LIZ PHAIR INTERVIEW
A Conversation with Singer Liz Phair
The gutsy indie rocker turned glamorous pop queen discusses the pros and cons of adoption, feminism, and having a little more meat on her bones
BY RACHEL RESNICK, PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS MCPHERSON
The woman with the wispy blond hair striding up the street is unmistakably Liz Phair. Even behind Jackie O sunglasses, those famously curved lips give her away. She flashes a high-energy smile that outdazzles her dangly gold earrings. “I’m hungry,” she says after we introduce ourselves. “Are you?”
We pop into a restaurant in her Los Angeles neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, and it becomes immediately clear that this isn’t going to be your typical so-what-are-you-working-on-now kind of interview. If you’re familiar with the no-holds-barred honesty and probing self-reflection that Phair’s songs are known for, that won’t surprise you one bit. In 1993, her gritty debut effort, Exile in Guyville — written as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street — was named Album of the Year by Spin magazine and made her an instant indie-rock icon. She followed it up with four more albums, most recently Somebody’s Miracle. Each showed a major shift in perspective — from angry young feminist to melodic songstress, from sexed-up pop sellout to mellow mom with an edge.
Now 39, Phair lives with her 9-year-old son, Nick, and dates guitarist Dino Meneghin. Though hugely successful, Phair admits she isn’t as confident as she looks on the covers of her albums.
I’ve read that you’re adopted. How has that affected you?
I don’t think you can be adopted without being a little bit screwed up, just knowing what I know from having Nick. I have a lot of friends who are adopting right now. These babies are going to be just 8 months old, leaving their mothers who can’t take care of them. By 8 months, Nick and I were so bonded it was ridiculous. How is that going to work? My friends say, “It’s going to be wonderful.” I’m biting my nails, thinking, “Do you know what you’re getting into?”
When did you find out you were adopted?
I always knew — and so did my brother, who was adopted from another family. My parents were very responsible. They said, “We wanted you more than anything in the whole world.” They were perfect about it. My mom was resistant to giving me any factual information in my teen years when I started asking. She was like, “Honey, I don’t really remember.” But I was already pulling away as a teenager. I think she felt threatened and was wondering, “How far is this going to go? Are you going to replace us?”
Have you ever made contact with your biological parents?
I’ve thought about it, but no, I’ve never tried to find them. My friend who was adopted from the same home requested information and got back a four-page letter about her mother’s life. She said it was jaw-dropping. All I have is my birth certificate, and I get chills just looking at it because that document was the last contact I had with my mother. It represents the moment at which the person who gave birth to me and I parted, right there, boom. When I think of all the information my friend has, I kinda want that too.
You’re in great shape. How do you stay that way?
People don’t know this about me, but I’m very sporty. I’ve climbed trees my whole life. I’ve ridden horses. I’ll boogie board and snowboard. I don’t know how to do it. I never really master a technique. But I’ll just get out there and hack my way through it. I’m like a puppy. Throw the ball and I’m off. Here’s something new that I’ve started doing: not working out. My workout schedule at the gym was generally three to four times a week. But today I walked into town. Other days maybe I’ll swim or we’ll go play basketball. My body’s getting sinewy because I’m getting older. It’s almost too cut. I envy women with round arms. Their faces seem calmer. And I’m starting to think that maybe not doing things is good too.
When you say too sinewy, it makes me think of Madonna. Was she ever an inspiration?
To some extent she was always captain of my brigade. She was on The Today Show a little bit ago, and she was like this cantankerous teenager, sitting there saying, “I don’t know, Matt, maybe I do, maybe I don’t.” But I’m always finding new inspirations. Barbra Streisand, for example. The other day I was reading a blog and I linked over to Streisand’s Web site, and it was amazing politically. She’s so insightful and incisive. And she also says whatever she wants. They’re both women who won’t just do something because they’re supposed to. They’re independent, and I love independent women.
Is being identified as a feminist important to you?
I’m known for being annoyingly gender-focused. It’s always been my platform. I can’t quite get over it. In my teens and even younger I felt like a sexual object. That was upsetting. In my 20s I said, “I’m going to take control of this. I’m going to define my own sexuality and push it on everyone else.” That lasted until I became more mature and stopped needing to do that. I’ve done plenty of stuff that people wouldn’t call feminist. I’ve used my sexuality to get what I wanted. But there’s no reason to incriminate or attack. Women’s bodies are used to sell anything and everything because it works, it grabs people’s attention, and advertisers aren’t going to stop using something that works. I just try to think about it, to realize when it’s happening around me and when I’m involved in it myself.
Many of your songs are about getting advice. Do you struggle with decisions?
I don’t always trust my own instincts. It would be nice if someone else would tell me what I should do with my life! Though I can and do feel sure of things sometimes. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so successful. Because once I’m driven, I can plow through anything. But sometimes I get to the other side of it and I wonder, “Was that really smart?” Just because I captured a vision for a while doesn’t mean that it was the best thing for me.
How do you handle self-doubt?
I try not to act out in weird ways when I’m feeling insecure. I talk about it or I have my little cry or I express it. I try to be as healthy as I can, but I’m normal. I get irritated and aggravated and swear a lot. When I’m headed for a dark spot, I’ll just start writing. Nothing fancy, just jotting stuff down in a notebook. Because it’s a way to figure out what’s going on.
Do you feel pressure to be the perfect rock star?
Because of my career, there’s added pressure to look sexy. Just getting dressed when I’m on tour is a pain in the ass because I’m like, “How old am I?” You know what I mean? At my age, you realize it’s all about sen_suality, but it’s hard to feel sensual when you’re busy and stressed.
How do you get yourself to feel sensual again?
I try to slow myself down and turn myself back into a sensual being. I was walking here and was late, so I was walking a little too hard, and I thought, “Walk slower, feel your ass going from left to right. Get that sway back.” No matter what the circumstances, you can change how you feel by noticing what your body is doing and taking it easier. And miraculously, though not always, that can have a positive effect on the circumstances, too.