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Liz Phair's Personal Best

16 October 2023, 08:30

The extraordinary story behind Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is part of indie rock lore. As she prepares to mark the album’s 30th anniversary, she talks Alan Pedder through some of the lesser celebrated highlights of her canon.

There’s never been a debut album quite like Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s frank and playful soundtrack to blowing up her girl-next-door image to free the complex, messy young woman beneath.

Revealing an inner life of loneliness, lust, and simmering resentment, to name just a few of Guyville’s web of agitations, it propelled the 26-year-old art history graduate to unexpected fame on its release in 1993. Magazine covers and MTV ubiquity followed, and Phair seemed set to break through to the big time. Landing a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, her second album Whip-Smart was meant to seal the deal. But Phair blew that up too, having realised that the music she loved making had become a job she hated. “I had the lowest self-esteem I’ve ever had in my life,” she later told Spin. “I felt hunted. It was icky.”

Craving normalcy, she realigned her life to give her something worth writing about, getting married to film editor Jim Staskauskas in 1995 and giving birth to their son a year later. Phair had already started recording a new album Whitechocolatespaceegg (a reference to her newborn) by the end of '96, but it took two more years for it to land. In part, it was the pressure she felt to make another Guyville that stymied the writing. “It felt like an albatross,” Phair says, speaking to Best Fit from her home in L.A. “It felt like something that I couldn’t get away from.”


It wasn’t that she couldn’t write songs as bare-faced as “Flower” or withering as “6’1”, per se, it’s that she’d have to give up too much to do it. “One thing I felt like people didn’t understand was that to be able to make an album like Guyville, I’d had to cut myself off from almost all other aspects of my life,” she says. “I was living in this sort of netherworld of going out every night to bars and hooking up and taking drugs. That’s not a period I would want to repeat. It was just something I needed to do at the time.”

Phair’s vacillating feelings about Guyville and its baggage have softened in recent years, and she says that’s largely thanks to her fans, “the people who kept it alive throughout the years, even when I had rejected it.” To mark 30 years since its release, there’s a new vinyl pressing on the way plus an extensive US tour during which she’ll play the album in its entirety – all 18 glorious songs. “My relationship with Guyville feels really beautiful right now,” she says, explaining why such a tour feels right for now. “It feels like enough water has flown under the bridge, and we’re all just happy that there’s a bridge there at all.”

Liz Phair Miss Lucy 2

“The 30th anniversary reissue and tour feels perfectly timed for me,” she adds. “There’s something really poignant about it. It will be the last time I perform the album in full, so there’s a part of me that’s going to be out on stage knowing that but also revelling in the fact that I’m connecting with this album again. It’s also a way of being able to saying thank you to all the fans. It’s because of them that Guyville came back.”

If fans are to experience the full Guyville again after the year is out, it seems likely to be as part of some as-yet-undefined stage production. Phair says that she’s been giving the idea of creating some sort of musical based on the record, “with lyrics from other songs to fill in the story.” “When I think of Guyville going forward, I think it’d be really cool just to let it be encapsulated in that kind of production,” she says. “I’d like to have to someone else play me. I won’t play that version [of Liz Phair] anymore.”


Guyville has at least one more stop along the way, though. Next year, Phair will put out her second memoir Fairy Tales as a sequel to 2019’s warts-and-all Horror Stories, this time taking readers back to the Guyville days, “back to that very singular time of my life.”

It’s not what she’d originally intended, she says, rolling her eyes. Fairy Tales was supposed to go where Horror Stories had studiously avoided, letting us in on the more “fun, exciting and glamorous” parts of her career. “That idea was kind of destroyed by the pandemic,” she says. “I did not feel fun or excited or glamorous at all. I felt the exact opposite – traumatised, isolated, dark and uncertain – and I just couldn’t write that book. The book I did write does refer to other parts of my life and my career, but I had to hang it in a darker place because I was in a darker place.”

There will be a new record, too. Phair counts it as her ninth, including 1995’s Juvenilia alongside the two albums from her controversial early 2000s major-label era, 2010’s off-the-wall Funstyle, and 2021’s genuinely great Soberish. “Nine has been my lucky number for a really long time,” she says, grinning. “There’s no way I couldn’t make a ninth album.”

There’s a lot more from this one-of-a-kind artist to look forward to, then, but first let’s take a breath and dig into some of her own personal highlights of the past 30 years. Seizing the opportunity to talk about rare and lesser lauded songs from her canon, Phair says that making this list came surprisingly easy.

“I think ‘Little Digger’ [from 2003’s self-titled] might be the one that’s gotten more love, but I think it’s such a singular song that it’s still interesting to talk about. For the others, I tried to pick ones that haven’t got a lot of attention and that I think are either indicative of a peculiarity of my songwriting, or that were impactful in my career. Songs that people might not know but were actually pivotal for me.”

"Animal Girl" (1995)

LIZ PHAIR: This song is about a scene from my life that will actually be in the memoir that’s coming out next year. For me, it symbolises the first authentically edgy song I ever wrote. I’d written other songs that were edgy, but they were self-consciously edgy. I was emulating other people.

I wrote “Animal Girl” at a time in my life where I very deliberately made a break with my past and with the world that I had come from. It was the first song of the rest of my life, in a way. It was the one that established my adult identity and that I was going to disagree strongly with a lot of the things that I had been raised to embrace. I think the danger in that was that I was not a lady anymore. Like, the lady thing was over for me, I was an animal girl now.

BEST FIT: Do you have any distinct memories of writing the song?

I don’t, but I do have a very distinct memory of the inspiration behind it. I think I was in college at the time, but I was at home and my parents were out of town. I remember that my brother and I were fighting because he was going to throw a party at our house that night, and I felt pushed out of my own life… in so many different ways.

Usually I would get together with my girlfriends and go to the beach to hang out and do whatever, but on that day I just went to the beach alone. I left my house and I truly felt like I had nowhere else to go. I just lay on this downtown beach and smoked a joint out in the open.

I can remember men cruising past me while I was lying there, getting high in the middle of the day, and I just had this realisation that the decision had already been made – that I was going to go off and do my own thing in life. It felt like the first day of the rest of my life, and it was a mixed feeling. It wasn’t a great feeling. It was like, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to be real.’

After that I became the kind of girl who’d go to a bar alone and sit there drinking whiskey. Looking at it now, it’s cute. It doesn’t sound so tough. But at the time, when I was young, I felt like I had to kind of force myself into situations where I felt vulnerable or scared or lonely. I would go and do those things to try and get myself a life. And that’s what this song “Animal Girl” is about. I became a little bit dangerous at that point. Things could have gone a different way.

BEST FIT: This particular recording was one that you did for a live radio session in The Netherlands, and you’ve dedicated it in the past to the radio host Lotje Ijzermans, who you've described as “an inspiration of a dame.” Tell me more about Lotje and why you loved her so much.

She was beautiful and so cool. The thing about her was that at that point I hadn’t seen many women in the music industry that I would want to be. The music business is such a guy world. There were so many men in it. There were women in it too, but it felt a lot to me like they just became one of the guys, and I totally understand that. I have flirted with that myself, here and there, because I wanted the same freedom and power that the men had and it was easier to just slide into doing what they do.

Lotje was different. She was someone who was extremely feminine but she was also jaded. I don’t even know how old she could have been at the time – no more than 32, I’d say – but she felt like someone who had seen some things. She had a danger about her, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never seen danger in a lady.’

Ever since then, I’ve had this idea that I would be better off living in Amsterdam. In my mind, it’s like they would understand me more there. I grew up with a sense that I’d been ejected from my life forever and yet I’ve never found the village of my home.

Do you still feel like that when you are in Amsterdam?

Yeah, I do.

I feel like in America there’s this thing where women are either supposed to be really dumb or really tough and not to care about romance. America is a land of extremes. Everything gets pushed to its farthest limit and that becomes the template. I've never been comfortable with that.

Liz Phair Juvenilia

"Jeremy Engle" (2003)

LIZ PHAIR: When I’m writing a song, I usually write the music and the words together, and they kind of emerge haltingly in that way. Maybe for a while the music is better and the words are bad, or I get great words and the music seems lame, and I kind of wrestle with that.

“Jeremy Engle” is one of those songs that I wrote the words straight out, like a poem almost. It was so funny to do that and then to write the music for it. I see this song as like a Franken-birth, and it started a whole phase of my career where I would Franken-birth songs in that I would cannibalise one song and combine it with another. I’d never done that before in my work.

“Jeremy Engle” is such a unique song in and of itself. I wish it had come out on an album but it’s so particular. Jeremy was this guy that I had a crush on when I was in college. He’d be in the library the whole time so I would just be in the library the whole time too. I never had better grades than when I had a crush on Jeremy. He never knew, and then I wrote this song about him.

Around 20 years later, I had to call him up to ask if it was okay to put the song out. He was like, ‘Yeah, I… guess?’ It was so embarrassing because I’d made up all these ideas about his life, which wasn’t his life at all. I’d built this sense of who he’d been, why he’d rejected me, and what my life would have been like if I had been a part of his. It’s brilliantly funny and awkward, and forever my favourite song.

BEST FIT: What do you remember about the making of the song?

I recorded “Jeremy Engle” with producer Walt Vincent, not long after I had first moved to Los Angeles. I was working in Culver City and Walt lived nearby. It was actually the first time I had ever made a record without Brad [Wood], but he and Walt had recently worked together on Pete Yorn's Music for the Morning After.

Walt has the same quality that Brad does in that you can be like, ‘Here’s my mess,’ and then you come back the next day and he’s sorted it all out. He really brought up the colour and the contrast on the good parts and sort of squashed the bad parts and buried them into the white noise.

It just came together so brilliantly, and I think the music he played on this song is so good. That sort of whizz on the guitar that you hear was his idea. Instead of leaving in all the squeaks that I make when I’m sliding up the neck of my guitar, he just put an electric over it. It was like he was taking the quirks of my guitar playing and turning them into sonic elements, which was very cool. I especially appreciate good production like that.

As you said, this song never appeared on an album but on the surprise bonus EP, comeandgetit, which was sort of attached to your self-titled album. Was there a difference in how the two records were received?

It really felt like the big marketing wheels of Capitol Records serviced the eponymous album, and then my old fans from back in the day seemed to like the EP more. And I think that’s because those songs are the real me. The quirky songwriter who writes song that are just weird, and that’s how I’m happiest and how I think my oldest fans most connect to the material.

At the same time, business is business. As the historical record hopefully shows, I didn’t sign to Capitol. Capitol made a deal with Matador. I just found myself on a major label and it was play or be shelved. So I played.

And you learned a lot in the process, I’m sure.

So much. I'm so grateful for it. Even though people are still mad about it. I learned how to perform truthfully.

I’ve always felt better about the self-titled record than other people did, and that’s because I look at it as the creator and I understand what went into it. All the fans get is the finished product, and I think I have not been as aware as I perhaps should have been in the past of what that’s like for them. I just stayed in my creator mode.

To me, the self-titled album is interesting because it comes from all these different recording points. First there was the record I made with Michael Penn. I loved the songs that we did but I didn’t feel like I could put that record out and work it properly. I hadn’t done as much of the instrumentation as I would usually do, and I felt like I needed to hear my own guitar playing and to hear my own production.

After that, I cut a deal with Capitol. They told me, ‘If you’ll work with pop people, if you’ll give us something we can use, then you can put whatever else you want on the record,’ and I was like, ‘Great, let’s do that!’ and worked with The Matrix on some songs. A lot of the other weird songs were already recorded but not yet polished, so I got to go back and work on those. I got to put a song like “H.W.C.” [aka "Hot White Cum"] on the album, which is really fun. So I got to do stuff that I wanted. They didn’t get to say anything about the rest of the record.

I personally loved working with The Matrix. It was a different thing entirely but, as I explained at the time, sometimes we put on a ball gown and sometimes we put on sneakers and shorts. In those days, though, people weren’t ready to let genre be something you tried on. Genre was something you either belonged to or you didn’t. We’ve moved past that now, I think, thank god. I mean, what’s the point of being alternative if you’re dictating and limiting what people can do?

Liz Phair Come And Get It

"Little Digger" (2003)

LIZ PHAIR: I recently heard Björk’s “Ancestress”, which is about matriarchy and the death of her mother, and I was really wowed. Making a song like that, it was like she was cutting new ground. I often feel that way about Björk, but this song in particular is so bold and about a topic that you almost never see people writing about. It was amazing to me that I can be this old and still be surprised by my peers.

For me, “Little Digger” is the closest I’ve gotten in that department. It’s the closest I’ve come to writing something that people don’t really write about. It’s written from the perspective of a child, a young toddler, who sees his mother with a different guy that isn’t his father, and all the implications of that. It’s everything that you and I know as adults, but I think there’s an innocence to that song that keeps you in the child’s perspective. At least I hope so.

I think it’s more than just a moving song. I think it has a unique perspective that you don’t often get, and I think it’s very particularly female.

BEST FIT: Are there other songs in your catalogue for which you feel like you've done a similar thing?

I have tried. On my last album Soberish, there’s a song called “Hey Lou” that’s pretty off the wall. And, you know, it’s something that I can do and ought to do more.

Here’s the thing: if you’re a weird person, you’re often creative, but if you’re a weird creative you often have baggage about wishing you could be normal. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. But seeing Björk putting out “Ancestress” as a single, and talking with you about “Little Digger”, it feels like there’s some kind of alignment going on for me currently. There’s something telling me to move back to and just embrace the weirdness and letting go of those thoughts of ‘Oh, I wish I was normal’ and ‘Why can’t I be more like that person?’

Growing up, was your son ever like, “Mum, I wish you were normal”?

Probably, yeah. I'm sure! Many, many, many times.

And, you know, being a musician can be hard. On one hand you have this great life and you get to do and experience things that not many people do, but on the other hand it’s not like you can talk about it in the group chat with your friends. No one’s gonna relate. No one’s gonna understand. I mean, 95% of my friends don’t do what I do.

Before we move on from the subject of the self-titled record, I have to ask you about the Michael Penn neti pot story. Can you explain what that was all about?

Michael is such a brilliant man and so fun to be in a studio with. At the time he was under the same kind of pressures that I was under, with Capitol Records being like, ‘This is your chance to make a big record,’ and he had this ambition that he could make a singer out of me. He thought that I’d never actually tried to record proper vocals, so he was sort of battling with me about that.

We’d be recording something and he’d be like, ‘Can’t you hear that? Can’t you hear the congestion?,’ and I’d go over and we’d listen back and eventually I could hear it too. It just felt so bizarre to be discussing boogers with my producer. He was actually genuinely worried about what was up my nose. And, you know what? It’s actually true. You can’t do a proper vocal sitting down. You have to be standing up and you have to let your lungs expand, and get those pipes all hollow and resonant.

Because of that, I think the eponymous album has some of the best singing that I’ve ever done in my career. I love to sing the songs off that record live because they are so balletic. When I’m singing the old Guyville songs – the songs that everyone thinks are so cool – they are all low. They don’t cut. They’re intimate songs. Whereas the songs from the eponymous record really make me feel like a singer on a stage. They are the big moments. That’s good stuff.

Liz Phair Selftitled

"X-Ray Man" (1994)

LIZ PHAIR: For me, this song epitomises the person that I was when I was making Guyville.

I would be nervous and feel self-conscious doing it, but I would go to a bar alone, I’d sit down and order myself a drink, and inevitably some guy would come up and talk to me. That’s what happened every night, and every night there would some different man that I was engaged in conversation with throughout the evening.

I would just be so aware of what those men were trying to get out of this interaction. I could see right through what was happening. And it was sort of a dance because I was a grifter at that point. I had no money so I did use my looks to get guys to buy me drinks and drive me places. It was a two-way street, and I just love this song about that time.

After that, I got married and I became a mum, and that fun period of my life was over. This song really captures who I was at that point in my life, being this professional charm artist. That’s a person I can never get back to but I miss being her. She was a cool cat.

BEST FIT: Are there any of your more recent songs where you try to imagine yourself back in the past?

There’s a song on Soberish called “Dosage” in which I revisit the bar that “X-Ray Man” would have been written in. In that song, I’m the older woman looking at this young woman at the bar and being like, “I’ve been you. Let me give you some advice.”

It was super fun for me to write from that perspective and to be speaking from a distance of 30 years. I got to step back into my own song and say to this young wowan what Henry, the bartender from “Polyester Bride”, would have said to me back then, and I thought that was really cool.

Liz Phair Whip Smart

"Strange Loop" (1993)

BEST FIT: Of all the songs on Exile in Guyville, what makes “Strange Loop” stand out for you?

LIZ PHAIR: I’m a big fan of endings. I don’t always feel that I get the endings right, but on Guyville I really feel like I did.

It’s a long album – it's an 18-song cycle – and so much happens from so many different perspectives. Sometimes I’m sad. Sometimes I’m a bitch. Sometimes I’m loving having sex. Sometimes I’m pissed off and resentful. It really felt like it was so much to leave, and I thought, ‘How do I exit that world?’

I wrote “Strange Loop” as the exit, and I wrote it the way it really happened in life. That whole village that I was so much a part of, we all just aged out. We disbanded. Everything just kind of went away.

I really like the lyrics. There’s this beautiful line at the beginning that goes, “The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free,” and I think my fans have suffered through that as well. Because I’m just not ever going to do what I’m supposed to do. All the love and all the feeling is there for that group or that person, but I have to go off on my lonely road of weirdness.

I also chose it for this list because of the Michael R. Jackson musical, A Strange Loop, which has had such a huge impact on Broadway in the past couple of years. Getting to speak with Michael and have him be so supportive of me was such an unexpectedly beautiful thing to have happen in my life and career.

It’s one of those things that you can’t plan, you can’t hope for, but when it happens it’s really magical. It’s two artists speaking to each other, and I think that’s how culture moves on. It feels like the culture is enlarged because of artists doing their personal work and being their weird little selves.

Another aspect of “Strange Loop” that I love is that there's a pattern at the end that refers back to the beginning of the album, which must be very intentional. What can you tell me about that?

I love circles, and when I write I tend to write from within my own writing. I want to make albums that you want to start over again, that you can start over again. I want to make albums where if there’s one song where you’re like, ‘Where can she go from here? I'm sick of this,’ then the next song is a refreshing palate cleanser.

I used to quiz people, ‘How do you see the days of the week? Do you see it as a linear thing? Or is it a circle?’ For me, it's a circle. I love circular structures. I love referring to the beginning at the end, and I hope my life does that. I hope that when I'm at the end of my life, it feels like a circle. It's very important to me. I'm weirdly committed to that and never talk about it.

Liz Phair Exile

Exile In Guyville (30th Anniversary Edition) is out on October 20 via Matador Records.

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