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Liz Phair's Music Used to Shock People and She's Fine with That

At the sharp-tongued musician's first UK show in a decade, we spoke about her upcoming memoir and defining album 'Exile in Guyville'.
Liz Phair press photo
Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg via PR

Back in the 90s, Chicago singer-songwriter Liz Phair developed a particular skill for getting other people's knickers in a twist. That she felt like the living embodiment of any angsty, sexually frustrated teen’s diary entries probably played a part, but there was more to her impact than that. She’s a two-time Grammy nominee, multi-million-copy selling musician. A whole quarter-century after her career kicked off, she retains relevance.


You probably know her for cutting and frank 1993 debut Exile in Guyville. With it, she captures those awkward, uncomfortable and confusing moments in life that we’re too ashamed to share with others, for fear that no one else gets it. I mean, you could go so far as to say she was #relatable long before Fiat 500 Twitter were even twinkles in their parents’ eyes. Vocal powerhouses like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston dominated the early 90s pop charts, but Phair? Her vocal delivery was often wry and deadpan, giving middle America, and by extension, the world, a slice of bleak realism.

Delivering lyrical gut punches such as “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone” and “Every time I see your face / I get all wet between my legs,” Phair captured the thoughts of those on the cusp of adulthood, or at least, the horny thoughts that we were made to suppress out of shame. Written, in part, as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St, Phair made the rock legends look like old fogies in comparison, flipping their often cheeky lyrics and themes sound towards the territory of nursery rhymes. Phair used a boredom about being told how to exist in a man's world to open listeners up to an existence that society consistently undermined. With a partial nip slip on the album cover, which has never been censored by distributors, she was unabashedly candid and sought to normalise this level of openness.


As a result, for those who came of age at such a time – and for those who came through and discovered her later – much of their adolescence was shaped by Phair’s music. As well as Guyville, there’s her pop-focused 2003 eponymous album – a more polished-sounding effort where she worked with The Matrix, producer of hits for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne among others – and even her composition work, scoring perhaps one of the best TV reboots of all time, 90210. Essentially, Phair has crept into many lives, and the lives of young women in particular. For me, from my mid-teens, Phair was the voice of many of my frustrations, so much so that I even wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Guyville.

“That’s amazing!” Phair says in response to hearing this, when we meet at Islington Assembly Hall. “When writing [Guyville], I never thought my work could be looked at in an academic way. I’m really flattered!” She’s here to play her first UK headline show in a decade and we’ve met up beforehand, ostensibly to talk about her new book – she has a two-book deal with Random House, with the first, Horror Stories, set to be released in October – and also, if I’m being honest, so I could let her know about my dissertation.

On stage, Phair is raw. There are no theatrics or obnoxious bravado. She’s just herself, plain and simple, and the audience eat her up. At moments you can hear a pin drop and for everyone in the room, it’s just them and Phair, adding a strange yet comforting feeling of warmth. These intimate moments are what makes Phair so special and what she in turn cherishes. Looking back on her career, they’re what stick out to her most, and serve as a basis for her upcoming memoirs. In a quick yet in-depth pre-show conversation, we touched on that memoir as well as the current cultural and political climate, especially given that Trump – who Phair refers to as “Predator-In-Chief” – was a major influence on her decision to delve into the nuances of horror.


VICE: You’ve been really busy lately, touring Europe and putting a book out. Why did you decide that now was the time to get back on it?
Liz Phair: As soon as my son went to college, I was ready to work again and it just took this long to sort of get it together. It took three years to get the whole parts of my career into the [ Girly-Sound to Guyville] reissue. I'm recording a new record now and then there's something else I'm going to announce shortly. So as soon as my son was gone from home, and I wasn't doing the daily commute, high school stuff, then I just started work again. It just took a couple years to build back up.

Why did you decide on the title Horror Stories for your book?
Well, it's actually two books. I think of Horror Stories and then Fairy Tales as a yin-yang kind of thing, where Horror Stories came first simply because of Trump. Watching that go down was so horrifying. It was so emotional and I was in touch with it pretty intensely. It's also about the small, painful private moments that happen in your life and in your career and that might get overlooked in art, the stories that you would tell around the table.

I feel that these sort of horrific and magical experiences really happen when you’re a teenager. Are there any particular moments from your teen years or young adulthood that you feel were a horror story or fairy tale?
One of the things I should say about Fairy Tales – I divided it up into the fairy tales that were the big career moments that were happening to me, but it's also about the lies that we tell ourselves, the way we believe… Have you ever fallen in love with a guy and from afar, you kind of imagine that you had a whole relationship? And you see someone and you really trick yourself into believing there's something there and maybe you finally get to fool around with them and there's no chemistry and you realise that, like, you've essentially been having this relationship with yourself the whole time?


I feel seen!
[She cackles] It's very interesting. The love you need, you're giving to yourself, you're telling yourself what you want, and what you need now, and most people are really not gonna fulfill that. Like, he's not on the same loop. He isn't looking at you going: “I can read your mind”. I think about high school as being a lot about dreaming and wanting and wishing and not actually doing.

Did you draw on any of these experiences when you started making music?
I had a very bad feeling about myself until right before I put Guyville out and maybe even through part of that, because I just didn't feel seen. I felt alienated by the culture around me and my girlfriends seemed to like that culture and they seemed to fit in better than I did. Everything I said was inappropriate, or everything I thought or felt seemed out of place or shocking to people, and that made me feel bad about myself for a long time. I fell into the trap of trying to be super pretty and trying to get guys to like me, and I lost a part of myself. So then when I decided to write Guyville, it shocked the hell out of everyone around me because no one even thought I had a voice, let alone what I would say.

And it did shock people.
Right. As a person, barring a couple years where I became a diva, and that sucked, I kept an awareness of what it was like to have shocked people and open them up without them expecting it was going to happen. Even if you don't know me, they’re confrontational lyrics. You have to feel one way about it. Take “Fuck and Run” or “Flower”. The guy in question thinks, 'What do you want, me? What's going on?' And my music is always provocative. It always sparks a strong reaction because I’m cracking myself open and I'm cracking you open without your permission and nobody's used to that and no one feels comfortable without their armour.


People used to give you a lot of flack and pick up on the provocative nature of your lyrics. How do you reflect on that?
Yeah, I mean, look at Miley, you know. She’s so provocative and I don't think anyone with any sophistication would believe she was going home and being all like [she stands up and shakes her bum while sticking her tongue out] but it was too much. Obviously it goes much further than that but at a very basic level, America, you know, the Bible Belt just said “no”.

More often than not, it feels like a female artist is always the next ‘X’ rather than praised for their individual genius in the same way that men are, too.
I didn’t think of that, but you’re exactly right. What that shows is how narrow our lane is, like there's only room for five. When I was coming up, radio programmers could only play one woman per half an hour slot. They could never play a woman back to back with another female artist. Like these were mandate. So when I was young and starting, we had a lot of insecurity about each other as female artists, because it felt like if you get it, then I can’t. And that was intentional. They put that in the rules. And it's sickening to me.

Now, looking back at that, over 25 years ago, they're like, 'we'll let you play our game, but we’ll only take five of you. We’ll take the hot ones and the ones that undeniably can shred.' But now I see such a difference. Everywhere I go there are young women opening for me or I'm opening for an older female artist. I think everybody's woken up that we're not going to play by those rules. I’m excited to see where things go.

Me too. Thanks for chatting Liz.