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Exile in Guyville: The Oral History

Cute is what she was aiming for.
Robert Mansella

One late April afternoon, I spend three and a half hours with Liz Phair. I request that we listen to her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, together. She, in turn, asks that I keep my tape recorder on.

Liz talks about writing—and rewriting—her most famous album. She tells me about her son, things he's afraid of. She tells me a couple things off the record. And, at one point, back in her hotel room, we scream at each other—well, both our voices are raised. This follows a question I had to ask: When the 15th-anniversary reissue of Guyville (out this month) was first announced in early April, Liz did an interview with Billboard: "I can honestly say," she said, "for the first time in 15 years, I feel creative."

Now, I do not tell Phair that it's near-impossible to overstate Exile's importance as an astonishingly honest, influential, genre-busting exercise in gender-role investigation. Nor do I suggest that her output since then, particularly her last two underwhelming grabs at commercial success, damages Exile's legacy.

But she probably gets the gist of my feelings, because once I ask the question about her return to creativity (despite her hailing each interim release as some seemingly new awakening), both of our voices rise in volume. Our words become harder-edged. So, Liz Phair's kind of screaming at me. But she then changes course, adopting a tone of voice that probably was not in her arsenal until she became a mother: a sort of "Now, you are going to eat your peas, aren't you?" approach. I also take a different tact, speaking very, very quietly, as though I am a flight attendant attempting to keep an unruly passenger calm until the plane lands so the authorities can deal with her. Which, admittedly, is not a good thing.

Somehow, we regroup. The mood lightens. She gets ready for dinner out with friends, and I walk her down the stairs because the elevator in this hotel is being repaired. On the street, just before she jumps in a cab, we hug good-bye.

Here are some of the things she said in our time together:

* * *

"I've been on a major label, and as much as people think, 'Oh, that doesn't make a difference,' it makes a huge difference. I haven't been able to be the orchestrator of my own career for a while."

"A lot of Guyville is about venting anger—or frustration with men in general."

"That record could not have been more about the fact that, at that time, I wasn't in control of my own sexuality as much as I was using it. And it was kind of using me, too."

"I feel like I participated in what the truth [is] for young women in their sexuality with that record. Is that going to hold true later? I don't know. But I participated in the grand bubble of: 'What is the truth for young women and their sexuality?' I think that's why women responded to it, because they said: 'Yeah, that is true for me, but I would never say it.' "

"But you're wrong. Because I was . . . does that come across as aggressive? Let me try it again. Well, actually . . . [laughs]."

"You're totally wrong—100 percent. And I have to tell you, you're wrong about that other thing, too, but we'll get back to that."

"I knew pretty much that we were supposed to look critically at society, and look at the way gender roles played out in our society. So there was definitely an element, when I made Guyville, that I was aware that I was going to appropriate 'guy rock,' to turn it on its head a little bit. But the songs came from an emotional place."

" 'Guyville' was a specific scene in Chicago—predominately male, indie-rock—and they had their little establishment of, like, who was cool, who was in it, who played in what band. Each one wore their record collection, so to speak, like a badge of honor. Like, 'This is my identity, this is what I'm into, and I know a lot about it.' "

"It was just like: 'Really? OK, so you guys are into music. Watch—I can make music.' "

"I can just remember, for such a loud record in terms of personal expression, I had come from a very quiet time of, like, listening a lot. Which is not such a bad thing. You learn a lot when you listen, but you also can get really tired and frustrated of it."

"There isn't one synopsis that will cover the record in terms of: 'Was it made in reaction to the scene? Was it made as a feminist statement? Was it made as a love record, to try to talk to someone that I wanted to pay attention to me?' It was all of those things. Like: 'Is it true?' Yes. 'Did I make shit up?' Yes. You know what I mean? The problem is, in the years and years of talking about this, that what's true is a multiple thing. There are many things going on in it, because it was organic. It was born of a number of things, and it expresses a number of things. Not every song is pissed off, and not every song is sexual, and not every song is . . . even a rock song."

 

"Like Julia Roberts—she just needs to do romantic comedies. Now that probably upsets her, you know? [Laughs] She probably feels that there are more dimensions to her. But maybe I'm stuck being, in terms of a public person, best as this weird, laser-focused, pissed-off persona. I can accept that."

"I just think it sounds so fucking cute. Listen to how cute that is."

"I'm sorry—when I say, 'You're wrong,' it's because I think we're, like, in a fun debate."

"This song ['Canary'] is a perfect example. This isn't talking about a guy; it's talking about me and my home life with my family, having this stressful relationship with this quasi-abusive brother, and trying to be a good little girl for everyone while all this shit was going on inside me. And I had these contrary feelings and inappropriate thoughts, and my piano was where I would go. I was allowed to practice piano, so instead of practicing, I was making up these subversive songs. This is probably fucking the oldest one on Guyville, now that we come to it, because I can see myself in my parents' house, and what I'm saying is: 'Send it up on fire in the music, up to the heavens. I will be deaf and stop listening to you all before I will shut up. Deaf before dawn.' "

"There is a line in there about sex, like: 'I come when you circle the cherry/I sing like a good canary'— but that's acknowledging that even later. I think that would've been a line added later . . . rewritten, in a sense, to describe . . . I'm still there. I'm still stuck in a context where I have no voice, but I'm inside here somewhere."

"OK, now listen. This probably sounds hollow coming from people who get written about, but it's true: You cannot look at an interview, or pages on . . . a piece of paper, an interview, and freak out about it. Like, you can't look at what a politician says in one context and freak out about it. We love to do that. We love to be like: 'Oh, my God. So everything that you've done now has not been creative . . .' "

"I mean, I'm not going to get upset about it, but I think that you're being a little overreactive about it."

"Just a second. The tone in this room has gone antagonistic."

"Rod Stewart—I mean, he used to make, like, brilliant music, right? And then he kind of went the whole celebrity route, and he stopped making brilliant music. But I wasn't mad at him. [Laughs] I didn't go, like: 'You fuckhead! You fuckwit!' Like, I don't get that. Like, I don't get people . . . Like, I just stopped buying records, which to me is the appropriate response."

"You've asked me to accept responsibility for one dumb line in a Billboard interview. It's a fucking interview in a magazine."

"Get mad at the record. Throw it across the room. Get really angry at it. Step on it. Burn it. You can do whatever you want. But, like, it is unhealthy for someone to assume that they know someone, or have any . . . when they don't know me. That's just inappropriate."

"Honestly, my boyfriend said something like this to me at Valentine's Day. He's like: 'You can't say what you say in interviews. You have to say this, that, and the other thing, because it's coming across really badly.' Something about Guyville—I can't remember what it was. See, I didn't even really take it in. I was just so affronted that it was Valentine's Day, and he was taking that moment to critique my interviewing. But I can promise you: I will never learn this lesson. I will stick my foot in my mouth until I die. That's just who I'm going to be."

"Do you think that the person who would know what to tell you in an interview could write Exile in Guyville? Do you think the person who would know how to send a polished image out into the world would fucking write that thing?"

"I'm a messy, crazy, do-what-I- fucking-want pain in the ass. And, like, I will be forever. And hopefully, one of these days, I'll do something that people are grateful for again. But, like, I cannot be two things—I cannot be this polished person that does what's right and does what I'm supposed to that'll make everyone feel good, and do the work that says 'Fuck you!' with the double guns."

 

"See, a polished persona would not let you take a picture of her in a bathrobe, but I'm willing."

"Look out, I'm perfuming, so stand back."

"They want me to do a whole top-to-bottom Exile show. Like, play the whole record. That's, like, a record-label thought that they had."

"We've got to go. Come on. Take a picture of us in the bathroom."

Liz Phair performs songs from Exile in Guyville June 25 and 26 at Hiro Ballroom (hiroballroom.com)


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