Music

Liz Phair Is Still Amplifying Her Voice, 25 Years After Her Debut LP

In a new interview, Liz Phair looks back on her first four albums, the legacy of Exile in Guyville, and being an inspiration to today's female songwriters.

Whip Smart
Liz Phair

Capitol/UMe

8 June 2018

Whitchocolatespaceegg
Liz Phair

Capitol/UMe

8 June 2018

Liz Phair
Liz Phair

Capitol/UMe

8 June 2018

Anyone who has long followed the career of singer-songwriter Liz Phair would have to agree that 2018 has been so far a banner year for her. For starters, Exile in Guyville, her universally-acclaimed debut album, turned 25 this year; it was recently reissued as a well-received boxed set, Girly Sound to Guyville, pairs the original album with Phair's early self-produced recordings under the 'Girly Sound' moniker. To mark that milestone, Phair embarked on a brief sold-out tour that focused on material from Exile in Guyville and the Girly Sound cassettes. And if that wasn't enough, Phair will be on the road again starting on September 6 for a new tour, dubbed 'Amps on the Lawn', in which she'll play a wider selection of songs from her catalog as well as a few new ones.

The renewed media attention and focus on Exile in Guyville on its silver anniversary has put into perspective how groundbreaking that album has been over the years; it remains a stunning and timeless work that turned the rock patriarchy upside down with Phair's frank lyrics on sexuality and sexism. Phair's DIY approach to her music on Guyville provided the spark for such female acts as Frankie Cosmos and Jay Som to take the reins and record their own music literally in their bedrooms—the same way that Phair had done in her early 20s.

In addition to Guyville, Phair's subsequent albums—Whip-Smart (1994), Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), and Liz Phair (2003)—were also recently re-released by Capitol/UMe for the first time on 180-gram vinyl. Those works chronicle the evolution of her music: from the minimalist arrangements and lyrical bravado that characterized her debut recordings, to more accessible and pop-oriented material accompanied by a grown-up outlook—yet still convey her upfront charisma and cutting point-of-view. Several memorable songs from those records, including "Supernova", "Polyester Bride", "Why Can't I?", and "Extraordinary," have since become part of her touring repertoire.

At the same time, Phair isn't resting on her laurels with this batch of reissues and upcoming tour—she is also gradually unveiling some new projects, such as her first new album since 2009's Funstyle, and her upcoming memoir, Horror Stories. Now in 2018, the singer-songwriter, who addressed gender inequality in her music years before #MeToo, is speaking up once again during a tense and uncertain time in this country. "I feel the need to put art out there right now," Phair says recently. "I want to make this big of an impression as I can, to add my voice to everybody that's trying to amplify the voices of the people: that this is what we feel America is, this is what we feel goodness and worthiness [are]."

In this interview with PopMatters, Phair looks back on her first four albums, the legacy of Guyville, and being an inspiration to today's female songwriters.

You recently finished the 'Girly Sound to Guyville' tour, which sold out throughout its entire run. What was the experience like?

It was great. It was such a sing-along fest with all the super fans. These were songs that I hadn't played in a really long time. It was a cool thing to prepare for and to delve back into. I think it really shifted my perspective on what I do as a songwriter having to think about that early material and look at that songwriting in both its surprising sophistication on the one hand for that young age, but then also its complete heedless abandon.

And now you'll be starting a new tour, 'Amps on the Lawn', which I assume will draw more songs from your other albums?

Yeah, this is the whole catalog. And that is a fun experience because I haven't been able to stretch my legs throughout the entire catalog and design a show that encompasses all of that different material—and then a couple of new ones too, which I'm looking forward to. I've had requests from fans to stick in a few real rarities, which I think I will definitely make room for this set. So on a nightly basis, there can be one or two songs that [we] just kind of spontaneously pull out that hasn't been heard before, or maybe we're not as familiar with.

Last May, Matador Records reissued Exile in Guyville as part of the Girly Sound to Guyville boxed set. Then that was followed by Capitol/UMe re-releasing your other albums starting off Whip-Smart, which was a great follow-up to Guyville. Looking back, was there a lot of pressure going into the making of that second album?

There was a lot of expectation. I had just come off my first experience with being in the public eye. So my first batch of songs for Whip-Smart I think it was my lawyer who gently said to me, "Liz, nobody wants to hear ten songs about the business" (laughs). The first batch we're all about being famous and how hard that was. I was sort of guided away from that. I think of Whip-Smart as still in the Guyville ilk, but a little less confrontational and a little bit more introspective possibly—although the rockers are just as rocking, if not more so, like "Jealousy" and "Supernova". It wasn't working off of a template either, which was different.

"Supernova" was the first single and has become one of your signature songs.

I love that video. I think of Whip-Smart as the album where I sort of took the helm in the video-making department. I really enjoyed that. I think the videos off of that record are great. They're so MTV 120 Minutes.

Whitechocolatespaceegg followed four years later. By that time you were married then and became a mother. In retrospect, was that album a reflection of those major life experiences?

It was. I made that record over the course of being pregnant and giving birth, so it was a total life transition. And in fact, the name comes from a dream I had while I was pregnant—that I had put out a record called Whitechocolatespaceegg, and I was sitting in a booth at a festival and people were coming up to me telling me that they liked my record (laughs). There are personal moments on that record too that are less the tough Liz Phair persona, and more the naval-gazing emotional side.

One of the standout songs among many on that record was "Polyester Bride". Was that inspired by a true life experience, or was that something that you drew from imagination?

My songs are a little bit of both. I definitely had a friend who bar-tended named Henry. He did not specifically say those words. But there was often this sense that we were the suburban kids that wanted to come down and have drinks in the big city and we had certain attitudes; he had sort of come from maybe a less affluent background or had to be more mature at a younger age to take care of himself. You definitely received guidance and course correction from Henry, good advice, great bartender.

It seems like Whitechocolatespacegg is an underrated record of all the albums you've done.

I think a lot of times the records live and die by what the marketing ended up doing. There's always a watermark of whether fans either love songs on it or not. To some extent, they carry the coloring of how they were marketed, and that's how people associate it. I do notice that when I'm in personal circles, and I'm playing songs—people who love that record, especially small songs like "Girls' Room", they absolutely freak out. They're like, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" It's funny but Whitechocolatespaceegg gets a lot of that.

And then we come to the self-titled album from 2003, which generated a very big reaction from the critics because of its mainstream pop direction. At the time, did you anticipate how that album was going to be received?

I thought I was ready. I knew that it wasn't just going to be a nothing. I knew that there was a lot of investment in it and I knew it was a much bigger pop statement. I anticipated having more people who wanted to come along for the ride... I was not anticipating the sense of betrayal that people felt, that I had somehow abandoned who I was, which wasn't the case at all. There were some forces behind the scenes that no one knew about that I had to deal with and make the best call I could make. In the end, I was very excited by the songs I got to put on the record because I really thought that, though it was a collection of different bands, and that may have been part of what was difficult for people is that I mashed up a couple of different styles together in the track listing. I picked my favorites of all the recording sessions, and I really do still like that record quite a bit. I think that there's some excellent songwriting on it.

I personally think Liz Phair is a terrific album—it showed that you were trying to expand your musical range and that you did not want to make another Exile in Guyville. And the single from it, "Why Can't I?", is your most popular song, according to Spotify and iTunes.

Again, that's marketing. I read the marketing residue, and I also read the fan favorites. I mean, "Little Digger" [from Liz Phair] is such an important song to me. People are reacting to a couple of different things; you have to wait for a while for the songs that are really important to float up to the surface.

It was understandable to me at the time. I did a lot of on-phone therapy with critics who were all upset about it. I think there was also a force in the world where it felt like indie music had reigned supreme and now it was folding over into pop, and they're like, "Et Tu Brute?" To me, I wasn't giving up anything. I was just reflecting. I was a young mom; I was in a different place. I was older, and I wasn't in the indie scene at that point. But I never felt like I wasn't me.

Artists have to change and reflect different aspects of their personality at different points in their life with different records. That's what makes them artists. And if you take that away, what you really have is like a fake artist, you have someone delivering this Starbucks or McDonald's same product every time—"guaranteed you will like it." That to me is less authentic. But then you have hits and misses (laughs). I'm fine with that, that works for me.

Fast forward to the present: you were working on a new record with Ryan Adams producing. What is the status of that?

I changed the whole thing. After the election, I didn't have the same enthusiasm for the concept that we picked. Everything changed. After that that climate, just things felt so much more grave and threatening, a whole different feeling came across the project. We let it sit for a long time, and now we're just about to finish it. Nothing like that really ever happened to me where circumstances came and just knocked it out of orbit. But it did really. I turned to prose writing, [Ryan] went on tour. The air went out of it. It felt trivial and too light-hearted for the way everyone was feeling.

Politics made that much of a dent. You suddenly felt like what you needed to say had to be more important and had to be more encompassing. And the concept we picked earlier had been a little more zany and fun, and it got killed. It's okay; it's all gonna work out. But it's a first for me.

You have a memoir coming up titled Horror Stories. What was the experience like of writing your first book?

It was fantastic. It's something that I've been working on for a very long time. It allowed me to tell stories from my full self. I've got more room than two minutes and 45 seconds [on a song]. And yet, there is a commonality to the short stories. They have sort of a structure and imagery within them that circles around the theme in each story, in a way that I found I was very comfortable writing in that form after being a songwriter. It's the same when I write songs, the same way I delve into the quiet moments in your personal life or the things that are unspoken.

Going back to Exile in Guyville, are you still amazed at how that record still resonates with people 25 years later?

I am, but I'm also slightly troubled by how relevant it still is. I can't believe that we're living in a time where all of these pains are very present again, though things have changed enormously. There is a wide field of young female artists that gives me incredible happiness to see; it's incredibly compelling to me. I really want to listen to all their music, and I feel like there's a whole nation speaking my language, in different tongues from different communities. I get it. It feels very familiar to me, recognizable and resonant with what I was feeling and what I was writing. So that's great. But the fact that we're still battling the same pressures and repression and injustice is just depressing.

Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg

You were so ahead of the curve sonically first with the Girly Sound tapes and then Guyville. Today's bedroom pop sound from these emerging female indie artists can all be traced to you.

I absolutely love the term "bedroom pop". I think that's the best term ever. And I've been waiting 25 years to know what it was that I do (laughs). There was never a name for it, and people would ask me what kind of music I make, and I would always say something that never felt true. I'd say "rock, pop, folk, slightly country". I didn't have anything to say, because none of it felt like my genre. But I just had to say something. Every cab driver's like, "What do you do? What kind of music do you make?" and I'd rattle off some bullshit. And when bedroom pop became a thing, I'm like, "That's what I do!" And it was thrilling to think that it's now like a legit genre, and it's my genre. I'm down to bedroom pop.

If you look at interviews from back then, it was so much what I was on my mind: I wanted more women to make songs. And I wanted more women to be on stage. There was a punk aesthetic that was very prominent at Oberlin [where I went to college] in the early indie scene. If you had something to say, you got up, and you said it. But there were just so few women, and it was sort of an almost hostile environment to women. But there were women that inspired me. I remember thinking about Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, seeing her in Cleveland, and feeling like she was the coolest thing I'd ever seen and thinking like, "That's what I want to be."

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