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Growing out of the American underground of the late '80s, Liz Phair fused lo-fi indie rock production techniques with the sensibility and structure of classic singer/songwriters. Exile in Guyville, her gold-selling debut album, was enthusiastically praised upon its 1993 release, and spawned a rash of imitators during the following years, particularly American female singer/songwriters. For her part, Phair wasn't able to fully break into the mainstream, even with the support of the press and MTV. Whip-Smart, her second album, was heavily promoted upon its 1994 release, yet despite its relatively strong chart positions, it was viewed as a disappointment, and Phair's momentum declined steadily during the mid-'90s, as she took several years to record her third album.
Phair was born on April 17, 1967, in New Haven, CT. She was adopted by wealthy parents who raised her in the Chicago suburb Winnetka and later send her to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied art. At Oberlin, she became fascinated with underground indie rock and eventually became friends with guitarist Chris Brokaw, who would later join the alt-rock outfit Come. Following their college graduation, Phair and Brokaw both moved to San Francisco, where she tried to become an artist.
Eventually, Brokaw moved out east and Phair headed back to Chicago, where she began writing songs in earnest. She also started releasing homemade tapes of these songs under the name Girlysound. While she supported herself by selling her charcoal drawings on the streets of Wicker Park, she became entrenched in various portions of the Chicago alternative music scene; in particular, she struck up friendships with Urge Overkill, a drummer named Brad Wood, and John Henderson, the head of the Chicago-based indie label Feel Good All Over. Henderson and Phair tried to re-record some of the Girlysound tapes with Wood, yet the pair had a falling out during the sessions, leaving Wood as Phair's only collaborator. Brokaw, who had by then joined Come, was still receiving Girlysound tapes, and he eventually gave a copy to Gerard Cosley, the head of Come's record label, Matador. By the summer of 1992, Matador had signed Phair and she began recording her debut album in earnest.
Adapting its title from an Urge Overkill song, Exile in Guyville was released to strong reviews in the summer of 1993. Many articles focused on Phair's claim that the double album was structured as a response to the Rolling Stones' classic Exile on Main St. Over the course of the year, the record slowly built a dedicated following in America, both among critics and alternative rock fans. At the end of the year, it topped many Best of the Year critics polls, including The Village Voice and Spin. With all the attention focused on Phair, many indie rock figures -- particularly members of the Chicago noise rock scene like Steve Albini -- were developing a resentment toward her and launching an attack at the singer and the heavy media attention Exile in Guyville received. The criticism couldn't halt Phair's progress, though, and in early 1994 she launched her first tour, which was plagued by her stage fright. Around the same time, MTV began airing "Never Said" and, as a result of all the hype, the album briefly appeared in the charts in February. By the spring of 1994 it had sold over 200,000 copies -- a remarkable number for an independent release. It eventually sold over 500,000.
By that time, Phair had begun work on her follow-up record. Matador had signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1994, and her second album was going to be one of the first to be heavily promoted by the alliance. Indeed, Whip-Smart was released to a whirlwind of media attention -- including Phair, dressed only in negligee, on the cover of Rolling Stone -- and debuted at number 27 upon its fall 1994 release. "Supernova," the first single from the album, received heavy airplay on MTV and alternative rock radio, becoming a Top Ten modern rock hit. However, Whip-Smart received mediocre reviews and never developed into the hit that it was expected to be, although it still went gold. Phair didn't tour to support the album and was slow to deliver a second single. By the time the title track was released as a single in the spring of 1995, the album had disappeared from the charts.
Phair quietly retreated from the spotlight during 1995, marrying Jim Staskausas, a Chicago-based film editor who had previously worked on Phair's videos. Later that summer, she released the Juvenilia EP, which was essentially the "Jealousy" single amplified with the first official release of Girlysound material. During the summer of 1996, she released "Rocket Boy," a single pulled from the Stealing Beauty soundtrack that received little attention. For much of 1996, Phair worked on her third album with producer Scott Litt, but she remained unsatisfied with their sound and had officially scrapped the sessions by the time fall came around. Toward the end of 1996, Staskausas and Phair announced she was several months pregnant. On December 21, 1996, Phair gave birth to her first child, James Nicholas Staskausas. Her long-delayed, much-anticipated third LP, whitechocolatespaceegg, finally appeared in mid-1998.
Five years later, Phair returned with a controversial self-titled album. Liz Phair, which appeared in June 2003, and found her working with singer/songwriter Michael Penn and the Matrix, the latter of whom had risen to prominence in the pop world by launching artists like Avril Lavigne. Jimmy Chamberlin, Wendy Melvoin, and Pete Yorn also contributed to Phair's newly slick sound. When Liz Phair appeared, though, it was panned by purist rock critics and militant Liz nerds who felt she'd sold them out with the record's pop star sensibilities. Phair stood up for her work in typically brash fashion -- at times, it seemed like she even invited the fan boy ridicule -- and the album was a decent hit, with the leadoff single "Why Can't I" peaking at number 27 on the Billboard charts. Another album, Somebody's Miracle, appeared in fall 2005, but its relatively soft sound resulted in the slowest sales of Phair's career.
After reissuing Exile in Guyville in 2008, Phair began working on a number of offbeat, highly unconventional songs, many of which dealt with her recent departure from Capitol Records. Tired of working with record labels, she chose to release the material herself. Funstyle was appropriately released on her own website in July 2010, with the bhangra-influenced "Bollywood" becoming the album's first single; a physical release of Funstyle, paired with an EP of Girlysound demos, appeared in the fall.
Elizabeth Clark "Liz" Phair (born April 17, 1967) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist.
She began her career in the early 1990s by self-releasing audio cassettes under the moniker Girly Sound, before signing with the independent record label Matador Records. Her 1993 debut studio album Exile in Guyville was released to acclaim: by the turn of the 21st century, it had been ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Ten years after the release of her debut, Phair's fourth album, Liz Phair, was released on Capitol Records and her music began to move in a more pop rock-oriented approach. Phair has sold nearly three million records worldwide. Her latest album, Funstyle, was released on July 3, 2010.Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Liz Phair: Biography". allmusic. Retrieved 2009-06-30.
ContentsLife and career1.1 1967–1992: Early life and career beginnings1.2 1992–2003: Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart & Whitechocolatespaceegg1.3 2003–2008: Liz Phair & Somebody's Miracle1.4 2008–2010: Exile in Guyville reissue & career as TV composer1.5 2010–Present: Funstyle
Life and career
1967–1992: Early life and career beginnings
Phair was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but raised in Winnetka, Illinois, by upper middle-class adoptive parents. Her father was an AIDS researcher and head of infectious diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; her mother, a docent who worked at the Art Institute of Chicago. She graduated from New Trier High School in 1985. During high school, Phair was involved in student government, yearbook, and the cross country team, and took AP Studio Art her senior year, among many other advanced-level classes. She attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and majored in art history.
Phair's entry into the music industry began when she met guitarist Chris Brokaw, a member of the band Come. Brokaw was dating one of Phair's friends, and stayed at their loft in Soma one weekend. Phair then moved to San Francisco and tried to become an artist there. After being unsuccessful as an artist in San Francisco and moving back to Chicago, Phair began writing songs and recording homemade tapes under the name Girly Sound. She became part of the alternative music scene in Chicago and became friends with Material Issue and Urge Overkill, two of Chicago's upstart bands to go national in the early 1990s, as well as Brad Wood and John Henderson, head of Feel Good All Over, an independent label in Chicago. (A later attempt at re-recording the Girly Sound tapes failed after arguments between Henderson and Phair.)
1992–2003: Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart & Whitechocolatespaceegg
After asking Wood who the "coolest" indie label was, Phair called up Gerard Cosloy, co-president of Matador Records, in 1992 and asked him if he would put out her record. Coincidentally, Cosloy had just read a review of Girly Sound in Chemical Imbalance that very day and told Phair to send him a tape. Phair sent him a tape of six Girly Sound songs. Cosloy recalls: "The songs were amazing. It was a fairly primitive recording, especially compared to the resulting album. The songs were really smart, really funny, and really harrowing, sometimes all at the same time. . . . I liked it a lot and played it for everybody else. We usually don't sign people we haven't met, or heard other records by, or seen as performers. But I had a hunch, and I called her back and said O.K."
Cosloy offered a $3,000 advance, and Phair began working on a single, which turned into the eighteen songs of Exile in Guyville.
Exile in Guyville was produced by Phair and Brad Wood, and released in 1993. The album received uniformly excellent reviews. The album received significant critical acclaim for its very blunt, honest lyrics and for the music itself, a hybrid of indie rock and pop. The album established Phair's penchant for exploring sexually explicit lyrics such as in the song "Flower": "I want to be your blow job queen/...I'll fuck you and your minions too." By contrast, her trademark low, vibrato-less monotone voice gave many of her songs a slightly detached, almost deadpan character.
The release of Phair's second album received substantial media attention and an advertising blitz. Whip-Smart debuted at #27 in 1994 and "Supernova", the first single, became a Top Ten modern rock hit, and the video was frequently featured on MTV. Phair also landed the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine with the headline "A Rock Star is Born." Nonetheless, the album received mixed reviews, and although it was certified Gold (shipments of at least 500,000 units), it ultimately did not sell as well as expected, as it was hoped the album would introduce Phair to a wider, more mainstream audience. Following Whip-Smart, Phair released Juvenilia, a collection of some early Girly Sound tracks and several B-sides, including her cover of the 1980s song by The Vapors, "Turning Japanese".
In 1994, Phair made several live television and radio appearances in an effort to promote Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart, including David Letterman performing "Never Said" and "Supernova" and Jay Leno performing an acoustic version of "Whip-Smart". She even performed "Alice Springs" live on Good Morning America.
She also appeared on the MTV alternative rock show 120 Minutes performing "Never Said", "6'1", "Cinco de Mayo" and "Supernova" live at various times during 1994 and early 1995.
In 1995, Phair married film editor Jim Staskauskas, who had worked on her videos. They had a son James Nicholas Staskauskas on December 21, 1996. Phair and Staskauskas divorced in 2001.
Phair's third album, entitled Whitechocolatespaceegg, was finally released in 1998 after some delays, which included a disagreement about content; at one point, the label rejected the album as submitted, and asked Phair to write a few additional radio-friendly songs for the set. The album displayed a more mature Phair, and reflected some of the ways marriage and motherhood affected her. While the single "Polyester Bride" received some airplay, and the album received many positive reviews, it was no more successful commercially than her previous records. To promote the record Phair joined Lilith Fair. Phair performed on the main stage along with acts like Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Missy Elliott. She also opened for Alanis Morissette on her 1999 Junkie Tour.
She portrayed the role of Brynn Allen, opposite her good friend Robin Tunney, in the film Cherish.
2003–2008: Liz Phair & Somebody's Miracle
In 2003, her self-titled fourth album was released on her new label, Capitol Records. Phair had not released an album in several years; she had been working on her record, as well as making guest appearances on other tracks (she lent backing vocals to the Sheryl Crow hit "Soak Up the Sun").
Initially, Phair worked on several album tracks with songwriter Michael Penn as the producer. When she submitted the finished Penn-produced album to Capitol, the label gave it a lukewarm reception and was unwilling to release it as submitted. Having already exhausted her recording budget, label president Andy Slater offered Phair more money to record only if Phair agreed to work with the production team known as The Matrix (best known as songwriters for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne) to come up with some singles for the album. Phair's collaboration with the Matrix resulted in only four songs, but much of the media attention focused solely on the Matrix-produced tracks, which were a departure from her earlier work. The album received many negative reviews, especially from the independent music press, who accused Phair of "selling out" by making the record very pop-oriented.
Liz Phair provoked a strong backlash from critics and disappointed fans of her earlier work. Many decried her for "selling out", and she became a "piñata for critics." The New York Times' Meghan O'Rourke's review, titled "Liz Phair's Exile in Avril-ville", said that Phair "gushes like a teenager" and had "committed an embarrassing form of career suicide."
The debut single "Why Can't I?", co-written by The Matrix, did reach the Top 40 charts in North America, and its follow-up, "Extraordinary," was also somewhat successful: it appeared on the soundtrack to the 2004 movie Raising Helen and was the promotional theme for the 2004 Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament; in March 2007, the song began appearing in Gatorade television advertisements. Phair continued to flirt with sexually explicit themes, however, as was most evident in a track called "H.W.C.", standing for "Hot White Cum". Phair also offered backing vocals on Jimmy Eat World's "Work" track on their Futures album.
Somebody's Miracle, Phair's fifth album (and final album with Capitol Records), was released on October 4, 2005. The album returned to a more traditional rock sound, mixing the mood of Phair's earlier work with a more mellow sound. The album received mixed reviews and was not a chart success.
2008–2010: Exile in Guyville reissue & career as TV composer
Phair signed with ATO Records in early 2008 and re-released Exile in Guyville on June 24, 2008. Exile in Guyville was reissued on CD, vinyl, and in digital format. The special reissue package includes three never-before-released songs from the original recording sessions: "Ant in Alaska," "Say You," and an untitled instrumental. Phair has also completed a new documentary DVD, "Guyville Redux." This DVD features an introduction by Dave Matthews, founder/co-owner of ATO Records, and describes the making of the album, in the male-dominated, Chicago independent music scene of the early 1990s (which included Urge Overkill, Material Issue, and Smashing Pumpkins), associated with the Wicker Park neighborhood where many of these bands often performed.
"Exile in Guyville is miles more complex than the porn-star manifesto it was often considered," said Alan Light (former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe, and Tracks) in an essay written for the reissue. "Phair spoke for the uncertainties facing a new generation of women, struggling to find a balance between sexual confidence and romance, between independence and isolation. . . . Exile in Guyville sat at the center of a culture in transition."
In May 2009, Phair released a new song "Faith and Tenderness," sold exclusively at Banana Republic.
In recent years Phair has broadened her career by serving as a composer for television dramas. Beginning with the theme song for NBC's The Weber Show she has also worked on the CBS show Swingtown, the CW reboot of 90210, for which she won the 2009 ASCAP award for Top Television Composer, and most recently has been hired on as composer for the USA Network show In Plain Sight.
Phair said in an interview that she is writing a book and working on a new album. On July 3, 2010, her official website announced a surprise link to download her new album Funstyle. It contains 11 songs, many of which are experimental or at least unorthodox, compared to most of her earlier songs. The song "Bollywood" was available to stream from the site for a limited time, before Phair took it down.
A note from Phair to her fans posted on her official website explained why the songs were problematic:
How To Like It.
You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep.
Yes, I rapped one of them. Im as surprised as you are. But here is the thing you need to know about these songs and the ones coming next: These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but dont mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens.
This is my journey. Ill keep sending you postcards.-Liz
Phair revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the falling out with her record label, ATO, occurred after a change in management. She explained, "The people who were still there didn’t like, or didn’t know what to do with, the music I was making, so we just stalled out and I asked to leave."
Phair went on tour to promote the album, playing many songs from Guyville and Whip-Smart, along with songs from the rest of her repertoire. The Funstyle Tour ran from October 2010 to March 2011. The tour's last show took place at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
In 2012, she co-wrote and performed the song "Dotted Line" with A. R. Rahman for the film People Like Us. "The song 'Dotted Line' I wrote with A. R. Rahman for Alex Kurtzman's film 'Welcome To People'," she said in an interview. "Both amazing. 'Welcome To People' is a truly powerful film. Very proud of being part of it."
Phair also reviews books, including Keith Richards' Life.
Phair writes the original music for the television series The 100 on The CW network, along with Evan Frankfort and Marc Dauer.Cite error: The named reference allmusic was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Mundy, Chris, "Liz Phair: Last train to Guyville". Rolling Stone, October 14, 1993, Issue 667 "Before They Were Famous – Donovan McNabb, Donald Rumsfled, Jenny McCarthy, Liz Phair". Chicago Magazine. February 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-30. "Liz Phair". Centerstage. Retrieved 2009-06-30. Liz Phair interview: December 28, 2005 on the Tavis Smiley show Steve Knopper (January 21, 2011). "Liz Phair is back, still misunderstood". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2011-07-07. "Phair, 43, ... Her 1993 debut, "Exile In Guyville," her shambling, monotone-voiced, ..." Mesmerizing – Spin, September 1998 Mitchell, Elvis (2002-06-07). "Cherish (2002)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-07. Udovitch, MIm (2003-06-27). "What Is Liz Phair Thinking?". Slate. Carr, David (August 2, 2005). The Independence of Liz Phair. The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-02 O'Rourke, Meghan (June 22, 2003). Liz Phair's Exile in Avril-ville. The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-02 Liz Phair Regains Indie Cred with 'Somebody's Miracle' Phair Signs To ATO, 'Guyville' Reissue Due Mesmerizing – Headlines "ATO Records Liz Phair Biography". atorecords.com. Retrieved 2009-12-02 "Starry Constellation Magazine". Starrymag.com. Retrieved 2010-10-04. Saldana, Matt (July 13, 2010). "Liz Phair: Why I Left My Record Company". The Wall Street Journal. "'People Like Us' Soundtrack Features A New Liz Phair Song Penned For The Film + Poster & New Photo". IndieWire. May 14, 2012. "Liz Phair: The Cream Interview". Nashville Scene. January 27, 2011. "Weekly TV Music Roundup (March 16, 2014)". Film Music Reporter. Retrieved 9 April 2014.