By Jon Anne Willow
Vital Source, October 1, 2005
Here’s the thing about Liz Phair. If you’re a great admirer (as I am) you might be intimidated by the prospect of speaking to her directly (as I was). Even as a seasoned feature writer with two decades of bylines in my files, I was so nervous that when her publicist patched us together that I kind of froze. “Hello?” she said, her speaking voice a little higher and more melodic than I’d imagined. “Are you there?” Tongue-tied, I almost hung up, but I was on assignment, so instead I did the only thing I could under the circumstances. I confessed my insecurity, potentially sealing my fate as a pathetic amateur in her eyes.
“God, don’t you hate that? That happened to me not too long ago.” She giggles, but it’s a conspiratorial girl-giggle, meant to put me at ease. She then tells the story of being in Michael Penn’s home recording studio, working on tracks for Somebody’s Miracle, when Joni Mitchell popped in. Penn invited Liz into the kitchen to meet her all-time musical hero, but, she confesses, “I was so freaked out, my ass was frozen to the couch. Absolutely frozen. I could not get up. When I finally did, I kind of hung back by the doorjamb. I had nothing interesting to say to her.” She goes on to tell about meeting Mick Jagger (again) recently, and how she tried to lighten things up by being friendly and cracking a joke. But everything she said seemed to come off as offensive in some way, so she just shut her mouth. We agreed that it was probably the difference between being Midwestern and being from, well, about anywhere else. I pushed aside unbidden thoughts of the great girlfriends Liz and I would surely have been in a different life and pressed on.
Here’s something you may not know. Liz Phair is at peace with herself. This is a relatively new development, a spiritual transition years in the making. Nothing shakes up one’s world quite like parenthood, except perhaps a painful divorce or a career inexplicably on the slide. For some, the death of a much-loved relative can turn everything upside down. And when it all comes down more or less in a continuum, there’s no time to process each piece individually. It’s a true “get real” moment, fall or rise. Liz has risen, and her first big step was self-forgiveness.
“There is an acceptance in me now,” she says. “I feel like I turned a corner in my personal life where I stopped running from all my bad qualities and said ‘enough is enough.’ I don’t want to live the rest of my life alone; I don’t want somebody making excuses for me, I don’t want to be somebody that my son needs therapy to get over.” But inner equilibrium is learned behavior for the woman who had the (mis)fortune of releasing one of the most acclaimed debut records of all time, then proceeded to ride celebrity like a rodeo bull until she fell off, bloody-nosed and dusty – but not beaten. Now 38, Liz Phair still looks the sylvan nymph, but she’s all grown woman inside. Less self-centered, more powerful.
It comes through in speaking with her. She’s very okay with being accountable to the higher power of motherhood and role model status, although the latter came as a surprise on the last tour, behind 2003’s radio-friendly Liz Phair.
“I had no idea that nine-year-old girls were going to come to shows. I was suddenly faced with this conundrum as a mother: I can’t not play my songs, but I don’t want to be inappropriate for these kids, either. I used to say to the audience, ‘this is the part where you cover your daughters’ ears.’ It was kind of a joke, but not totally.”
“But then I began to realize that these parents were bringing their daughters because I am a role model, and not a terrible one. I began to understand that I’m an example of grownup womanhood that’s kind of rare. For all the dirty language, it’s not about the words. I’m really like a representation – for all my flaws and my strengths – of someone who’s made their own choices. These moms can look at me and say, ‘here’s someone who writes about her own feelings and experiences.’ And that’s a good thing.”
This is a noble idea, but philosophy and the needs of daily living don’t always synchronize. The path of a self-styled trailblazer can feel isolating, especially for a girl who doesn’t like to be alone. But for better or worse, being a hands-on parent (her son travels with her much of the time), a hands-on artist (she’s had creative control of most of her work) and just plain hands-on with her feelings and her experiences is the only way Liz knows how to live. And she’s taking the long view.
“Women who are doing their own thing, making choices that are not the standard ones, are in this in-between place. I believe society will change and it won’t be the traditional roles, but it’s going to be a long time before it settles into a new thing. There’s going to be a lot of people like me, like you, who are working, having children, not being or being married, and it’s hard. When I get lonely or sad, I feel like, where’s my nation? Where are the people like me in the world? Why? It’s because we’re part of the changers. There’s no organized club for us. Sometimes I get misty and I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if I just did things like other people?’ But that’s not me. I have to do things on my own, in the way I believe is best for me and my life.”
With her new record being praised by critics and fans on both sides of the aisle (Indy Liz vs. Commercial Liz), a sane relationship and a more centered outlook, Liz is excited about this tour. In preparation, she went out for a handful of club dates this summer with just her guitar and her boyfriend, fellow guitarist Dino Meneghin, for onstage company. Playing small rooms, she kept the sets loose and took requests from the audience.
“I really like performing that way. What I wanted to do was just really be me, because my music, for me, lives and dies by the songs. That’s how I write ’em, that’s how I play for myself and that’s what I wanted to share with the audience. I love things being spontaneous. What if something goes wrong? I thrive in that atmosphere. Maybe that’s Midwestern too, I don’t know.”
The question that remains is to what extent that spontaneity can translate into bigger rooms and a more rigorous touring schedule. “We’re trying to figure it out,” says Liz. “Do we want a section where it’s just the two of us for part of the show? Do we want to ask the guys to break down the whole pop thing for some of the songs? We’re talking about it every day. I’m trying to find the balance that will let me be me while giving the audience what they paid for, because I hate it when I go to a show and it sucks, doesn’t live up to my expectations.”
Spoken like a true Midwestern girl.
Jon Anne Willow is Editor and Co-Publisher of Vital Source. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years, first published in Highlights magazine at the age of ten. So far, this is her only national writing credit.