Liz Phair has come into her own. Just into her third decade, and with three albums to her name, the onetime trash-mouthed suburban brat with stage fright has grown up. Smoking pot has been exchanged for swimming laps, while time once devoted to a Mick Jagger obsession has made way for baby Nicholas.
However, Phair’s most recent album, whitechocolatespacegg, confirmed that some things will never change. Granted, fresh young jimmys have been replaced with fields full of poppies, but Phair’s witty, story-based melodies and ever-edgy guitars are a constant.
At home in Chicago, Phair is preparing to head south as the opening act for fellow former jilted-lover Alanis Morissette. Just before ravaging Southern values as we know them, Phair takes a moment to partake in some good old-fashioned girl talk.
You’re touring with Alanis Morissette. Are you a fan of her work?
Yeah. I remember at the beginning I didn’t want to like it because it was so popular and I resisted it. And I remember driving around and listening in my car and hearing “You Oughta Know” and just finally succumbing to it completely. And the first single, “Thank U,” is my favorite thing she’s ever done. It blew me away. I literally cried a couple of times in my car late at night driving back home. It was so inspirational.
How did you conquer your well-publicized stage fright?
I think part of it was that I had all that time off and, so, I was kind of coming out on a new page. Plus, I went straight into Lilith and it was overwhelming. There were so many other performers [and] I was so excited. I’m like a big celebrity-hound. There were so many different distractions. And I got better with practice. When I first started performing with Exile in Guyville, I hadn’t done it before and I pretty much sucked. I might have been a natural in certain aspects, but had completely unhoned skills. So it was terrifying. Now I’m more experienced and not nearly as afraid as I was about doing things I’m not good at. I have more enthusiasm because I recognize that this is great. How many people get to do this?
Have you been shopping for fabulous new clothes for the tour?
Yes! I had a great night last night because I went to this little boutique store and they had pulled this whole rack of stuff for me. It was after hours and it was three women just totally paying attention to me, dressing me up and trying stuff on. Don’t you feel when you’re wearing the wrong thing you’re totally shot? And when you’re wearing the right thing, you feel great. You have twenty times more energy. I can actually say to my accountant, “I need this — this is for my work.” My whole problem is you go out at night and the next thing you know you’re in, like, black and gray.
Are you currently writing songs?
Yeah, I’m writing so much. It’s kind of beautiful dark stuff. It’s funny, but after I put out whitechocolatespacegg it was like another step to not being afraid to say the dark, more disgruntled things. A lot of it has to do with revolving around when I have free time. I’ll kill myself because I stay up too late. Late night I love writing. I think I’m going to start recording this month. I have the bug bad, very bad.
Do you suffer at all from trying to match the splash that the first album made?
Oh, I totally suffer from that because what I think made that album so special is that I came out of nowhere and that I went insane writing that. I had all this passion, which was the sole focus in my life. Plus, I was getting stoned all the time, living a bohemian life. It was like a real madness and it’s kind of psychotic, but because I couldn’t talk to this man anymore, I decided that Mick’s voice would be his voice and I could explain my side of the relationship to him. So I always wonder if I could make that big of a splash now because I’m not willing to sacrifice my life for a piece of art that way — and that bothers me. That will keep me up at night because I know that I won’t go to the edge like that anymore. And sometimes going to the edge like that is what makes those really powerful punches to music.
Does the last album have a different significance than the others?
You know what, it does. It’s hard to say because each one of them has its own significance, but this one’s particular significance is that I really felt creatively like I broke through. Images come to mind; like, I feel like I just went from a single stream to a delta and I’ve got some options now on where I can go. I put a lot of heart and soul into it. It’s the first album of my own that I enjoy listening to. The first couple albums, I hear an unhappy person in the voice. When I hear the way I sing stuff it’s so washed and tight and I feel so much more free and flying on this album.
You mentioned earlier that your songs are actually autobiographical. So, is “Polyester Bride” about a dalliance with a famous man?
It’s all part of this group that we were hanging out with back then. And some of them were in the John Cusack group, so there was that sense that they were kind of a little more either famous or close to famous. It was like a celebrity group. It’s also about searching out people that are more fabulous than you. It’s really making fun of myself and my state of mind back then because I was such a little snot. And there really is a bartender Henry. He was looking at me like, “Are you really gonna waste your life with this or are you gonna use your mind to do something useful?”
Do you miss little Nicholas terribly when you’re touring?
Yeah, I’m gonna take him for like five of the days. I took him a couple of times on Lilith, and I took him on part of the fall stuff. I protected him so much, like, “I’ll never take my child on tour.” But we don’t go on a bus, we fly. And he adores it — “Airport, airport, airplane!” He really does like watching me on stage, at soundcheck, I take him to that. A couple of times I walked him around and I was signing stuff and he just assumed “People clap for us. How great!” He’s funny.
Are you excited to embrace Southern culture for this tour?
I’m really excited to go to New Orleans. I’ve never been, ever. Of course, I read the Anne Rice stuff, and I love that whole idea of decayed opulence, but I’m sure it won’t come true quite that way. It’s probably more alcoholic and needs re-shingling. There’s something just totally wonderful about that. Can I just tell you what Nick is doing right now? He’s climbing on top of my shoulders, climbing on top of my head! He’s scaling me like a mountain. I just thought you’d enjoy that.
By Liza Ghorbani
JAMtv, January 28, 1998