By Andrew Murfett
The Age, March 24, 2006
Liz Phair doesn’t look like the outdoors type.
Yet backstage after sound-checking for a gig at a Hollywood club, the meticulously well-kept indie-rock chanteuse insists since the arrival of her son James, 9, she’s now a hiking, horseback-riding, boogie-boarding mum.
It’s the worry of a mother that preys most on her mind when she leaves her son for work commitments — a worry that she laughs is similar to that felt by her parents when she embarked on a career in music.
“They were horrified,” says the now LA-based Phair. “They didn’t trust the music industry and they were also horrified by the kind of language I used. But when all these cheques started coming in later on, I was like, ‘See, now I can pay for my own car insurance!”‘
Phair was 21 when she began writing her debut, the sexually frank independent double album Exile in Guyville. Released in 1993, its raw sound, graphic lyrics and staunchly feminist feel made it a slow-burning hit with both critics and alternative-rock fans. Boosted by gritty confessionals such as “Never Said”, “6’1″” and “Fuck and Run”, it inspired a rash of female singer-songwriters and eventually sold about 500,000 copies, a remarkable figure at the time for an indie album.
Phair’s success quickly led to resentment towards her in the insulated Chicago indie-rock scene. She recalls one night interrupting a heated debate between her friends at a bar.
“They shut up when I walked in,” she says.
“I had this shocking realisation that they were arguing about whether Guyville was any good.
“I was suddenly very self-conscious and mortified. I realised, too, that half of my friends were saying I shouldn’t be successful.”
After releasing the 1994 follow-up Whip-Smart, severe stage-fright made her virtually refuse to play live. A letter from her label’s legal department reminded her she was expected to tour.
“I like the making part but not the selling. Yes, I’d taken their money but it still pissed me off. I was like, ‘Screw this, my husband has a great job, I don’t need to do this’.”
Phair all but disappeared from public view, having a son, separating from her husband and recording the forgettable whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998. Then came 2003’s controversial self-titled album, made with pop doctors the Matrix (Avril Lavigne’s producers) which earned her one of the most vicious and personal critical lashings ever handed out to an alternative artist.
In hindsight, Phair’s somewhat surprising foray into slick, commercial pop was always going to get ugly, with her obsessive indie-rock fans accusing her of selling out to the pop-star machine.
Three years later, the mauling still visibly affects her.
“I’m kind of still having a breakdown about it,” she says. “They’re wearing me down. I try not to care about it but the amount of negativity is just… It’s got under my skin.”
The battering from both fans and critics meant that Phair approached her latest album, Somebody’s Miracle, with trepidation. She is adamant, however, that it didn’t affect her writing.
“How I write hasn’t changed since I was 14,” she says. “Whatever’s going on in my life, that’s what comes out. When big business gets involved, it’s hard to be cohesive.”
Of the reception Somebody’s Miracle received in the US last year, she sighs, “I got a terrible review in Rolling Stone. It still has the pop, which is pissing people off. But it has the earthiness people remember from me. It doesn’t have the anger but it has regret.”
Reminded that her last break from music lasted almost five years, Phair says, “Yeah, I’ve kinda done that twice. And I’m thinking of doing it again.”
Somebody’s Miracle is out this week on Capitol/EMI.