Born Elizabeth Clark Phair on April 17, 1967, in Cincinnati, OH; daughter of John (a physician and AIDS researcher) and Nancy (a museology instructor) Phair: married film editor Jim Staskausas, 1995 (divorced, 2000); chilren: Nick, born 1996. Education: Graduated from Oberlin College, 1990. Addresses: Record company--Capitol Records, 1750 N.Vine St. Hollywood, CA 90028. Website--http://www.lizphair.com/.
Liz Phair's recording debut, 1993's Exile in Guyville, landed her a spot in the annals of alternative-music history--the album became her label's best-selling release at 200,000 copies and was extolled by critics for the novice songwriter's refreshing, female-oriented spin on life and love among the Generation X set. The venerable Village Voice named it Album of the Year, making Phair the first woman artist to capture that honor since singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell in 1974.
Seeming to appear out of nowhere on the independent music scene, Phair received enormous amounts of press, which often quoted the more sexually explicit lyrics of her songs and pointed out her rather idyllic suburban upbringing. Later, in 1994, she released her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, which, like her debut, is a complex paean to a subject dear to Phair's songwriting heart--men and the trouble they cause. Surprising many with its solid musicianship, Whip-Smart was a successful response to those waiting to dismiss Phair as a just another flash in the alternative music pan.
Phair, born on April 17, 1967, is the adopted daughter of John and Nancy Phair; she spent her early childhood in Ohio. In 1976 the family, which includes an older brother, relocated from Cincinnati to the Chicago area. Phair's father is a physician and AIDS researcher, while her mother is an instructor at Chicago's premier art school. The family settled in Winnetka, a posh Chicago suburb, and Phair grew into a creative adolescent who wrote songs at the family piano but displayed a rebellious streak. She left Winnetka to attend Oberlin College, a small, quirky liberal arts school in Ohio.
Oberlin, like other isolated outposts of middle-class intellectual rebellion, bred bands like other schools breed keg parties; Phair's art studies were supplemented by her informal education in the local music scene. "Oberlin is a really indie rock type of college," Phair told Annette Petruso of Detroit's Metro Times. "It was very much left of center, intellectual and scrawny. Those are the three really good markers of guyville. All of my boyfriends were guyville. They still sort of are." Her first album was full of songs inspired by this phase of her life. "I was really just trying to impress a bunch of guys," Phair noted of her early musical ambitions. "I am not the band wife. I am the band."
After college Phair relocated to San Francisco, where she stayed at a friend's loft for a time. It was there that she re-encountered Chris Brokaw, a guitarist with the band Come; they had briefly known one another at Oberlin. The two would play guitar together for amusement, but Phair decided to return to Chicago in late 1990. Brokaw convinced her to record some of the songs he had heard her play, so for a few months in 1991, Phair sat back in her room at her parents' home in Winnetka with a guitar and a simple four-track recorder. The result was two tapes, each with 14 songs. Phair called them Girly Sound and sent them to Brokaw.
The rough Girly Sound tapes stealthily began making the rounds of the alternative scene, passing from one college radio disc jockey to another, and eventually found their way to a Matador Records representative. The company signed Phair in the summer of 1992, and she began putting together a band. By then she had moved from Winnetka to the artsy Chicago enclave of Wicker Park, a mecca for the post-collegiate loft-dwelling crowd, and was selling sketches to make ends meet. Local musician Brad Wood, owner of Chicago's Idful Music recording studio, became her drummer and producer; LeRoy Bach was hired on as bassist; and Casey Rice shared guitar duties with Phair. The three musicians went into the studio and began putting together Exile in Guyville.
Phair mined her collection of Girly Sound recordings as well as her own personal history for the 18 tracks on Exile in Guyville. Although cagey on the subject, she occasionally admitted in later interviews that it was a response to an episode in her life with "a specific person that I had an undefined relationship with," as she put it to Vogue's Moira McCormick. Listening to the Rolling Stones' acclaimed 1972 double album Exile on Main Street reminded her of certain facets of that relationship, and she conceived Exile as a female response to the sentiments expressed by both Stones vocalist Mick Jagger and her mercurial romantic interest. "Making my album helped me define my relationship with this person--and that was all I needed. It didn't get me what I thought I wanted, but it gave me peace of mind."
Exile was released in May of 1993, and over the next few months, word-of-mouth, airplay, and sales resulted in astounding success for Phair. Reviews were filled with accolades. Spin writer Christina Kelly deemed the disc "a glorious pop album that concerns itself with the minutiae of male-female relations and girly empowerment" and described Phair as the "most hyperintellectual of indie-rock geeks." Katherine Dieckmann of Musician noted that Phair's persona, as reflected in the songs, "calls up the image of a cool, brainy chick with a major 'don't mess with me' [attitude]," and pointed out that "you don't really think of the Rolling Stones while listening to Liz Phair, save the stray riff or inversion. Instead, you're seduced by the rawness and pith of her lyrics, the stripped-back production and Phair's urgent yet deadpan vocals."
Another Spin writer, Craig Marks, noted that "while the music is basic and [traditional], and Phair's gift for melodies and rock 'n' roll linguistics ... recall the glory days of AM radio, it's her unflinching embodiment of modern girldom--giddy with the pleasures of sex, wary of loneliness, confused by the cowardice of men--that stamps Phair as a songwriter of prodigious talent." Vogue's McCormick described Exile as "a startling blast of stripped-down, unpolished, thoroughly addictive guitar pop, a state-of-the-heart report on love, sex, and life from an above average, disarmingly honest American girl."
Exile in Guyville's first single, "Never Said," made its way from college radio stations to modern rock outlets across the country. While Phair and the album were attracting national media attention, the two were almost willfully ignored by the music scene in Chicago. Her coverage there was limited to periodic snarky comments about her Winnetka roots, and the city's two mainstream alternative rock stations jumped on the bandwagon in 1994 with "Never Said" only long after other major markets had given it generous airplay.
Soon Phair had to face something she'd dreaded--the necessity of touring. Never thinking of herself as a performer, but rather as a songwriter, her early appearances were tense and panned by critics. Phair's description of herself onstage to Jancee Dunn of Rolling Stone echoed those in the reviews: "My voice warbles, my projection diminishes. I have more of a sneer, I'll get threatened by the crowd, I'll look like I'm really angry. Inability to remember songs, that's a good sign of stage fright."
Phair's sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, was released in September of 1994, and with Matador teaming with Atlantic Records for a distribution deal, the LP had the heavy weight of a major record label behind it. Whip-Smart's first single, "Supernova," began climbing the modern-rock charts and the song's video, directed by Phair, was given regular rotation on MTV. The album was compared endlessly with her first in reviews: Deborah Frost of Musician found that "where Exile seemed liberating and came off like personal confessions, Whip-Smart comes off largely like professional shtick," but conceded that the effort may just be "merely the transition between Phair's art hobbyist beginnings and a full-fledged major-label career."
David Browne of Entertainment Weekly also judged Phair's second LP against her first and described it as "basically the same story: easy to respect for its intelligence and lo-fi rock (it's not, thank God, corporate grunge-by-numbers), yet at times so ... passive and self-conscious that it's easier to admire than fall in love with." Browne granted, however, that much of the record "is more musically fleshed out than the garage-level tracks of Exile."
Other critics were more charitable in their reviews of Whip-Smart. In Rolling Stone, Dunn termed the LP "a stunner--and dare we say, better than the first--a perfect progression from Guyville, carrying over all of the [do-it-yourself] feel of her first offering but with greater accessibility and tighter arrangements." Dunn's colleague Barbara O'Dair reviewed Whip-Smart and declared, "Phair has once again written and 'directed' a bunch of entertaining, affected songs." While O'Dair felt that the release might have been too hastily completed, she allowed, "This brainiac bad girl deserves a lot of credit for not being cowed by her classic debut." Newsweek's Christopher John Farley liked the quirkiness of Phair's follow-up and remarked that "not many singer-songwriters manage to be so honest and so much fun at the same time." The reviewer further noted that Phair's "guitar playing has a likeable, warbling strangeness; she is developing into a stronger, more varied songwriter."
As the sure success of Whip-Smart became apparent in the weeks after its release, Phair's reticence to perform led her to cancel scheduled concert dates. She discussed this decision on Modern Rock Live, a syndicated radio show: "I really hated touring, and I don't think I'm a good performer.... I've had vicious stage fright.... It's a big old anvil hanging over my head." What Phair did feel confident about, on the other hand, was her creative abilities as both a songwriter and inspiration to others; she has become a path-clearing force in alternative music. "My whole thing was, 'I was a college kid who wrote songs, and you can too,'" she told McCormick in Vogue. "Some day another girl will say, 'I can do that,' and it won't be because she saw a boy up there--but because she saw me."
After the release of Whip-Smart, Phair would have seemed to all but vanish if not for random new tracks on various soundtracks. It was during this time Phair met and married film editor Jim Staskaus. The two met and became involved when he worked on one of her videos. Shortly after their marriage, Phair gave birth to her first child, Nick, and began work on a new album. The result of that was 1998's whitecholatespaceegg. While for many an improvement over the poorly-recieved Whip-Smart, the album was compared to Guyville, the record that many considered Phair's masterpiece. All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine said that, "whitechocolatespaceegg is the work of a craftsman, not an inspired work of brilliance like Exile." During the late nineties, Phair toured on the popluar Lillith Fair, which featured a line up of all female-fronted groups.
Phair vanhished once again only to surface in 2003, fresh from a divorce from her five-year marriage, and with a new look and album, the self titled Liz Phair. For the production of the album Phair brought in the acclaimed production team of R. Walt Vincent and Michael Penn, otherwise known as The Matrix. Having recently worked wonders for teen pop stars like Britney Spears, this seemed like an unusaul choice for Phair's gritty indie rock sound. The finished slick and polished sound of Liz Phair left some fans and critics feeling betrayed, while some celebrated the bold risk taking. Phair stood by her decision saying to Entertainment Weekly, "Even when I made Guyville, I was hating indie then. The whole album was about how much I hated indie. You know I liked radio hits my whole life, including when I was cool. When Shakira sings, 'Underneath Your Clothes,' that works on me." Liz Phair's first single, "Why Can't I" recieved heavy video rotation on MTV and managed to expose a new, younger audience to Phair and her confessional songwriting style. Phair continued to tour throughout America and Europe during 2004, showing once again that hers is a voice that will not be silenced.
by Carol Brennan and Jason Gibner
Liz Phair's Career
Worked as a freelance artist, early 1990s; singer and songwriter, 1992--; released Exile in Guyville, 1993; released Whip-Smart, 1994; released whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998; released Liz Phair, 2003.
Liz Phair's Awards
Exile in Guyville named Album of Year by the Village Voice, 1993.
- Selected discography
- "Never Said," Matador, 1993.
- "Supernova," Matador/Atlantic, 1994.
- "Juvenillia," Matador, 1995.
- Exile in Guyville Matador, 1993.
- Whip-Smart Matador/Atlantic, 1994.
- whitechocolatespaceegg Matador, 1998
- Liz Phair Capitol, 2003
- Billboard, November 27, 1993; August 6, 1994; October 15, 1994.
- Details, July 1994; October 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 23, 1994.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), June 30, 1993; September 1, 1993.
- Musician, November 1993; October 1994.
- Rolling Stone, January 27, 1994; September 22, 1994; October 6, 1994; November 17, 1994.
- Spin, August 1993; November 1993; July 1994.
- Time, October 17, 1994.
- Vogue, August 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, May 2003.
- Boston Phoenix, June 13 2003.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Phair heard on the syndicated radio program Modern Rock Live.