Liz Phair was followed by a reporter for L.A. Weekly day and night for three days. The subject of the story was the life of a new artist. And although it’s a life that Phair chose for herself, she wasn’t quite prepared for the speedy semantic twist — the new life of an artist.
“I was supposed to be a visual artist! My whole life has been geared toward a lot of private time and stability: [I’d] go for my afternoon run, drink wine with my friends, go back into the studio… It’s a totally different vision than what I’m getting now, which is like — photo shoot baby! Gotta be in the studio! Interview here! Fly to New York! Go to L.A.! Play live! Go on the road! Get a band together! When’s the next album gonna be out? I was planning a very private life so I could go out and be social when I wanted. Now I’m watched for a living.”
Phair’s debut album Exile In Guyville (on Matador Records) has been the talk of the industry. Phair recorded a few tapes at home on a four-track exclusively for a couple of her friends, who dubbed it for two friends, and they dubbed it for two friends, and so on, and so on… Eventually, Matador Records got a copy, and thus began Phair’s journey from Guyville to Liz World.
Don’t get her wrong (and beware if you do); this trip was no accident.
The Winnetka-born Phair is a spirited, indomitable individual who seems to be on an undaunted mission to accomplish. Some critics (professional and neighborhood soapbox) have deemed her a spoiled brat. I’m not sure that a spoiled brat could have recorded an 18-song debut album, which, as far as debut albums go, is nothing short of amazing. Having already done three normal-length albums with her homespun tapes, by the time she signed a deal with Matador, Phair was ready for a challenge.
“I wanted to write a novel instead of a short story. Plus, I thought it would be a really difficult thing to do. But considering the fact that it’s a first album, I think I did a pretty damn good job under a circumstance which is almost impossible to do.”
“Who’s done it? The Clash did it for London Calling, or the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, or The Beatles’ White Album. It gave me enough songs to really write a love story — to give a context, to give a character a voice, to give an object of love, plus to have it go through a convincing beginning-to-end thing.”
Phair chose to use the Stones’ Exile On Main Street as a structural and conceptual model.
“The tempo changes [on Main Street] start out pretty intense, mellow out, then pick up at the end of each side. Like sine waves. I charted it out. Then I’d make lists of all my songs to see which ones were most equivalent to the feel and tone of [theirs]. And the lyrical content; definitely the subject matter [is similar], and how it fits into a song, where it takes you.”
So you have half of the curious title; the other half, according to Phair, is a term coined by U. Of C. DJ Chris Holmes, which then became the crux of a waggish comedy routine for the men from Urge Overkill:
“I was sandwiched between [Nate Kato and Blackie Onassis] one night in the backseat of someone’s car, and they were doing this Guyville routine. And they had taken it to this level where Guyville had become a combination of all these rockies, critics, librarians, writers, musicians — and they sort of crossed it with a mentality of a 200-person town, say like Nawbone, Kentucky. So you’ve got this small town mentality of all these overly-educated, overly informed guys doing their guy thing.”
Well, it won a place on Urge Overkill’s Stull EP (“Goodbye To Guyville”), and it also made an impression on Phair’s Oberlin Collge-educated, sociological, working female artist sensibilities.
“My whole life I’ve been listening to the radio — rock and classic rock — and there’s a phenomenon that feminists discuss: you put yourself in the context of the male gender to be able to identify with what they’re singing about. You give up your gender and go into the ‘guy mind’ because it’s the only way you can appropriate the song for yourself. Or you become the object of that song.”
“I just wanted to push it all out and make a rock album that was the female place, and my context in the ’90s is Guyville. It could be Guy and Girlville, but it’s not. Most chicks that are in the rock scene tend to be very guy-ish; there’s sort of an identity crisis amongst the female [rock] community.”
It is this crisis that Phair inevitably delves into while in Exile, finding that it manifests itself in not only concept, but in actuation. For example, her integrity was questioned by a good male friend of hers with regard to her control and involvement in the creation of the cover art for the LP.
“I was horrified! I was out in NY staying with my friend David, who is as feminist as a man can be, who loves me, respects me, and has known me a long, long time. My album says ‘Designed by Liz Phair and Mark O,’ who is the very wonderful man at Matador who helped me put it together physically. That is my art. Those are the photos I chose. Mark just decided to put the water on the CD and the water behind this one image. But everything else was completely mapped out by me. There’s a whole concept behind the cover and images and everything I did there. It’s very calculated.”
“It scares the shit out of me that people that I could count on questioned it. I do the same thing. I look at Neneh Cherry’s stuff and I wonder, ‘Did she pick that? Do you think she wanted it done that way?’ We don’t assume that women have the same kind of input that we assume men have. And I just want it on tape [she grabs the recorder] that that is my cover design!”
Another similar catalyst for Phair’s frustration was an allegedly less-than-thorough (or factual) review in Spin magazine, which prompted her to write a letter to the editor in retort.
“He gave me the green light [Spin‘s highest rating], but it basically made me sound like I didn’t really know what was going on, that I’m just sort of naturally good at guitar playing and I just kind of ran to the studio and said ‘Let’s just record this, Brad [Wood, of Idful Studio], what do ya think?’ I fucking put so much conceptual work into that album. He portrayed me as the typical female — talented, but really not that savvy. He slags me for being a brat, which, whether I am or not, you have 150 words to describe a first double album, the least you could do is put a little effort into writing the review.”
So is there a pro-feminist message on Exile In Guyville?
“I hope so. It’s in my head that way. But I don’t know. It’s not your standard anti-man album. It’s very much about understanding, empathy, and love. And lust. It’s a feminist statement to be able to be that honest in terms of expressing whatever the hell I felt like and having it be received. I hope to fucking God that this makes it a lot easier for other young, four-track loving girls to not question whether to be guy-ish or girl-ish, but just to record, and to say, ‘Well, Liz did it!'”
Although it may be questionable to some whether young girls should take Phair’s lead (at least lyrically), there’s no denying the appreciation and sheer amusement felt from her candor. Exile offers Karen Finley-after-finishing school shockers: “I only ask because I’m a real cunt in spring / You can ram me by the hour” (“Dance Of The Seven Veils”); and brute honesty: “I take full advantage of every guy I see / I get away almost every day with what the girls call… murder” (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”), and “I can feel it in my bones, I’m gonna spend another year alone / It’s fuck and run, fuck and run, even when I was 17” (“Fuck And Run”).
Alongside the raw honesty, Phair skillfully convinces you to take her seriously with songs like the eerie anthem “Canary”: “I should clarify some of the words, it’s ‘deaf before dumb,’ meaning express yourself at all costs.”
“Part of [my songwriting] comes from somewhere that’s really magical. It’s totally mysterious to me. Good songwriting to me is a combo of being very connected to your world and being very detached, and allowing yourself to tap into something that’s far less logical and far more purely inspirational.”
Songwriting is what Phair does best. However, the irony of becoming successful at recording music people want to hear has her cornered. She loathes playing live, but has done a few solo shows already (to mixed reviews), and is being forced to put a band together for this month’s New Music Seminar in New York and for future shows. But being the 5’2″ Warrior that she is, she will meet this challenge, too.
Is Liz Phair a spokeswoman for a new generation of women musicians/artists? Her belief in embracing the right to be a woman and an artist at the same time sends a more realistic message than spewing anger with prosthetic balls on. According to Phair’s vision of Guy/Girlville, sending it up in your own skin and in your own voice is the only way. “Deaf before dumb.”
By Penelope Biver
Illinois Entertainer, July 1993