LIZ PHAIR: It turns out for me, having control is more important than having money. I need to feel I have a choice in everything that I'm doing. That's a real... that's the thing I can't live without.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
The day I talked to musician Liz Phair… she came into the studio right before a recording session for a new song. She told me, the timing of our interview… was intentional.
LP: I'm worried about the song I'm gonna be recording in the studio later today, which made it perfect to come here. I could have scheduled going to the studio a different day, but I knew that I'd be very stressed about the song that I'm gonna record today, so we put work in today to get me distracted enough to go to the studio so I could do the song that I'm worried about. There, it just, it's, it sounds more complicated than it is really. It's just that I've learned how to use my rebellious streak to my own advantage.
ANNA SALE: I think that's one of the graces of aging, is that you get to know yourself well enough to make your bad habits start to work for you.
LP: Yes, exactly. How do we turn this into a productive habit?
Liz is 52… and that kind of self-knowledge… is what makes her new memoir, Horror Stories so good.
In the book, Liz writes in detail about some of the most private moments in her life… like the affair she had that ended her marriage… and years later the pain of being cheated on years later by someone she loved… and the grocery shopping that helped her cope.
AS: I got to the Trader Joe's chapter and I was like, oh, I'm just photocopying this chapter to send to my friend who's going through a divorce. So...
LP: Aw. Tell her I said, “Solidarity sister.”
Putting those personal stories in a book is a new thing for Liz. But in her music, she’s always been frank in ways that made people love her… and also made them uncomfortable.
Back in her 20s, she sang about the transactional nature of relationships. Like in her song Fuck and Run...
It’s fuck and run
Fuck and run
As Liz aged… her music matured with her. After her affair and divorce, she sang about her worries about how it would all affect her son… in the song, Little Digger.
I've done the damage, the damage is done
I pray to God that I'm the damaged one
Liz never intended to be a professional musician. She studied visual art in college… writing songs was more of a hobby. But her first album Exile in Guyville was an unexpected hit. It quickly sold 200,000 copies. Rolling Stone put her on its cover, under the headline “A Rock and Roll Star is born.”
And Liz was miserable.
LP: I felt really traumatized. I had not expected to have the kind of reception to the record that it got. So that first year I was just going everywhere and doing photo shoots and playing performances that I didn't feel like I was good enough to be doing. It was just a whole year of inadequacy. So like I was playing catch up with my own career.
AS: Who was teaching you how to be a performer?
LP: Nobody! Isn't that funny? Nowadays, you would think if you had an artist that didn't know what they were doing, that you would, you know, put them with a band or you know, rehearse them or do whatever it was. But we were, it was the 90s, you know, and I didn’t have a manager, like we just, it was like an archaic time in a weird way. There was this sense of run and gun and we just did that.
AS: What was it like to do your first photo shoots once it was clear that you were becoming a celebrity?
LP: It was really hard. It's funny, it's funny. I did not enjoy my first blush of fame very much and doing photo shoots was especially difficult because it was like a portrayal and I'd been trained as a visual artist so I kind of understood what we were doing with these images. But they had heard the explicit lyrics in some of my songs, they basically kept trying to undress me and do these super sexy photo shoots that didn't make any sense to me cause I was stomping around in like combat boots and you know, cargo pants and black shirts at that point.
AS: And, and like how, when you recognized that you are in a photo shoot, that was, the concept was highly sexualized and you were going to be sexualized. Did you, did you have the ability to, to change the concept?
LP: I didn't know that I had the ability to change the concept. If I'd had management from the beginning, I think a lot of things in my career would be different. But it was like a free for all, get Liz to do this, get Liz to do that, get Liz to do this. In terms of how they were portraying me, it was hard to reconcile that with what I thought I was being, which was like an observant artist and maybe a provocateur, but it seemed like America only saw one way to market that. And that was the sex side.
And it was all happening fast. Liz’s second album, Whipsmart, came out just a year after her first… and as the pressure of fame mounted, Liz did a 180.
She married her boyfriend...an editor who had worked on one of her music videos… and she moved in with him and his teenage son in Chicago, not far from Winnetka, the affluent suburb where she grew up.
LP: It's hard to explain, but if you put out a record at 26 and you can imagine that at 27 I've just bought a house. I'm married and you know, in less than a year I'll be pregnant. You know, it's, I felt like my life wasn't my own at that point. I felt like my life had taken this hard right turn and I couldn't keep up with it. I couldn't keep up with the person everyone expected me to be. I couldn't keep up with how many people had heard the record. And I think getting married and buying a house and getting really domestic was like a way to retreat from that. And I was trying to pull back into a self that I recognized and I just pulled back too far. And I put a really hard, um, stop to it all.
AS: Help me understand that like you are, you are sort of being lauded for talking about sex in a way that women have not in music and for being honest and raw in a way women have not. And then you find that you're pulled towards becoming a wife and retreating from from that public life. did that feel like a contradiction to you in terms of how you thought of who you were as a woman?
LP: It didn't feel like a contradiction to me at all because I'd grown up in a community where most of the women didn't work. They were wives and mothers and that actually seemed extremely normal. That seemed refreshingly reassuringly familiar. But what I didn't factor in was how well I would do in that role, how well a personality like mine would do in that role. I kind of just, it it was what I'd envisioned for myself and what everyone had envisioned for me in my upbringing and it wasn't that my husband had asked me to stay home or do something domestic. It was purely my own decision-making process. I was trying to imitate the lives that I'd grown up with.
AS: How did you first start to notice that kind of retreating into domesticity wasn't going to be a perfect fit?
LP: The long hours with, you know, the isolation and the long hours just being in a house I think, not really knowing what to do with myself. You know, I've always made art and what I've learned over time is that there are certain things that I have a natural attraction to, But there's some things I just don't, and fulfilling that kind of like wifely picture of domesticity in the traditional sense, was just not something I really cared that much about. It wasn't something that was particularly, um, uh, I don't know, uh intriguing to me. It didn't use the parts of me that I love to exercise.
Eventually, Liz’s restlessness became overwhelming. In Horror Stories, she describes the repetitiveness of her new life, parenting a baby and isolated from her artist friends.
She began a long flirtation with her manager… that turned into an affair, as she describes in the audiobook:
Audiobook excerpt: “I’m calling Ethan to tell him what’s happening in my day instead of saving the news for my husband. I know I’ve strolled too far down the wrong path, but I’m addicted to the attention. It makes all the ordinary things I have to do seem colorful and interesting when he listens to me.
AS: When you first started feeling uh interested in another man, um, what do you remember going through your head?
LP: It wasn't so much the man that I was interested in. What I remember was the exhilaration of being with someone that saw me as a music person again. I had done this to my own life. I had retreated from the music business, kind of put a hard stop to everything that was going on in my career and at the worst possible time, at the height of my success, arguably. And that had felt right in the sense that I regained a sense of control over myself and my life. But if you really put a hard stop to it, and then there's nothing after all of this striving and all of these accolades and all of this excitement, you're left with that idle time and you're left with a sense, at least I was, of who am I? And what I recall from being attracted to this man that I had the affair with was it was a way back into the life that I'd had before. The person that I'd just essentially, you know, chucked off of myself. I think that's what it was. I mean, it sounds stupid, but I was attracted to him, but I was also attracted to the life that I'd given up.
AS: I mean what you're describing I feel like is, every, every woman I think that goes through the experience of becoming a parent then has to go through this experience of like, what parts of myself that were here before are still here. Um, did you think you were going to be together with this person when you were falling for him?
LP: Um, no, I did not think that I was going to be together with this person. Um, I thought that I could just kind of get that excitement going again and I didn't think that it was going to derail my life, but I also found, when the actual affair started, that I couldn't take the lies. I couldn't take the deceit of it. And I think I'll, uh some friends just said, you know, if you're not found out, you’ll, you know, just let it go. And I can't live like that it turns out.
AS: when you think back on that time, do you think of it uh, with a sense of like, this was a mistake I made or a sense of I understand why I needed that at that time in my life?
LP: I honestly think it was a huge mistake, a massive, massive mistake. I would advise strongly and do to this day anytime anyone is, I know, is having an affair or is considering it, I strongly advise against it. I don't advise sticking with something that isn't working. I don't advise living a lie. I wouldn’t cheat on anyone ever again, not just because I hurt other people and it's not just because it took forever to kind of settle, like, how I blew my life up, you know? Um, I would never cheat again because it actually, you harm yourself. It's self destructive behavior and that's what I object to strongly
AS: When your marriage was over and you were learning how to be a single mom, did it feel like there was more room for your artist self?
LP: Oh gosh, there was, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, but yes it was, it was a relief to be able to be, to know who I was, know that art was going to be important to me forever and I couldn't live without it. That's what I couldn't live without.
Coming up… Liz leaves Chicago. And she meets someone new.
LP: I could tell that there was something that was a little off kilter about that. I just couldn't put my finger on it. And I certainly didn't know how devastating a relationship that was going to end up being.
Speaking of infidelity… you had some REACTIONS to our episode about cheating that we re-released a few weeks ago… and you had more cheating stories to share. Some that are happening… right now.
“Last night I found myself under a married man in a hotel room in a foreign country,” a listener named Stella wrote in. “I know he has a wife and a son thousands of miles away.”’
We also heard stories about how cheating affects those people.
ELIZABETH: My father I always thought was a very moral person. He was my everything.
A listener named Elizabeth was an adult when she found out that her dad was cheating on her mom.
ELIZABETH: I feel like my dad cheated on me too, in a way. How am I ever supposed to trust him again?
We shared a lot of other reactions to this episode in our newsletter last week. Some really good conversations happen there, so if you don’t subscribe already, make an early new years resolution and add it to your list. Get it at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter
On the next episode… we’re doing something different. A Death, Sex & Money year-end spectacular. Get ready.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
After Liz Phair’s marriage broke up she moved with their young kid, Nick, to California.
And she jumped back into making music. In 2003, hit the top 40 charts for the first time with her pop single “Why Can’t I.”
CLIP: WHY CAN’T I
AS: When you were thinking about what you wanted and what you wanted your life to look like after going through the divorce, um, and thinking about what you wanted professionally, what you wanted in your personal life, um, what do you remember picturing?
LP: I pictured having it all. I pictured being, um, a recording artist who toured occasionally, and having a family. I mean I, going all the way, you know, keep rolling it forward until it's on golden pond. You know, like, like I fully still have that vision for myself if someone says like, “What do you picture?” You know, I picture in my fantasy life being like that older woman in a cardigan set who has the house on the lake that the family always comes to every year. You know what I mean? Like, like that would be, that if, I could spend hours thinking about that for a while like if I let myself.
When Liz was in her late 30s, things seemed to be falling into place. She went on a blind date with a single dad of two daughters...and they got serious.
But then...after years of dating…he told her that he’d been cheating on her...and that he had a new baby with another woman.
LP: I was trying really hard to stay sober and not drink every night. And I could not handle the emotions that I was feeling. I felt like I had no skin. I felt like a raw nerve and anything anyone said to me felt like an accusation or pity. I felt like I was separated from everyone by like a thin wall of grief in a real weird way. And I kept being invited out because friends were trying to keep me busy and they saw, they'd never seen me like that before. They’d never seen me devastated and incapacitated. Um, so everyone was asking me out and I went and I just kept going out and doing the things. But I would sit there emotionally totally removed and I just waited for the hours and days to pass.
AS: Was it hard to be in that space when you're someone who's a known person, you're a public person? Like how do you, where, where can you, where can you go?
LP: Where can you hide?
LP: Um, luckily at that point I was, uh, I was staying at home. I wasn't doing my career particularly. I was composing for television. I was doing whatever I could to stay home with my son while he was in junior high and high school. So I, I didn't have to be Liz Phair at that point most of the time. I can imagine in a weird way that it would have been easier if I had to be, ‘cause I could have just slipped into that persona and put it on autopilot without having to just sit and feel all my emotions and think all my thoughts. It was, it was, I think it was the book-end to my affair. I really do think that.
AS: did being a person who was betrayed in a relationship make you think about the end of your marriage in a different way?
LP: I think I knew that after I got divorced, like I knew that pretty early on. It was not lost on me even, even before I'd stopped seeing the man I had an affair with, it was not lost on me the amount of damage that it had done to just everyone involved. What happened when I was betrayed was this sense of, I started to tell myself the narrative that I didn't deserve, I wasn't ever going to be happy. I wasn't ever going to find, you know, because I had done things in my past, I didn't deserve to have, and I think I'm still working through that.
AS: Like you’re being punished? Or -
LP: Yeah, I've been punishing myself for an incredibly long time over that. And I really should just stop. It's really stupid. I kind of felt like it was collective settling of a score. I felt in a way a tiny sense of gratitude and relief. I sort of factored it in as like a small state of grace to kind of pay for what I'd done. So as awful as that was, and I'm, I'm not putting a silver lining on it cause there is none, but, that settled a score to me. That was bad enough that I felt like I paid for what I'd done.
AS: What was it like beginning to date?
LP: Stupid and awful. Like, It’s still stupid and awful. Like it's never anything but stupid and awful in the dating world as far as I'm concerned. Um, I have a really tough time conveying, I feel like, and I said this to my friend after another romantic attempt like sort of didn't work out, either people meet the me that I was when I was nine, just sort of a normal person, and then, and that feels really good because then I know they really like me and then they have to encounter the Liz Phair thing, which I don't have total control over. You know, I can't really shape that narrative. That's a cultural narrative. And then they have trouble grappling with that cause they thought they just met this nice suburban girl. Right? Or they meet me as Liz Phair and they think all these, you know, oh we're going to be a power couple and it's going to be amazing, we’re going to do all these sexy, cool, exciting, glamorous things, and then it's like the normal me that's just at home making popcorn and watching like period romance movies and and they don't want that. So like it's really hard to find someone that can hang in the rock world and also go home to Winnetka. And I don't want to take my foot out of either state. I'm straddling several states and it's very hard for me to find someone that can see that and understand it.
Liz is single now...She says she and her ex have a good co-parenting relationship. Their son, Nick, just graduated from college...which has prompted Liz to think about her own next moves.
LP: He's launching his own self. I feel in a parallel way, I'm launch, relaunching my own self as an artist, and there was just a section of my brain that belonged to my son for 22 years. There was just the section that was off, that was inaccessible to anything else and it took up a lot of space.
And Liz is still very close with her parents. They just sold their Winnetka home this year, and Liz says… that was hard.
LP: I have never not gone home. So I've, every year I've been home in Chicago at their house four, five times a year. You know, like it's, it was, it's never not been a part of my life. So when we knew that this was coming, I don't, and I think my mother understands us, you know, I did a lot of helping clean out closets and do all that kind of stuff. But as it got closer, I became more and more withdrawn from it. I sort of relished in all the views from all the windows and remembrances. I'd done all that over a long period of time. But I'm, I have trouble with transitions traditionally and I think there was a sense that I almost couldn't look that last month or two at what was happening.
AS: You have trouble with transitions. Just tell me a little bit more about that.
LP: I’m, I have like a blind spot sometimes for what is required to make a transition. I point my GPS toward a goal and then whatever I have to go through to get to that goal is always a surprise to me. So I'm looking really far down the road most of the time or I'm looking at a very granular closeup. I have trouble with this, the middle ground and that's true in my art too. I like high contrast. I am very comfortable at the extremes on either side. I have trouble with the middle area, there's like this sort of murky, can't quite figure it out sense of, uh, formlessness. I just, I go toward the distinct goal and then deal with whatever comes up.
AS: I mean, you did talk about golden ponding.
LP: I’m so ready for that. I can smell the cardboard of the board games right now. I can hear the waves lapping at like the old tin rowboat, you know, whatever it is. I've fully, that's, that's the problem. If you want to know my problem in a nutshell, I have too much imagination and not enough organization. So it makes me dangerously able to wing things really really well.
That’s Liz Phair...Her memoir is called Horror Stories.
In 2020, she’s got an album of new music coming and she’s heading out on tour with Alanis Morisette and Garbage.
Oh and that Trader Joes chapter from Liz’s book I mentioned at the top of this episode? I won’t spoil it, but it’s really good and you can read it on our website, at deathsexmoney.org. Thanks to Random House for letting us share that excerpt with you, along that clip from the audiobook.
And in our show notes, there’s a link to a Spotify playlist that we made of our favorite Liz Phair songs. Enjoy.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And you can email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AS: Have a wonderful time in the studio this afternoon. I’m excited to hear how the song turns out.
LP: Oh God. That was really mean. You just totally like snapped me back to attention, like aw dammit. Okay. You know how like at the end of a massage they press the top of your head down.
AS: Oh God.
LP: And you’re like why are you putting me back in my box?
LP: I don’t want to go back in my box.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.