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Ask the Artist: Liz Phair

Exile in Guyville: The Oral History

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eMusic’s J. Edward Keyes caught up with Liz at her home in California to talk about some of Guyville’s classic songs.

By J. Edward Keyes
eMusic, June 18, 2008

When it was released 15 years ago, Exile in Guyville turned heads and dropped jaws. It was a stunning work, its songs brimming with sexual frankness, bitter spite and adolescent uncertainty. But while people were keen to cue in on the album’s more transgressive lyrics — usually a toss-up between “fuck and run” and “I want to be your blowjob queen” — what was often overlooked was just how wrenching and sad it was. The album’s protagonist — most times, Phair herself — is lost and wounded and searching, lashing out defensively to keep people from discovering her soft and frightened center. So many years later, it’s Phair’s damage that resonates: “I write with a number two pencil / I work up to my potential / I come when called / I jump when you circle the cherry / I sing like a good canary / I come when called,” Phair sings, dead-eyed and desperate, in “Canary”. It’s arguably Guyville‘s most chilling moment, the words of a woman hammered into numb obedience, pushing forward zombielike because she doesn’t know what else to do.

eMusic’s J. Edward Keyes caught up with Liz at her home in California to talk about some of Guyville‘s classic songs.

On the decision to revisit a masterpiece:
It was such a unique time in my life, and I kind of left it behind and didn’t reopen that door, because there were both good and bad feelings associated it for me. I think I’m far enough away from it now where I’m ready. I wanted to go back. For me, a lot of the reissue is reclaiming it, in a weird way. It was this time in my life where I was partying and doing a lot of drugs and hanging out and disappointing my parents [laughs]. And it was really fun and it was a lot of wild times, but at the same time, once I moved out of that, I just shut that door.

I think the first thing that separated me from [the album] is that there was a shitstorm when it first came out. I was part of this little “alternative music” scene in Chicago. I wasn’t the oldest member of that scene. I was sort of a newbie, fresh from college, thinking I’m all that. And then I make this record. And it gets huge amounts of attention almost instantly. Suddenly the perception of me in that whole world changes. I remember a lot of people resented me and said a lot of mean things about me. Another thing that really separated me from Guyville was that when I went into the pop radio world, all the original fans just waged a campaign of resentment and fury. They sort of used Guyville as if it belonged to them, as if I had forsaken both them and my record. It’s all died down now and there’s nothing much more to play out, and I think I was ready. I was ready to say, “This is my past, let’s take a look. It can’t be that awful.”

On what she learned about the young Liz Phair:
One of the funniest things I learned — I read a bunch of the old interviews I did, and the things I said! They were so shocking! I don’t know how I had the balls to say those things. I was just so serious and so sure of my own greatness — I was really embarrassed by those things! The heads of Matador, Chris and Gerard, were talking about the things I used to say to them on the phone — like, “This is going to be a big record. We should make a video.” Gerard said, “You were pretty sure of yourself.” And I actually felt sorry. I’m glad I’m not the megalomaniac I was back then. Although, at the same time, I got a lot of ’em right. My prognostication was pretty damn good! All that pot I was smoking — maybe I was channeling some kind of collective unconscious.

Another thing that was really interesting was thinking about what happened when “indie” merged with the “mainstream”. It was interesting to go back with hindsight, to be able to stand above all this stuff and see the battle between staying indie or signing to a major label. This was back when Urge Overkill signed and Smashing Pumpkins signed. I got to see what the forces were that pitted the people who felt “indie must remain indie” against the people who felt indie was a stepping stone to a larger thing. I came away from my own last 15 years understanding that what Steve Albini has always said — about the pitfalls of signing with a major label, and how it’s sort of a no-win proposition. I tried every which way till Sunday to make it work for me, but it’s just a massive system. And that major label system is something that the individual can’t really beat.

On her experience with a major label:
God it’s amazing who the fuck they hire to be presidents of major labels. I’ll never understand. I’ve met so many shitty presidents of record labels. How these assholes get promoted to the level that they reach… If I had fucking three million dollars a year to spend on someone, I think I’d fucking pick someone a lot better than that. Someone that had some leadership, or maybe some wisdom? I mean, God, what happened to leaders? Where did they go? What is with the dysfunction in seats of power? How do they get there? I was talking about this with my mom, and what we came up with is that they’re willing to do stuff other people aren’t. They are willing to stab in the back, or they don’t have particularly healthy personal lives. So they rise and rise because people who want to protect what they have tend to step out of the way when they see people like this.

On what she’s working on now:
What I’ve noticed since I’ve been off of a major and signed to ATO is that, because I’m perverse, and because I’m getting to express that perversity now, I’m almost going exactly the other way [from my last two albums]. My new thing is to do exactly what you’re not supposed to do. I now want to marginalize myself, and do something that requires a lot of attention. Every meeting where we’re talking about sales or how we’re going to market, my responses have been like: ONLY VINYL. [laughs]. I’m totally into this mode where I want to go all the way to the other side and make things hard to find. It’s really funny — I’ve been having quite a lot of what I consider non-productive discussions with people that I’ve been working with, because I won’t let them finish it off. I want it all raw and demo. So they’ll be like “But… um… I… uh… just want to move the bass,” and I’m like “DON’T TOUCH IT” [laughs]. I’m like, “This is the easiest 5,000 bucks you’re ever going to make, just shut up and let me fucking do it.” I want it to reflect my aesthetic — which I think is the biggest gift I have right now. I have the opportunity to let my aesthetic rule the day. It’s my work in process. I want it to be messy and spontaneous. I want to add layers of polish, but I want that core to be my messy aesthetic.

On “6’1″”:
The first thing that pops into my mind with this one is the idea of a Napoleon complex. But it’s also a kind of feminist thing — just because guys are physically bigger doesn’t mean their characters are. This song is saying, “I’m every bit as good as you — I’m every bit the person to contend with as you are, I’m just down here. Look down! I’m down here! And I can judge you when you’re behaving like a shit. I’m not scared of you.” There’s a little more to it than that, though. I had this big crush on someone in the Chicago scene who reminded me of Mick Jagger, so I was kind of using Mick Jagger to speak to in the song. It’s really convoluted. I was speaking to Mick Jagger, but pretending Mick Jagger was this guy. And I was addressing both of them, as if I was in a little play. I always looked at Exile on Main Street as a play where they’d just forgotten to write all the female dialogue. I was writing the female parts that should have been in that play. In “Rocks Off”, remember how Mick Jagger is just walking down the street and he runs into this girl — and he’s just come from this other girls’ apartment — and this girl is talking to him like “What’s going on? Where you been?” and he’s like, “Look, man, I’ve had a rough night, I was sleeping with this dancer, I can’t deal with you right now.” I’m that girl on the street. “Where have you been, you little shit? You fucking think you’re all that?” That’s who I’m playing. I’m the girl he runs into, saying, “I bet you fall in bed too easily…”

On “Dance of the 7 Veils”:
So for this one I was working off the play Salome, which is a play that’s basically about a woman turning the tables on the man. I was working at the time with this guy John Henderson, and we had a falling out right before I made Guyville. In that song, I’m telling him, “I’m gonna have a nice and shiny platter, and I am going to get your heavy head.” My dance of the seven veils was really writing a song about how I was going to surmount the obstacle that was him. My whole life I’ve been trying to say, “Hey, I may be a girl, but I have a voice. I have really strong opinions.” At the same time, I have the force of being raised rather traditionally, and trying to smile and be nice and laugh at jokes. This is sort of the path that my particular life has followed, and continues to follow — that struggle between wanting to please and wanting to be liked, but at the same time feeling like, “Hey, this isn’t fair.” My art comes off more hostile because I tend to use my art to say what I wouldn’t have the guts to say in real life.

On “Canary”:
That song is very much a “quiet victim” song. You’re beleaguered and oppressed and you know it, but you’re not trying to get out of there, you’re just sitting in your little cage. That’s one of the earliest songs that I wrote that made it on to Guyville. My brother was a really troubled guy in high school, he disrupted the family a lot, so there were a lot of unhappy nights. I was just feeling like I was stuck in this world. It’s such an emotional song for me. I identify that song with the pain of girlhood — trying to understand what a “good girl” is, and trying to understand how limiting that was. The chorus goes “deaf before dumb”, which is really powerful to me, because I’ve lived my whole life that way. “What are people saying about me? Are they mad at me?” I’d rather just shut them out and keep talking. I’m going to keep asserting myself and who I am — even if who I am is just sitting at a piano playing two notes — no matter what. That “send it up on fire” part, it’s like “Well, maybe I can’t say what I need to say right now, but I’m just going to spiral it off the top of my head right now, the way incense flies up to heaven — in a prayer, really.” No matter what is said to me or what images I get from the society that surrounds me, I’m just going to keep expressing myself.

On “Flower”:
I wrote that song in college. I wrote that one night, I think I was drunk. I’d come home from a party, I had a really big crush on a guy and I don’t think it was reciprocated, and so this was kind of, you know, the equivalent of a guy throwing his dick down — like, thump. I had this whole project, which I consider part of my career, called Girlysound, which were a bunch of cassettes that I put out. It was a very intentional thing — Girlysound, the sound of a girl — where I was trying to get away with this idea that girls are so ignored and so marginalized, but [pitches voice up, fakes “girlyness”] if you say something in a really sweet voice, it really doesn’t matter what you say because it’s going to be acceptable! And you could probably say, “fuck you, you big fucking tool,” and no one would really catch it, because they just hear the little chirping. “That’s fine, that’s a girl, that’s fine.”

So I played a lot with saying things that were outrageous in a little girly voice. “Flower” is the dirtiest nursery rhyme you could ever imagine. And I think “Hot White Cum” later on was the same kind of thing. It’s a little fun, happy song, a little ditty, but it’s actually saying something really dirty! That just really appeals to me. I’ve long held the idea that women are far more sexual than they will even admit, because you don’t get rewarded for it. You get labeled a slut. So “Flower” was all about saying the most aggressive, sexual thing I could, because guys get to do it all the time. This was actually coming off the late ’80s and metal, where it was all just like [adopts “metal voice” and sings]: “I’m gonna liiiick yooouu!” and whatever the hell. And I’m like, “why do girls always have to say [adopts a “folk singer” voice]: “You wrote me the letter and the roses were blooming…” Why do we have to be that? That’s not how I feel.

So “Flower” was my rock & roll song, in girl form. Because the form that “Flower” takes is a distinctly female song form. The little nursery rhyme singy thing — guys don’t do that. That’s a pure girl song form.

On “Fuck & Run”:
My early sex life was all about not being able to find my place. There were a lot of fits and starts, trying to find intimacy, but going about it all wrong. Acting tough because I didn’t know how to get what I wanted or say what I wanted, because I didn’t want to get hurt. So I would find myself in situations that were numb, and not intimate, but really wishing I could find my way to tenderness — and yet knowing I was just as much to blame as the person I was sleeping with. I think that was from an experience of waking up somewhere, and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” You get that moral hangover. I like songs that deal with emotional complexity, that aren’t just saying one thing. This song is that way: I keep doing the wrong thing to get the result that I want, and at he same time I’m longing for something traditional and monogamous and loving and tender. Again, looking back at that time when I was making that record — I think we were all a little sad. We were living downtown, away from our parents, staying out late, going to bars, going to shows. It’s before any of us really had a good job or a job we liked… We just finished this nice, secure world of being children and going to institutions where the professors are paid to care about us, and by the time we graduated we were like “I’ve got this academic thing down.” And then you go out into the world, and it’s all wrong. And everything’s confusing — it’s like wild, wild west. You’re acting in ways that you’re not emotionally equipped to process. That’s what that whole period was like to me.

All these creepy, strange memories — “I don’t know, why was I there? What happened here?” Searching, searching, searching for a happy, healthy security that you don’t know how to create. My mom said she cried when she first heard Exile in Guyville, and I remember thinking, “that’s just weird,” but now I listen to it and I can’t get through it. I just start crying for that poor girl. I think when you’re young, you don’t realize that there’s another way to be. Everybody’s sad. They’re drinking to cover it and they’re fucking to cover it, but everybody’s sad when they’re young.

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