In the early 1990s, Liz Phair started getting letters.
At the time, she was living with her parents outside Chicago as a recent college graduate, figuring out her next move. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. People were mailing her $5, $10, asking her for a copy of her cassette. But Phair hadn’t advertised any cassette, especially not the cassettes of songs she had recorded alone in her bedroom as “Girly-Sound” and passed along to musicians Chris Brokaw and Tae Won Yu, the latter of whom circulated the tapes.
“I just kind of pocketed the money because I was like, what, am I going to start sending back all these tapes?” she says. “And I was kind of a shit back then, let’s be honest.”
The cassettes were just the beginning of Phair’s career as one of the more polarizing singer-songwriters of the early 1990s. Ever since she released her debut, Exile in Guyville, in 1993, much of the songs pulled and re-worked from the Girly-Sound tapes, young women have heard their personal lives, so often considered mundane by the canonical rock circles that came before it, articulated in its frustrated, unwaveringly blunt lyrics. And in an era in which indie music is dominated by young women like Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and more writing equally gutsy, soul-bearing rock music, the energy of a record like Exile in Guyville plays as if it were a prophecy.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, celebrated with a remastered reissue of both the album and Phair’s Girly-Sound tapes from Matador. But while Exile in Guyville may have been the masterpiece that put Phair on the map, the artist has been tethered to its legacy for most of her career. The albums she released shortly afterwards, Whitechocolatespaceegg and Whip-Smart, never quite reached the same critical acclaim. And while her more pop-leaning material in the early 2000s like Liz Phair and her last album Funstyle were derided by many fans and critics who wanted her to go back to her roots, Phair is hard at work with Ryan Adams on new music, looking to the frank material of her early work for inspiration today.
A few weeks ago, I talked to her on the phone about looking back on releasing Guyville, how her perceptions of the music industry have changed since then, and why she’s ready to get back to “the edge.” An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: Going through the reissue and all the Girly-Sound tapes, I’m curious, how did it feel to revisit that moment in your life and sort of go back and think about that time?
LIZ PHAIR: I was just making up crazy little songs in my bedroom. I never looked at Girly-Sound as the precursor of anything. It was just the way to remember songs and put them down and then forget about them. [Laughs] I didn’t say, like, this is my first stab at becoming a recording artist, it was purely just…I was writing these songs and thought they were kind of cool and wanted to put them down. It’s a weird thing to go back into such unselfconscious ramblings. There are like, I don’t know, nine verses in “Hello Sailor?!” There’s no way I’m playing that live! I’m not going to sit and take up that much real estate for like this “Hello Sailor” song, you know? [Laughs]
When you released Guyville, you were accused by some people as living a double life. Did it feel like you were living a “double life” making your music at the time?
Yes and no. I’ve always had kind of a duality in me, just naturally. And when Guyville came out, my two worlds—sort of conservative, upbringing, traditional, suburban and then this sort of artistic milieu that I was in, where it was all indie and experimental—those two worlds became evident in the press. It wasn’t so much in Guyville. I think in Guyville I seemed squarely in the indie world. But when people started interviewing me or finding out where I came from and hearing me speak, it was really bad, actually. The rock people thought I was a fraud because I was really some blonde and I got highlights and I came from the suburbs and my parents were comfortable. And then the people who were from my upbringing were utterly horrified and didn’t understand the context at all, the kind of things I was singing. It was as if I had done something [like] when Britney shaved her hair off, that kind of moment, that’s how they took it. [Laughs]
I have the New York Times to thank for making it all okay because I got a good review and suddenly everyone thought, oh you’re an artist, which is what I always was! My visual arts background and what provocative things a visual artist would do in the culture, I brought that to music, and I’m not sure that many people do that. It doesn’t have to be that I lost my virginity at 12. Everyone took it as straight confessional and it is true, a lot of the stuff is true, but I knew what making art was and I think nobody credited me with that back then.
The media was so clearly fixated on the sexual frankness of your music. Looking back, do you feel like you were overly sexualized?
I do feel that way. I feel like they sensationalized me and now that I understand the press better, of course they did. But I didn’t understand [it] then, I had no concept of it. I only knew the neighborhood that I was in and the guys were all making these radical records and I thought I too can do that from a female point of view. And I was playing with sexuality, so it’s fair game for press to pick that up because I was asking you to look at what a female thinks about sexually. I was asking you to accept that I had sexual agency, that I had lust and desire. But at the same time, I was teasing you by saying I am obviously going overboard to prove a point. But that was just lost and everyone assumed they had just found a sort of person who was raised by wolves [laughs]. I spent that whole first press cycle feeling hounded and vulnerable and misunderstood.
Did that experience change the way you approached your personal life and sex while writing records after Guyville?
Well, immediately after, it certainly did. Because I used to read all my reviews. I used to just read everything everyone was writing and it just scrambled my brain like eggs because I lost my unselfconsciousness. I began to write all these songs about being persecuted by the media or something [laughs], and I remember my lawyer was like, Liz, noooobody wants to hear twelve songs about the business. All I wanted to do was argue back and it didn’t produce very good music, so I had to take some time off to kind of check out for awhile.
Obviously, over the course of your career, you’ve gone back to the Girly-Sound vault to re-record songs. I’m interested in that process, choosing what to bring onto your studio albums.
When I make a project, I think of the parameters and then I look for something that can fit what I’m trying [to do.] I’ll look anywhere, I’ll cannibalize my own songs, I’ll rewrite stuff. I also look for each album to have a holistic, emotional palette, that there are some songs about being in love, some songs about being heartbroken, some songs about being jealous, all those things because to me the highest game I’ve got is that a woman’s life made it into history.
That started for me in college, this desire to have my life and my art log on, because I felt like a lot of women’s lives in art were just left behind. We don’t have long lineage. We do more now—people have dug it up and found it and brought it back into the light. But for a long time, it was just a blank space on the page. Where are all the women painters? Where are all the women poets? Where all the women? Wouldn’t you kill to read some medieval housewives diary, bitching about her husband? We don’t have it but we have it from men. We’ve got it everywhere.
You said that the music you were making for the Girly-Sound tapes was a lot less self-conscious. I’m interested in how you would say you’ve changed as a writer since you were making your tapes.
The process is the same, but the material shifts. Like if I’m practicing a Girly-Sound song and I go to switch over to my other guitar to play the new material that I’m working on, the complexity of my new material, is more complex and maybe my lyrics aren’t as direct and confrontational. They’re less off the cuff. In fact, I think the Girly-Sound stuff is helping me remember to be a little more literal because I’m sort of in a place where in between the lines kind of reading is more interesting to me, and I need to remember to just say what I need to say in 25 words or less. Just say it. Because when I was doing the earlier work, I just would say it.
Where did that impulse to be as direct as possible with an audience come from?
It’s like, if the barrel of your gun is a little off, the bullet doesn’t fly as straight and the bullet starts to slow down. But if the barrel is tight and right it’s going to be farther and go straighter and have a greater impact. I want to be direct and honest and I want my music to reflect that. You know how, like, beauty can confuse you? And sometimes you’re just like, wow, this is so beautiful, and you just waft into this beautiful noise, which is great alone playing for yourself, enjoy that moment, but when you have to play it for someone else it has to land. You have to know what the fuck you’re talking about. [Laughs]
How would you say the rock music industry has changed since an album like Guyville was released?
The business is populated with like a gazillion times more women right now, which is very exciting. You don’t have scenes the way you used to have, it used to be much more tribal. Like, I’m in this scene, and you’re in that scene, and now because of the ubiquity of access, you can be an omnivore, like I kind of always was and a lot of people are. The walls between being a big star and not a big star have come down a little bit. It’s become more of a wide, horizontal landscape rather than such a vertical. Although there are still places in the capitalistic sense [where] labels are going to put their money. They’re only going to invest in the stock that they think is going to pay off. But beneath that, there’s a very wide playing field. Everyone’s interacting. The soup of inspiration is so much more nutritious.
I think the more ’90s mindset of “selling out” to a major label doesn’t really exist as much today. I think there’s a greater understanding that artists want to work in different genres or the pressures artists might feel working in a major-label context. And I know that when you released your self-titled album, obviously there were a lot of fans who thought that you had “sold-out.” Do you think people would have treated you the same way if you had released an album like Liz Phair today?
I do actually, because it was a big stylistic departure from the earlier work. I think, maybe not the backlash that happened then, but I do think it would be poorly received by the indie crowd just like it was then. Even though there aren’t these sort of separate genres, I think people still get upset when their favorite artist sounds totally different than they did before.
When fans wanted you to keep making records like Guyville, did it feel like people essentially wanted you to stay in your 20s?
They sort of thought I was rejecting who I was, but who I was was always an artist. I was an artist before I was a recording artist. Just like there’s a blue period for an artist or they’re going to get into photography now—I look at it that way. I wasn’t thrilled with my situation on Capitol by any stretch. That wasn’t my choice. I didn’t go, “I’d like to make a pop record.” I wanted to sell records I wanted to do well on this major label. And I enjoyed it! It never felt to me like, that’s going to be the epitaph on your coffin. I was still the same person. I was also mom-ing at the moment, so I didn’t want to be near the edge. When you have young kids, I just personally wasn’t attracted to being near the edge, which I was attracted to before I became a mother and what I’m attracted to now that he’s grown up. But there was definitely that sense of not wanting to be close to the edge.
When you say the edge, you mean the style and sound of the music you were making?
Anything that was sort of dangerous or whatever, I wasn’t in that mode.
Not wanting to be close to the edge, was that something you felt naturally or was it something that you felt like you had to be more aware of now that you were a mom and that was a part of your public image?
Being in the rock world and spending time around those kinds of people, when you’re thinking about making sure you don’t have chemicals in your cleaning products and then you go into a studio where everyone is smoking and drinking and swearing, yeah, you don’t really feel in tune with that. That’s not attractive to you at that moment.
Even just reading older interviews with you, people often asked you why it took so long between certain records, a lot of the time you were like, well, I’m raising a kid. Do you think people were sort of callous about the reality of your life as an artist and a working mom?
Yeah, and it’s a problem as a culture, too. Every single mom out there will tell you it’s a problem. Women are just supposed to grow up, take care of children and it’s like, of course I need you to be this, I need you to be that, I need you to be this. I mean, how many marriages break up because the mom’s like, I’m just trying to fucking raise these children responsibly, and the husband’s like, You don’t pay attention to me anymore! And the mom’s like, Goddamn it! [Laughs]
I do think when you’re a musician and so much of your income is based on touring a record and promoting a record, it doesn’t seem like there are enough conversations about how much more difficult that is for women who have kids.
It is really hard and you need to have support. You either need that second income or you need to be able to bring your kids on the road. People were great with my [son] Nick. When I started bringing Nick out it was one of my happiest touring situations and everyone on the crew and in the band was so nice to him and helpful. When people have some sort of resentment about [the pop album], that was some of my best working conditions because the budgets were bigger, I could afford to take Nick out, I could bring a nanny, we weren’t going to shit hole bars where I couldn’t bring him in the venue. It worked and it was such a wonderful experience, but it’s hard to get to, and you have to make decisions, and there are lots of parts of my life that aren’t just indie rock. I’ve lived with and among and cared about all sorts of people. I’ve had a wide-ranging life. I’m an omnivore in my life, and I am in my music.
There are a lot of young artists making very frank, intimate rock music that reminds me of what you were doing with Guyville. Are you aware of your influence on younger artists?
I’m not aware of my personal influence, but I’m highly aware of the direction that female music has gone in. I feel like I have so many choices when I want to listen to music by women, things that feel very familiar and the kind of music I like. Women are getting to make the new canon. I think they know it when they pick up a guitar or they play on a keyboard or they’re just singing, I know they’re there to make music that means something to them and they’re not obsessed with whether a guy is going to like it or if it sounds like another male band or any of that stuff. I think they’re free to produce what they just want to hear.