In Conversation: Liz Phair on the Long Journey From “Guyville” to “Soberish”
The songwriter discusses the importance of sharing women’s stories and how her first album in over a decade grew from the soil of her 1993 debut.
In 2010, Liz Phair surprise-uploaded a new album, Funstyle, to her website: eleven eclectic tracks spanning from confessional guitar tunes to songs on which Phair rapped (yes) to irreverent skits taking clear aim at the corporate music industry powers that be. It was the kind of unapologetic and experimental move Phair has always made, critical ire be damned. She shared with it a note to fans: “You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal, and a lot of nights of sleep… Love them, or hate them, but don’t mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens.”
And then, she stopped. Well, not stop stopped—she still toured and composed music for television, but aside from a few singles, Phair stopped releasing new music for a decade. Her impulse to write songs had waned: “I’d gotten adrift from my artist self. I’d become my mom self, or my middle-aged-person self,” she explains. Over the years, she was in and out of the studio, but never found the inspiration she was looking for.
Until 2018, when Matador Records put at out an expansive reissue of Phair’s landmark debut album, Exile in Guyville, to commemorate its 25th anniversary—perfectly timed for a reevaluation in a post-#MeToo cultural climate. Phair’s searing, all-too-relevant songs about female rage, sexuality, and vulnerability were cast in a brand new light; so, too, were the ways in which the historically male echo chamber of rock had put her on a pedestal as their indie “blowjob queen” only to knock her down when she chose not to play by their rules. People were ready for the return of Liz Phair. And after spending so much time immersed in her past, Liz Phair was ready for her return, too.
Soberish, out June 4, marks not only the return of Phair, but a return to form of sorts, made in collaboration with producer Brad Wood, who also worked on Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart, and whitechocolatespacegg. The result is an album at once fresh and familiar, in conversation with all the parts of Phair’s past discography, both sonically—with her signature, off-kilter guitar chords—and lyrically—with frank, razor-sharp narrative storytelling. At 54, Phair still has the same fierce wit, candor, and independence with which she made a name for herself, but she’s grown more comfortable sharing the softer, more vulnerable and world-weary parts of herself—and is still just as radical.
We caught up with Phair to discuss her long career, the importance of sharing women’s stories, and how Soberish grew from the soil of Exile in Guyville.
The past couple of years you’ve been on this huge roll. There was Guyville’s 25th anniversary and the Girly-Sound Tapes reissue, your 2019 memoir Horror Stories, and then the album was supposed to come out. What was it like to hit pause?
And then nothing! And then dot, dot, dot. It felt exactly like that, and it pisses me off that I’m thrown into a cycle of doubting myself again, coming out of this and trying to be a person. Losing the tour was horrible, losing that momentum was horrible. Losing self-confidence because all the means to connect right now are things that I didn’t do a lot of before the pandemic, and that felt like sort of the playground of younger people that were more comfortable with it. I don’t know if that’s true. For me, it was humbling. I was like, “Are you serious? All the things I’m great at don’t count right now. OK.”
Are you impatient to get out there and start touring again once that’s possible?
It’s funny, when I think about our marketing for Soberish, and especially “Spanish Doors,” and I was writing those quotes about how I view it and how I started with “It’s the fracturing of a beautiful life when everything you counted on feels like it’s been thrown up for grabs.” That’s exactly what that song is about, but that could totally speak to this year. Everything is fractured inside of me. Like, one part of me cannot wait to get on the stage with Garbage and Alanis—I feel safe going into those outdoor arenas and I feel safe about the crew. But traveling to get there and backstage and the inevitable bumping of shoulders? How are we supposed to navigate that?
You once described your approach to making music as making historical documents. That’s a way to unlock a new layer of cultural context around your music from the past, but what do you think your songs on Soberish say about living through the past few years?
“I really believe that your writing and my writing and women’s lives, whatever choices they’re making—just the freedom to make different choices as women—is a mark in our history of how far women’s rights have come. It always seemed to me that different people define freedom and power in different ways, but you cannot deny experiences.”
I think that is probably the most defining aspect of my work, internally. I really believe that your writing and my writing and women’s lives, whatever choices they’re making—just the freedom to make different choices as women—is a mark in our history of how far women’s rights have come. It always seemed to me that different people define freedom and power in different ways, but you cannot deny experiences. The lives that we’re leading are historic and unprecedented, and who knows who’s going to be emblematic of this time and this stage to people 200 years from now looking back.
I think that’s something I don’t say enough about when I say I love seeing all the young women who have become artists who seem less crafted by a label and less pressured by the guy-rock establishment. They’re just kind of free beings bringing their dreams forward in their art, in both the visual expression and the musical expression. They feel like authentically grown female artists, and the reason I get so like, “Oh my god! Look at that!” is because I’m looking at it from that historical point of view.
Could you have ever foreseen, when you were starting out, that it would come to this?
No, no, no, no. I did not think that this would happen. I attribute it to technological changes. Bringing the studio recording equipment into the home with GarageBand, and then having the internet as your distribution channels, it’s almost like the middlemen were eliminated and that had such a deleterious effect on the music business as it was. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but that enabled everybody and, therefore, women—or even girls—to get in the game and to have authority without needing to go through a guy. I’ve been shocked as hell, and I think we have the internet age to thank.
My son has an interesting take on it. He thinks that historically we will look back at this period, and all the spear-rattling and shield-flashing that we experience in authority figures right now, as the slow death rattle of the middleman. They have so much power in so many industries to define how society operates and the new technology is getting rid of their jobs, almost.
Funstyle was really prescient in that middle finger to the middleman sense. I think if it came out today, it would be so much better received because it matches the current energy and sense of humor of the internet now, shitposting and saying fuck the establishment.
And meme culture! Some of those songs have a little edge of that, too. I mean, I’ve never had good timing [laughs]. I don’t time out right with the world. I got shit for it a lot. I can’t help what I see. I’m proud of something in myself as an artist in that I trust my visions. If I see something, and I can really see it, I want to create it. And I did see that coming. I did! I don’t know why people get so upset with me.
It always struck me as a sort of double standard. How many other dudes get to make something that’s a joke? And they get away with it. Nothing is ever called a comeback album for a guy.
That’s it! God, you’re right. That pisses me off. There’s a public shaming of women that I think we enjoy engaging in and it’s easier to do than to shame a man. These guys get away with murder. Literal murder. They get away with huge corruption. And it’s sort of like, “You might lose those second, third houses.” They’re indestructible.
“I’ve never had good timing. I don’t time out right with the world. I got shit for it a lot. I can’t help what I see. I’m proud of something in myself as an artist in that I trust my visions. If I see something, and I can really see it, I want to create it.”
Soberish sounds perfectly timed, though, like an amalgamation of all of your albums from the past to create something new. What was your and Brad’s approach to shaping its sound?
I felt when people asked for another Guyville…first of all, I can’t be 23 again. I knew different things then, and I knew less about certain things then, and I cannot squeeze my enormous foot into that tiny shoe anymore. The older you get, the more complicated it becomes, and I enjoy that. I enjoy complexity now. I’m bored by simplicity, but I love simplicity arrived at after traveling through complexity. And so, with Soberish, making the music, I felt we needed to not just use sounds from the past, but to stand ourselves on that footing again that Guyville had where people were like, “What’s that?”
Brad and I had never worked together before, so there was a “What have we done? Look what we’ve made. We’re both surprised.” So how do we do that 30 years later? How do we invent something and stand on a somewhat surprised footing, sort of forward-looking, like something new has come together, and still have the comfort, the familiarity, the old-friendness? Like, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water; let’s lean into the sounds that were on Guyville. So there was all that kind of sweetness. We both wanted to pay homage to our past work and yet be in that surprised space of the fresh and the new, even for us.
You had said that the Girly-Sound Tapes reissue had served as a big inspiration to get back to that core of being surprised with what you made. Do you think if you hadn’t been working on this material—
No, I don’t think I would’ve worked with Brad again. I don’t think I would’ve made Soberish. I don’t think Soberish would have sounded the way it does. It was a very fortunate thing for me to finally not put to bed the Guyville period, but correctly frame it. Every time along the way, it felt like what people were saying about Guyville was all true and there were all different takes on it. I didn’t disagree with any of them particularly, but the definitive word had not been put in. This felt like if I never said another thing about Guyville, you’d have all the information you needed.
It’s like you’ve reclaimed the narrative of Guyville and we can move on from the constant questions around it so you can make something new without people still making comparisons.
Yeah. Instead of making something that is separate from Guyville, it’s almost like Soberish grew out of the final healing. Guyville was like the soil bed for this record to emerge, in a way. Before, it would always be like, “How close or far is it from Guyville and is Guyville in opposition to this message?” This time it grew out of it, and Guyville’s back in our corner as part of our asset pile. It can be moved on from without being abandoned. It can be part of it.
“With Soberish, making the music, I felt we needed to not just use sounds from the past, but to stand ourselves on that footing again that Guyville had where people were like, ‘What’s that?’”
I never understood framing them in opposition to each other. I think they’re all in conversation, and Soberish seems like another entry in a dialogue.
That’s exactly how I see it, and you wouldn’t be able to understand that, because it wasn’t so much about me and it wasn’t so much about Guyville. It was really about cultural movements outside of both of those things that I became emblematic of, and a symbol to be talking about larger topics that were going on between major labels and indie labels and authenticity versus constructed rock of the ‘80s. There’s always been the tension between people who want to sell records at the maximum end of the spectrum and want to control output.
I watched American Idol and I thought, “Where’s the outrage about that?” All you’re doing is creating a funnel for record companies to just put out already-known products that will predictably sell. Where is the danger and the risk in that? I got chills, too, when I would listen to a performance that was just unexpected and beautiful, because it spoke to an entire life lived invisibly, but with dreams that aspired to captivate us all. The system of that was what, in the ‘90s, everyone was upset about. And then the aughts brought that constructed, works-really-well-for-the-system kind of band. That’s the tension with [Liz Phair], that’s why it was such a betrayal when I went pop and I went to go hand-in-hand with “the system.” Which wasn’t really what was happening at all, but that’s what it looks like.
On that album, and throughout all your work, you’re so outspoken and frank in your lyrics. Not only in the fuck-you bravado and the “nice girl says naughty things” trope, which is powerful, but with intimacy and vulnerability, too. I see that a lot more on this album. Having grown to this point, do you feel like that’s the direction you’re moving in?
I think I prefaced Horror Stories with this conversation I had with one of my managers who said when Prince died, “If you die tomorrow, are you making the music you’d want to leave behind?” And I was making music and art as if I had a ton of chances left. And with that conversation, it really galvanized my sense that everything I want to do from now on—it’s why I fight so hard and I’m on the phone all day long with people on what we’re putting out and trying to make it stuff that I would be proud of or that I feel has some kind of meaning to it.
I think a lot of writers kind of grapple with the line of what’s game and what isn’t. What parts of Liz Phair are just for you and not material for your songs?
“It wasn’t so much about me and it wasn’t so much about Guyville. It was really about cultural movements outside of both of those things that I became emblematic of, and a symbol to be talking about larger topics that were going on between major labels and indie labels and authenticity versus constructed rock of the ‘80s.”
There definitely is a line, but I don’t know that it’s a straight line. It’s an instinct. It’s knowing that I’ve been in the public eye talking about myself and making art that exposes me for a long, long time, although 2020 chewed up a lot of that distance. People are much closer to seeing me me, because we’re getting exposed for where we live and how we live. I wasn’t prepared for that. Like, when people come in my house, they’re always surprised, ‘cause other than the guitars lying around, there’s not much evidence of my career because my home life is my home life.
I’ve always had a strong sense, I think because of my parents and the way they raised me, that at a basic level, what you do isn’t you. And I’ve always felt like there was a me that was just for me and experiences that were just for me. That’s why I fictionalized some of that. All my songs are based on truth, but I fictionalize them. I give them that cloaking so that my private life can stay my private life. It seems like I’m calling out people, but I don’t think any of my ex-boyfriends normally would even know which song was about them, per se. If I just chronologically said what had happened, you as a reader wouldn’t feel it. I have to put it into a package that will make you feel it so that I can Trojan-horse deliver the kernel of universal truth.
It gives it a universal element where it feels like it’s not just the artist’s story, but it’s something that you can latch onto as the audience and be like, “Oh, I know this. This has happened to me.”
That comes from thousands of years of storytelling. The precepts aren’t new. I’m working in a medium where I know and am highly aware of how narrative is built and how it resonates through people. So I love that. I’m part of that tradition. And I take that very seriously in my art, and it’s not just confessional. FL