush and flowering.”

And I thought she was joking about the Weather Channel.

By Steven Jenkins
Detour, September 1998

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