Liz Phair - Biography

By David Downs


American singer songwriter Liz Phair exploded onto the indie music scene in 1993 with debut album Exile In Guyville (1993-Matador), updating the folky feminism of singers like Joni Mitchell to include the brazen sexuality as well as the anomie of Generation X. Songs like "Fuck and Run", "6'1"" and "Stratford-On-Guy" earned her instantaneous and devout fans who went on to feel betrayed by her subsequent turn toward the mainstream with works Whip-Smart (1994-Matador), Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998-Matador/Capitol), Liz Phair (2003-Capitol), and Somebody's Miracle (2005-Capitol). Though she didn't win the two Grammies for which she was nominated, Guyville is considered among the best rock albums in history according to Rolling Stone and Spin, and 2008 saw the re-release of Phair's debut to, no doubt, titillate and enthrall yet another generation.


Elizabeth Clark Phair's early life set the stage for her literate, sexually bold debut. She was born on April 17, 1967 in New Haven, CT, and adopted by relatively well-off parents, who raised her in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Phair had extremely liberal, professional parents whom she found difficult to rebel against. In her teens, her mother would read aloud from Henry Miller’s Sexus and the Victorian erotic magazine The Pearl when she brought home potential boyfriends. She finally found rebellion by joining the Scientology group at her high school. Phair graduated high school and studied art at Oberlin College in Ohio. Then as now, indie rock ruled at Oberlin, and Phair said she hooked up with the boys in the scene, becoming close to guitarist Chris Brokaw, who later joined the band Come. After school, Phair and Brokaw moved to San Francisco, where she tried to become an artist with other Oberlin grads burning through their savings. Phair calls her Bay Area stay her 'lost years' and has said in interviews that she squandered her twenties smoking too much pot and being a band groupie, while writing what she called 'little ditties' mainly for own pleasure. 


Brokaw soon headed east and Phair moved back in with her parents in Chicago, but not before Brokaw demanded she play for him and send him tapes. Phair returned to Chicago in mid-winter and with nothing to do, she made a tape and sent it to Brokaw. Brokaw started making copies of it and Phair's work spread through an underground tape network, finally reaching iconic indie label Matador. These early tapes would later emerge under the monicer Girlysound.


Ever one for a good time, the gorgeous, brilliant, petulant, and a bit depraved Phair became a part of the Chicago alternative music scene, befriending Urge Overkill, drummer Brad Wood, and John Henderson, head of Chicago-based indie label Feel Good All Over. Henderson and Phair tried and failed to re-record some of the her early work, meanwhile Brokaw, who had by Come, gave a copy to of Phair's tapes to Gerard Cosley, head of Come's record label, Matador.  In 1992, at the age twenty-five, Matador signed Phair to her complete and utter shock.


It's hard to overstate the impact of Exile In Guyville (1993-Matador) on listeners in the '90s. Here was post-feminism in all its gorgeous contradictions - empowered yet regretful, intelligent yet inept, defiant yet tender. Phair selected some of her favorite, best works from her homemade cassettes and patterned the album as a protest to the indie rock patriarchy of Chicago, and as a loose response to the Stones' Exile on Main St. Producer Brad Wood helped coax Phair's delicate, reedy voice from her five foot two inch frame, setting it against a variety of backdrops including solo piano, power pop, folk and and classic indie rock. Songs like "Fuck and Run", "Divorce Song", "Flower", and "Stratford-On-Guy" held an emotional honesty and attention to detail like no other, yet the rest of the record was just as solid. The album had legs, and the release gathered steam throughout 2003, hitting number one on an influential, year-end critics poll at The Village Voice. The next year the album cracked The Billboard 200 at 196, and by the spring of 1994 its 200,000 copies sold made her an indie sensation. Indie bands are lucky to sell 10,000 records. The record would eventually go gold.


The attendant backlash came hard and heavy, of course, with the likes of producer Steve Albini trash talking the shy, introverted musician by name, though the album now ranks among Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time."


Stage fright prevented Phair from enjoying the tour to support, Guyville and the subsequent period in her career was a definitive one -- filled with great confusion, hurt, and ultimately a loss of credibility in the circles that nurtured her career. Matador's new distribution deal with major label Atlantic thrust Phair into a limelight that alienated hard core indie fans. The scene's ethic precludes posing in a negligee in Rolling Stone or doing advertisements for The Gap. The attention took Whip-smart (1994-Matador) to number 27 on the Billboard 200, propelled in part by heavy MTV rotation for indie pop single "Supernova", with its grunge guitar riff and her characteristic ribald lyrics about topics like ejaculation. In a way, she was the Lil' Kim of indie rock.


Despite solid songs like "Whip-Smart" and "Jealousy", Whip-Smart's reviews didn't match the album's hype. The shy, conflicted, scared Phair made the mistake of reading her press, thereby getting hurt, and refusing to tour for the record. Instead, she married film editor Jim Staskausas and released the Juvenilia EP (1995-Matador), of Girlysound songs. In 1996, "Rocket Boy," appeared on the Stealing Beauty Soundtrack (1996-Capitol) and Phair's follow-up album work stagnated with producer Scott Litt.


At the end of the year, Phair gave birth to her first child, James Nicholas Staskausas and the year also saw her song "Six Dick Pimp" appear on Kids In The Hall - Brain Candy (Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1996 -Matador, EMI). After the birth of her child, the unexpected rock star went further mainstream with whitechocolatespaceegg (1998-Matador/ Capitol), which saw Phair confronting motherhood, and marriage with a certain mellowness. From interviews, she appears to have enjoyed defying her fan base's expectations, producing even more slick-sounding songs like "Johnny Feelgood", and "Polyester Bride". The album - named after the sight of her newborn boy's head - did as bad critically as it did good commercially, hitting thirty-five on the Billboard 200, her highest marks yet. The album track "Shitloads of Money" and subsequent interviews offer more than enough evidence that Phair's thinking on the record was as much financially tactical as artistic. She is simply too smart to ignore her financial future and that of her child.


It would be five years and a debilitating divorce before Phair would release another record, returning with an even more mainstream album that would really anger her critics and die-hard fans, yet get her a Top 40 single with "Why Can't I?". Liz Phair (2003-Capitol) shows the thirty-six year-old single mom turning to singer/songwriter Michael Penn and a production team called the Matrix, with further contributors including Pete Yorn. Phair's divorce disabled her, she said in interviews, and Liz Phair was her attempt to restart her art. It was also as slick as an Avril Lavigne or Sheryl Crow record and her Guyville fans were furious. "HWC"'s ode to semen lacked the style of early bawdy classics like "Flower". Sterling pop gem  "Why Can't I" is as shiny as it is plastic, going to number ten on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 and prompting critics to headline reviews with titles like, "What Is Liz Phair Thinking?"


Two years later, firmly entrenched in the mainstream, Phair released Somebody's Miracle (2005-Capitol), and the album again made it onto the Billboard 200 at 46. Critics were no longer shocked at glossy, accomplished Aimee Mann-esque single "Somebody's Miracle", or tracks like "Everything To Me". The clean, competent case of adult alternative  was produced by John Alagía, but other four producers also weighed in. "Table For One" got points for its honesty about alcoholism, but some critics said she didn't have the voice to be the mainstream star she wants to be.


In 2008, ATO records announced that a re-release of Guyville as a special, 15th anniversary edition would appear on June 24th and ATO will release a new studio album by Phair in the fall. Guyville had been out of print would be available on CD, vinyl and - for the first time ever - in digital format. In 2010 she released Funstyle as a digital download, after parting ways with her record label, for making a very uncommercial batch of songs. She has sinced turned her talents towards film and television composing.


In the final analysis, Phair's story follows the classic arc of defiant Gen X anti-stars like Kurt Cobain, only instead of finding peace through committing actual suicide, she committed mere indie rock suicide. The phenomenal success of Guyville caught a young, brilliant, but ultimately unsure talent off guard. Her subsequent choices alienated her base, and the same instincts that made Guyville so profound encouraged her to defy that alienated base the most brutal way possible. Her decision to "sell out" and the subsequent albums it produced dovetailed with her personal need for cash, both to support her low output lifestyle and raise a family. Ultimately, Phair got her Top 40 single and destroyed the press expectations that had muted and muddled her. Her indie reputation now laid low, it's all the more thrilling to see her shift yet again, revisiting Guyville as a re-release and tour and returning to an indie label for yet another album. Guyville was more than just a great indie rock record from the early '90s, it gave voice to a post-feminist archetype - both highly independent and dysfunctional. Those same adjectives fit Phair's entire career, and in that sense, she has not changed one bit.

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