Liz Phair’s brazen songwriting may have inspired some of the Lilith Fair’s performers, but now she wants to be like them
Liz Phair can’t quite grasp why so many music writers want to talk to her. After putting a stick in the industry’s anthill with her reckless 1991 debut Exile in Guyville and its chummier follow-up, Whip-Smart, the rabble-rousing Chicago singer abruptly dropped off scenester radar. (The tomboyish Phair made a radical transition to wife and mother during this hiatus, as well as meticulously recording new tracks and revamping old demos that were gathering dust.) Three years later, Phair has resurfaced with a slick new album, whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador/ Capitol), and popped up as a performer on this summer’s massive Lilith Fair tour. Naturally, the press came a-knockin’; music rags big and small wanted Phair’s angular face on their covers, as if to say “Welcome home, honey!” But after sharing vegan trays with the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole backstage at Lilith, Phair seems ashamed to have such a fuss made over spaceegg.
“I just kept wondering why I was getting all that press,” she says bemusedly. “I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ The people who came to Lilith were not selectively there to see me. They were either there for the idea of Lilith or to see Sarah and Natalie [Merchant].”
The fawning reviews and attention haven’t balmed Phair’s overwhelming urge to criticize her own abilities–and you get the feeling that she’s not just saying she sucks to get some free praise. “After watching Sarah’s show and Natalie’s show at Lilith, I got a little bit intimidated, because my parameter of what’s possible musically has widened,” she admits. “These are people who are extremely talented in areas I’m only mildly talented in. It gave me a sense of awe.”
It’s hard to imagine Liz at home with the fresh-scrubbed folkies of Lilith; she seemed like a snowboarder chick at the prom, up on stage cooing “It looks like shit/It must be America” with an impish grin on her face. Not only did she not have the urge to punch anyone on the tour, but now she wants to emulate the safe vocal stylings of Shawn Colvin, McLachlan and Co. Yikes. “Thinking back to when I was 12, the women who were performing were part of this whole trendy scene,” Phair muses. “Could you really have seen yourself as Pat Benatar? But if you see Jewel, it’s not such a far stretch. She’s not putting on this prima donna act–she’s huge and successful, but you can relate to her…. Her songs are sort of an anthem for Everygirl.”
Everyone likes to yap about how much Phair has matured since Whip-Smart, but it’s uncertain whether anyone saw this much of a 180-degree-turn coming down the pike, including the songwriter herself. She’s beefed up her soprano, lost the stage fright and traded in her hooded sweatshirts for pricey designer gowns and stiletto heels. She’s replaced the street-urchin lyrics about one-night stands with demure references to the difficulties of matrimony and mommydom. The question is, can Phair’s fans still relate to her as Everygirl? Her new, ultra-groomed physical and musical presence may stymie some people, but she blows it off. Sounding like her old self, Phair explains, “I look at it as a lucky part of my job that every once in a while I get to do it up. If you had people taking care of you, you would look like these women on TV standing on some red carpet, looking perfect. I have no skills to make me look as polished as my friends who have 9-to-5 jobs. It takes a lot of time and effort to do myself up, and then I come home and revert back to my own clueless way.”
As for the radio-friendly feel of spaceegg, Phair finds all the speculations about her newfound maturity amusing. “If you have a good mixer, it’s a whole other ball game,” she says. “I have to say I laughed when I first started hearing mixes of the songs; with ‘Love is Nothing’, I just burst out laughing. I said, ‘This is way better than this song ever deserved to sound!’ I feel like I pulled something over on someone.” True, Phair’s longtime producer Brad Wood and newcomer Scott Litt (R.E.M.) toiled like coal miners to give the new album a marinated effect. The creaky demo of “Shitloads of Money” has morphed into an accordion-driven campfire song, while the title track puts Phair’s vocals on such an angelic pedestal, it seems as if Shawn Colvin should be the jealous one.
One wonders what dramatic route to reinvention Phair will take next. Apparently, the matter is already prominent in her thoughts: “Five minutes after I’m done with one thing, I always want to think about the ‘What next?’ What I want to do next is build a spot in my house, or maybe rent a little studio, and I want to turn my amplifier up really loud and try writing songs without a microphone in my face. I think it’ll give me energy, give the songs a more boisterous feel.”
By Kristy Ojala
Willamette Week, September 23, 1998