Liz Phair remains larger than life, in a way — even taller than 6’1”, if you will — as a result of her utterly down-to-earth yet myth-making first album, “Exile in Guyville,” in 1993. Thirty years after it changed the course of rock ‘n’ roll, that debut is being celebrated on a cross-country tour in which Phair is playing the entirety of the album for the main part of her set, delighting houses full of Gen-Xers, and not a few boomers or Gen-Z-ers who also recognize the record as one of the all-time great freshman efforts.
Phair has done a fair amount of great work in the subsequent three decades, including her most recent release, “Soberish,” which landed on Variety’s list of the best albums of 2021. But the singer-songwriter obviously has a comfort level with knowing how strong she started right out of the gate, and her audience’s romance with how it hit them at a crucial time in their lives. It was a critical time in the life of popular music itself, coming along as a curative when “women in rock” were more easily fetishized than seriously feted for bringing wholly original viewpoints to the table.
Phair got on the phone with Variety to discuss the tour (which runs through Dec. 9), and how the original 1993 album was a shock even to her own system.
Could you speak to how you think women and men may have reacted differently to “Guyville” over the years? I know that I can never experience it as a woman might have, although I’m not necessarily sure I’m bringing a “male gaze” to it either. [She laughs.] Talking with Alanis Morissette about how it affected her, I could at least experience second-hand how it must have felt to have an inner world come to life as a young woman through this record. Did you feel any kind of pretty distinct contrast, in reactions at the time?
I think there were different reactions. I think a lot of male listeners probably cued into the sex right away and took it absolutely literally, like, “Oh, she’s down.” You know what I mean? And I think women understood that I was painting (a fuller portrait)… Because one of the things I did deliberately was to make sure that all my moods were present. I had this idea that with women in history, their lives just disappeared, because no one was chronicling them. And I loved reading poetry from antiquity written by women — like these teenagers who were mooning about love, but they’re in ancient Greece. When you get the direct, diaristic musings of humans distinct from ourselves, but not so different, I was into that.
So I wanted to put an album out that had all my different sides: my good girl, my bad girl, my angry, my sad, my joyful, my in-love. I wanted to have a full range. And I think a lot of women understood that there was something revolutionary about just commanding that space to say, “You should encounter all of me.” Because back then, a lot of us were trying to just fit ourselves into a box — some small fraction of what we really were. And I think that’s what women got out of it: kind of “She busted down some walls for us to still have self-esteem, but also express these dissonant feelings and experiences.” And I think men are more like, “Hey, she rocks!”
But then, I do notice that when men talk about it, they got to understand how women were seeing that, and they got to understand a little bit more about themselves. Because I do love men. Like, clearly, I was all about them. But I was mad, I was happy — it was all this stuff. So, I think different people got different things out of it. I think a lot in the gay community felt that I had demystified the idea of, like, “Sex is not a bad thing and I’m not ashamed of it.” I think that resonated strongly in the queer community. I think a lot of people got different things out of it. But what there was a reaction to repression, and I kind of popped out of the thing like, “Rrraahh! Tear this off!”
One of the most talked-about songs, “Fuck and Run,” is two different things at once. It’s acknowledging a lifestyle that has no shame about it. And then there’s also the desire for love, or at least a steady relationship, in it that makes it kind of a traditional song, in a way.
We all have complex inner lives. But that’s rarely what we see reflected back to us in this commercial environment.
As you listen back to the album now, as you must have to to present the material on tour, does anything about it surprise you at this late date?
I’m struck by a couple of things. One thing is the way it’s so intimate, and off-the-cuff, in the vocal delivery. I might, in my records now, try to sing more than back then. I had a kind of insouciance, of like, “Ah, I’m not gonna try too hard.” I’m surprised by how confident I am sounding — and probably wasn’t. Just that sense of, “Oh, I’m just gonna tra-la-la right into taking on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street’ — no biggie.” [One of the conceits of the album is that it was designed as a track-by-track reaction to the Stones’ 1971 double-album.] There’s a bravado, or a swagger, that surprises me when I think about how vulnerable I can feel now at my age, with all my experience, but somehow I seemed to have that back then.
I also am impressed with the fact that it’s really tight in the songwriting, arranging and production. We were careful, and we hit our mark. We hit the target. We didn’t indulge ourselves. We didn’t back off from making a moment come to life or bloom. Like, it’s very editorially sound. Which surprises me, because it was my first record. In almost all my records, there’s probably a part where, when I listen back, I think, “Oh, I should have shortened that outro” — little things that I would switch. I would not touch anything on “Guyville.” And that’s easy to say, because everyone likes that album; it would be easy to just lie about. But I mean that sincerely. I can’t believe we didn’t pull any wrong move or do anything wrong.
Can you describe what this visual augmentation or presentation looks like on stage, on this tour?
Well, one of the things Kevin did was build a team, including the painter Natalie Frank, who does these very expressive, gestural paintings about sort of dystopian fairy tales. Like, taking all the cautionary tales that women were told about “Don’t go in the woods alone” — all the things that can go wrong, all the cautionary tales that were turned into folklore — she paints that, and so her paintings will appear at various points in the background; Kevin’s, also. We cast someone to be my figure, who I was, and then my object of desire, and we’re filming scenes throughout the album that are described in the lyrics that will also play as well.
What’s so fun is taking a risk and going deeper with the album, instead of just a recital of like “Yeah, it’s the album, cool, it’s a rock show” … trying to be more immersive. Because everybody who’s coming to the show probably knows the album and has probably lived with it for a while. And I want to take you back to 1993. A lot of the equipment that they’re purchasing for this was made in the ‘90s. Kevin bought a Tascam 4-track to film, and Japhy Weideman, who’s helping with lighting design, found some stuff that was what you would stage for a rock concert back in the ‘90s. It’s very cool. It’s more analog. So I hope that it is evocative and immersive.
The passage of 30 years since the album came out is difficult to grasp. This doesn’t feel remotely like a period piece when you put it on. A kid could play it and think it’s their story and have no idea it wasn’t recorded a week ago, lyrically or sonically, if you didn’t tell them. Although some of them may welcome it as something nostalgic they didn’t live through.
In Williamsburg, everybody looks all ‘90s again. I watch the ‘90s come back, or the sort of revival of nostalgia that becomes current… I don’t think people who are embracing various nostalgic trends are necessarily thinking of it that way. I think they’re just like the way I might look back to the 1500s and be like, “What are you wearing?” You know what I mean? [Laughs.] There’s a beautiful transformation when something from the past becomes current again. And it almost doesn’t even need to reference the past. It actually just becomes the current culture, again. I think recording studios have a lot to do with that. The fact that the gatekeeping is gone, and anyone who can afford a minimum house rig can probably get a hit song on YouTube — you know, I think that has a lot to do with it. I just think the accessibility of putting music out has changed enormously, and that’s what our trend back in the ‘90s, indie-rock, was all about — do it yourself.
The thing that’s so striking about “Guyville” that it really feels like a third record in a way. Like, “OK, I’ve already got some success under my belt. The world loves me. I feel completely cocky about things. And I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
I know, and that amazes me too, because I know how insecure I was, and I know how desperate, in a way, I was.
In another interview you used the word “deadpan” to describe the conversational tone you were taking with the album. Some of what you were singing about was considered shocking at the time. And the fact that you’re doing it in sort of a deadpan voice or, as you also put it, a “not trying too hard” kind of voice almost creates this different kind of context for it that makes it feel more natural — and sort of more startling at the same time, if that makes sense.
That’s exactly right. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s it. I wish I could explain it more fulsomely, but… it sticks out to me, too.
There is a pretty good variety of material on the album, musically. Everyone is always struck that there are all these kind of strange, difficult chords. You’ve said that your producer, Brad Wood, was into jazz. So maybe he encouraged you to use things that were more minor-key, or kind of strange chord changes. But then suddenly, there’ll be almost a straight-up pop song in there, too, to mix it up.
I wonder, though, if you got it reversed. I came in with all the weird chords, and that happened because I used to play guitar without plugging it in. So I’d play an electric in my bedroom so no one would hear, and I’d be hunched over, so what I was hearing was just unplugged electric guitar jangling. I couldn’t hear all the wrong notes. They sounded good to me! And the thing with Brad’s jazz background was, he left it in. But when it gets poppy, that’s Brad coming in with major chords on top of me. So it’s like the reverse! I came in all weird, and Brad heard the jazz in my weirdness, and then he enhanced it.
We would find a way not to lose my originality, but also to bring it up to the whole sonic feel to try to make some equivalent of the dynamic throughout the record that the Rolling Stones were playing with. Because “Exile on Main Street” is such a dynamic record. It’s an opus, for sure, and there are beautiful, intimate moments throughout. But it’s also just dynamic, and I was very aware of that. I remember being extremely aware of the dynamism of the bouquet of songs I needed to put together. And if I changed one in one place, it would ruin another one in another place, because then you’d have too many big songs. I was so conscious of that back then. I had this big poster board [laughs] that I brought in that had the Rolling Stones songs on the left and my songs on the right, and sometimes I’d cross them out and I’d be like, “I gotta do a different onehere.” It was such a conceptual project for me, and I loved that, but you can imagine — when I had no reputation at that point — how weird I would have seemed to people.
“Never Said” is one of the great pop earworms of the ‘90s. But then somehow even the songs that were stranger, or more unusual, like “6’1”,” became earworms themselves, but maybe it wasn’t until the third time you heard it that it became the earworm.
But “Never Said” was so easy because of the limitations of my guitar playing at the time… “Never Said” was easy because I just took an E chord all the way up the neck, and I didn’t barre it sometimes, because I couldn’t. I wasn’t strong enough. So, you know, the outer strings that were not being barred were kind of at odds. They were conflicting, in a way, with the E chord that was just moving up in pitch. But that was just a factor of my inexperienced guitar playing. But then, you know, you bring (lead guitarist) Casey (rice) and Brad in…
So, was there an immediate effect in your life, of going from “I really want to impress five people” to…
…to “Oh no, what have I done — Holy shit”? Yeah, big time. Once it was picked up by the press, now I realized my parents were gonna hear it, whereas they had no idea about this sort of alternative indie-rock life I was living. And that was mortifying. I can remember being in my childhood bedroom, knowing that because of all the press, they were going to hear it, and just breaking out in cold sweats, not being able to sleep, and getting up obsessively and looking in my closet… The panic that ensued, because I was going to have to wear this. I thought I was going to get away with it. It was like when a guy compartmentalizes cheating, and then all of a sudden they’re going to be exposed. I’d sort of been cheating on the life that a lot of people that grew up with me knew. They didn’t know I was doing anything like that, and that was intense.
And I remember my roommate, with whom I had a frenemy sort of relationship, he knew how scared I was to perform. He also knew that I’d never been on stage. Imagine 1993 for me, not only putting out my first record, but also, for the first time ever, stepping on a stage to perform, in any capacity. Everyone expected that if you could make that record, you would have had years under your belt. And I had no experience at all. Ira Glass has a funny thing that I interviewed him about once, where he said he was standing in the Metro, at one of my first shows, and he’s like, “It was like watching a skater fall down.” Like, “I can’t look, I can’t look!” [Laughs.]
How long do you think it felt for you to become comfortable? Either on stage or as a public personality?
It was never… It’s not a horrible thing. Like, being scared on stage is not the worst thing that can happen to you in the world. I’d rather do that than get surgery, you know what I mean? It was always in perspective. It just was unenjoyable to be inadequate at your job and to be given big responsibilities right away. You can imagine — it’s a steep learning curve. You have to fail in public, many, many, many times.
Are you still working on the sequel to your first memoir (2018’s “Horror Stories”)? You didn’t touch on “Guyville,” or your other albums, nearly as much as you could have in the first book.
Yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. It’s not quite the vision I had [for a follow-up book] in 2018. Now it’s turned into… Part of it, I can’t really say what it’s about, but the other part is, conveniently, centered around the time when I was making “Guyville,” talking about the life that I was living in Wicker Park right before the album was released, and then just a little bit afterward.
When “Horror Stories” came out, it was so good, but also selective, that everyone was curious about what you’d do in the companion volume, and whether it would be more sort of music industry-focused.
It is more music industry-focused, but it’s also talking about what it is to be an infamous woman, in a way. So it’s a broad point of view. I can’t say too much, but I’m really freaking excited about it. It both zooms in and out… I’ve sort of cut out the middle. I’ve gone into the minutiae of day-to-day life, being a young adult in Wicker Park [in the Chicago area] —basically being an artist-grifter, before I knew that anything would happen and I had no idea what I was gonna do with my life. It’s focusing in on the two years right before I released “Guyville.” But then I’m also pulling back really far back into sort of deep time, to talk about what infamous women in history have been about, and how interesting it is to see happen, even today.
It has to be fair to say you feel like “Guyville” put you in that great lineage of infamous women.
I do think that puts me in the lineage of infamous women. It certainly felt like that at the time. You know, I really honestly thought that the record would come out and I would impress about half a dozen guys, or maybe a dozen guys, in the immediate Wicker Park music scene. There was that whole fanzine culture back then, and I wanted to make my mark, if you will. Everyone back then was super-critical and harsh, but also funny and brilliant at the same time, and I feel like it was like snark championships, and I think I just wanted to make my mark amongst them to say like, “Here is my offering—boom.” And then when it became my actual job… [Before the album came out] I was going to be a visual artist. I trained; I interned for famous people. And “Guyville” just changed my life completely.
I think that’s what’s so cool about this tour, 30 years since I put it out, 30 years since my life changed completely… The way we’re staging it, I’m working with Kevin Newbury, who’s a very well-known theater director. I encountered his work when he directed “Kansas City Choirboy” [an off-Broadway play that ran 2015-16], starring Courtney Love and Todd Almond. It blew me away. I think the production was an hour long, and I was sobbing within the first 15 minutes and I couldn’t stop. He hijacked my emotions in a way that blew me away. I felt like they discovered a new way to tell stories. So I’ve asked him to help me stage this, and I hope that what we’ve done is not too intrusive. You know, it shouldn’t strike you as anything theater-y.
It should just feel like a rock-concert-plus. And it should help you appreciate the romance behind the album. Like, what the young woman was actually asking for: “Love me!” [Laughs.]
The remaining dates on Phair’s “Guyville” anniversary tour:
Nov. 19 – Detroit, MI @ Masonic Temple – Cathedral Theatre
Nov. 21 – Boston, MA @ Roadrunner
Nov. 22 – Philadelphia, PA @ Franklin Music Hall
Nov. 24 – Brooklyn, NY @ Kings Theatre
Nov. 25 – Washington, DC @ The Anthem
Nov. 27 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium
Nov. 28 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Symphony Hall
Nov. 30 – New Orleans, LA @ Orpheum Theater
Dec. 1 – Austin, TX @ ACL Live at the Moody Theater
Dec. 3 – Dallas, TX @ Majestic Theatre
Dec. 4 – Oklahoma City, OK @ Tower Theatre
Dec. 5 – Omaha, NE @ Holland Center
Dec. 7 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Kalamazoo State Theater
Dec. 8 – Madison, WI @ The Sylvee
Dec. 9 – Cleveland, OH @ TempleLive Cleveland Masonic
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