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Exiting from Guyville

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A night out with Liz Phair

By Jesse McKinley
The New York Times, June 8, 2003

It has been almost 10 years to the day since Liz Phair released her first album, “Exile in Guyville”, a brash, cynical collection of antilove songs that featured her screaming face on the cover and her brutal musical honesty about sex (usually lousy), men (usually lousy) and more sex (did we mention lousy?).

“Guyville” firmly established Ms. Phair, an indie chick before indie chicks really hit, as the thinking man’s minx. So it was more than a little surprising Thursday evening to discover Ms. Phair, protofeminist, in the midst of a full-fledged fashion crisis in the lobby of S.I.R., a rehearsal studio on West 25th Street.

The issue was her skirt, or rather the gray dress she was trying to adapt into a skirt using a pair of scissors and a publicist. There were also makeup issues and hair issues.

All of which was so, well, girly.

“I think I have too much of a tail,” said Ms. Phair, showing the publicist, Ambrosia Healy of Capitol Records, a little piece of fabric from her fashioned skirt.

“You want a little tail,” the scissor-handed Ms. Healy said.

The burly S.I.R. roadies offered their two cents.

“I think you need a little more off the left,” one said. “And the right.”

They were hardly the first men trying to get the 36-year-old Ms. Phair to show a little more skin. The cover of her new album for Capitol, a disc with her name as a title, due on June 24 and her first in five years, features Ms. Phair in lingerie, straddling a guitar, her hair blown out and her head thrown back. You could be excused for thinking you had stumbled onto an ad for the Spice network.

All of which has led to inevitable charges from the alt-rock establishment (not a misnomer) that she has sold out.

“The album is really about balancing extremes,” she said by way of reply. “Psycho to sane, stop to go.”

That makes her sound much moodier than she actually is; despite going through a divorce from her husband, a film editor, and watching the likes of pop rebels like Avril Lavigne steal her mojo, Ms. Phair is surprisingly sunny, with a quick smile and the type of patient, calm energy that many happy mothers have. (Her son, Nick, is 6 and, she says, “the love of my life.”) She’s dating a musician, she said, but “kind of on strike against love right now.”

From the recording studio, it was into a cab to a made-for-MTV concert by Radiohead at the Beacon Theater on Upper Broadway, a show that was preceded by drinks with more Capitol people at an Asian-Mexican joint on Amsterdam Avenue.

A bit of a goofball, she explained that her new catch phrase is “on point, like a shrub in Vancouver,” a reference to some topiary she recently saw while touring. “I’d been to Vancouver before, but I’d not noticed the shrubbery,” she said. “They are really serious about their shrubbery.”

From the restaurant, there was another makeup application before heading into the Beacon. Once inside, Ms. Phair and her guitarist, Dino Meneghin, worked their way to the V.I.P. balcony, where Ms. Phair was kissed, hugged and once mistaken for Lisa Marie Presley.

All of which left the 25-year-old Mr. Meneghin, on his first tour with Ms. Phair, a little overwhelmed.

“I feel like a kid,” he said. “She’s talking to all these record people, and I’m like, `Hi, I’m the guitarist.'”

Ms. Phair confirmed it. “Dino, this is rock star life at its apex,” she said with a mischievous smile, moments before Radiohead began.

That apex, as many rock stars can tell you, doesn’t last. Near the end of the set, Ms. Phair got a phone call with bad news; the parent of a friend was seriously ill. Suddenly, Ms. Phair didn’t feel much like rocking.

On the way back to her hotel in a cab, Ms. Phair seemed a little wistful, but content, about her place in life; somewhere, she said, in between the indie rock goddess, her airbrushed 2003 version and plain old Mom.

“I’ve kinda circled around again to where I’m single again, I’m touring again, and I’m rocking again,” she said, before adding, “I’m on point, like a shrub in Vancouver.”

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