Liz Phair is back with a new album after two years of self-imposed domestic exile. Joe Donnelly listens to that album and then talks to her about it.
Since sucker punching pop culture pundits and music critics with her stunning 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair’s name has been inevitably followed by an exclamation point, implied or otherwise. “Liz Phair! Fuck yeah! She rocks!” said the rocker boys who found themselves chord by chord figuring out an album by a chick for the first time in… forever? “Liz Phair! Feminist icon of female sexual agency! Provocateur with a guitar!” wrote the armchair academics who saw Exile as an empowering statement. And, of course, there was “Liz Phair! Babe!”
For her part, Liz seemed eager to accommodate those who wanted to project their own hopes for and interpretations of what it meant for a cute, well-to-do girl from the North Shore of Chicago to talk dirty and to rock hard. She posed sexily for reams of magazine features, told Details how to keep a woman satisfied, and made the cover of Rolling Stone‘s 1994 “Women In Rock” special.
A funny thing happened on the way to on the way to overexposure, burnout, and the “whatever-happened-to” trivia bin, though: Liz Phair put on the brakes. Her second album, Whip-smart, was more a bunch of thoughtful songs, than an overt statement. Then she got married, had a kid, and basically dropped out for a few years. The “Liz Phair!” storm had died down, reduced to a steady trickle of album sales.
Now, though, Liz Phair is back with whitechocolatespaceegg, an album that renders exclamation points irrelevant. Liz Phair, singer/songwriter, stands up just fine on her own. Lyrically, the album is more subtle and poetic than anything she’s done before, and musically she’s grown by leaps and bounds, no longer relying on Stonesy hooks and low-fi chic. Instead, Liz’s chosen to engage the listener with a wide palette of musical styles and sophisticated melodies. She still rocks, she just doesn’t seem to be making such an exclamation point of it.
Interrupting her summer vacation in South Carolina, she ponders whether or not life feels a little less magical now that she has the structure of a family and a career in place, and the hype machine has died down.
“I think it’s both,” she says, bustling around in the kitchen. “It’s much more grounding because — I was just thinking this as I was walking over to pick up some shrimp — I was realizing that I do interviews and I play on these dates and I feel like a very normal person, whereas before, when all this stuff would go on in my life, I would think, ‘Oh, gosh, what does this say about me? Me?!’ You know what I mean?”
“Now, I’m not nearly so ‘me’ centered and it’s very grounding and very good in that respect. But I think with the baby, you can’t help but have this kind of enthusiasm for life that you didn’t necessarily have before. Everything seems, like, really beautiful and cool and a little more magical, because I’m looking at it through his eyes. Everything seems really interesting.”
A surprising answer, when you consider the emotions that run through whitechocolatespaceegg, which has a palpable sense of yearning about it.
“I think that’s also a feature of the kind of music I write,” she says. “The reasons why I pick up my guitar and write a song tend to be much closer to Exile [in terms of] my style of creating right now than they were on Whip-smart. It’s really about what doesn’t come to pass, or what you can’t say out loud. It’s like a vehicle for my wish list and, um, my fear list.”
Does this mean that a happy wife and mother who happens to be a songwriter must pay extra attention to those fleeting moments of reflection?
“Well, I don’t mean to imply everything’s right, in any way shape or form,” she says, quick to dismiss the notion that domesticity implies bliss. “It’s hard right now… I think the yearning you’re picking up on is that I’m sandwiched between a rock and a hard place in a lot of situations on those songs and kind of wondering… I supposed the commitments in my life are implied in the subject matter, and what I’m writing in those songs is about feeling, maybe, ambivalent, about my commitments and / or my choices. You know, that sense of entrapment.”
Given that many songs revolve around her life now and its inherent entanglements and responsibilities, does Liz find it hard not to censor herself to protect the innocent, so to speak?
“Yeah, I think it’s hard,” she admits. “It takes a toll on songwriting and the only way I got around that, to some extent, was in the selection process. I think I wrote a lot of rock songs and then, when we finally made the choices as to what would be on the album, we went for the ones that cut through the crap and were a little more revealing.
“But I don’t think it’s possible to be quite as… ruthless as when you’re younger and want to deconstruct,” she adds. “I spend a lot of my energy trying to construct now and I loath to kind of chop it up and dissect it.”
The potential fallout might have graver consequences?
“Yeah. You know, once you’ve gotten attention, people listen to your lyrics, whereas before I didn’t expect anybody to pick it up or hear it. I think on Exile, I never expected my family to hear it. I thought it would be a kind of select group of musically-inclined people down in the bohemian section of the city.”
At one time in her career, it seemed that Liz Phair was in a rush to be famous as an end in itself. Just a few years ago, much like Courtney Love then and now, you could argue she never met a magazine cover see didn’t want to grace, either copping a come-hither look or purposefully splaying her legs with a beer bottle provocatively nestled in between. Of course, she was playing right into our hands. But after determinedly staying in the background for years, how does she fell about all that now?
“I think that’s cute,” she says, cutely.
“Yeah, I do think that’s cute. That’s like that ‘I’ll show ’em,’ kind of attitude. Fame is a thing. You can get it. I don’t look at it in the same way. I sort of felt like if I got famous it would prove I was special, (voice rising dramatically) and everyone who hadn’t noticed I was special would pay!
“Now, because I’ve been through it,” she continues, “I see it very much as just a feature of notoriety, becoming larger, being noticed… It’s almost like getting a disease, you know what I mean? (laughs) I’ve got fame…”
It’s also the nature of youth to think it’s important to have everyone think you’re special, but as you grow older, it becomes really important to have at least a few people who really think you’re special.
“Yeah, of course,” she laughs. “At a certain point in your life in your life you really get a clue that we are all alone on this earth, and it’s really important to have good friends and to maintain those friendships and to keep connections alive because when you are young, you have so many connections and the most interesting thing seems to be to break them apart and strike out on your own. When you get older, it’s much more important to your identity to feel loved and known. My friends that are my oldest friends matter so much to me because they know who I am and it’s so easy with them… and that’s just a huge blessing in life.”
Just as Liz seemed to be in more of a mind to be constructive rather than deconstructive these days, whitechocolatespaceegg also shows much more respect for the conventions of her craft, like strong playing and surprisingly good singing. When she’s told how good her voice is on the new record, she says “thanks” with a note of genuine appreciation.
Were you conscious of trying to perform more as a singer on this album?
“I’m going there,” she says eagerly. “Stand back, brother! I’m going as far as my vocal chords will take me. It’s my new thing. The thing that really interests me right now is singing; that’s why I really dug Lilith Fair because it’s a singers’ concert and those women, I just stand in awe of their voices and the way they can use them and the control they have over their instruments.
“I finally accepted that I want to sing,” she adds. “I was so embarrassed by my voice when I was younger. I don’t know why that happened, but I would hide it and pretend to barely sing and I never really worked on it and I wished I’d spent all those years working on it instead of hiding it… Right now, it brings me a lot of happiness. You can’t get me off a microphone once you get me on it.”
Liz Phair has mouths to feed, diapers to change, and tours to schedule. With the clock ticking away, it was time to get down to the nitty gritty: the spin. But told that pundits are calling this album a “return to form,” Liz just laughs, as if it’s all too obvious. It does feel like a confident and accomplished work. Maybe the most personal one yet.
“I really love the album,” she says, warming up to the subject, “and I made it specifically so I would like it because I thought Whip-smart was so much about worrying about what other people thought of me. And I really felt with this one — and that’s why I took so long — that there’s no point in putting one out at all unless it’s really something I like, unless I love it. Because I really felt like, a couple years back, I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue this anymore. It happened by accident for me, and I rode it for awhile, but I didn’t take that bull by the horns and I didn’t know if I wanted to do it.
“Now, step by step, I’ve discovered that I really do. And I wanted to make an album that I loved and that I would want to listen to all the time. And I listened to it incessantly for months and months. I’m kind of over it now (laughs). But all my friends have it, so I’ll go over to their houses and they’ll be playing it, which could be really annoying, but I’m really gratified to find that it sounds really good and I’m happy.”
And, at the risk of sounding corny, so are we. It’s good to have Liz Phair back.
By Joe Donnelly
Bikini, October 1998