…but Liz Phair think it’s “bullshit.” After her long exile (in babyville), the new mom reupudiates her nasty-girl image, joins the ladies who Lilith and lays a whitechocolatespaceegg.
Liz Phair is a woman of many guises: She’s been a girl’s girl and a boy’s girl, a talented songwriter, a shameless self-promoter, an outspoken feminist, a cover girl, a poser, a Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll topper — and a dream interview who loves to talk about herself. When she released her debut, Exile in Guyvile, in 1993, she sang about love, sex and everything in between in ways that rang painfully true to any girl who heard the record. But her frank lyrics also appealed to men — earning the upper-middle-class gal from the John Hughes-style Illinois suburbs a reputation for being one of those good girls who do. Her deep-dish, nasal voice, standard Stones-derived rock fare, and blond-cheerleader good looks made it easy for her to gain wider acceptance (example: a Rolling Stone cover) when she released the half-million-selling Whip-Smart in 1995. Her words have always been easy to relate to, her prettiest-girl-in-school appearance perhaps less so.
Three years later, Phair is back with whitechocolatespaceegg which arrives in stores Tuesday and may disappoint anyone hoping for more songs about fucking. In the past few years, Phair, 31, has gotten married, had a kid (Nicholas, now one and a half) and mellowed out — a little. TONY checked in with the new mom, who’s now touring with Lilith Fair, at a restaurant in midtown.
Time Out New York: What was the delay with whitechocolatespaceegg?
Liz Phair: First of all, getting married and having a baby took a couple of years out of my life, and my focus was not music. I was making music the whole time, but I can’t pretend that I was making good music. I was absorbed with being pregnant and then having him the first year. Then it was because I wasn’t sure what kind of album I wanted to make. Because I was removed from the industry, I got very esoteric. I had my head in the clouds musically a lot.
LP: “She’s whacked. She’s a mom now — it’s over.” [Laughs] It wasn’t until I got my manager and he pulled my album together and showed me how to finish it. I had been like, “I can do it myself, I know I can,” but I couldn’t. Once I had a baby, I thought, I don’t have to do what the hell I’m supposed to do. I’d been so working under this idea that I had to be what everyone wanted me to be.
TONY: Which is what?
LP: I don’t know, like “indie-rock chick who says dirty words and came from a good background.” I was so concerned with that image during Whip-Smart, and it took changing my life to say, “You can do whatever your heart desires.”
TONY: Is there something about your image that you can’t change?
LP: Probably. I always watch Julia Robert’s career, because I went to camp with her, so she’s my one celeb that I’ve known. When she did My Best Friend’s Wedding, it was “Oh, Julia, you’re back with your long, pretty hair, and you’re doing a romantic comedy again.” The Pelican Brief was excellent, but they couldn’t [accept] her until she got back to her role. I’m so freaked out by that. She spent six years doing different things, until she sat back down in her little Pretty woman thing… I’m grossed out by that. If that’s the system, I don’t mind bucking the system.
TONY: Is this a weird time to be a rock musician? The climate is so…
TONY: I was going to say that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for electronic stuff. But maybe it’s just a critic thing.
LP: It’s a critic thing, because it’s the most interesting experimental stuff happening right now. But what’s still viable and selling is always viable and selling. I don’t think the country moves with the critics as much as people think it does. I was going to say it’s hard to be a rock musician in a climate of such amazing songstress/singers. Lilith Fair showcases this — the diva is back, the chanteuse. That’s where I don’t fit in. I wish I had that kind of capacity to sing, take my voice and fill an auditorium and then bring it down and manipulate it like that. That’s where I feel inadequate.
TONY: Are you happy with your new album?
LP: Yeah, I was in love with it for a long time, but now I’m getting tired of it. My friends play it I’ll come home and find my husband cleaning up to it, and I find myself being proud of it.
TONY: It seems like the lyrics aren’t as direct as they used to be. The first two songs in particular — I was reading the lyric sheet thinking, What the hell!?!
LP: That second song, “Big Tall Man”, is probably what you’re thinking of. That was actually when I was pregnant. I was reading all these books, because you can’t drink coffee, you can’t do drugs, you can’t do anything. You are so sober it hurts. I got into this intuition book, trying to channel your deeper self and dreams and stuff, ’cause you have all these vivid dreams when you’re pregnant. The book said to channel someone and write down all these exercises. That’s sort of what writing songs to me is anyway — regurgitating some subconscious thing that surprises you. So I channeled Scott Litt, my record producer, and then I read him the little poem, and he’s like, “That’s your song right there.”
In a way, I’m more honest right now. I shouldn’t say this — my managers told me not to say this — but a lot of Guyville is bullshit, total made-up fantasy crap. That stuff didn’t happen to me, and that’s what made writing it interesting. But this stuff did happen to me and is part of my life. I couldn’t spit it out directly, because it was so real. What you’re seeing is the difference between when I didn’t have a life, my made-up life, and trying to make it real so I felt like I had a life…
TONY: You didn’t have a life?
LP: I wasn’t connecting with my friends. I wasn’t connecting with relationships. I was in love with people who couldn’t care less about me. I was yearning to be part of a scene. I was in a posing kind of mode, yearning to have things happen for me that weren’t happening. So I wanted to make it seem real and convincing. I wrote the whole album for a couple people to see and know me. But now I’m in touch with myself and I have a very full life — maybe too full — and it’s hard to take out the complicated emotions and relationships. Now I try to pull back from them a little bit and make them more fantastical, because they’re so real and painful in some ways. So it’s not, unfortunately, with the audience in mind. It’s about the creative process of being a writer.
TONY: Hopefully your audience is growing with you.
LP: Do you know what that word is? They call it skewing. I’m skewed to 25- to 35-year-old women.
TONY: You must have a lot of male fans, too.
LP: That’s what [the record execs] forget. They’re really stupid to forget that. I keep trying to tell them.
TONY: What’s the weirdest gift you’ve ever gotten from a fan?
LP: Some guy gave me a fake pearl bracelet as if it was this big wonderful thing early on.
TONY: In person?
LP: Yeah, and he wanted to let me know he’d be a good boyfriend. I was looking at this thing like, “Bud, it’s cheap!” It was terrible — it was awkward for me because he was so proud of it. He thought he was making this standout gesture.
TONY: He was trying to be the “kind of guy who tries to win you over”. So do you ever have a control issue with all your producers and managers? Do you have to haggle a lot?
LP: Yes. I want to kill myself. It’s gotten better now — thank God, because I couldn’t take another day, it was so frustrating. I felt like, even though I made the album and I’m the product, I didn’t have a lot to say in it. They were humoring me. It’s not to say I know best — maybe I don’t. But I would definitely like to be considered a serious shareholder.
TONY: Do you still pay attention to the Chicago music scene?
LP: Not at all. Someone just called me Sasquatch. Someone said I’d been sighted jogging once in the last year somewhere [in Chicago]. I love shows, but when you have no time at night, I love movies more.
TONY: Will you ever act in movies?
LP: I don’t think I can act. I’d love to! Isn’t that tempting? ‘Cause everyone’s like, “You’re a rock star.” No, I don’t think I can do it. But I would love to. What a gas.
TONY: Has celebrity changed you at all?
LP: The only time I ever use my status is in restaurants. I enjoy when I get free desserts or when they seat me. The only way the world of celebrity has affected me is, when I had the most attention, I also had the lowest self-esteem. And I’m not sure why that is. But it seemed like the more scrutiny that came my way, the less sure I was about my own identity. But that doesn’t happen anymore.
TONY: What If the record flops and you get dropped?
LP: I don’t think it will. I think I would know. It’s definitely a good record, a quality record. No matter how it’s received, I won’t think it’s not. You know when you’ve done something well. I worked so hard on this record, I know that if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but it’s not going to change my opinion of it.
TONY: Who’s the most important artist of the past decade?
LP: I have no idea. I can be intelligent about a lot of things, but the irony is, I’m not very intelligent about the music world. Even though I’m smart enough to write my own stories intelligently, it doesn’t mean musically I’m anything above street level. I’m pretty stupid.
TONY: What’s making you angry these days?
LP: Lots of stuff. LA. Confidential really pissed me off. I found it abhorrent, and no one talks about it. I have yet to see the article that discusses the fact that women were portrayed as both erotic and bloodied at the same time. It was the biggest pandering, old horror-movie shtick where her tits are bouncing as she runs away, and she’s got, like, a knife in her back. Even the woman on the slab in the morgue, though she was green, looked amazingly fuckable. There was not a moment where they didn’t manipulate men’s emotions, to see women as brutalized and sexual at the same time. That’s the most sick, twisted aspect of the gender war to me there. I’m so disturbed by that. That means that it’s penetrated our culture again in a way that’s acceptable chic. That’s destructive to women’s self-esteem and men’s understanding of what it is to be responsible for themselves in their world.
TONY: What do you want to be remembered for?
LP: Astounding biceps. [Laughs] I want to be remembered for my life. I know that sounds cheesy, but my motivation is wanting to be heard. That’s a very feminist thing right there, and it’s overlooked because it’s not a big headline and it doesn’t grab you. But I grew up as a girl unheard by the boys — at dinner tables the men would speak mostly, and their opinions were taken seriously. I felt the patriarchy through that. I felt it at school as I got to a certain age. The guys would be like, “You don’t know anything, you’re a stupid girl,” because my interests were different. When I got to college, then it was all, “You don’t know anything about music.” I made that whole album [Guyville] because they thought I knew nothing about music, and I was like, “You don’t have to fucking know the genealogy of a band to know something about music.”
I want these albums to stand as the diary of my life. Because in the history books, we’re not present, we’re not there, and that had a great impact on me as a young woman. There’s nobody to look to. In a thick act book, there’s 14 women artists. In the history books, it’s all men fighting wars, and there’s a Queen Elizabeth here and there. It felt like the whole world of women was dead silent. We were going through tough childbirths, but that’s about it. It became important for me to be heard.
TONY: A lot of women embrace feminist values, but many are offended by the word ~mInIsm. Can you think of a new word for it?
LP: Empowerment. To be considered in major decisions of this world, this nation and in a family unit and a relationship. To be considered valuable for what we want to be and not what role we play in relation to men. What people don’t like about feminism is that the word connotes having to agree with all women and having to stick together and not be able to strike out individually. It has this connotation of a movement or a rally, or having to toe the party line, read the right books and have a cohesive front — which is what you’ve got to do when you have to break down the law, and at every point in our journey, we’re going to have to do that to get something done. But it isn’t going to be the overriding drive for a lot of women. The overriding drive is to live a happy, healthy life feeling you can do whatever you want to do.
whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador/Capitol) is in stores August 11.
By Gail O’Hara
Time Out New York, August 6-13, 1998