Three years ago, Liz Phair was ready to retire. The unexpected US success of her debut album, Exile in Guyville (1993) – it sold 200,00 copies – made her America’s favourite dirty-mouthed singer-songwriter, notorious for lyrics such as “Every time I see your face I get wet between the legs”. But after the troubled sessions for the commercially disappointing Whip-Smart (1994), she was debating whether she wanted to remain in the record industry.
“I remember thinking, Fuck it, I don’t want people yelling at me on the phone,” she says now. But motherhood changed all that. “Exhausting as it is,” she adds, “I never had more ambition than when I had my son. I thought God, life is cool.”
The result is whitechocolatespaceegg, a supremely confident, tuneful album by a female singer-songwriter that owes more to the crafted guitar pop of Blondie than the folksier ramblings of Joni Mitchell. All of which made her presence on the all-female, hugging-and-learning Lilith Fair tour rather unlikely.
“I did stick out,” she admits, “I thought I was going to be fired in the first week. The lyrics I was spewing at the audience were completely unlike anything else anyone was doing.”
But as a good feminist, she was happy to be away from the laddish rock world. “It’s so isolating to be a woman in this business,” Phair groans. “Everyone’s really tough, hanging out in the studios, smoking their Marlboro reds. I was like, Broaden your horizons guys.”
Phair, now 31, comes from an affluent Chicagoan family, and even went to summer camp with Julia Roberts (“We had a falling out because she kept calling me collect”). Her parents, however, didn’t take to her choice of career.
“They were mortified!” she snorts. “My mother’s social set is very reserved and this was deeply inappropriate behaviour. Now they’re trying to get behind me, like, By God, we’ll support her! You get my parents’ friends coming to the concerts and when I play the really dirty song, I’m imagining their faces. It’s just so painful.”
By Mark Morris
Q, April 1999