Liz Phair brings her 30th-anniversary tour of "Exile in Guyville" to Roadrunner on Nov. 21. (Photo: Eszter+David)
Liz Phair (Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg)
Liz Phair (Photo: Rodrigo DeMedeiros)
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Once an exile, always an exile: Liz Phair’s trip back to ‘Guyville’

“It Was Minutely Personal.” Liz Phair Looks Back on 30 Years of Exile in Guyville

Celebrating 30 Years of ‘Guyville’ with Liz Phair

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Liz Phair brings her 30th-anniversary tour of “Exile in Guyville” to Roadrunner on Nov. 21.

By Marc Hirsh
Boston Globe | November 15, 2023

It was on June 22, 1993 that Liz Phair loosed “Exile in Guyville” on an unsuspecting world, an album that in its songs — in its very existence, in fact — attacked the male-dominated indie-rock infrastructure, from the artists themselves to the labels and promoters and publicists that gatekeep access, all the way to the critics who frame the narratives that define the music. (Hello.) It was a titanic statement that still sounds as bracing and confrontational and relevant 30 years later. There’s an argument to be made that that means that Phair was simply howling into the void. The singer, however, has a different perspective.

“I’m never getting elected to Indie Rock Queen again, I guess, dammit,” Phair says with a laugh before taking a slightly more sober approach. “I don’t know what to make of it, other than to say that human history seems to be very long, and instinct and the way we’ve evolved is sticky. I mean, what are you gonna do? It’s still completely relevant. The grumbles and gripes that I had in 1993 are still present today, if not more raw, in a way, because people are revealing more. I think people feel safe to reveal more. And I don’t know what to make of it any more than anyone else does.Phair does know what to do about it, though, bringing the album to Roadrunner on Tuesday for a 30th-anniversary playthrough. It follows 15th- and 25th-anniversary “Guyville” tours and serves as a reminder that the record is a living thing, not just a moment trapped in amber. “Honestly, it keeps growing with its fan base, and I feel ― maybe more than I did in the beginning — that this is a way to come back and connect with that.,” she says. “I feel like my album has a life of its own now, 30 years down.”

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It had such a life of its own, in fact, that it threatened to overshadow everything else Phair ever did, a daunting prospect for any artist, let alone one just out of the gate. That reached its pinnacle with her deeply underappreciated self-titled fourth album, a baldfaced (and successful) Top 40 move that engendered a degree of backlash that may be the closest Generation X will ever get to the mythical reaction to Bob Dylan going electric. Phair, who’d already started out holding onto the third rail of indie and alternative rock, became a full-on lightning rod.

Liz Phair during the recording sessions for "Exile in Guyville." (Photo: Brad Wood)
Liz Phair during the recording sessions for “Exile in Guyville.” (Photo: Brad Wood)

“I think that I crossed party lines, in some way, to go more mainstream,” says Phair, agreeing that the reaction underscored everything that “Guyville” was about in the first place. “It was always so confusing to me to find that Alternative World was actually just as regimental and rule-based and there were definite boundaries to it. It was not a boundless space. I should have known from the name, actually. It’s in the name, ‘alternative’: You’re different, but it’s the same. It was a very patriarchal, guy-run, guy-populated world. That’s what it was.”

In a lot of ways, the experience with her self-titled album helped Phair delineate what she did and didn’t want to do, in particular the publicity demands. “I remember on tour for ‘Liz Phair,’ it could be, ‘Hey, it’s early morning radio, you have to go in at a godforsaken hour and perform in the studio,’” she says. “And then, ‘Hey, there’s some Target lunch that they’re having. Go perform in their corporate headquarters room,’ then ‘Hey, there’s a soundcheck party’ or ‘There’s this roadhouse that we want to stop by.’ Like, anywhere, any time, I felt like I was getting thrown up on stage.”

Phair has navigated her career on her terms ever since, decamping to Hollywood after her next album to score television shows such as the sci-fi cult hit “The 100″ and the “90210″ reboot, writing a memoir (2019′s “Horror Stories”), and taking more than a decade between albums. And if she still hasn’t properly toured behind 2021′s “Soberish,” the “Guyville” trek currently has precedence, and the singer has chosen to think bigger than the 15th and 25th anniversaries.

“Cut to this tour, and finally, we have a budget for creative direction,” Phair says, mentioning a lighting director, projectionist, and painter. “We’re designing a bit of a theater experience for this album. It’ll be mostly a rock show, but it’ll have a glaze, if you will, of a more immersive experience for people, pulling up nostalgic 1990s lighting and stuff and getting it onstage. It’s going to be — I hope, fingers crossed — very cool.”

With an emphasis on stagecraft for the live show, it’s easy for thoughts to drift to how a ‘90s contemporary of Phair’s, Alanis Morissette, turned her own iconic album, “Jagged Little Pill,” into a Broadway musical. Phair acknowledges that there indeed have been talks about adapting “Exile in Guyville” into a theatrical production. “I have been approached several times about that,” says Phair. “But I mean, it’s hard for me to know how to organically do that. So I think this [tour] is my version of let’s see what it’s like to walk down that path.”

Until then, Phair is once more bringing the music of “Guyville” to life on stage herself, a prospect that wouldn’t have been imaginable in 1993 even if the concept of full-album playthroughs had existed then. As if the cocktail of expectations and recriminations she endured back then (and since then) weren’t enough, Phair had another issue she famously contended with at the time: stage fright, which can be glimpsed in the singer’s early television appearances. But she says she’s conquered it, mostly.

“I still suffer from it, especially when I’m heading out on tour after a long absence. But there’s a muscle memory, and there’s also a sense that it won’t continue for very much longer. Like, my age makes you aware, like: How long can you do this?” Phair says. “So I still get nervous, certainly. Believe me, I do. But very quickly, I’m like, God, this is fun. This is a good job. This is more fun than other responsibilities I have.”

Featured Image: Liz Phair brings her 30th-anniversary tour of “Exile in Guyville” to Roadrunner on Nov. 21. (Photo: Eszter+David)

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