Elizabeth Clark Phair (born April 17, 1967) is an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, and actress. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Phair was adopted at birth and raised primarily in the Chicago area. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1990, she attempted to start a musical career in San Francisco, California, but returned to her home in Chicago, where she began self-releasing audio cassettes under the name Girly Sound. The Girly Sound tapes led to her signing a recording contract with the independent record label Matador Records.
Her 1993 debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was released to critical acclaim; it has been ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Phair followed this with her second album, Whip-Smart (1994), which earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998). Ten years after the release of her debut, Phair's fourth album, Liz Phair (2003), was released on Capitol Records and her music began to move in a more pop rock-oriented direction, earning her a mainstream audience. The self-titled 2003 album spawned the single "Why Can't I?," which peaked at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After the release of her fifth album, Somebody's Miracle (2005), Phair parted ways with Capitol Records, and released her sixth album Funstyle independently in 2010. In 2016, she toured as an opening act for The Smashing Pumpkins. In 2018, it was announced that Matador Records would be releasing a retrospective set for Phair's debut album Exile in Guyville which includes remastered recordings from her original Girly Sound demo tapes.
As of 2011, Phair had sold over three million records worldwide.Phair was born in New Haven, Connecticut on April 17, 1967. She was adopted at birth by Nancy, a historian and museologist, and John Phair, an AIDS researcher and head of infectious diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; her mother later worked as a docent at the Art Institute of Chicago. She has one older brother, also adopted from another family. On being an adopted child, Phair commented: "My parents were very responsible... They were perfect about it... I've never tried to find parents. 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."
Phair spent her early life in Cincinnati until age nine, when her family relocated to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. 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, where she graduated in 1990 with a B.A. in art history.
1990-1992: Girly Sound tapes
|"Don't Hold Your Breath" from Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Muthuh (1991)|
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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. After an unsuccessful attempt to get musical traction in San Francisco, Phair returned to Chicago, where she 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; critical recognition
After asking Wood who the "coolest" indie label was, Phair called up Gerard Cosloy, co-president of Matador Records, in 1992 and she 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 18 songs of Exile in Guyville.
|"Divorce Song" from Exile in Guyville (1993)|
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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, and 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.
|"Headache" from whitechocolatespaceegg (1998)|
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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 10 modern rock hit, and the video was frequently featured on MTV. Phair also landed the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline "A Rock Star Is Born." However, 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 1980 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. In the same year, she performed and recorded the Dragon Tales theme song for the hit PBS kid show.
She portrayed the role of Brynn Allen, opposite Robin Tunney, in the film Cherish.
2003-2007: Liz Phair and Somebody's MiraclePhair in concert, October 26, 2005
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 notable departure from her earlier work. The album received multiple unfavorable reviews, especially from several independent music presses, accused Phair of "selling out" by making the record very pop-oriented. 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."
Two years later, Somebody's Miracle, Phair's fifth album (and final album with Capitol Records), was released. The album returned to a more traditional rock sound as opposed to the pop rock-oriented style of the previous album. The album received mixed reviews, with Amy Phillips of Pitchfork writing: "Now this is a terrible Liz Phair record. Somebody's Miracle is mostly generic pap that any number of next-big-has-beens could have cranked out, a useless piece of plastic poking a pointy heel in the eye of the carcass of the artist Liz once was." Phillips also suggested it was worse than her largely critically derided previous album. A review published by MSNBC noted that the album is "less blatantly commercial, but still smooth, reflecting her increasing shift toward a clearer sound."
2008-2009: Television composing
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 also completed a 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 on a compilation disc featuring other artists. Also in 2009, Phair began working as a television composer: 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, the USA Network show In Plain Sight and most recently the CW's The 100.
On July 3, 2010, Phair's official website announced a surprise link to download her new album Funstyle, which she released independently after parting ways with Capitol Records and ATO. 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."
The dystopian holiday song "Ho Ho Ho" was released by Phair in late 2014. In 2014, Capitol released a greatest hits compilation of Phair's work entitled Icon.
2016-2018: Exile retrospective and tours
In spring of 2016, Phair supported The Smashing Pumpkins on their In Plainsong tour, performing as the opening act.
In late 2015 and mid-2016, Phair stated on her Twitter that she intended to release two albums by the end of 2016. It was confirmed via Twitter that Phair was working on a double album, produced by fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Adams in his PAX-AM recording studio.
In 2018, it was announced that Phair's former label, Matador, would be releasing a 25th-anniversary retrospective set for her debut album, Exile in Guyville; the set, titled Girly-Sound to Guyville, includes remasters of Phair's 1991 Girly Sound demo tapes from the original sources, and is due for release May 4. In an April 2018 profile by Billboard, it was revealed that Phair had also signed a two-book publishing deal with Random House, and that she planned to release a memoir, tentatively titled Horror Stories, in 2019.
In 1994, Phair began dating film editor Jim Staskauskas. The couple married on March 11, 1995. Phair gave birth to a son, James Nicholas Staskauskas, on December 21, 1996.
In 2001, she and Staskauskas divorced, after which Phair sold her home in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood and relocated to Los Angeles, California. As of 2018, Phair resides in Manhattan Beach, California.
DiscographyMain article: Liz Phair discography
- Exile in Guyville (1993)
- Whip-Smart (1994)
- Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998)
- Liz Phair (2003)
- Somebody's Miracle (2005)
- Funstyle (2010)
|1995||Grammy Awards||Best Female Rock Vocal Performance||"Supernova"||Nominated|
|1996||Grammy Awards||Best Female Rock Vocal Performance||"Don't Have Time"||Nominated|
|2005||BMI Pop Awards||Most Performed Work||"Why Can't I?"||Won|
|2009||ASCAP Awards||Top Television Composer||"90210"||Won|
|2014||ASCAP Awards||Top Television Composer||"Super Fun Night"||Won|