Singer-songwriter Liz Phair’s unorthodox debut album, Exile in Guyville, has made her a favorite with the college-alternative crowd — but she’d rather be living a real life again
Liz Phair is about as settled and staid as a swarm of bees in a windstorm. No sooner has the Chicago-based singer-songwriter’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, made her the latest darling of critics than the impatient 26-year-old is ready to move on.
“Lately, I’ve been talking about writing a book,” says Phair (pronounced fair), who is so swamped by demands for interviews and photo sessions these days that she hasn’t had time to write songs for her next album, much less spring a novel. “It’ll be a couple of years before I get around to the book,” she adds, matter-of-factly. “But I’m serious.”
An outsider among the underground rock world from which she sprang and a novelty among the pop mainstream she’s just begun to mesmerize, Phair is as multidimensional as her much-celebrated Matador Records debut, a collection of raw but catchy pop-folk songs about, life, dysfunctional love, and the pursuit of respect in a macho world. Among her other creative interests: painting and drawing.
“When I told my parents about the book, they threw up their hands and rolled their eyes,” Phair says with a laugh. “I’ve done this a million times before and they’re just like, ‘Oh God.'”
“My mother reminded me today that 2 1/2 years ago I was saying, ‘Nothing else matters because I know what I want to be. I want to be a visual artist. I’ve always wanted to and that’s what I’m gonna do!’ Now, I can’t remember the last thing I’ve drawn.”
Phair imitates the saccharine voice of The Wizard of Oz‘s” Good Witch: “I guess I’m just a growing girl chasing my butterflies.”
Exile in Guyville is neither fluttery nor light. The 18-song, 56-minute album is packed with rippingly honest admissions, jarringly blunt sexual references, sudden mood swings, and melodies steeped in post-punk imperfections.
Matador won’t release sales figures on the June release, which hasn’t broken into the mainstream pop charts. But the unorthodox collection has established Phair as a favorite of the college/alternative market, where the album reached the Top 15 airplay chart in the new CMJ New Music Report.
All the attention has caused Phair to retreat in recent months to her parents’ house in a suburb just north of Chicago. Though moms and dads aren’t usually mentioned when discussing pop credibility or indie rock coolness, Phair says that they are two of her most supportive fans. Besides, she feels like anything but a star.
“This is the last place to go where I feel like Elizabeth Phair, daughter of such and such, rather than new business person. I don’t feel like a rock star, I feel like a business person. I feel like I took a crash course in business this year.”
Phair suddenly laughs again, at the notion of herself as a “new business person”.
But this time the laughter seems more a sign of amazement at all that is happening in her life.
“When are you supposed to think quietly and make up songs?” she asks rhetorically. “I do keep most of the pressure at bay, but you still realize people will generate as much as you’re willing to give. The record company, the booking agent, the press…”
“There’s a million things you can do at a time, none of which relates to making music. It’s counter-productive at this point. I don’t want to live this life, let alone make songs about it. But exactly what am I supposed to be writing about if all I’ve done is give interviews and flown around? When are you supposed to be living the life that’s worth hearing?”
Her solution? “I’m planning to apply for work at a ski resort this winter so maybe I can live a life. Do I really want to make beds? No, but…”
Unlike many alternative artists, however, Phair is pragmatic about paying the rent.
“I have to keep doing interviews because I’m not assured of a living yet. My dad’s still harping on me to pay for my own health insurance.”
The preppy-looking blonde, with her squeaky-clean smile and perky veneer, could pass for the girl next door.
By adopting myriad personalities, Phair has transcended the conventional roles women are handed in rock. She’s neither the tough chick who can keep up with the boys (dare one mention Lita Ford?) nor the bubble-headed waif who keeps the boys happy (Juliana Hatfield).
Phair’s singing and guitar playing range from delicate and sensitive to acidic and seething, which is in keeping with the album cover — a strategically cropped photo-booth picture of the topless singer screaming her head off.
During the interview, she is pleasant and cooperative, but never artificially upbeat. Mostly, she seems like someone who knows what she wants and is strong enough to battle for it.
Adopted at birth by a physician father (now a prominent AIDS researcher) and an art instructor mother, Phair was raised in a liberal and fairly privileged environment in Chicago’s upscale suburb of Winnetka. The family moved to Cincinnati early on, then back to Chicago, where Phair spent a good part of her late childhood and early teens. The interest in music came quickly.
“I’ve been making up little songs for as long as I can remember,” she says. “My parents loved music. My mom would sing me to sleep every night, and later I was in choir. The listened to a lot of classical music and Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez. I also had little kids’ records.” Illustrating, she hums a bar of one of those kids’ records, “Free to Be You and Me”.
Phair’s tendency to switch goals was manifested in her indecision regarding a major at Oberlin College. She finally decided on liberal arts in her fifth year, and the decision paid off. Phair made a living selling her charcoal drawings before the music came along.
“It was just about to become viable but the music thing took off, so I let it go,” she says of her drawing. “I miss it. My doodles have become so outrageous. They’re extremely complicated now. My boyfriend was staring at them the other day with this look I could never re-create, like, ‘I’m not sure if I want to know this about your mind.'”
But she didn’t put her drawings on the back burner until she was “pregnant” with the ideas for Exile in Guyville. After a tumultuous recording attempt with her ex-roommate as producer, she started working with engineer Brad Wood, who eventually suggested she call New York’s Matador Records.
Matador, which also launched underground rock superstars Pavement and has overtaken Seattle’s Sub Pop as the hippest of the indie labels, was already interested in Phair through her Girlie Sound tapes, a collection of songs she recorded on a four-track and circulated in 1991 on the nation’s underground cassette network. The label signed her in the summer of 1992 and the album was recorded soon after.
Exile in Guyville is structured around the Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 double album Exile on Main Street. Phair even suggests that it be listened to in two groupings of five and four songs, the way you heard the Stones’ double-album on vinyl format.
Part of the idea, Phair says, was to provide a female answer to the Stones’ double-album on vinyl format.
Part of the idea, Phair says was to provide a female answer to the Stones’ decidedly male reflections about sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Though the music rarely sounds like the Stones. Phair puts herself in the place of the woman Mick Jagger wagged his tongue at. Sometimes she even puts herself in his place.
Songs like “6’1″” and “Fuck and Run” offer an updated and much less radio-friendly reply to “Happy”, “Rocks Off” and “Tumbling Dice”.
“I can’t listen to Guyville, although I feel like I really got what I aimed for,” Phair says. “It’s just my voice, it’s like, ‘Oh, c’mon, hit that note! A little higher, higher!’ When you’re sitting in the studio with all your friends and your vocals are turned up way beyond the music, you try to smile blithely till your voice does some terribly hideous act.”
Guyville is a section of Chicago named for its preponderance of indie-rock-type young men — the members of the group Urge Overkill are the area’s most famous inhabitants. But Phair takes the idea of Guyville to a more heady realm.
To her, it’s a figurative place where collegiate male slackers gather to pontificate about political and pop-culture trivia while ignoring their girlfriends’ opinions and going nowhere in life. Guyville exists in Everytown, U.S.A., and Phair’s inability to settle into Chicago’s branch is one of the big reasons that her approach to music is so unconventional.
Because rock and its underbelly are still a largely sexist realm, Phair predicts more women will be approaching rock ‘n’ roll from odd angles like hers.
“I bet you a million bucks you’re gonna see more women start doing it in offbeat ways, more so than men,” she predicts hopefully. “I think that women are gonna find since there is no history, they can kinda write it.”
“Also, and this is so sexist for me to say, I don’t think they’ll like the lifestyle. I don’t think women will want to be around the whole touring-rock-and-band milieu because it’s grown up around men’s interests, needs and values. I think women are going to find themselves leaving what is, by default, a male-generated world.”
“You naturally move toward what works for you, away from the friction and toward what’s more fluid. Women don’t flourish in the system as it stands, but as long as they are valued and increasingly sought out, you’re gonna see a lot of different methods and paths. I hope so. God, I hope so.”
Phair has been cast as a new feminist spokeswoman of sorts by some journalists, who believe her outspokenness and challenging lyrics give insight into a woman’s mind. Though Phair doesn’t mind, she knows the label won’t last.
“Those roles are passed around at any given time to a lot of different people and probably none of them particularly want the roles they’re cast as. You’re damn lucky to find a position at all.”
“To be a feminist spokesperson, since I consider myself a strong feminist but a wily one who doesn’t go by the good book, the title is fine. They’ll pass it to someone else next year, I promise you. There’ll be another Liz Phair” — she adopts the zealous tone of a detergent commercial — “Doing it better, different, more true!”
Like many of the other new, strong female voices, Phair often finds that people are surprised that her music is better than most male-generated rock out there, and that they treat it as some recent phenomenon.
“It astonishes me, like there’s been this big hole that no woman could fill until now,” she says. Then she mimics a clinical, male voice: “Women haven’t said it quite this way before.”
She snaps back.
“Sure they have! Music they haven’t put it to music — hauled their booty over to the recording studio and slogged it out. But most of my friends think the same way. So many women have said the very things I’m saying, just in different ways. I just hit a chord and people suddenly heard it.”
By Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times Calendar, September 19, 1993