Liz Phair helped kick down the door for a new generation of female rockers when her debut album, Exile in Guyville, came out in 1993.
Conceived as a response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Phair’s Exile announced the arrival of a frank and feisty singer-songwriter. Sexually explicit lyrics got her noticed, although it was not necessarily the kind of first impression this Chicago native and Oberlin College graduate wanted to make.
“I’m proud of having a liberated mouth, but at the same time I’m uncomfortable with the way society views me because of it,” said Phair, 31, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. She opens for Alanis Morissette tonight at Gund Arena.
Phair said people who took the X-rated material on her first album out of context missed the bigger self-portrait she tried to create. “An album represents my full personality,” she said. “I have angry songs, happy songs, sexual songs and little ditties.”
More of the same (with fewer obscenities) can be found on her latest effort, whitechocolatespaceegg, released last August. That cryptic mouthful of a title came to Phair in a dream.
“It was really vivid,” she said. “I was at this desk, almost like a book signing, and people wafted by and said ‘I like your album.’ In the dream, I actually had an album called whitechocolate-spaceegg. I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I thought it was an evocative word.”
If new songs like “Perfect World” and “Go On Ahead” sound more mature than her early work, they should. Phair got married in 1995 and had a baby the following year. These days, balancing her music career and motherhood is an ongoing challenge.
“I feel like I’m just winging it every single day,” Phair said. Her song Nicholas is 2.
“I constantly worry that one is taking away from the other,” she said. “I need rock ‘n’ roll to make me feel like I’m glamorous, fun and exciting. Mommyhood is so much more nuturting. I like to keep them separate, but my son comes out on the road with me sometimes and I’ve brought him by the studio.”
Phair credits becoming a mom for helping her overcome a bad case of stage fright. She did not hit the road in support of her last album, 1994’s Whip-Smart. Last year, though, Phair headlined a club tour and made the rounds with Lilith Fair.
“Giving birth to my son totally changed my life,” she said. “For some reason, now I don’t feel nearly as self-conscious. I don’t feel nearly as susceptible to people’s judgements.”
Phair wrote and recorded songs when she was a student at Oberlin, where she majored in art history and studio art. She graduated in 1991.
“Music was a hobby,” she said. “It was a fun way to pass the time. My college years definitely had a big influence on my music later, but back then, I would be really quiet so nobody knew what I was doing.”
Before she became a professional musician, Phair wanted to be a visual artist. In college, she specialized in charcoal drawings of faces deformed by disease. “My dad is head of infectious diseases at a hospital, so I grew up with odd impressions of illness,” she said. “I did portraits that confronted you with the decomposition of bodily structure. The eyes were realistic while the other features were horrific. When your body comes under attack and literally disintegrates, where is your self? That’s what I was dealing with.”
Between classes, Phair occasionally came to Cleveland. “It was always to see rock shows,” she said. “I remember going to see Swans and Sonic Youth. I remember this really stupid show, too. I always want to say the Dead Kennedys, but it was worse than that — the Dead Milkmen.”
By John Soeder
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), February 15, 1999