By Mike Gee
The Swirling Sphere, April 1999
Liz Phair has grown up. The post-feminist who sneered at the Rolling Stones, while revelling in her sexuality and confessing her confusion as a woman-in-the- making, is now Mrs Mom.
At 32, she’s a Phair degree of different by comparison to the 26-year-old who snipped and snapped at questions during an interview for her critically-consumed debut Exile in Guyville.
Just look at the two album covers: on Exile, a cloaked Phair her eyes virtually hidden, her right nipple just intruding into the bottom right of the picture, throws herself at the camera, at the listener. On her latest – and quite brilliant – whitechocolatespaceegg, there’s Liz her hair bobbed a lock drifting down over her face, staring straight into the camera, exactly the same area of chest bared, only no nipple, just shadow/mystery, and her knees are up in front of her.
What they have in common is an unsuppressed sexuality; what they say by way of difference is that five years after Exile in Guyville wrote Liz Phair into the alt rock textbooks and established her – literally overnight – as arguably the best female songwriter since Joni Mitchell, its executor has found a way to return herself to the ordinary in much the same way she takes the daily mores of life and the intimacies of relationships and remakes them in a genuine unprepossessing fashion.
No standing on ceremony with Liz: she’s the woman of “Fuck and Run” from Guyville who still knows what it’s like to get dragged around the back of a convertible (“Johnny Feelgood”), can make out in the danger zone just for the heck of ignition (“Love Is Nothing”), but is just as likely to fess up to her man about the trials of parenthood – “one night is lovely, the next is brutal” (“Go On Ahead”) – or lay down reality – “You can take me home/ But I will never be your girl” – in the album’s best track “Headache”.
Elsewhere she’s looking backwards to go forwards. The marvellous “Polyester Bride” finds her digging around in those messy teen years through a conversation with a bartender named Henry, delivers a fuck-you in the slavish “Shitloads Of Money”, revels in leaving adulthood behind for a girls-night-out (“Girls’ Room”), changes perspective and sex and writes as a “Big Tall Man” and gets her mummies off about – now two years old – Nicholas in the title track.
Phair the confessor is still probing through those internal dark corners seeking answers to questions that are only half-formed but she’s also become strong and assured enough to introduce Phair the storyteller, the woman who recognises the complexities of life through adult eyes. In retrospect, the intermediary album the under-estimated Whip-Smart (1995), appears a perfectly placed chronicle of the beginning of self-realisation beyond the dichotomies of a woman in a largely sexist world.
She’s an absolute joy to interview now. On holiday in the Virgin Islands, Phair is keen to talk, but more she’s keen to be honest. Liz Phair is trying really hard to point out that Guyville is a long way down the road, way over the horizon behind her. It all comes to a head when she starts talking about the alchemy of success or, more to the point, the agony of success.
“I have never seen success in the music industry not corrupt,” she says. “Maybe, Sheryl Crow is the only example. She made a second album that’s as good as the first. And she seemed to handle it.
“But a lot of people, nearly everybody, starts to falter after their first album, particularly if it’s successful. I say just push them through second album, this part of the learning phase.”
“I went through. I know what happens to you. My self-esteem dropped lower than it’s ever been. It dropped and dropped. And it didn’t have anything to do with my past. As I grew up I was special enough, attractive enough, interested in enough, loved enough, but there was nothing like the success that came with Exile.”
“It came right out of leftfield for me. I was inundated. I’d never grown up a rock chick. I didn’t know what to expect or what it was about. There were all these people writing these things about me and I’d read them and I ended up having no good, solid, identity for two years.”
“Until then the biggest decisions I’d had to make were which party to go to, what should I wear, should I get laid, whether I should get stoned on any day or not. And, suddenly, there was all this stuff about this girl full of hate, who was totally sexed up one minute and freezing cold the next.”
“I got painfully self-conscious, miserable, lost weight. It probably wasn’t the most excitingly successful point of my career, so the long haul to get me back is so satisfying – because I took the next step.”
“Now I’m present for the experience. I’m like a running deer getting shot at – even if it is with a love arrow, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t if it’s another type of arrow.”
A few week’s earlier Phair finished running from one of those arrows – the one that said she couldn’t cut it live, partially because she suffered from debilitating stage fright. She took her own ‘don’t-let-it-get-to-you’ advice, embarked on a successful solo tour then followed that up with seven dates opening for Alanis Morissette on her Former Infatuation Junkie US tour.
She admits to expecting the worst and being shocked by what she found. “It was awesome,” she breathes. “Really a challenge. We were such a small band compared to hers and she gives such a really intense performance. I mean, you wouldn’t expect it from the album. You have to see it to believe it.”
“But I learnt two things. Watching her shows I learned how to perform. I can say I have opened for Morissette with an audience that was mostly hers and – without sounding pompous – they were blown away by our performance. And we leaned how to build our set. That sounds nothing but it takes learning. I actually enjoy live performance now whereas before I used to hate it; I’d rather get shot in the foot. I was deadly afraid of being in front of people, at all.”
“But having a child – something changed in me. You become this exciting, athletic, aware woman for whom middle age becomes more and more interesting. So now it’s let’s get out there and rock – and what can of rock can it be?”
We’re quietly progressing to an important moment: when Liz Phair present confronts Liz Phair past. It’s about perspectives. To understand where Phair is now – and just how far it is from Guyville, the obvious tack is to go back and look see.
She’s already done that.
She’s been back and looked hard.
“All this has changed my perspective of both albums,” she says. “But before I tell how you how, firstly, for both albums, I’m going to compliment myself and say they are good. They show a lot of artistic integrity.”
“They are peculiar. They are very much themselves. But they are also what I had to give at that time of my life.”
“I also noticed how unhappy I sounded on the first album and I think ‘how sad’. I don’t relate to that girl anymore.”
It’s as big a statement of separation – and growth – as Liz Phair can make. But she isn’t finished.
“I also notice how fast it is. Now I’m so much slower. I also noticed how when I made the albums there was so much tongue-in-cheek humour in them, in the songs, but when you listen back to them you don’t sense or hear that. What does come through is anger, anguish, beauty.”
“What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that it takes in the reality of what your life is; it so speaks of you.”
As does whitechocolatespaceegg. It is the album of her life, now, but even so it isn’t perfect. It can’t be. The songs don’t sound like what she envisioned in her bedroom. She says that with just a hint of frustration, that of a mother.
“I really wanted to make landscapes,” Phair says. “I wanted each child to be allowed to be itself, to develop its own self as much as possible, each to stand on its own, give each what it needed within itself. On the other albums the songs tended to play off each other.”
“I worked with a bunch of different musos because I’d always worked with Brad [Wood] and I wanted to work out my contribution. I was a visual artist at school and before I wasn’t mature as a musical sort.”
“What I found was that every muso or producer puts a different spin on whatever they work on because each has their own idea when they hear a song. So the songs can’t really sound like what I envisioned in my bedroom.
“But it doesn’t matter. I love it. I love the album. It was like a really great journey. Maybe that’s how it should be.”
“You know, I have this Holy Grail I’m chasing after. In the first part of my career everybody said I was a great songwriter and terrible live. Now I need to prove I can hold my own as performer. When I’ve done that then I can put down an album that’s pared right back, that has much more space.”
“I like to explore with my music. I write millions of songs. More each month. But the albums people know me by are only a snapshot, video, of me. And it’s a very selective snapshot. Thirty six songs were fully recorded for whitechocolatespaceegg, so what you hear is just a part of me at the time.”
Liz Phair pauses, this is all about understanding, enlarging the snapshot.
“I like the small songs on the album because the big songs, the big production songs like ‘Johnny Feelgood’ are worked over so much in the studio. There are songs that I can hear a lot of myself in: ‘Go On Ahead’, ‘Perfect World’, ‘Girls’ World’, ‘Only Son’.”
What about Headache?
“Oh, I was just about to say … how strange, I was going to say that what else is big for me is ‘Headache’. If I could make an album for me, all the songs would sound like ‘Headache’. That’s really your favourite track? See, I need to fight more with my producer. He wanted to tighten it up but I wouldn’t let him. It’s loose, the mistakes are left in it. It’s sloppy. I like that. I want more of that. Next time – space and looseness.”
Then she laughs gently, “Next time the songs could sound more like I envision them in my bedroom.”
Confession is over.