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After spending a year as indie rock’s next big thing, Liz Phair prepares the sequel to her incredible journey through Guyville

Forget for the moment Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s unforgettable 1993 debut album that made the little-known Chicago songwriter into an overnight critic’s favorite-slash-feminist phenom. Phair has spent the past month working on her new album in Chicago and the Bahamas, and it is that material that the 27-year-old Oberlin College art major is most psyched about. So psyched, in fact, that she has only grudgingly rehearsed the old songs for an upcoming tour that visits First Avenue tonight and Friday.

“I’m way tired of it,” Phair says of Guyville from Chicago, where she’s squeezing in one last phone interview between practice and a dental appointment. “You move on. I was over Guyville months ago, and now that I’ve got my new album, all I want to do is play that.”

Like Guyville, which was tailored to be an everywoman’s song-by-song rebuttal to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Phair says the next album (set for release in late summer-early fall) will have another thought-out theme – not merely a bunch of songs slapped together – complete with a storyline and long-form video. As Greil Marcus pointed out in the April issue of Interview magazine, when it comes to divine inspiration, Phair is hardly the rock ‘n’ roll receptacle Eddie Vedder appears to be.

But as long as she continues to come up with songs like “The Divorce Song”, “F— and Run” and “Shatter”, who’s nitpicking? Phair describes the next record as “more extroverted” in the “classic pop album” sense. And while she claims that much of the new material once again centers on relationships (“It’s probably a lot more similar to Guyville than I’d like to think”), one of the new songs is titled “Nashville”, which chronicles, in her words, “how it made me feel to be the next big thing over the last year.”

And just how, exactly, did that feel?

“It was not very much fun,” she admits. “I don’t like to be self-conscious; I’m plenty self-conscious already. And I didn’t feel like I had some big cause to champion – everybody thinks I did, but I didn’t. I just felt like I had a man out there that I wanted to answer to, and it was from very personal motivations.”

The result was Exile in Guyville – perhaps the most reviewed, discussed, dissected or, as its maker puts it, “dipped in formaldehyde” record of the year. And because of the personal love-lust nature of the lyrics, many listeners assumed the songs were biographical.

“That’s the thing that has irked me the most – is that people took it for fact,” she says. “They didn’t see me as an artist creating stories and lyrics; they saw me creating a confessional. It’s meant to sound off the cuff. It’s meant to sound like it just dropped out of my mouth, but I agonize over every single word. I change it all the time. I sit at the computer…”

Just a sec. Liz Phair, boho bard to a generation, writes those pearls on a computer?

“Yeah,” she says. “I mean, eventually, the lyrics come out, and they have to be cleaned up and tapered into poetry that stands on its own. But it has to sound like it flew out of my mouth, at the exact point that the chords did. And when it’s done, they say, ‘Gosh, she’s like this.'”

“And that’s what’s unfair because I’m not that. I have a private life, and I really am different [than my songs].”

But this time around, there is the knowledge – empowering and debilitating – that the world will be listening when the follow-up to Guyville comes. Phair says the critical glare “kind of stomped out the fun” of the process, but that her success has also provided her with a new lease on artistic life.

“It’s like you passed your courses; you don’t have to do them again,” she says. “And then honestly, you’re riding on a wave. You’re surfing. And everybody freaks out, because, ‘Oh, we could fall, we could fall, we could fall.’ And yeah, you could fall. But you should never lose sight of the fact that you’re surfing.”

As she surfs, Phair still has one major wave to conquer: performing live. She once said her shows were so spotty that she wouldn’t even go see herself play. And while she’s stopped calling the gigs “freak shows,” she still doesn’t enjoy performing the way she does recording.

“I don’t particularly feel like I should be up there,” she confesses. “I don’t really want to be up there. But some nights, it can be really great. Some nights, it can be about things way bigger than any of the small things, and you start to see things like, ‘Wow, I’m in 1994.’ You know, you feel like you’re another step in the big long history of touring and music and playing.”

Just like Phair’s soul sisters before her; just like, for example, Chrissie Hynde and Bonnie Raitt, two of the many musicians who have declared their fandom for Phair.

“That blows my mind,” she says. “I don’t know how to think about that. I kind of short-circuit on those, because I can’t grapple with that image in my mind. God, these are legends. These aren’t even humans to me. They’re from before I understood behind-the-scenes; they’re from when I badgered artists and dissolved their essences and thought they were looking at me when they played live.”

Ah-ha. It turns out that Liz Phair, feminist phenom and boho bard, is just like the rest of us, pining for that ultimate benediction: eye contact from the stage. True?

“Oh my god, all the time,” she says, laughing. “The Police – ‘He can see me!’ The English Beat – that guy with the blond mohawk [Rankin’ Roger] – ‘He can see me!’ This is bad, cheesy, high-school stuff. And now, people come up to me after shows and say, ‘You were looking at me. You were singing that whole song to me.'”

“And the truth is, maybe I was, but I’m completely unconscious of it,” she says, then pauses to contemplate the effect her songs coupled with her eye contact might have. She bursts into embarrassed laughter: “But there’s no way I was thinking what they think I was thinking!”

By Jim Walsh, Staff Writer
St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 10, 1994

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