Liz Phair is having nanny problems.
"I'm going crazy!" she bellows as she greets me at the door of her red-stone, two-story town house in the middle of Chicago's gentrified Lincoln Park neighborhood. The airy gentility of her high-ceilinged living room is broken by a rainbow coalition of children's toys strewn about the hardwood floor and a company of stuffed animals that stare from the ledge of the picture window in silent wonder.
Only a few hours ago, Phair finally tracked down the woman who cares for her son, Nicholas, who turns two in December. The nanny had gone AWOL for a couple of days, just as Phair was struggling to reconcile the two halves of her thirty-one-year-old life: parent (with her husband of three years, video director Jim Staskauskas) and pop star. This afternoon she's fielding phone calls from her label and preparing to leave for Los Angeles to audition musicians for her touring band. Meanwhile, who's going to get Nick ready for his morning nap?
The stress of the last few days has only made Phair more uneasy about her dual life. With 1993's decade-defining Exile in Guyville, which won critical accolades and indie-label success, she got to play a role she spent a lifetime preparing for: a sharp-edged girlie grrrl who reveled in her sexuality while also griping about "fuck-and-run" affairs. Even as she critiqued Chicago's guy-centric underground music scene with an album modeled on the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, she became something of an alternative-rock sex symbol. But things have gotten complicated.
With one hand on the wheel of her boxy, black, family-friendly Jeep, Phair drives us to a sidewalk diner a few blocks away. After her stressful morning, she wants lunch and a chance to vent. "My record company is screaming at me that this has to be done by Wednesday and I'm like, 'You don't understand -- I don't have a nanny,'" Phair says, brushing strands of dusty-blond hair from her eyes. "My nanny disappears, and who's going to suffer the most for that? It's not that Jim isn't a wonderful man and a great father. But what he expects to have to do is still much less than what I expect to have to do when there's a crisis like this."
"They never will understand," she adds, "because who else at [Phair's record label] Matador is going to have this problem? Meanwhile Jim was at work today while I was running around begging my mom to help out. That's just one stupid little example of how things have changed around here."
AS WITH MOST married couples who have a child, the relationship between Phair and Staskauskas changed when Nick was born. Phair wrote a song about it, called "Go On Ahead": "It's a death in our love that has brought us here / It's a birth that has changed our lives / It's a place that I hope we'll be leaving soon / And I fear for the year in his eyes."
Phair lowers her head and averts her eyes when I ask her if "Go On Ahead" is autobiographical. "It is, very much so," she says. "I knew if I included that one, I'd get nailed for it... it's so hard to talk about. It's about the feeling you have when your relationship with your husband is strained to the max because of all your other responsibilities. It makes me cring -- I fast-forward through it when I play the album."
On Exile, 1994's less-heralded though now gold Whip-Smart, and her current release, Whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair has always transformed her personal trials into pop songs that balance artful-dodger cool and intimate revelation. "Go On Ahead" is one of several snapshots of a life in transition on this album, for which she wrote thrty-eight songs, sixteen of which made the final cut. Together they comprise a merry-go-round of emotions and musical styles that swing from the Stonesy rocker "Johnny Feelgood" to the loungy meditation on self-satisfied patriarchy, "Uncle Alvarez".
It took four producers (including Phair herself) nearly two years to finish the album. When she thought it was done, more than a year ago, she played it for then-Capitol Records president Gary Gersh, who told her that it "lacked hits." (Capitol distributes Phair's records for Matador.)
"I'm like, 'What's a hit?'" Phair says, laughing. "He said, 'Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double-chorus, out.' So I transformed all the songs that I had half-finished into that. And I'm like, 'Did I get any? Did I get any?'"
But it was her label's blatant commercialism that pulled Whitechocolatespaceegg safely into harbor. That and a little creative input from longtime pal Brad Wood, who produced Phair's first album and coproduced her second. The two hadn't worked together since the end of 1994, when at the last minute Phair canceled a tour Wood was to play on. But they put the past behind them and recorded five tracks that help hold the album together. "I'd come into the studio and it was like Santa had been there," says Phair. "Brad just made it so easy for me."
LUNCH OVER, PHAIR insists on an Oreo-cookie ice-cream cone from a shop down the block. It's what passes for an indulgence since she's sworn off pot and the occasional swig of booze. These days she's usually in bed by 10:30 and up at dawn. Having a kid will do that to you. "If I've got to drive to the hospital in the middle of the night, I have to be on the ball," says Phair, her biceps tightening.
"I always think, What could I do to be even more productive?" she says. "Because now I want to achieve, in all phases of life. So I'm thinking the TV has got to go, because I'll spend an hour watching the last part of The Bridges of Madison County and when it's over feel soooo guilty that I could have been doing something... useful."
Phair stops and giggles as she climbs back into her Jeep. "Listen to me! No one under thirty is going to understand this. They're not going to get it. And you know what? I don't care." Phair heads back to her house -- and the baby and the nanny and the three cats and the husband who'll be home by dinnertime. And she smiles.
"When I was pregnant and feeling crappy for a while, I kept asking Jim, 'Where's the magic?'" she says, pulling the Jeep into her parking spot. "I felt kind of faded, like I'd seen the world already. Then Nick was born, and I started having fun without money or drugs. I mean, who knew?"
Greg Kot is the rock critic for the Chicago Tribune. He has two kids but no Jeep.