Liz Phair on inspiring a generation of indie icons: “They pulled me out of retirement”
How the Chicago legend paved the way for Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail and more, who in turn influenced her comeback record, ‘Soberish’. By El Hunt. Main image: Angela Kohler
Roughly 30 years ago, Liz Phair invited an ex-boyfriend over to her apartment in Wicker Park, an artsy neighborhood in Chicago. As they rifled through a box of abandoned cassette tapes left behind by a previous tenant, talk turned to the classic albums that Phair – a recent graduate with an academic viewpoint on music – could study in writing her own debut album. Mid-rummage, she picked up ‘Exile on Main St.’
“I was like: ‘Rolling Stones – is this a good one of theirs?’” Phair recalls. “I’d never heard it. He said: ‘Yeah – why don’t you do that’. It was so dismissive, like: ‘Pffft! You’re gonna do a record? I’d like to see you do a double album while you’re at it.’ I looked at him, and I was like: ‘I will, I shall; let it be so’. That’s how that happened. It’s amazing how pressure can spur some of your greatest growth. I was dirt-poor, and I was tired of being told I was stupid, and I got determined.”
Off the back of that dare, the musician made her 1993 debut album ‘Exile In Guyville’, an 18-track double album that seized on the potent energy of Rolling Stones’ classic and twisted it into new shapes. Phair’s title referenced the idea that rock’n’roll is a swaggeringly exclusive guy’s club, and shattered the music snobbery of men she encountered on the Chicago music scene. “That [snobbery] was what propelled me to make my first album,” she says. “There was this sense of demanding to have a voice. I knew they weren’t the gatekeepers: a bunch of dudes sitting around in their dorms were not the arbiters of taste.”
‘Exile In Guyville’ turned Liz Phair into an indie star virtually overnight, selling 200,000 copies by the end of the following year. Six albums later, after a decade-long music hiatus, she’s now set to release ‘Soberish’, a comeback record steeped in the blurry-eyed moment between sober and tipsy, the nostalgia-aided blurring of the past and present and the uncertain sensation of slowly falling in and out of love.
“Neither here nor there, one state and the other, and flipping between the two,” Phair says, ”is what I’m living in. I would say that’s what’s going on in my life right now.”
Arriving as the final embers of grunge fizzled out in the late ’90s, Liz Phair’s voice was confrontational, raw and revolutionary in a time when rock was largely dominated by men. With an assured swagger, she sang of deceiving ‘Guyville’ by allowing them to underestimate her. “I take full advantage of every man I meet,” goes the twanging ‘Girls! Girls! Girls’, while ‘Help Me Mary’ finds her praying for the sweetest kind of revenge: “Weave my disgust into fame, and watch how fast they run to the flame.”
Though Liz Phair remains best known for ‘Exile in Guyville’, her plain-speaking, playful music and rocky ride in a male-dominated industry has endured as an influence on many of the next generation’s newest indie stars, all of them women. Snail Mail – aka Lindsay Jordan – famously began her career playing in a covers band named Lizard Phair: though Jordan’s music is sparser, the two artists share a similar lyrical language. “And I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else,” Jordan sings on ‘Pristine’ with Phair’s emotional rawness, and that same sprinkle of melodrama.
Echoes of Phair’s voice can also be heard in the music of Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, Julien Baker and countless others. Soccer Mommy has spoken of being inspired by the unguarded nature of Phair’s ‘Exile In Guyville’ track ‘Shatter’: “It sounds like it kind of poured out of her,” she told The Line of Best Fit.
For Sadie Dupuis, who fronts the US indie band Speedy Ortiz and also makes twisted pop music under her Sad13 moniker, Liz Phair’s entire career has shaped her own shifting approach. The two became internet friends, and then IRL friends when Speedy supported Phair on her North American tour in 2018. “I stole my dad’s CD copy of [Phair’s second album] ‘Whip-Smart’ as a teenager,” she tells NME, “and then I moved backwards and forwards through Liz’s whole discography, loving all of it.’”
From the beginning, Liz Phair sang about sex and desire with a now-characteristic playfulness – which was groundbreaking from a woman in the rock world. “Every time I see your face, I get all wet between my legs,” she sings in a high-pitched nursery rhyme vocal on ‘Flowers’. The idea to wrap sexuality in a saccharine cloak, Phair says, stemmed from her Girly Sound cassettes, a trio of home-recorded tapes that became sought-after bootlegs in the early ‘90s.
“The young female voice is the least listened to in society; it carries the least authority,” she explains. “I would always speed my tapes up, because I wanted to see if I sang in a little girl voice, would people catch what I was saying, or could I get away with saying the most outrageous things because nobody was listening? So it was on ‘Exile In Guyville’ as a homage to the sexuality of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – the swagger, and subject matter – and also as this holdover from Girly Sound. I put that on the record knowing full well it would get attention – but not realising how it would eclipse everything else.”
And Liz Phair’s most searing one-liners were seized upon with a sensationalist fervour. ‘…Guyville’ tracks such as ‘Fuck and Run’ caused some to overlook Phair’s stomping dissection of casual sex while longing for love, instead seeing a woman singing a song about fucking. Sex became the story. “’The blowjob queen‘?” Phair asks knowingly, referencing the chorus of ‘Flowers’. “It was all anybody wanted to write about! It’s how I got framed, entirely. I wasn’t ready for it. Suddenly I was doing photoshoots naked, because I was naked on the [album] cover. They just took the sex part, and went all the way with it.”
“A nice girl, talking about blowjobs? Gotta get the train back on the rails!”
Being truly provocative, she poses, has less to do with sex, and more to do with subversion. “You fuck up the lines that have been drawn that let people go down the railway,” she says. “I would also say it’s not just [about] a woman talking about sexual things; it’s the perception of a ‘nice, well-educated’ woman talking about these things, and the train going off the rail, and they’re like, ‘What the fuck was that? A nice girl, talking about blowjobs? Gotta get the train back on! We either have to make a compartment for this girl, or we have to kick her off the train, and get rid of that. One of the two.’”
1994’s biting ‘Whip-Smart’ was followed by 1998’s spinier ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’. By the time the ’00s came around, Phair found herself stuck on a major after her indie label Matador signed with Capitol Records, and then bought themselves out. She was left behind as “a collateral chip”, and was accused of selling out with her 2003 self-titled record ‘Liz Phair’, a more commercially minded record which featured collaborations with Avril Lavigne’s production team The Matrix. Phair’s final record on Capitol, 2005’s ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ was released to mixed reviews, and couldn’t rival the success of her eponymous album. The musician’s most recent full-length, the wilfully bizarre, rap-influenced ‘Funstyle’, was released over a decade ago.
Phair is equally frank in addressing her perceived missteps. “That didn’t go well,” Phair laughs of ‘Funstyle’, with typical candour. “Maybe I’m already too weird to double down on the weird?”
In the last decade since ‘Funstyle’, Liz Phair went on a kind of hiatus to focus on sound design and scoring for television, and writing her memoir Horror Stories, which was published in 2019. It was her witnessing the women-led guitar renaissance of recent years that ended it. “I would go so far as to say they pulled me out of retirement,” Phair says. “Not an intentional retirement, but de facto – I stopped touring and everything, and this group of young women just made it feel like the music business should’ve been when I was coming up.”
“I can’t even tell you how different that is from the way it was when I was younger,” she adds. “It was all men, all the time – and if there were women, there was this kind of stand-offishness. There was a very real sense that if you got the job, I wouldn’t. I’ve had so much pleasure reconnecting with artists that came up the same time I did. We were just too separated in our own careers [back] then. [Fellow indie rocker] Juliana Hatfield and I had this mini love-affair of late, and we were totally put in the same articles all the time back in the day. We never met! It’s uncomfortable to think about, because we should’ve known how horrible it was then. I think we were speaking out about it, but it was so much more tentative.
Phair concludes: “To have supportive, understanding, like-minded people would’ve made a huge difference. I feel like I’ve lived my entire career on the defensive – all the time.”
“I knew they weren’t the gatekeepers, a bunch of dudes sitting around in their dorms”
To mark the 25th anniversary of ‘Exile In Guyville’ Liz Phair began touring again in 2018, taking Soccer Mommy and Speedy Ortiz out with her. She was reinvigorated by the combination of hitting the road with these bands and digging through her earliest releases for a reissue with her original label Matador. Soon she’d reunited with Brad Wood, who produced her first three albums. The result, ‘Soberish’, is easily up there with her greatest work.
Lead single ‘Spanish Doors’ opens the album. It’s a guitar-driven stomper, with three competing vocal hooks vying for brain space in the moments after learning something life-changing, and trying to hold it together. As two frantic inner monologues turn to denial and gloom respectively, a chipper voice drowns them out: “Don’t wanna think about it / Don’t wanna talk about it.” The song’s video was edited by her ex-husband Jim Staskauskas – the pair divorced in 2001 – and though the events in the song are based on a friend’s experience, its lyrics chime with Phair, too: ”I’m supposed to look dazzling and be the centre of a show, or a party, or whatever the fuck it is, and my life just… went off the rails.”
Phair finished ‘Soberish’ in lockdown, adding several new songs after Biden was elected as American President. “There’s a lot of Eeyore-ing going on in the first half of the record,” she says, “and it’s partially Trump, and this fucking oppressing feeling we had all the time.”
Completing an album remotely has its unique challenges, especially when you’re spending lockdown with your 20-something son. “My son had to engineer this song where I’m talking about my pussy, which is really awkward,’ she deadpans. “You can hear at the end of ‘Bad Kitty’, there’s a thing that sounds like a dog barking, but it’s actually me going, ‘Nick!’ I’m trying to whisper it loudly. I wanted him to stop recording”.
These hidden touches pepper ‘Soberish’: though it shares the same experimental spirit as her earliest releases, it also sounds like an album entirely of the present. As with all of the cult artist’s greatest work, it exposes complicated feelings and drags them right to the surface, while surprising at every turn.
“I was seduced back into Liz Phair,” she says. For the first time since ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’, she’s been able to make a record “exactly how I wanted to, without any other pressures or forces.” She adds with a grin: “Full attention. I’m dying on that hill. Whatever that outcome is, I did what I set out to do.”
– ‘Soberish’ is released on June 4 via Chrysalis Records