Liz Phair is a singer/songwriter whose new album titled Guyville has caught the attention of music fans in L.A. and Chicago. Her music features fresh lyrics and an innovative approach to harmony.
NOAH ADAMS, Host: Ever since she was a teenager, Liz Phair has written songs and played them in the privacy of her own room. She never really wanted to perform in public. She studied to be a visual artist, but now she’s 26 and there’s a brand-new Liz Phair CD in the stores and on the radio. Weekly papers in Los Angeles and Chicago put her on the cover. Her first video premiered on MTV this past weekend. The CD is produced by Brad Wood and Casey Rice, and is called Exile in Guyville. The term “Guyville” bears a bit of explaining.
LIZ PHAIR, Singer / Songwriter: Well now it’s a media soundbite. It’s nothing more; it’s very sad. But anyway, these things come and go. It was a state of mind and/or neighborhood that I was living in. Guyville, because it was definitely their sensibilities that held the aesthetic, you know what I mean? It was sort of guy things – comic books with really disfigured, screwed-up people in them, this sort of like constant love of social aberration. You know what I mean? This kind of guy mentality, you know, where men are men and women are learning.
Ms. PHAIR: In Oberlin there was a Guyville. In New York there’s a Guyville. In San Francisco, there’s a Guyville. I didn’t happen to live in it there.
ADAMS: If you’re in a taxicab –
Ms. PHAIR: You can find it. If you want to find it, Noah, it’s there.
ADAMS: Well, what do you look for? If you’re in a cab going past it, and you see it, what is it that you see?
Ms. PHAIR: All the guys have short, cropped hair, John Lennon glasses, flannel shirts, unpretentiously worn, not as a grunge statement. Work boots.
ADAMS: What did you figure out you wanted to do about Guyville from your perspective?
Ms. PHAIR: Get out.
ADAMS: On “Stratford on Guy”, Flying Into Chicago at Night – there are choices that you make finding notes as a singer that seem to be quite unusual, quite surprising.
Ms. PHAIR: I don’t think I’m as studied as I should be in terms of knowing, melodically, what I’m doing. You should come into the studio with us sometime. It’s where I’m going right after this interview. We’ve been working on my second album, and the words I use to describe the sound I want are incredible, and so when I hit various notes, or my keys are strange or unusual, you go from a very standard pop hook with like the standard pop melody floating above it, and then I switch right into something a little more dissident, or sort of an open chord, with a very strange tone.
Ms. PHAIR: I think it’s mostly because I grew up thinking about harmonies, thinking about ways in which tones interact. You know, I see them in my mind as visually, literally, like sometimes they slice through, sometimes they weave around. It’s all very much about shapes and patterns.
ADAMS: You don’t mean you’re seeing the notes on a staff?
Ms. PHAIR: Not at all.
ADAMS: Well what are you seeing then?
Ms. PHAIR: When I’m singing “Stratford on Guy”, I’m seeing through time – this gets really obtuse, I hope this isn’t annoying, but I’m seeing something shooting out from me, out into the distance, like a DNA strand kind of thing. You know how they show those DNA strands and it’s all a three-D model? I’m seeing models of music, and certain lines have, like, fuzz. I like to call that fuzz – I always tell Brad or Casey I want, you know, a sound to have like, a clear center but be dispersing around it’s circumference, kind of like spreading out in a haze, and that means that I’m probably going to harmonize with it and use those gray tones that are not the exact tone to provide a kind of a blanket or a fuzz.
ADAMS: Have you had a late night sort of talk with yourself about the future? Have you said, well, here’s what I want out of this and here’s the line that I will draw and it goes five years down the road and I will do this and I’ll do this but I won’t do that?
Ms. PHAIR: Every night, every single night. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that stuff. I am the queen of projection. I spend a lot – and what’s worse is that I’ll make rash statements at any given moment to assure myself that I still have the power over my destiny. I’ll be like, “I will never, ever, ever, ever do this!” and then I find myself probably doing that, but it’s just reached a point where it’s an acceptable level of that or the terms are such that I can agree to them or something, but you know, it’s really – there’s so much about this business that either frightens me or rubs me raw, or seems like an unhealthy tack to take in one’s adult life. You know, it’s just suddenly everything you’ve ever done or thought or felt is open to scrutiny. You know, “Well, how was your day yesterday?” Well, I was on the cover of New City and someone analyzed me as a phenomenon, you know, with other people analyzing what you are, why you are – it can really get to you. Especially if you’re sensitive enough to be writing songs like I write.
ADAMS: Liz Phair – that’s P-H-A-I-R, spoke with us from our studio in Chicago. Her album is called Exile in Guyville.
By Noah Adams
All Things Considered, National Public Radio, August 9, 1993