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Liz Phair

Phair performing in October 2008
Background information
Birth name Elizabeth Clark Phair
Born April 17, 1967 (1967-04-17) (age 42)
New Haven, Connecticut[1]
Origin Chicago, Illinois, United States
Genres Alternative rock, indie rock, lo-fi, pop rock
Occupations Singer-songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar, piano
Years active 1991 - present
Labels Matador, Capitol, ATO Records
Notable instruments
Fender Duo-Sonic II

Elizabeth Clark "Liz" Phair (born April 17, 1967) is an American singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Phair 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 twenty-first 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 which resulted in a fan and media backlash.


Life and Career

1967-1992: Early life and career beginnings

Phair was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but was raised in Winnetka, Illinois, by wealthy adoptive parents.[1] 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.[2] She attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and majored in art history.[3][4]

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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 and Phair moved to San Francisco together, and Phair tried to become an artist there. After moving back to Chicago, Phair began writing songs and recording homemade tapes under the name Girly Sound,[4] and supported herself by selling her charcoal drawings on the streets of Wicker Park. 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.[1] (A later attempt at re-recording the Girly Sound tapes failed after arguments between Henderson and Phair.)

1992-2003: Matador Records

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.

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Exile in Guyville was produced by Phair and Brad Wood, and released in 1993.[4] 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 voice gave many of her songs a slightly detached, almost deadpan character. The combination of these factors won Phair many dedicated fans. Most notable among her detractors, producer Steve Albini was involved in a public flamewar printed in Chicago's free art and culture weekly, the Chicago Reader. Albini wrote an angry response to an article by Billy Wyman (Hitsville), entitled "Not From the Underground: 1993 in Review", stating his belief that Phair and several other artists had shown an "explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music". Albini identified the aforementioned artists as "pandering sluts" and said Phair was the modern Rickie Lee Jones, "more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to".[5]

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Hoping to capitalize on the acclaim for her debut album, 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 classic by The Vapors, "Turning Japanese".

In 1995, Phair married Jim Staskauskas, a film editor who had worked on her videos. They had one child, James Nicholas Staskauskas, on December 21, 1996.[1] The couple divorced in 2001. Phair recorded a song called "Down" in response to her divorce. A quasi-stop-motion animation video using photographs was created for it by filmmaker Rodney Ascher (he shot fifty rolls of still photographs in L.A.'s Chinatown), and posted on her official website[1] The song was never officially released on any of her albums, but the video can still be seen on her website, as well as Ascher's website.

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.[6] The album displayed a more mature Phair, and reflected some of the ways marriage and motherhood affected her. The single "Polyester Bride" received some airplay, but the album was no more successful than her previous records. To promote the record Phair joined the now legendary Lilith Fair. Phair performed on the main stage along with acts like Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Missy Elliott.

She portrayed the role of Brynn Allen, opposite her good friend Robin Tunney, in the film Cherish.[4][7]

2003-2008: Capitol Records

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").[8]

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. 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.[9]

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."[10] 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."[11]

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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.[12] The album received mixed reviews and was not a chart success.

2008-Present: Exile in Guyville reissue

Phair signed with ATO Records in early 2008 and re-released Exile in Guyville on June 24, 2008.[13] 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." [14] 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 1990’s (which included Urge Overkill, Material Issue, and Smashing Pumpkins), and the Wicker Park neighborhood where it happened.

"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."[15]

Phair is currently working on an untitled musical project. No release date has been announced.[16] In May 2009, Phair released a new song "Faith and Tenderness," sold exclusively at Banana Republic.

Career as TV composer

In recent years Phair has broadened her career by serving as a composer for television dramas. She has 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.



Year Album details Peak chart positions Certifications
(sales thresholds)
1993 Exile in Guyville
  • Released: June 22, 1993
  • Label: Matador
196 US: Gold US Sales: 500,000+
1994 Whip-Smart
  • Released: September 20, 1994
  • Label: Matador
27 US: Gold US Sales: 600,000+
1998 whitechocolatespaceegg 35 US Sales: 450,000+
2003 Liz Phair
  • Released: June 24, 2003
  • Label: Capitol
27 US Sales: 429,000
2005 Somebody's Miracle
  • Released: October 4, 2005
  • Label: Capitol
46 US Sales: 84,000

Extended plays

Year Album details
1995 Juvenilia
2003 Comeandgetit
  • Released: June 24, 2005
  • Label: Capitol


Year Title Peak chart positions Certifications
(sales thresholds)
1994 "Supernova" 78 Whip-Smart
1995 "Whip-Smart"
2003 "Why Can't I?" 32 US: Gold Liz Phair
2004 "Extraordinary"
2005 "Everything to Me" Somebody's Miracle
"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released in that country.


Year Song Artist Album
2005 "Chemistry" Kyle Riabko Before I Speak
2007 "Sorry Baby" Minnie Driver Seastories


Year B-side A-side
1993 "Carnivore (raw)" "Carnivore"

Other Contributions

Year Song Album
1995 "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)" Saturday Morning: Cartoons' Greatest Hits
"Don't Have Time" Higher Learning OST
1996 "Rocket Boy" Stealing Beauty OST
"Six Dick Pimp" Brain Candy OST
1997 "California" Chasing Amy OST
"Erecting A Movie Star" First Love, Last Rites OST
2005 "Mother's Little Helper" Desperate Housewives OST
2007 "Perfect Misfit" Nancy Drew OST

Music Videos

Year Single Album Director
1993 "Stratford-on-Guy" Exile in Guyville Liz Phair[19]
1993 "Never Said" Katy Maguire[20]
1994 "Supernova" Whip-Smart Liz Phair
1995 "Whip-Smart"
"Polyester Bride" whitechocolatespaceegg
2003 "Why Can't I?" Liz Phair Phil Harder
2004 "Extraordinary"
2005 "Everything to Me" Somebody's Miracle


Year Award Category Work Result
1995 Grammy Awards Best Female Rock Vocal Performance "Supernova" Nomination
1996 Grammy Awards Best Female Rock Vocal Performance "Don't Have Time" Nomination
2009 ASCAP Awards Top Television Composer "90210" Won


  1. ^ a b c d Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Liz Phair > Biography". allmusic. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 
  2. ^ "Before They Were Famous - Donovan McNabb, Donald Rumsfled, Jenny McCarthy, Liz Phair". Chicago Magazine. February 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 
  3. ^ "Liz Phair". Centerstage. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 
  4. ^ a b c d Liz Phair interview: December 28, 2005 on the Tavis Smiley show
  5. ^ Chicago Reader: Hitsville - Three Pandering Sluts etc
  6. ^ Mesmerizing - Spin, September 1998
  7. ^ Mitchell, Elvis (2002-06-07). "Cherish (2002)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-07. 
  8. ^ "Come On Over!". Barnes & Noble. 2002-03-20. 
  9. ^ Udovitch, MIm (2003-06-27). "What Is Liz Phair Thinking?". Slate. 
  10. ^ Carr, David (August 2, 2005), The Independence of Liz Phair, The New York Times,, retrieved 2009-12-02 
  11. ^ O'Rourke, Meghan (June 22, 2003), Liz Phair's Exile in Avril-ville, The New York Times,, retrieved 2009-12-02 
  12. ^ Liz Phair Regains Indie Cred with 'Somebody's Miracle'
  13. ^ Phair Signs To ATO, 'Guyville' Reissue Due
  14. ^ Mesmerizing - Headlines
  15. ^ ATO Records Liz Phair Biography,,, retrieved 2009-12-02 
  16. ^ Liz Phair Reissues Exile in Guyville, Signs to ATO | Pitchfork
  17. ^ "Liz Phair > Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums". allmusic. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 
  18. ^ "Billboard chart positions - singles". allmusic. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  19. ^
  20. ^

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