Liz Phair on Exile in Guyville 25 years on: 'It was like seeing the girl next door go nuclear'

The trailblazing singer-songwriter revisits her seminal album and discusses her next album and memoir

Ilana Kaplan
Friday 04 May 2018 16:19
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"Twitter buddies!" When Liz Phair speaks, she's so warm that it feels like you've known her forever. Her energy is palpable: the 50-year-old singer-songwriter is on the cusp of re-releasing her seminal breakout album Exile in Guyville along with the music that she made before breaking big under the moniker "Girly Sound."

Twenty-five years ago, Exile in Guyville was a groundbreaking, starkly raw depiction of the inner workings of women. It became enlightening for men in particular to see that women - regardless of their appearance - felt a lot of things beneath the surface. In serving as a response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St, Phair's record addressed the core of a male-dominated world through lyrics about the music industry, sexuality, anger and relationships in a way that hadn't been done before.

In 1993, Exile in Guyville was critically acclaimed, but it wasn't widely accepted: it was a divisive record full of gritty guitar riffs and sharp lyrics. While some people praised Phair for her candour, others saw her as a rebel, stirring up gender politics. Songs like "Flower" ("Every time I see your face/ I get all wet between my legs) and "F*** and Run" (I'm gonna spend another year alone /It's f** and run, f*** and run) shifted gender dynamics in music and created space for more women to open up. Phair subsequently unearthed a new world of opportunities for musicians like Soccer Mommy, Sharon Van Etten and Courtney Barnett to make unflinching personal statements about love and lust freely.

On the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, Phair talked to The Independent about how the album disrupted the music scene, her forthcoming record with Ryan Adams and memoir Horror Stories.

It's been a while since you did interviews around Exile in Guyville. Can you tell me about how long you've been planning this anniversary tour and record re-release?

I guess for two years really. We started talking about it when I wa on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. I met with Matador when we were in New York. We had a big table meeting and I was like, "How are we going to find the [Girly Sound] tapes because I don't have them?" We had to go through a couple of points where were like, "Are we going to be able to get all these tapes complete?" There was one tape no one had and one that no one remembered what was on it. Then it started to come together. Once we knew that we had the physical music, knowing that every song could be heard and could be mastered, then it started to take off. But it was nail-biting for a while.

How many people had heard the Girly Sound tapes originally? I know they're on YouTube now.

I made only two cassettes. I sent one to Tae Won Yu (Kicking Giant) and I sent one to Chris Brokaw. Tae started making copies and sending it to people and then people started making copies off of his copies, which is why a lot of the YouTube stuff wasn't high-quality. Each time someone copied the tape, the audio quality diminished.

When you listen to Girly Sound now, how do you feel it differs from your other music? It was the beginning.

I had never thought about becoming a recording artist when I made those cassettes. It was just a fun thing to do to keep track of the songs I wrote. I would just goof off, record the songs and put them on a four-track. Everyone was doing that. I had no desire ever to get on stage and do something with it. It wasn't until I made Exile in Guyville that I ever intentionally said, "I want to make a record and I want this to be a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St." I went pro, so-to-speak.

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Back in the day, Exile in Guyville was a divisive record for women in music and the way you frankly sang about sex. How do you think it would be perceived if it came out in 2018?

That's an interesting question. I doubt it would make such an impact because we've seen women saying things like that. I don't think it would stick out quite as much as it did back then. I think there's a lot of work from women that runs the gamut. It was just a feature of how few women were really working in the business back then. Thirty years ago, that's not what people expected women to say. If I was going to say that stuff, I ought to have tons of piercings and be really p***** off. It was like your neighbour: the girl next door who you wave to on the school bus broke out with this inner life that was turbulent and simmering with resentment and loneliness. It was like seeing the girl next door go nuclear.

Do you think that the way you expressed emotion changed culture for women?

I think it gave a lot of people permission to do it: to say here's my facade, but there's a lot going on underneath the surface. Maybe I played a part in people having the courage to do it. I think there were a number of people like PJ Harvey or Tori Amos who popped up at the same time who took what had been a punk impulse and an indie wave came out of it. The women who were participating in the indie wave saw the way the men were doing it and started doing it as well. But very few of us. There were very few of us at the time.

With the way you sang about sex, did you get a lot of pushback for that? Today I feel like it would be normalized.

I did because they weren't sure what message I was sending. It was like, "She's p***** off, but we don't know what she wants." It was like: what does this say then about nice girls? What are nice girls really feeling? I think it provoked men and even women to feel that something had been disrupted, but they weren't sure what it was. It was the idea that I could say these things then the woman standing next to you on the bus could say those things. It forced everybody to look at what was simmering beneath people who were just normal.

There's a whole other generation of artists now in 2018. Who are up and comers to you that remind you of yourself or are pushing what you did to the next level?

I really felt that when I heard Courtney Barnett for the first time. Sharon Van Etten reminded me of that. Those two artists stood out to me. I liked their matter of factness in the way they did their delivery. In my Exile in Guyville era, I think I had a matter of factness. The good thing is I think there's a ton of people who would remind us of some of the stuff I made. Women are being honest and they're doing it publicly: that's what we have now. In the early '90s, women in the workplace was still something you saw articles about. Now I think we've moved so far beyond that, that it's natural for all sorts of women to speak publicly about their inner lives. It matters, and they feel safer to speak up and speak honestly about what it's like to be female. You don't have to make it pretty or make everyone feel good about it: you can just say it.

Last year it came out that you were making a double album with Ryan Adams. Where does that stand now?

We changed it from a double album. It was an idea that as there before Trump got elected. As an artist, you're always putting something out about how you feel right now and what is inspiring to you. But we all fell into a massive depression. Our concepts fell apart - it just didn't have the gravitas that we wanted. Ryan toured and did some other stuff. It took a while. Now we're just about to finish it and it's a totally different record.

What was the original concept that you scrapped?

We were gonna do the White Album but the Trumpocracy came and overtook us and it wasn't fun or funny anymore. We had to regroup with a different angle. Later on we can release that material in a different way at a different time, but we needed to put something out that felt more authentic to how we're feeling.

There's been a lot happening with regards to the #MeToo movement in the music and entertainment industry. When you were coming up as a musician, were you put in a position where you were mistreated?

Pretty much regularly - we didn't know what it could be any other way. It was pretty much that way all the time for a long time - way longer than Exile in Guyville. The higher up in the music industry I got, the worse I got. The bigger the guy in the music business, the more likely he was to be kind of a sleazeball. It's true for a lot of industries, wouldn't you say? That's what it is: men in power have had a bit of a problem handling women in the workplace. Frankly how I feel about it now: it's they're problem to fix. They need to do their work like we all had to. Tony Robbins the other day really p***** me off. Like even that guy? He seems like a decent human being though whatever he is. That's the way they see us. It's this kind of pat them on the back kind of thing. It's over. It's done. It's not our problem to fix.

How did you protect yourself in the music industry?

I just kept running. I would try to get what I needed and give as little as possible - I don't mean sexually - I mean in an interaction. Everyone wanted to meet. I just became allergic to meetings. People were like, "Let's meet over drinks or meet over dinner." Nothing would ever come from it. It was like, do you have a job or not a job? No work ever came from those meetings. I made it a point: if you have a job, offer me the job. Otherwise I don't want to meet.

Your next big thing is putting out your memoir. How did you become interested in going into literature?

I actually didn't want to write a memoir, I wanted to write fiction or prose. What happened to me after Trump got elected and the blowback we thought we were collectively on board with - I got in touch with this outrage and horror. I wanted to redirect my own attention and put something out in the world that redirected attention towards the interpersonal responsibility and the emotional ways in which we bump up against each other. I wanted to slow everything down and look at what matters between human beings and how we became to be the people we are. I wanted to examine those scars and find the beauty within that. You look at Trump and those people and you think, if you connected to yourself and the people around you, you wouldn't behave this way. As a culture, I wanted to add my weight to a pile of people who stop and see the beauty of the when two people are compassionate to each other. The stories from my life, career and childhood, but they're not all chronological. It's about humanity, beauty and horror.

It sounds like we're going to learn a lot more about you.

In 2016, we felt like all these legendary musicians were dying, I felt like I had a lot more to say than I could put in a song. I wanted to say it and grapple with it myself. You'll recognise some of the context, but some are moments that no one knows except for me personally. They're just small moments that I make big. Where there are horror stories, you turn the corner into beauty and compassion. These are my stories.

Girly-Sound To Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set is out today via Matador Records.

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