March 17, 2011
By David Huff
Liberated, Stimulated and Loving It!
Liz Phair Opens Herself In A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview.
Photos courtesy of LizPhair.com
Liz Phair is feeling liberated these days. Gone are the constraints that have kept her from living a full and productive life. Yeah, this Chicago girl is no longer shackled to a deep emotional secret that has been gnawing at her for years. The thought of going public with her feelings, at first, created some sleepless nights. As the brutal truth became more and more apparent, the veteran entertainer realized that airing her secret was the only way she could get the proverbial 'monkey off her back'. So here it is America, on the record for the first time. Liz Phair is... a happy single mother who finally has full control over her musical career.
And shame on all you who thought lovely Elizabeth Clark Phair was just another singer / songwriter musician, desperate for media attention, going to announce to the world her true sexual orientation. For the record, Phair's preferred playmate is well, on the record. Read the lyrics to her tongue-in-cheek tunes, "Dance of the Seventh Veil," (I only ask because I'm a real cunt in spring / You can rent me out by the hour) or "Flower," (Everything you ever wanted / Is everything I'll do to you / I want fuck you till your dick is blue).
"When I came out with my first record," recalled Phair of her 1993 debut, Exile in Guysville, "all hell broke loose in my personal life. Everyone, my entire circle growing up - family, friends, friends of parents - it was total chaos and not pleasant. People were shocked by the lyrics of the songs and very upset. I can't tell you how many cocktail parties I went to where an adult who had been drinking too much - my parents age - would come to me with an almost hostile attitude and create awkward situations."
Phair was a quiet, dutiful daughter who grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, an exclusive, wealthy suburb of Chicago. Her father, Dr. John Phair, was a leading authority on the AIDS virus and headed up the infectious disease unit at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Mother Nancy was an instructor at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. When their daughter's adventurous 18-song debut was released, her frank lyrics on sexuality, among other poignant observations, both shocked and amused the world at large. The picture on the album cover of a woman ready for oral sex didn't help matters either.
"My life went from zero to 500 just like that," said the 43-year old blonde. "I had never done a photo shoot. I had not done interviews. I had grown up in this protective cocoon so I was very naive. Suddenly, the record comes out and everybody in the world thinks I'm this blowjob queen. That was my new national title. Every photo shoot I would go to there would be people drinking, they'd stick me in a bikini and you could imagine the chaos that ensued. I was thrown into this fish bowl that was a bit overwhelming to say the least."
This wasn't the soccer mom world Phair thought she would one day occupy.
"Growing up," reflected the singer, "I was exposed to culture, but I wasn't exposed to business or real responsibility. I did summer internships, but I never had a real job. The most I had seen of the world outside of Chicago was my junior year of college. I lived in New York for several months and was an apprentice to a few artists. I thought that was all the responsibility I needed to know."
Phair stumbled into the music business literally by chance. A self-taught guitarist, she secretly wrote songs in her bedroom as a sort of therapy to understand and deal with life as it came her way. After a four-year stint at Oberlin College, the newly minted grad moved to San Francisco with some girlfriends. One of her loft mates invited a friend from college, Chris Brokaw, to visit for the weekend. While there, Brokaw overheard Phair singing some of her songs.
"Chris and I barely knew each other," maintained Phair. "He had been the lead singer and visionary behind the coolest band at my college. I had seen some of his shows, but I really didn't meet him until he visited San Francisco. He heard me playing my guitar and asked me if I was singing songs I wrote. I told him yes, and he said I should record them. I told him I couldn't do that, and Chris said, "Come on, do it for me. Just record a tape of your songs for me." That's really how the Girly Sound songs first came about because he basically dared me to do it for him."
Not one to back down from a challenge, the 23-year old retreated into her bedroom and started recording a tape of original music for Brokaw under the name Girly Sound. The moniker served a dual purpose. First off, it protected Phair's true identity. Second, the anonymity allowed the singer / songwriter to go in any direction she felt with her lyrics and music. Impressed by the songs he was hearing, Brokaw sent the tapes to the head of Matador Records, Gerard Cosloy. The frank attitude and blunt lyrics led Cosloy to offer Phair a contract. Little did the label president know he was signing an artist who was more comfortable sketching drawings of people than she was performing in front of them.
"I really thought a small portion of the Chicago music scene," said Phair naively, "was going to listen to my first record. The fact it gained national attention really overwhelmed me. Up until that point, I was a visual artist sort of living a bohemian lifestyle in the city. I had performed live maybe three times in my life before that record came out. But you know, one of the great prides of my life has been conquering the stage fright that literally paralyzed me when I first had to perform. It was the hardest thing for me to overcome, but I did it."
Exile in Guysville went gold and established Phair as an up and coming alt indie star. The follow-up, 1994's Whip-Smart, also went gold and spawned the hit single, "Supernova." However, over the next 16 years, Liz would only release four albums as her life evolved and changed. She would marry and have a child, then later divorce. There would be a protracted battle with Capitol Records. Though her time on the label yielded the memorable hit, "Why Can't I," politics ultimately undid the relationship - and opened up the door to another one. Liz Phair started scoring television shows.
"Well, for the first time ever," admitted Phair, "I didn't stumble into this work. A great opportunity came to me from a friend I grew up with, Mike Kelley. He created a program on CBS called Swingtown, (the show follows three Chicago families in 1970s suburbia as they explore new freedoms and shifting moral values). "I have known Mike since elementary school. When he phoned about the show, he knew what was going on with me at Capitol. I was basically screwed and being held hostage, more or less. Mike goes, 'Fuck 'em Liz. Come score this show for me. It's about our hometown. You're going to love it. I know you can do this.'
"I had no idea how to score a television show. Luckily a friend of mine, Doc Dauer was experienced doing this kind of work. He contacted a friend of his, Evan Frankfurt, and we sort of made a collective of three. Maybe it was the marriage of the musical and the visual that intrigued me, but I found out I loved doing the work. I've gone on to score other television shows since Swingtown, and even had some of my songs featured in motion pictures."
Challenging the great unknown has become an unwitting trademark of the Liz Phair experience.
"My mother loves to say," added the singer, "if there's something I'm utterly unqualified to do, you better believe I am going to take on the challenge. For her, that's the funniest thing about my personality, and she laughs about it all the time. I don't know what it is about my nature, but I'm generally attracted to things I don't know anything about. You should never stop challenging your brain. Little things like not being qualified only encourage me to tackle the problem head on. Besides, it's not such a horrible trait to have in life. It means I'm not afraid to explore situations that are foreign to me."
One situation the musician didn't expect, was an ugly encounter with her new record company, revolving around her first studio album in five years, Funstyle. The powers that be at the Dave Matthews owned label, ATO, didn't like the music Liz presented and rejected the album. Undaunted, Phair opted out of her deal. Her personel management didn't like a single from the record, "Bollywood," calling rap tune unacceptable for release. Once again, Liz decided art was more important than her management team and dropped them as well.
"My career has been riddled with controversy," stated Phair. "To be honest with you, I never fully understood it. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them. I left my management team and ATO because they just didn't like, or didn't know, what do with me and the music I was making. As it stands right now, I don't even have a manager. Some very nice, and very intelligent people, have offered to manage me, but I'm on the fence. Part of me says, "I love going to work and not have to report to anyone!" Not that many people can say that. Honestly, I have this overwhelming sense of freedom now."
The independence Phair is now experiencing for the first time in her career comes courtesy of the Internet. The chaos and upheaval the web created within the recording industry has leveled the playing field between artist and label. The powerful leverage record company's once held over musicians is gone. Lovely Liz discovered that freedom by releasing Funstyle as an online only album. Ironically, the songs vent frustration at the recording industry.
"I've got a gun, you've got a gun," proclaimed Phair. "Let's see who is faster. That's my M.O. right now, and also the direction my career appears to be heading in. Before, whenever I get overwhelmed by the situations I was in, I tended to withdraw from reality. My imagination would cook up all sorts of scenarios; then my body would go through the motions as though I'd bitten off more than I can chew.
"When we tour, we are a pared down operation. I used to have a tour bus with the back of it all built out for a princess, including a vanity and a shower. Now we are a budget conscious, lean organization. The venues love us and constantly tell me we're the easiest people to work with. We're in and out, very professional.
In this business, people worry about change. I embrace it. I always think that if you can adapt to whatever new climate you find yourself in, you'll find a way to do accomplish the challenges that confront you. That sense of wonder is what invigorates me. Right now, I don't anticipate clogging up my operation with a bunch of new people. It just means more phone calls and individuals I have to answer to. Seriously, the more I think about it - what crap!"