Susan Gottlieb has made a singular (and single) name for herself as Phranc, “the all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger.” But that appellation hardly encompasses the 49-year-old’s multiple talents.
In 1978, Phranc joined Nervous Gender, a punk band that once boasted an 8-year-old German boy on drums. Then she joined Catholic Discipline, which was featured in the classic punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and Castration Squad, an all-girl outfit.
Next the post-punk hero of anti-folk launched a solo career with 1985’s Folksinger. She wrote songs called “Ballad of the Dumb Hairdresser,” “Female Mudwrestling,” “Everywhere I Go (I Hear the Go Go’s),” odes to actress Tippi Hedren (The Birds) and Martina Navratilova, and a touching narrative on shower room awkwardness and fitting in on the girls’ swim team.
Phranc embodied Southern California surf culture, and she is an accomplished longboarder who stuck it out among the boys for several years before earning her spot in the lineup at a Malibu break.
She has always had a unique fashion flair and typically dresses in a style reminiscent of a 1950s-era 10-year-old boy — including the signature flattop she has maintained through the years — in combat boots. On the cover of her 1989 album I Enjoy Being a Girl, she poses in a red turtleneck with a glass of milk in hand, gazing off-camera with twinkling eyes. On the cover of her 1991 album Positively Phranc, she poses on the beach in striped pajamas.
After a long hiatus from music, Phranc re-emerged in 1994–95 in a series of live “Hot August Phranc” shows. In full Neil Diamond drag — wearing a wide-collared, white, polyester pantsuit cut low enough to reveal meticulously applied chest hair — she belted out his greatest hits.
By the time her “Bulldagger Swagger” 7-inch was released in 1994, Phranc was already an icon in the homocore music movement, getting props from bands such as Team Dresch. Her 1995 E.P., Goofyfoot (the cover depicts her surfing while playing acoustic guitar), features members of Bikini Kill and Hole.
More recently, Phranc became a Tupperware lady, a somehow not surprising career path for the genderqueer performance artist. In 2005, she toured with the Knitters; she regularly collaborates with Jody Bleyle from Team Dresch; and in 2006 she contributed the song “Hannukah Snowman” to a Kill Rock Stars holiday compilation.
While she occasionally still pops up at Tupperware parties, Phranc concentrates on her art and her family these days. She and partner Lisa have two daughters, ages 6 and 9, and by day Phranc teaches music classes in Los Angeles for tots ages 10 months to 2 years.
Unknown to many fans, though, Phranc has always been a visual artist, mainly working with recycled cardboard. “During my old punk rock days I’d make a lot of stuff out of cardboard and then have these last-minute rent-paying sales,” she told us recently.
In the past nine months, she has been using her grandmother’s sewing machine to fashion three-dimensional objects made from yards of craft paper she paints to look like fabric. In a recent joint show with buddy Alison Bechdel, Phranc made the clothes for Bechdel’s life-sized paper-doll self-portrait. And Phranc exhibited her own wondrous, lifelike paper creations: dumbbells, Y-fronts, a box of chocolates, a dress shirt and tie, sneakers, a life vest and vintage lifeguard togs.
The self-styled cardboard cobbler’s works in progress include a series of bandannas based on the “hanky code, the colored kerchief slang of the fag world.” These and other works can be seen on her blog.
But Phranc’s main work now is merging her visual work with her music. In her ongoing multimedia piece Phrankenstein, she sets her interpretation of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons to music. With the original text projected behind them, Phranc and collaborating musicians sing in “a formal chamber performance” as key cardboard sculptures are illuminated on cue.
“It makes Gertrude Stein very accessible,” Phranc said. “It’s a piece that can tour in pop clubs but also go to schools and libraries. It has a wide appeal, and it’s really fun and exciting to do.” She hopes to mount another production of Phrankenstein by this summer.