Liz Phair all grown up
“I promise you’re not seeing anything. I’m covered,” insists Liz Phair to an MTV stylist who, during the two-hour taping of an “Influences” segment, keeps pulling the petite singer’s skirt down below thigh level. Seated on top of a sparkly red vinyl-covered amp in Manhattan’s 30th Street Guitars shop, the 31-year-old Phair works the camera like a coy kid does a mirror; peering into the lens with a lurid curiosity, swiveling her shoulders cockily, kicking up her legs like a WWII pinup girl, then strutting toward the camera like Mick Jagger.
But when the cameraman pauses to change tapes, she turns toward onlookers, pushes up her tits to Pamela Lee heights, pouts her lips extra-big, and busts out laughing. It’s a game, one she is now winning. “I discovered photo shoots are not about capturing your essence,” she says. “They’re about selling an image.”
It’s a lesson hard-learned for Phair, who spent the past four years reassessing her role in the rock-star game, reclaiming her own identity, and retooling her sound for her highly anticipated third album, whitechocolatespaceegg. Her ’93 debut, Exile in Guyville, catapulted the Chicago songwriter out of the myopic indie-rock world and into the public eye, launching reams of analysis regarding girls, guitars, and gender roles. The double album bristles with brash explorations of sex, love’s inherent power plays, and Phair’s need to be noticed, to be bigger than her five-foot-two frame. Her good-girl/bad-girl confessions let many in on a long-guarded secret called the female libido and rendered Phair symbolic. Esquire named her 1994’s “Do-Me-Feminist”, Spin anointed her “the embodiment of modern girldom,” while a host of other publications simply seemed to regard her as their own special “fuck-and-run” girl. Phair rose to those numerous occasions by baiting the press and public with titillating sound bites and photos, but she suffered the remorse and self-doubt that often dogs freewheeling actions. So she decided to change the rules of the game. Following 1994’s Whip-Smart, she dropped out, got married, had a kid, moved to the suburbs, and now boasts of her normality like an explorer does of a newly discovered frontier.
“Once I got married and had a child, no one expected me to have a career,” says Phair, who became pregnant with her son, Nicholas, in April 1996 — two months into the recording of whitechocolatespaceegg. “The best thing about this album is that I didn’t have to care what I’d been before. In their eyes, I was pretty much over, and I thrilled to that circumstance. Great, I can reinvent. I can make something new, new to me.”
Her new album starts where the insecure sentiments that drove Whip-Smart and the smack-you-in-the-face cockiness of Exile end. To write the songs for it, she retreated to a summer house in Michigan to escape the suggestions and advice of the outside world and to bring her music, like her life, to the next level. The wobbly amateurism of Phair’s voice and the condensed production of Brad Wood blossomed into confident vocals and big production, changes that expose rather than smooth over her powerful songwriting. The music is kitschy and quirky à la the Monkees in spots, and emotionally sweeping and sparse in others. Her lyrics range from the familiar raunch of “Ride”‘s “Sticks and stones can break my bones, and boys can make me kick and moan,” to reflections on her new life: “Home is very ordinary / I know I was born to lead a double life,” from “Perfect World”.
“Step by step, I’ve cleaned up my act,” Phair says later over dinner. She’s wiped the thick makeup off and changed out of the sheer slip dress provided by MTV, and now wears neutral lipstick, a simple black skirt, a V-necked white T-shirt, and comfortable sandals on her small feet. “I got married [to video director Jim Staskauskas], then went back and painstakingly found my old friends. I started entertaining, making a house, having a baby. It sounds really traditional, but I needed that desperately. Having a baby, becoming part of a community again, in the most general, American sense of that term — I’m gonna be working the antiques fair in front of my house this weekend — it’s like saying you’ll join the PTA, you’ll join with the world at large. I embarked on a four-year crusade to join back up again. It made me so much happier and stronger. If I didn’t have a life to go back to after this work jaunt, I wouldn’t know when to say no, when to say yes. I wouldn’t have any sense of myself outside of what I do to make money.”
Phair’s more traditional lifestyle undoubtedly will be viewed with disappointment by those who saw her as a saboteur of all things ’90s and now. Boys embarrassed by the obvious allure of sex icons like Madonna could feel superior for lusting after the more complicated and challenging Liz, while girls used her as barometer to measure their own pious female-vs.-fallible fucked-up contradictions. Then, of course, there was the media hooked by the girl who said (gasp, tee hee!), “Blow-job queen.” “When it comes to my image, and what everyone needs me to uphold, that’s out of my hands, literally,” Phair says. “I know how I need to live now, and I know how much of that was put on me. I’m gonna hand that back to people and say, ‘Do what you want with it, ’cause that’s what you’re gonna do anyway.'”
There’s an air of confidence on whitechocolatespaceegg that Phair sorely lacked during the recording of her first two albums. Now she argues with the owner of the guitar store about the sustain of a certain Telecaster versus a Stratocaster, tells the makeup artist what she wants in a lipstick shade, and hurries the photo shoot along in order to catch a flight back to Chicago, that night. It seems so simple, but for Phair, wielding power over her career is a new thing. Though her music may have reflected the sentiments of a strong person, bringing that mind-set to her life was another matter altogether. The analysis surrounding her lyrics and image made her question her own actions and wants, and rendered her more vulnerable to outside suggestions. It took a hellacious photo shoot following the release of Whip-Smart (complete with metallic miniskirt, blue eye shadow, and up-the-skirt shots while she rode a plastic pony) for her to pull back the reins and eventually take charge.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such low self-esteem as I did [during the Whip-Smart period],” Phair says over a glass of white wine. “All these people were saying these things about me. I would just sit and think, ‘Am I about that? Am I not? It’s like I was blown by the wind, going with whatever was around me. I isolated myself by hanging out in the indie world where I didn’t belong, where they had ambivalent feelings about me in the first place. I was in a phase in my life where I needed to be cool — the existential problems of the late teens and early 20s. I had no priority scheme, had no idea what I wanted in life, and I was really self-involved — that’s a vulnerable position to be in. Couple that with the kind of attention I was getting out of nowhere and it’s a really volatile situation.”
To further distance herself from her tumultuous 20s, she also refigured her musical approach. Phair, who previously only had worked with self-made producer Wood, initially induced Scott Litt (of R.E.M., Nirvana, and, soon, Hole fame) to produce her third album with an entirely new band in his L.A. studio, Louie’s Clubhouse. The two fought constantly, and rumors circulated that the album had been rejected by her record company, though Phair says that simply isn’t true. She does, however, ‘fess up to going too far in her attempt to revamp. “This is so sad, but someone likened [early cuts of the album] to music housewives would clean house to — wafty, softy, and peppy. Though the lyrics were tough if you looked really close, I wasn’t bringing forth that persona. My manager was like, ‘I appreciate where you’re going, but there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Get a little more involved. We need a little more from you.’ I hadn’t done that. I had made everything pretty and touched-up.
She decided to bring Wood back into the picture (Litt, Wood, and Phair are credited as the album’s coproducers). “When I listen back to those old records, I’m like, ‘Fuck! He was the shit!’ Brad hears things. I used to think I had that myself, until I tried to do it. It’s amazingly impressive to me what he does. I can’t believe it took me so long to appreciate it, because he always appreciated what I did.”
Wood has said in the past that one of Phair’s finest qualities is her unaffectedness. Unlike other subjects who’ve done MTV’s “Influences” spots — Jon Spencer reeling off the “right” bluesmen, Luscious Jackson owing their music to cool ’70s innovators — Phair cites camp songs, the sound of a vacuum, the whirr of a cash register. When pushed, she can’t even remember the name of her first Kinks single she bought. Instead, she hums it. “I have Tourette’s [Syndrome] when it comes to writing music. Whatever bubbles up under the surface is what comes out.”
It’s only in the past year that Phair has been able to go back, listen to her music, and appreciate what thousands of other listeners have heard all along. “It’s like, ‘God, they’re really pretty good,'” she says. “It took me so long not to be critical. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so cute. I love that girl. You little plucky so-and-so! You go girl!’ I was so weirded out by Whip-Smart, but listening to it now, it’s just ’cause my life was so weird then. It’s actually a really good album. I’m proud of them both — that I could do something in my 20s that was so tangible. It’s like going back and expecting to hear something really embarrassing, but it’s more like, ‘God, how could I be so smart and mature then, because I was such a freak on the inside.”
“Elizabeth Clark Phair grew up in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, with her dad, a prominent physician and later an AIDS researcher, and mom, an art historian. Adopted as a baby, she was weaned on her parents’ Bob Dylan albums and Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, and enjoyed the stability of uneventful family life. “I looked at my parents with pity,” Phair says. “Like, ‘You poor, poor clueless people. How sad for you. Let me go misbehave to make up for your normalcy. I will help the family by going out and fucking up.”
After partying through, then graduating from Ohio’s Oberlin College with a degree in art history and studio art, Phair began to record Girly Sound tapes, homemade recordings that eventually were circulated in the indie world via fanzines and word of mouth. They made their way to Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records, the label founder who signed Phair in ’92, hardly anticipating that she would become the biggest act on the indie’s roster. A year later, Exile won critics’ polls and would eventually spawn Phair Lites like the overwrought Alanis Morissette and the vapid Natalie Imbruglia.
Whip-Smart was not as overtly titillating as its predecessor and received mixed reactions. Phair’s live shows exposed just how green a performer she was. Though she eventually found her footing onstage, she was unwilling to acquiesce to the demands of a high-profile musician’s life and dropped out of sight.
“My whole career has taken courage,” she says. “There’s the hiding periods, then the full-frontal, and let me tell you, being pregnant was the ultimate in full-frontal.” Phair recorded until she was nine months pregnant, wrapping her swollen belly in towels to mute the sound. “Reality was screaming at you. I liken it to being the prow of a ship with the whole ocean coming at you. But you get this beautiful scene of togetherness and centeredness. You are a rock, Mother Earth. That was probably the start of my real resurgence of self-esteem. You’re so solid, and your bigness is so meaningful. The most important thing in the world to you is in yourself. How often is that true — unequivocally, without scrutiny or criticism?”
Phair zeros in on two restaurant employees, watching their secret embrace behind a pillar near the swinging kitchen doors. “Are they in love? I need to know,” she says. “They certainly slept together. In bed, she probably loves him to death, but now, she’s a little embarrassed of him.”
Relationships are a subject of intrigue for Phair. Aside from expressing her intense interest in songs like “What Makes You Happy” in conversation she is often analyzing, theorizing, and lamenting the subject. “I would be very curious to know what men really need a relationship for, besides sex,” she says, plunging her spoon in a decorative mound of chocolate-mousse cake. “I don’t think relationships are their first priority. They want then when they need them, but don’t know how to keep them in a funny way. I think, ‘What is my role to [my husband]?’ He always says, ‘You’re thinking too much, overanalyzing.’ Well, sue me! I can’t stop. Where do I put that energy? I don’t want to be some crazed, repressed housewife. On the other hand, I can see my husband come home from work and being like, ‘How come I have to get off work and meet psycho bitch? I don’t have energy for psycho bitch baby today.’ She’s like, ‘I can’t live like this. Didn’t I try really hard to clean up the house, cook dinner!’ He’s like, ‘I didn’t ask you to do this.’ [She takes on the voice of a woman possessed by Satan.]
‘But a good wife has to do that!’ I realized I was on my own trip about that. Phair is a woman whose music has superseded the angry-grrrl “phenomenon” of the early ’90s and will likely glide effortlessly through the more pleasing, celestial seasonings of Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair — on which Phair played 14 dates this year. “People try and corner me into saying things I wouldn’t say. Like asking, ‘Do you think it’s a bad idea to have an all-women show?’ Before, I probably would have sat around like, ‘Shit. Is it a bad idea to have an all-woman concert? What does that mean? What will become of me if I’m associated with it?’ Now it’s like, ‘Of course not.’ Big whoop. As far as I’m concerned, it gives me new people to meet, a new peer group. To me, if you’re a powerful, intelligent woman standing up there making music, that’s all I need to know. As long as women have a range of options of who they want to be when they grow up, and they’re still considered women, fine. Just give girls a hugely different array of role models and possibilities, then let ’em dig their own graves.”
The different lives that Phair leads, and the far-flung possibilities she’s chased and conquered, have left her with some complicated logistics to manage. She keeps checking her watch. If she misses her flight tonight, it means one more morning her toddler will wake up without Mom there. Being away from him is obviously painful for her.
“I am doing all this by the skin of my teeth,” says Phair, who uses her parents and in-laws as baby-sitters. “Every single day I negotiate and struggle with my time, my need to give him a good, solid foundation, family, and love from his mom. I will bust my ass for him, if it makes him happy. When he takes his nap, I try and get my stuff done, and speed like a motherfucker to do it all and then be there when he wakes up. There’s no easy answer. I totally make it up as I go and have serious regrets about things. I feel that way with my life anyway, but with a baby, it’s so much more acute. You love him so much. He’s the most important thing on earth. His little face.”
Phair is so normal — she says mom stuff, she wears chipped nail polish — but she’s also able to pose atop an amp in positions that make Uma Thurman look dumpy. It’s a reflection of feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, of not giving a fuck while caring intensely.
“If things don’t work out, or people do or don’t understand me, it’s gonna be OK,” Phair says. “You can’t make a picture-perfect life. You can’t make yourself safe by doing the right thing or by being a good girl. Things still don’t work out; they sneak up behind you and fuck you up somehow. No amount of being good or honest or hard-working or perfect, pretty, or popular is gonna save you. It’s good to know that. It’s good to feel free.”
By Lorraine Ali
Request, October 1998