Music: Through Motherhood and the Lessions of the Lilith Fair, a notoriously stage-wary Rocker Nurtures Her Stage Skills
Liz Phair is not the sort of person who’d come out and say something like “Lilith Fair changed my life.” Coming from her lips, such a statement would seem too corny to sound like anything but sarcasm.
Even so, being part of the roving, all-female roadshow last summer had a tremendous effect on Phair. “When I watched Sarah [McLachlan] and Natalie [Merchant] and Paula [Cole], I just sat there going, ‘I want to be that,’ ” she says, still sounding slightly awe-struck.
It wasn’t just the strength of the songs or the musicality of the performances that struck her. What Phair most admired about the Lilith headliners was the energy and emotionality they projected.
“It’s perfectly normal for a woman to stand up on a stage and sing about her feelings,” she says, over the phone from a tour stop in Virginia. “And if you take that to the logical end, it’s about just how dramatically can you do that? There’s a drama to it, a sense of theater.”
For Phair, this was a revelation. Even though the 32-year-old Chicagoan has enjoyed the perks of rock stardom, from MTV appearances to having her picture on the cover of Rolling Stone, she’d never really considered herself a bonafide rock star.
“I’d always been ambivalent about my career,” she admits. “I’d always said that I could be happy just sitting in my room, writing. And suddenly, I found that that wasn’t enough, because I saw something I wanted.”
When she started out, Phair suffered from severe stage fright and did everything she could to avoid having to play before a live audience. She did almost no touring to promote her 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville,” and kept the roadwork for 1994’s “Whipsmart” to a bare minimum.
By contrast, the singer has been on the road almost non-stop since the release last year of her third album, “Whitechocolatespaceegg.”
Moreover, Phair has been working hard to improve her performance skills.
“It was a definite decision in my life,” she says.
To some of Phair’s following, her budding professionalism may seem a bit of a betrayal. After all, the lo-fi amateurism of “Exile in Guyville” was part of the album’s charm for many alt-rock fans — particularly those who hated the slick professionalism of mainstream rock.
Almost from the moment her first album was released, Phair was the poster girl for “indie cred,” or credibility in the independent rock label scene, representing everything that was uncommercial and cool about alternative rock.
Funny thing was, she had no use for either indie cred or the culture that created it.
“I absolutely hated that whole ‘indie cred’ thing,” she says. “I’ve always thought that was the stupidest thing in the world. I couldn’t stand people who catalogued their coolness by what they listened to and how much they knew about it.”
Not only does Phair admit to liking “really dumb songs on the radio,” but she has lost interest in the sort of lyrical self-obsession that was an alt-rock hallmark. Many of the songs on “Whitechocolatespaceegg” find Phair focusing not on her own life, but on the lives of others.
“I think it was because I had a baby,” she says. “I suddenly had this vision of the societal whole and how I fit into it. Rather than being so concerned with my own story, with ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ I felt like part of a larger story.”
Watching her son grow, she says, has been “so enlightening. You just see where everybody’s behavior comes from. Like, ‘OK, you must be hungry, and that’s why you’re cranky.’ “
Dealing with a cranky toddler has, curiously enough, also made it easier for Phair to understand why she sometimes panics when faced with difficult or unruly audiences, as she was on occasion while opening for Alanis Morissette earlier this year. “It’s that same urge, I suppose, I have as a mom,” she says. “Like if [my son] gets upset, I just obsess about it. ‘Well, what can I do? Should I jump up and down? Should I bring you food?’ “
With audiences, Phair says, “I have that same need to please them. Like, ‘What can I do to make you more happy?’
“But you know what?” she adds. “I like it. I like performing. I have come to need that in my life. And I like the fact that it’s something that I can do now moderately well, and I can get better at.”
By J.D. Considine
The Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1999