By Anthony Violanti
The Buffalo News, October 14, 2005
Liz Phair isn’t stuck in Guyville.
The onetime indie/alternative rebel who helped spur a women’s movement in rock with 1993’s Exile in Guyville is no longer spewing out sexually charged songs that stick it to men and the record industry.
“I’m very different; that was 12 years ago,” Phair said this week by phone. “I hate to think it’s like I’m still going around saying fuck you.”
Phair, 38, who will perform Thursday in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, now spends much of her time raising her son, Nicholas, 8. She just released a new CD, Somebody’s Miracle, filled with pop stylings and introspection.
Exile in Guyville might have been considered a feminist response to the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street. Phair’s current album was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. It’s about emotional growth and a personal view of the world.
That might describe Phair’s current state of mind, which has evolved since the birth of her son.
“He had a big impact in terms of how I perceive myself and my job,” Phair said. “I really wasn’t made to be a performer, it wasn’t in my blood. It wasn’t until I had my child that I realized, “Oh you stupid cow, you’re job is to get on stage and make music. That’s a wonderful thing to do.'”
“I looked at his life and walking was a big deal. I suddenly saw how lucky I was. I still grump and grumble, but I’ve really opened up to opening up.”
Phair has been introduced to a whole new set of people through her son.
“Before it was like: I’m cool, you’re not cool,” she said. “But I began to make friends with people because they had a child my age in the neighborhood. They could be Republicans. When you have a child you bridge that gap because you have children in common. It opened me up to the world.”
Phair has always been layered with contradictions: the feminist as a rocking sex symbol; the indie performer gone pop; and a songwriter with a street-tough vocabulary along with intellectual literary influences.
“She’s a very profound artist,” said Hank Dole, program director for the Lake, 107.7 WLKK-FM. “She opened the door for people like Alanis Morissette.”
“Liz Phair is the real deal. She’s more of an artist than a merchandising machine. Obviously, it’s hard to maintain a career when you break in with an album like Guyville.”
“I love that album because it’s so angry,” said Val Townsend, air personality at WEDG-FM 103.3. “It was great when it came out, and it’s just as good now.”
Four albums after Guyville, Phair never became the next big thing.
“Phair has courted a mainstream audience with poppier melodies and a sexed-up image, polarizing longtime fans who criticized her for abandoning her indie (credibility),” Brian Orloff wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.
There were lean years, and Phair’s self-titled album in 2003 used the same production team as pop stars Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff. The mainstream effort was critically panned and commercially disappointing.
The new CD has more of an edge and was produced for Capitol Records by Phair’s guitarist, John Alagia, with help from her boyfriend and bandmate, Dino Meneghin. This CD displays Phair’s maturity and honesty.
It’s also reflective of her life, and one song, “Stars and Planets,” sums up Phair’s experience in the music business.
“It’s kind of a life lesson for other artists or people who want to be in my position,” she said. “What this business is really about is what every single individual has inside them. What makes a music artist is the ability to broadcast the same humanity that everyone possesses. It’s inherent in your soul.”
“People think of all the trappings of the music business and they forget that. Really, what I am is a storyteller – a storyteller who learned to play live, deal with studios and work with labels.”
Phair has never really found a commercial niche.
“They always want me to make the Liz Phair record, but I want to do something different,” she said. The curse of indie-rocker lives on.
“When I wrote Guyville, I was basically ripping on the whole indie scene,” Phair said. “It was just as oppressive as the whole suburban preppie thing. I was never fooled.”
A sales slump in the record industry has created a tense atmosphere for artists and labels.
“Being commercial is a prerequisite for staying afloat,” Phair said. “I mean, it’s desperate out there and you have to fit in a little, you have to go somewhere.”
Phair has no apologies for going with Capitol.
“They’re creative-minded, and it’s the best major label I could be at,” she said. “But I still look at people like Ani (DiFranco), who are doing it their own way, and I kind of yearn for that. I know it’s really hard, but it might be nice to make your own mistakes. Right now, that isn’t an option for me, so I’m back in the system.”
That means having a music career and a raising a child:
“You give birth to a child, but it doesn’t mean you’re ready to be a mother,” she said. “Every year, in every way, I’ve got to keep improving myself so that my son has a better life. It never stops; it’s like a marathon, and you just keep going step by step.
“My son taught me to forgive myself for all the big mistakes I made in my life; all the lies I told and the selfishness and the hurt I inflicted on others. It was all in the spirit of me having this great life and doing what I wanted to do. That changes when you have the responsibility of a child.”
For Phair, meeting that responsibility is matter of nurturing and growing. Just like her music.