Liz Phair (Photo: Eszter+David)
Liz Phair (2003)
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Liz Phair on Getting Her ‘Warrior Back On’ For the ‘Exile in Guyville’ 30th Anniversary Tour

‘Liz Phair’ Turns 20

Matador to reissue Exile in Guyville for 30th Anniversary; “Miss Lucy” released from Guyville recording sessions

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The indie-rock queen is “literally communing with my younger self” as she prepares to take her revolutionary album on the road one last time.

By Rebecca Milzoff, June 22, 2023

Three decades (to the day!) after its June 22, 1993 release, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville feels as essential and modern as ever — a vivid portrait of an artist at the height of her power, fearless and raw, and a crucial entry in feminist rock history. So it’s little surprise that when Phair announced she’d be celebrating its 30th anniversary with a tour playing the album in its entirety, a certain segment of the world seemed to collectively lose its mind.

“I heard from just about everyone I know,” Phair readily admits. “I think pretty much every single person I know was like ‘Heyyyy, can I get tickets?’ or ‘I’m gonna be there!!’ It’s kinda nice — better than a birthday.”

Phair has made return trips to Guyville before: in 2018, Matador Records reissued it and released Girly-Sound to Guyville, a deluxe box set including the remastered original album and the first official restored audio of Phair’s self-released 1991 Girly-Sound tapes. But she hasn’t always been quite so keen to revisit her debut album-era self. For one thing, she had a whole career since then — a wonderfully rich one including five albums (her most recent full-length, the well-received Soberish, came in 2021) and an acclaimed memoir, Horror Stories — even if Guyville set a perhaps unfair standard critics and fans alike seemed to often hold her to, even as she evolved as an artist.

Today, the 56-year old singer-songwriter says she’s able to look at Guyville with both affection and awe, and she’s thrilled to take it on the road for what she expects will be the last time. Before setting out for the North American tour (it runs Nov. 7 – Dec. 3, with Blondshell opening select dates) Phair spoke to Billboard about the show she hopes to create for fans, and why preparing for it has involved spending a lot of time with old pictures of herself.

You’ve done major remembrances of Guyville before, so how did the idea for this tour evolve? Did your reunion with producer Brad Wood on Soberish have anything to do with it?

I think it did. A lot of things coalesced with me when we did the box set with Matador. There was a part of my psychology around Guyville that finally settled. I had different feelings about that album over the years. At one point early on, it felt like the fans had taken it and it didn’t even belong to me. When I became a mom and I was trying to be all fresh and clean, I was embarrassed by my times in the Wicker Park underground scamping around a bit. But bit by bit it returned to me over the years. It started like five years ago, where it kept being noticed on lists as an important album, and I kept flowing back into my younger self… does that make sense? It sounds ridiculous, but I reconnected with my younger self and that was a glorious thing for me.

It’s a glorious moment to feel personally connected, to have fans feel connected, and to say it’s the thirtieth and let’s do this, let me tell the emotional story behind the songs. Can you imagine revisiting your college self with thousands of other people? It’s a crazy thing. It’s both hard when you’re still growing and when you’re older it’s a gift. How many people get to have a snapshot of their life shared communally so we’re all screaming the words out at the same time?

You mentioned telling the stories of the songs; will there be a narrative aspect to your show?

Yes, and hopefully it will not be cumbersome. I’m working with Kevin Newbury, who I encountered first [when he directed] Kansas City Choirboy for Courtney Love and Todd Almond. I was so blown away by that production — it was like watching somebody develop a new language about speaking emotionally through music. That’s what Kevin and I are trying to develop right now [as co-directors of the show] – without doing big production numbers, telling a little more of the story of the girl living that life. We’ll see; we’re definitely trying to do something different. I want to create, for people coming to the show, a much more immersive experience, so even if they think they know the album well, they come out with a new take on it. I’d like you to come into the theater and kind of be transported.

We last spoke when the live music shutdown was just starting to end, and you were still understandably feeling a little edgy about going on tour again. Was coming to terms with touring again, period, part of this process for you?

I think I always need a good reason [to go out on tour]. I need something beyond myself that I believe in. Because it isn’t easy for me to tour — it’s not something that comes naturally, and frankly I don’t necessarily miss it. I miss my fans, but I always think of creating rather than performing. To think of this as an opportunity to tell that story from a new angle, to deepen that angle, that really gets me going.

Plus, I’m not at the beginning of my career. This is the last time you’re gonna see me do Guyville in its entirety. If people really like it, we’ll put some more dates up, but there’s something poignant about knowing you’re doing something that won’t happen again.

From both a technical and emotional perspective, what has preparing for the tour entailed for you?

I’m taking all these supplements for lung health, doing vocal stuff, working out. It is a physical endeavor and as you get older, you have to prepare a little harder. It’s easier to be out of shape when you’re older. It takes a ton of stamina. That’s something I always think about and am mindful of: can you physically do it? And yeah, I know I can.

And the other thing is just listening to the old music. I’m not even kidding: This sounds strange, but I will look at a picture of myself when I was young and be like, “Talk to me.” I know that sounds freakish but I’m literally communing with my younger self and getting her to open up to me. And she’s saying that I don’t have the balls to do what she did! She’s saying I’m like, a sad sack! [Laughs.] It’s a challenge. She has these like, haunted eyes, but they’re determined. There’s a sharpness. When you’re out in the world and young and fighting to be creative, and fighting to make your voice known, there’s something intense about that. She’s like a warrior chick. I’m trying to get my warrior back on.

Brad Wood and Liz Phair. (Courtesy Matador Records)
Photo courtesy of Matador Records

Are there things you’ve learned about singing in the past 30 years that you think will make performing these songs each night easier than the first time around? Or are there elements the way you performed back then that you want to get back in touch with?

You are so smart — and that is the challenge for me at the moment: [What do I do with] this voice I have developed over the years, that does have more range? Most artists start with a higher voice and it ends up lower, I started with a lower voice and ended up with a higher one. Guyville songs are hard to sing onstage. The register is very low. Brad loves a talky vocal, which I really appreciated – he’d just be like, “Just say it into a mike while you’re sitting there!” So how do you get this to cut [through] when you have this young, hot band behind you? How do you get that low, casual off-the-cuff delivery?

These are the kind of things that I thrill to – how do you solve that problem? It’s better than the Spelling Bee. If you can hear my low voice cut through the auditorium and it gives you thrills, then I won.

Is listening to the recording itself part of getting ready for this, too?

Normally I don’t really do that a lot — but this time I will, because I want it to sound closer to that era. I will do departures from that during the show, but yes, I am literally studying myself. I’ve sung these songs so many times that I’ve developed my own way of performing them live. But for this show in particular, we’re gonna break it back down to build it up again.

It’s weird — I’ve never ever before for a tour studied my earlier self this much. I could not have done this any earlier [in my career]; I could not have felt relaxed about it. Any time before now, I would have been acutely aware of… I mean, I’m still acutely aware of how much I dared to go onstage unprepared when I was young. I just had this chutzpah. I honestly feel like I’m kind of getting into character. I mean I’m not going full Daniel Day [Lewis] but… a little bit. Management calls, I’m like, “I’m at a bar. I don’t know where I am. Can someone come get me?” [Laughs.]

Do you think the concept of “Guyville” has changed since you were coming up? There are so many great women playing rock music now; at the same time, it’s dispiriting to see what so many of them still face, whether it’s the trolls accusing the Haim sisters of not really playing their instruments or the dudes upset that Phoebe Bridgers smashed a guitar on Saturday Night Live.

I was just really worried about [Bridgers’] shoulders and wrists! That can be very damaging to your body now! [Laughs.] Part of me is cynical. Part of me thinks we’re going to be struggling with these things for awhile. I don’t know that it’s a top-down fix. I think it’s essential that we continue on, because bottom-up fixes are better anyway. And so much has changed. But then when I hear these stories of young female artists, and they’re like, “It’s no different,” it’s just… I can’t believe it. It doesn’t happen to me anymore, but it still happens to them, and I cannot whitewash everyone’s experience who’s still going through it.

But when you see how many female artists are doing their thing with their own voice and their own vision, that’s proof things are better. When I came up, I would tour and I’d hardly see a woman out there. Now it’s the opposite, and to me that’s wonderful.

Blondshell seems like such a perfect choice as your opening act for this tour — how did she come on?

I was freakin’ spoiled for choice. They sent me a bunch of artists who were possibilities, and I said yes to like, all of them. I would love to tour with so many people. Blondshell’s music — the songwriting, the sound, the point of view — I just loved her immediately. Just such talent and presence. I can’t wait. I’ll definitely rope her into performing with me for sure.

Is there a Guyville song that stands out as one you have a very different relationship with now?

It’s interesting because we found a song from the Guyville sessions, a Girly-Sounds [tapes] song called “Miss Lucy” that we’re putting out. In my song-by-song response to Exile on Main Street, it was potentially a replacement for “Flower,” for the [Rolling Stones’] “Let it Loose” slot, but “Flower” is what I ended up going with.

I wouldn’t play it during the Trump era because I didn’t want to give men the satisfaction. So it became this thing of, I’m still thinking about it, how do I want to contextualize “Flower?” It’s a lightning rod song and it means different things depending on what’s going on around me. It’s a difficult song to do in the spirit it was performed on the album. How does one deal with the blowjob queen when you’re 56 and coming back in? [Laughs.] I mean, now, with what porn stars do, I’m a blowjob jester — I’m not a queen anymore!

I know Guyville felt like a perfectly normal album for you to putting out when you did, but has your perspective on how radical it truly was changed in the years since?

Well, yeah. Considering how history went afterwards, it’s fascinating and horrifying to realize, living through the #MeToo era thirty years later, very little had changed. I was shocked at how pertinent it still was. But proud too, because it meant I’d spoken up about something that needed to be spoken up about. I was working off of artists that came before me, and then people worked off of the people from our era in the ‘90s.

And to see the continuity of women picking up the baton and saying, “I’m gonna say what no one expects me to say, I’m gonna bare my shames and embarrassments and the strength that comes from that and the strength we continue to amass for women to be full participants in society, and to be protected and to have autonomy” — it’s an ongoing fight. It’s wrapped up with everybody’s fight to live a fair and equitable and safe life.

Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Eszter + David)

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