I'M MUCH MORE OF A BEHIND the-scenes person," says Liz Phair, creator of the critically acclaimed albums Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart. "I'm like the little Oz."
But Phair is far from a would-be wizard behind a curtain. and try as she might, it's not easy for the 28-year-old singer/songwriter to stay out of the spotlight. In town last night and tonight for sold-out performances at Town Hall, Phair has a Rolling Stone magazine cover, the No. 1 spot in The Village Voice's national critics poll last year and countless glowing reviews under her belt.
Still, budding legends are people, too, and Phair, after planning her 10-city solo tour on the heels of her honeymoon (she married film editor Jim Staskauskas in March), has come down with a vicious cold.
Phair canceled a tour scheduled for last fall, but it wasn't because she felt under the weather. One reason was her chronic stage fright. Another was ambivalence about her band members (drummer Brad Wood, guitarist Casey Rice and bassist Leroy Bach), with whom she has since officially split.
"I want to be able to move and change, and not have to rock all the time if I don't feel like rocking," Phair says, coughing. "That's how I know I'm not a performerbecause a performer would see the life in that, and I see the death."
While Matador, Phair's record label, warned her that dropping the fall tour could hurt sales of Whip-Smart, her insistence on a life outside the music industry keeps her songwriting vital.
"If you're not feeding the head. nothing's going through the digestive process, and nothing's going to come out the other end," she explains.
This time, it's all Phair, alone on guitar. Rather than a rock show, she's approaching this tour as Liz Phair, songwriter, performing her musicincluding never-before-heard material.
"I don't feel as feisty, I feel more contemplative," says Phair, known for the expletive-laced candor and straightforward sexuality of her lyrics.
Phair doesn't fit any singer/songwriter mold, so the media have scrambled to categorize herwhat they've come up with is a dirty-talking, sweet-looking, twentysomething female rocker.
"I'm more of a complicated meal. There's something ethnic in there. and they'd prefer a juicy cheeseburger: pretty face, better voice, more usual lyrics,'' she says.
But Phair's offbeat image is exactly what has made her so popularto the point of being, in this post-Madonna age, a new voice in feminism.
Being a feminist "to me means self-determination," she says, "so that whatever choices you make, they're yours, to the extent that anyone in the society is allowed to do that."
Elizabeth Clark Phair grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Ill., the adopted daughter of an AIDS-researcher father and an art-historian mother.
Although she got her first guitar in eighth grade ("My friend Ann got one, and that's what I wanted one for"), Phair always had dreams of being a visual artist. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1990 with an art history/studio art degree, she supported herself selling "charcoal drawings of diseased faces," before her songwriting began to pay off.
Now living in Chicago with Staskauskas and his teenage son, Phair continues to maintain a multifaceted scope of artistic goals. She may have "made it" as a musician, but the sniffly newlywed isn't resting on her laurels just yet.
"I've always wanted to write a book, have a really great art show, and now I got hooked into film because of directing my videos," she says. "It sounds overly ambitious, almost offensively so."
But, she reasons, "I've got 40 more good creating years in meI figure I can divvy it up somehow."