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Liz Phair revisits the Chicago scene that turned against her 15 years ago

By Jon Ferguson
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA), August 25, 2008

Liz Phair recently returned to the scene of her greatest critical triumph.

Phair, the poster child for Chicago’s indie-rock scene in the 1990s, is celebrating the 15th anniversary of her landmark album Exile in Guyville.

One of the most lauded releases of 1993 (it topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll that year and consistently shows up when critics pick the greatest albums ever), Phair won praise for her brilliant songwriting, the groundbreaking candor of her lyrics and the emotional vulnerability of her vocals.

Phair, a complete unknown outside of Chicago when Guyville was released, seemed on her way to stardom.

The stardom never really happened as Phair, 41, who has been the target of some of most vicious critical attacks ever committed to print, embarked on a contentious career dogged by controversy.

Given all that, it would be reasonable to assume that Phair would find comfort in this year’s reissue of Guyville and a brief tour (which includes appearances in Philadelphia on Wednesday and Washington, D.C., the following night) featuring her and a band playing the entire album in sequence.

People forget, however, that the national praise accorded Guyville was undercut by rumblings out of Chicago that Phair somehow was not worthy to carry the banner for that city’s indie-rock scene.

Phair hasn’t forgotten.

“My first success was completely compromised by real feelings of alienation and being rejected from a scene and being hated,” Phair said during a telephone interview from her California home. “I think the hard part about my career has been that it’s not just about the music; it’s personal.”

Despite that, Phair embraced the re-release of Guyville by her new record company, ATO Records, which was founded by Dave Matthews and Michael McDonald.

Phair took the opportunity to shoot a low-budget documentary film about Guyville that is included as a DVD along with the CD of the album. It’s a remarkable film as Phair revisits Chicago and talks to those who helped her make Guyville. She also interviews other prominent members of the Chicago indie-rock scene in the 1990s.

“What’s the point of re-releasing it if you’re not bringing it back to life, resurrecting what it was like back then,” she said. “It was the only way I could think of to honor it.”

Phair, armed with borrowed cameras, slogged through the snowy streets of Chicago in mid-February as she tracked down and interviewed the people she wanted included in the documentary. She had complete control of the editing process.

“I make these fake laughs all the time, so I cut out some of those,” she said. “That’s where my vanity lay — stop with the freakin’ cackling. I really regret the sports bra I was wearing. I really regret a lot of stuff. It was what it was.

“I wasn’t interviewing people because I thought they would be nice to me. I made a list of the people that were influential to me, that were the guys of my Guyville. And I got every single one of them. It was not easy.”

As much as critics loved Guyville, they hated Phair’s self-titled fourth album even more.

Critics, the poison dripping from their pens, assailed the album, which featured a provocative photo of Phair posing nude with a guitar on its cover. They accused Phair of denigrating the talent that once made her the darling of the indie crowd by daring to make an album partially produced by The Matrix, the pop production team that made Avril Lavigne a star.

“I had no idea it would be so universally despised,” she said. “I didn’t realize critics were going to freak out and take it personally.”

Phair well remembers the venomous interviewers who confronted her about the album after its release.

“I just went to damage control,” she said. “I felt like everybody’s therapist. They’d be real angry at me in an interview and I’d try to calm them down. I’d be like, ‘Now listen, it’s just music. It’s OK, you don’t have to buy it.'”

“I couldn’t understand what was making them so upset. It wasn’t until very recently that I kind of understood that I had left them, and I had left them in a big flashy way. And they had felt they were the ones that had given me a career in the first place.”

Phair plans to release a new album on ATO later this year. It will be just her sixth album in the 15 eventful years she has been making music. She was reluctant to talk about it.

“I’m in the middle of doing it right now and it’s coming out in the fall,” she said. “Any words I use would just be bullshit. It’s true. I’m sorry.”

Phair has no reason to be sorry. No reason at all.

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