By Roxanne Ruben
Venice, June 2003
Although Liz Phair admits to continued frustration that, due to her gender, she holds only a limited access pass when it comes to the male-dominated music business, please note that she’s got nothing against guys. In fact, she’s really crazy about them. Her break-the-double-standard, women-have-needs soap-boxing aside, Phair enjoys the feeling she gets from having a man in her life.
Separated from her husband Jim for the past three years, Phair sheepishly admits that she has still not finalized the paperwork and finds it comforting to have her estranged husband located just around the block from her house in the South Bay. Does this make Liz Phair old-fashioned? Perhaps a little bit, but she’s not lost her naughty edge. With or without the guy, Phair’s surviving quite well, and with the release of her self-titled fourth album — her first in five years — Phair proves that marriage, plus child (son Nick is seven), plus the subsequent demise of a marriage, equals a reconfigured woman; one who’s definitely in touch with her mojo and has been experiencing her own personal sexual revolution of late.
Phair sashayed onto the indie music scene in 1993 with the critically lauded Exile in Guyville. Showcasing a less militant yet still empowering feminist attitude in her material, Phair harnessed the sexual power and energy that women possess and used her seemingly innocent persona to sing about blow jobs and “hit and run” sexual encounters. The waif from Chicago aurally hogtied many a male (and critic), earned the loyalty and admiration of female fans, and was one of the artists instrumental in making the late Lilith Fair a success. Phair’s follow-up efforts including WhipSmart in 1995, which produced the single “Super Nova”, and Whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998 helped further cement her as a fixture in the world of indie music.
Her latest effort was recorded in Los Angeles, tapping the creative forces at The Matrix, as well as Michael Penn. While Phair didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Penn, she is adamant that there was and is no row going on between the two of them. Basically, Phair underwent a change of creative direction based upon the events in her life and reworked a lot of the material on the record so it was more true to what she was feeling — conveying the emotional roller-coaster ride she’d just emerged from. She went on to take matters into her own hands further when she fired her manager, ensuring her the freedom to add another creative chapter to the Liz Phair catalog.
Over chocolate bread pudding and bowls of berries and cream, Phair revealed her thoughts to Venice about life, love, and, of course, music, including her reason for penning “HWC” (Parental Advisory warning in effect).
Venice: Do you enjoy being single again?
Liz Phair: Well… the divorce papers still aren’t final. It’s been three years! I sort of like the fact that I’m attached to somebody. And he’s totally supportive. He lives down here and helps take care of our son. What is it about women and having a man to keep the world at bay or something… to protect us? For me, it’s a feeling of being unsafe, not being protected enough. Actually, now I hardly ever feel it, but there’s a feeling I’ll get at night sometimes… I want there to be a man in front of my life… it’s like there’s nobody driving the ship. It’s funny because as independent as I am, I never expected to feel this way.
Did you learn a lot about yourself going through the divorce?
A disappointment in life can also reacquaint you with the dark side, you know what I mean? And you kind of get that ‘I’ve been tossed around, life didn’t live happily ever after, I didn’t just trod off into the sunset’ thing. I came up against a lot of parts of myself that I struggle with — that I’m still struggling with. There’s a toughness that comes back… you go through some tough times and I was very unhappy about a couple of things. I had to work through my own pain which helps you reclaim a certain side of yourself. It’s chaos but I’ve been through some of my highest times in my life since my divorce. But you are definitely aware that you’re not in Never-Never Land anymore.
How did this impact your songwriting?
It made me a little more real about it. This attitude I have in these songs when I talk to journalists and some people who are old fans who really didn’t like “HWC”… whose attitude was like, ‘Thank God she doesn’t have a daughter.’ And the thing about it is that after what I’ve been through, I’m like ‘you don’t like it? Well, this is real even if it isn’t your experience in life or whatever.’ You get kind of jaded, you know?
So are Michael Penn’s contributions a big part of this record or not? I’ve read conflicting stories.
It’s so weird, there’s all this buzz floating around about it and it just got spun out of control. He has the most representation out of anyone else on here. What happened was when we finished our record together, I didn’t feel like it represented what I needed it to represent… where I was in my life and how I was feeling. All the songs are great. I just didn’t feel complete. I needed to put together an album that spoke for me, represented how I felt, where I was in my life. And, what Michael and I did together, I don’t know, it just didn’t complete me. He didn’t like a lot of the songs I ended up using, he didn’t want to record those songs but these were my story. So what happened in the end was good for everybody because I just went back, I fired my manager, and suddenly I was free to kind of do what I pleased. And I went back to all the different sessions I had been recording over the last five years and I took my favorite picks and I took the ones that I connected with the most. I told my story. It was like, ‘Take back the record!’
What inspired you to write “HWC?”
“HWC” is kind of sing-songy and happy-go-lucky but it’s also about me. To me, it was like the most empowering thing I could say. It just kept bugging me that it wasn’t on some of the earlier album mock-ups I made over the last five years. So I made a choice to put it on the record. I just loved this guy, was having great sex. I was in control as much as he was. So I wanted to share that. Make the statement.
You sang backup on Sheryl Crow’s single, “Soak Up the Sun”, but that was kind of a fluke, right?
The story is that I was waiting at Sunset Sound where they were doing drum tracks on my record. I was out playing basketball and Sheryl’s trying to record this song and she’s hearing the basketball going ‘ba boom’ against the wall and she was like, “Who the fuck is that?!” So she comes storming out to tell the person playing basketball to shut up. And it’s me! And she’s like “Liz?” I’m like ‘Sheryl? How are you?’ But anyway, she was like, ‘Come on in… do you want to do backup?’ So it was totally spontaneous. It was really fun and you know what the best part was? The minute I got in the booth and heard it — she didn’t tell me anything about the song — I was like, ‘This is the single, I just scored so massively. I’m doing backup on the single!’
In the past, you’ve had some intense bouts with stage fright. How have you learned to deal with that?
Practice. When I first started out, everyone knew who I was when they came to a show and they knew my record; there was a cultish thing about it. It’s hard to play for an audience like that — that knows all the words. It’s nerve wracking because the connection is so intense and the energy’s kind of like, ‘Whew!’ But I got a good kick in the pants from Lilith Fair because I had to go out in front of so many people that it was impossible to be afraid of it. There were 25,000 people out there.
Do you think the music business lets the guys “just be” while female artists seem to come and go in a more cyclical manner?
What annoys me just at the very bottom level is why women — who are 60 percent of the population — can come in and out of favor? How is that possible? It should be a type of female music that comes in and out of favor but women should always be represented. Why are we sort of a novelty that can either wax or wane as an entire gender? It’s staggering if you really look at it. You know, it’s a whole mentality — “Women are in fashion this year.” Men are always in fashion! Different styles of their own self-centered music are in fashion but women can come or go? It’s a club that we don’t belong to. We’re like guest speaker subs sometimes.
What do you think about how female artists are depicted versus their male counterparts?
A major label will get hold of a guy band and they’re thinking, “Get them new haircuts, get them new clothes,” but they don’t say, “How big is his cock?” or “How tight can his pants be?” And “Can we pretend he’s having an affair with his bass player?” But women are still looked at through the eyes of sex. Men are not interested unless it’s about sex. It just highlights the fact that it’s still the men making the decisions. They’re the top dogs in terms of how culture is viewed…until my dying day that will bug me, and on my dying day it will probably still be the same.
It’s that cliché in reverse: Men — you can’t live with ’em, and you can’t live without ’em!
I love men, I hang out with men, and I’m ga-ga for men. I had a lot of male cousins and brothers who were all older guys so I naturally look through those goggles… like, ‘Hey, me too, wait up!’ With this record, I kind of took it to the industry; I kind of got my little paws into how the record industry works. That was kind of my boys club fetish over the last year… boning up on how the industry works.
What’s Liz Phair’s credo for living?
I’m not going to spend my whole time going against culture, I’m going to enjoy life, have a man, have a family, do the cute girl thing or whatever. But, I’m going to push the rock along a little bit. And I think if everyone did that… you don’t have to kill yourself, just push the rock a little bit.
Featured Image: Photo by Amy Rachlin