By Dan Ozzi
Vice, April 30, 2018
Liz Phair has been feeling nostalgic lately. The singer’s mom has always teased her about her inability to remember things from her childhood, but she’s noticed a change in herself in recent years.
“The older I get, it’s just started hitting me. I have this super-nostalgia thing happening,” says Phair. “Now I’m prone to weeping when I look at family pictures and stuff, and wanting to talk about memories. It’s kind of a 180. I’m into the past.”
Phair’s newfound urge to reminisce will come in handy this year because her landmark debut, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, is turning 25, and it’s a record about which people have no shortage of opinions. This spring, Exile in Guyville is getting a box set reissue from Matador Records, a seven-LP/three-CD edition, replete with remastered versions of her endearingly lo-fi Girly-Sounds demos and a book full of old photos and interviews. Phair will also be commemorating the anniversary with a tour in June. Though she might be into looking back at the past nowadays, we talked to her about the present, and how much the music industry has changed since those days of feeling stranded in Guyville.
Noisey: When you wrote Guyville in your 20s, a lot of it dealt with feeling trapped in this very guy-centric universe of mansplainers. Do you see a difference now in this generation? Has that culture shifted at all?
Liz Phair: A bazillion percent. I can go online and spend all day checking out new bands with women and I’m not even trying to. I follow a new female artist, I’d say, daily on Twitter, just because I hear a cool song. It’s what I dreamed of. I could only dream of it back then. And they’re all coming into the male rock world going, “This sucks, this is horrible, I’m the only woman.” And I’m thinking: You have no idea! [Laughs] Right now, I feel like I’m looking at a bumper crop and they’re looking at it going, “We’re still the minority and it’s hard,” and it is, but I can see the progress and I’m very excited about it.
Who are some younger artists that excite you?
I’m gonna go to Twitter and look through the people I follow. I love them all. Everyone’s like, “Who are your favorites?” And I’m like, I have no idea, I think they’re all amazing. [flips through Twitter] I follow… Rae Morris, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy obviously, Margot Price, I’ve got Karen O…
Where do you find out about these artists?
I literally use the social network socially. Mostly online word of mouth—someone that I’m following flags something or gives a shout-out to their friend. And then there’s all this reach-out. All these young artists reach out to me on Twitter, and I follow them and see who they follow. To me, it’s like woman-world. It’s awesome. It’s all female artists. I think I mostly listen to female music now.
Woman-World could be the sequel to Guyville.
Woman-World! That can be oppressive too. [Laughs]
When you listen to these new artists, do you hear any of your influence in them?
Sometimes. Like when I first heard Courtney Barnett, I heard it big time. But I don’t even think she listened to me. She might have known about me, but I don’t think she listened to me. When I was listening to Snail Mail’s guitar, I heard me a lot.
Do you wish that Twitter was around in the 90s?
No. It’s funny, Joe [Rogan] and I were just talking about that on his podcast. We’re the last generation to straddle both worlds, when you weren’t connected. We got to live in both times. I liked being part of the world more, and I don’t just mean the human world, I mean the world-world. We don’t just go out anymore. We don’t go looking to see where everyone is. We know where they are.
What would Liz Phair’s Twitter have been like in 1993?
Oh my god, I would tell you about the millions of things I was smart about, I would be snarky, I would be… When I listen to my old interviews, I just want to reach through the screen and tell myself to shut up. I don’t know what I’m saying and I act like I know everything.
That’s funny because there’s this old interview in the book that comes with the Guyville reissue and I thought you were really honest in it. It’s a level on unguardedness that I wish people still had. Everything’s very polished now, but you were very forthright.
Aw, that makes me feel really good and I’m gonna take that compliment and hold onto it for at least a week because I like that idea. The one thing I would have in common with myself from then would be that I love to goof around. I love playfulness in interviews.
A lot of the music industry problems you highlighted in the 90s—its male-dominated nature—are finally now being talked about in mainstream conversation. What do you see your role in it as now? Do you feel inclined to lead the charge or are you content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on?
I have been oddly quiet and I’m not even sure why. People have been trying to goad me into getting into the fray and I’m not sure why I’m hanging back. It’s not from anything conscious. I just feel like I’ve been banging that drum for a while and I kind of want to just see what everyone’s saying and follow it. I don’t want to lead, which is weird. That’s something I should figure out at some point. But it feels to me like I’ve already said most of this stuff. So I’m sort of watching it go and supporting it and letting other people talk.
So do you feel like a torch has been passed now where you don’t really have to do it?
No, I feel like, if anything, I’m waiting for the even trickier things, like going to Congress and shit like that. I feel like I’m at the level where I’ve done the banging of the drum of it, and what I’m gonna be called upon to do is something really gruesome. When it comes time that they need the older women to come in and pick up the heavy lifting, that’s where my lane will be. I’ve contemplated things I could get involved in that would try to actually change things. I think I’m waiting for when I’m needed. I’m girding myself up, preparing for some serious battle, but I’m letting the banshee yell be yelled by other people.
You’re waiting for the Bat-Signal to go up over Gotham.
[Laughs] Right. I’m prepared to go to great lengths for the cause.
You mention in the reissue book that you were very intent on maintaining your vision for your work, and not wanting anyone else to push their agenda. I’m wondering if that perspective changed after Guyville started getting praised. Did it go to your head? Were you like, “Fuck everybody, I was right”?
I never had that feeling, which is weird because I could have. It was so overwhelming to me. My experience with Guyville was suddenly having to do all this press and take all these pictures and having everyone yelling and arguing about me. And I really didn’t know that was coming. I wanted to impress a very small segment and I never dreamed in a million years it would go as big as it did. But at the same time, I was saying shit like… I think I asked Matador, “Do you wanna make a million dollars? Because I’m gonna make a million dollars.” [Laughs] I said this crazy shit! I can’t even be accountable for who I was back then because I don’t know. I spent most of Guyville not enjoying promoting that record. That was traumatic in a weird way for me.
Conversely, when you put that self-titled album out in 2003 and your fans got so mad that you abandoned your origins, did the negative press affect you at all?
Well, OK, check this out. I had a really good time promoting that record. Despite all the horrible things people were saying—I didn’t even think they were horrible, I honestly thought I was doing therapy. I would do interview after interview and I’d try to talk them down off the ledge because they were so mad. I just had to calibrate, explaining that I was on a major label, that’s where I got left, and I had to sink or swim and so I swam. In actuality, promoting that record exposed me to far bigger audiences and I learned how to get my sea legs on stage and learned how to do a ton of things. Those were heavy times but that was really fun, to be part of a band, and that camaraderie and our tours were so great. I just experienced so much that I would never, ever give back. So I don’t have regrets.
I always saw that album as a Trojan horse. Because how many kids heard “Why Can’t I?” and it exposed them to you for the first time and maybe they went back and looked up Guyville?
That was always my hope. My hope was that someone would hear the song in the gym and buy the record and then start buying my albums and sort of have an awakening. I pictured someone who just sort of did whatever mainstream told them to do—the woman at the gym who heard the song and bought the song and then slowly started to have uncomfortable thoughts. I like that idea.
What was the most extreme backlash you remember hearing then?
I remember hearing one woman say she felt really sorry for my son, and that made me ferociously loyal—like, don’t come after my family.
Because of the song “Little Digger?”
No, because of, probably, “Hot White Cum.”
Like, “I feel so sorry for your son, blah blah blah.” And I knew it was gonna be fine, and in my family in particular, we understand what art is and what art isn’t. So that wasn’t so much of a worry for me, but feeling someone come after me as a mother really got under my skin.
Yeah, people were so mad at the pop sensibilities of that record, but then it’s like, there’s a pro-cum song on this album! It’s pretty out there.
Which is really a funny song! It’s a clever little take on how to shock people. This is all part of what I learned at Oberlin, how to be provocative in a way that jostles the culture to think about things we take for granted.
Have you ever read the book The Advanced Genius Theory?
It’s essentially about artists who are advanced or ahead of their time, and it says that every genius artist has to meet five criteria. One of them is that the artist must alienate their original fanbase at least once in their career.
If you’re gonna be an original thinker, you’re gonna question, you’re gonna grow, you’re gonna do all sorts of things. Some of them will be good and well-received, and some won’t. If you’re a true artist, I strongly believe you’re not doing this to get approval. You’re doing this to express the human condition.
So much of the narrative around Guyville was that it was a response to the Rolling Stones. Did you ever hear from them about it?
I have two things that I can use as evidence but it’s all anecdotal. I met Mick Jagger and the way I understood that he understood it, I don’t think he’d ever listened to it, but he essentially shook my hand and gave me a wide smile as if to say, “You’re welcome for using our name to get your fame.” And it was sort of like, “We’re gonna let you off this one time, you cheeky person.”
You inferred all that from a smile?
Well, no, he said a couple things, but I could tell how it went. I understood where he was coming from. And I kind of respected him for being that high above me that that’s all he could give from that atmosphere level. Like, [puts on British accent] “Well, alright, she used our name and now she’s famous. I’ll let it happen this one time, and don’t forget it!” And then I got to review Keith Richards’ book, Life, for the New York Times, and once they put some quotes from that on the jacket, he must have said… or, actually, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he never looked at the book jacket. But I wanted to think that since I made a quote on there, at some level, he was like, “Alright.”
Well, paying that forward to someone else, I must ask you: Did you know that many years ago the pop punk band Weston wrote a song about you?
The name of it is “Liz Phair”.
I’m gonna listen to that immediately after this interview.
It’s a little tough to find but it was on a video game soundtrack.
What video game?
Some skateboarding game. Street Sk8er in 1999.
That’s awesome. There was another one by, who was that guy in Chicago? Wesley Willis? He was kind of an outlier artist. He sang a song like, “Liz Phaaaiiiiiiiir, Liz Phaaiiiir.” And then something like, “You’re a pretty little flowah, I like the way you sing” or something.
Was that objectifying or do you enjoy it?
Oh god, I love it. I love messing with the culture. You know how Monty Python will do the credits all weird? I like anything that takes culture and dances with it.
Featured Image: Illustration by John Garrison