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Liz Phair: “I’m practising not being cool”

Liz Phair was a feminist icon in the macho, predatory world of indie rock. Now she’s trying to let go of her tough exterior and “unpuff her chest”. 

By Kate Mossman

Liz Phair’s walls are charcoal grey, with mirrors, and doors leading to intriguing passageways, but it is difficult to have a proper snoop over Zoom, because Phair makes powerful eye contact. To her right, the light cuts in through a floaty curtain and there’s a noise from down on the street that sounds like a protest. Anti-maskers, she thinks. She lives in south LA, by the beach, and spent the lockdown there with her adult son, spraying their groceries.

In the summer, Phair is touring with Alanis Morissette: the writers of two of the most powerful albums by women in the 1990s, Exile in Guyville and Jagged Little Pill, together on a dream double bill. But Phair is not thrilled about being a “canary” for the spread of Covid in a concert setting. “Live Nation better do the vaccination requirement. It’s ethically the right thing to do.”

Phair is the adopted daughter of an infectious disease specialist who worked on Aids research in the 1980s. She often harks back to being nine. Nine, she says, is where you meet the real Liz Phair – not the sexually frank icon of post-riot grrrl grunge but “the person who did not know to be ashamed. I’d mastered childhood; I was the most able and grown up I could be, before pressures came in, like getting hunted for sex. I was totally self-possessed.”

Phair will talk to you about chakras, and the commodification of the self, but in person her pop psychology sounds sincere. Her conversation is light and fast, as if she is still striving to mark herself out from the woman people thought she was 30 years ago. Adopted at birth from an agency in New Haven, Connecticut, she came to her childhood home in the Chicago suburbs with a brother (not a blood relation) from the same adoption services. She once said that when she went to the East Coast she would scan faces looking for genetic echoes of herself. Yet she never wanted to find her birth mother. The bonds laid down in the first two weeks are the important ones, she once said – there was nothing to be done about those now.

In her stable home, Phair and her brother were disruptive forces. “There is a natural separation that happens at adolescence and I was more aware of that than most,” she says. “As teenagers we become something that is going to be used. The pressure to get into college, the pressure to interact with boys.”

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[see also: Men tend to think they’re the authority on music – but I have learned to fight my corner]

But those two pressures, college and boys, became Phair’s creative crucible. The all-girl bands she followed in riot grrrl fanzines had begun to draw attention to the sexual politics playing out between men and women within the rituals of listening to music. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill would pull girls to the front of her gigs to prevent them from being crushed or dwarfed by big, male music fans. Inspired by a lyric by the Chicago band Urge Overkill, Phair conceived an imaginary land called Guyville, peopled by all the pompous alt-rock nerds she’d met while studying at college in Ohio. Guyville, she said, was a place “where men are men, and women are learning”: where men got to be in bands, and women got to be their girlfriends. As a child she’d eaten dinner to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. As a teenager, she’d listened to the Grateful Dead. No kind of music was out of bounds, she thought, “until I got to college. And then the dickheads showed up.”

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For those who did not come of age in the 1990s, it is almost impossible to convey a sense of the tyranny that indie music held over the adolescent world. The terrible force-field of cool around certain bands; the exhausting poses upheld by those who knew about music; and the powerful Gen-X irony that meant that music itself – that most direct route to a human soul – was discussed with a certain repression of feeling.

Phair says brightly, “That Oasis album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, was a great record – and they’re also dickheads, which I know personally.” On the US alt-rock scene, she saw something much darker. She bought Kurt Cobain’s journals a few years back, but couldn’t get through them. “The violence was so condensed, and I recognised how much more of that masculine violent stuff was threaded through the imagery of indie rock.

“It was, for a woman, off-putting. Even though I pushed up my toughness, styled it up, puffed out my breast. I don’t feel like I have to do that any more. I feel like femininity is perceived as strong. You can’t pick teams. Outsider, insider.”

In 1993, with her downcast shoegaze eyes, unschooled guitar style and the ghost of a snarl on her lip, Phair fitted right in. But the politics of what she was doing have overshadowed the humour and eccentricity of her original idea. Asked to describe the imaginary land of Guyville she once said, “All the guys have short, cropped hair, John Lennon glasses, flannel shirts… Work boots.”

She wrote her songs in secret and the debut record that gathered them all together is one of the most elaborate concept albums of all time. Exile in Guyville is a track-by-track “answer” to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., in which Phair imagined that Mick Jagger’s character on that record was her love-object, and talked back to him – sometimes in accord, and sometimes in disagreement. She approached her 18-song project like “a thesis”, deciphering Jagger’s twisted vowels, mirroring the arrangement and sequencing. In a sense it was her fantasy come true – Phair had always tried to get the boy in a band to listen to her, and here she was, having the last word with Mick.

***

When I liked a guy in a band, my favourite thing to do was find access backstage,” Phair recalls. “I was like a ninja. My mother threw an hors d’oeuvres tray in my hand at the age of four – I knew how to go into social situations cold.” Groupie culture lent an ambiguity to the sexual politics of a backstage encounter. “There is something about rock ’n’ roll that is countercultural: come to our tribe, we are more primitive, more human. How do you preserve the primitive culture that is the best part of the music business without enabling exploitative sexual scenarios? We don’t want it to be all business,” she says.

Two years ago, a hero of the flannel-shirted alt-rock world, Ryan Adams, was accused of sexual misconduct by female musicians with whom he was collaborating. Phair was recording with Adams in 2016 – making a double album – but dumped the songs before the scandal broke. This is one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to get her new record, Soberish, off the ground.

She marvels at the “self-possession and authorship” of emerging female pop stars: “They are so complete. They feel like Athena coming out of Zeus’s head.” Behind her own tough attitude, she says, was fear: when her debut album came out, she had been on stage just twice in her life. “My reputation went way further than my skills. It was terrible, that first year – a blinding terror. My label loved the fact that I was awkward. It really worked for them. It didn’t for me.”

Did she regret getting famous?

She nods. “Guyville gave me a persona that never felt exactly like it fitted. But if you tried to take it away from me, I’d be upset.”

***

Phair still seems to be affected by the role she played in her early years – is still trying to “unpuff her chest”, as she puts it. This appears to be an actual, mental process – she compares it to t’ai chi or meditation.

“I’m always practising not being cool, to be sappy instead. Because I think that what I want in life requires it, and I’m not very good at it. I’m always trying not to play a part. What I really want is to be soft, and not have life be hard.”

She will never escape the story of the album that destroyed her career. In 2003, after three successful indie records, she collaborated with Avril Lavigne’s producers for an airwave-friendly pop-rock crossover record called Liz Phair. An angry piece in the New York Times by Meghan O’Rourke described “a woman approaching 40 getting dolled up in market-approved teen gear”, adding:

The newly divorced Ms Phair could have written a record that captured the experience of women like her, women who may not have a husband to bring home a second cheque… Music, after all, is a cultural arena that’s somewhat safe for older women.

Phair spent years caring for her son Nick, and writing TV theme music, which she could record at home rather than having to travel to a studio. When Nick was a baby, she would jiggle him to sleep to Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”. When motherhood came, she says, “a lot of fans thought I’d betrayed them”. She said in 2019 that being an adopted child, missing out on those first weeks of love, made her intensely curious about love itself: what it is supposed to feel like, and what kind of love is healthy.

Soberish, which reunited her with her Guyville producer Brad Wood, has all the idiosyncrasies of her early work – one song imagines a conversation between Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson – but with a marked sweetness. At 54, Phair is back on the dating scene, and on a track called “Ba Ba Ba”, she captures the precarious joy at the start of a relationship: “I don’t have the guts to tell you that I feel safe,” she sings.

“At the beginning of that song I felt younger, freer – like my real, nine-year-old self,” she explains. “And by the end of the song, the fucking thing is already over and I’m leaving his house. I can’t even express it. I have to go ‘ba ba ba’.” The song’s drum track speeds up, and down, like a heartbeat, a slightly nauseating effect. (“Brad wasn’t happy about that.”)

It encompasses, she says, her rocky dating life. Phair is more of a romantic now than she was when she was younger. “And more knock-kneed excited when it happens. I didn’t get cynical. I sometimes get cynical about my plight – my odds of getting it – but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to evolve beyond connecting to my young dreams.”

“Soberish” is out now on Chrysalis Record

[see also: Who is St Vincent?]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West