Twenty-five years after Liz Phair released her debut LP Exile in Guyville, the world of music has almost caught up.
“My job is to be the person I was at 25, at 50,” Liz Phair tells The Adelaide Review. “Which is weird.”
She’s reflecting on a split in her persona that sees her regularly channel the Liz Phair of 1993 on stage, in print, and she admits, in interviews. But the young artist who released an incendiary string of songs and became a feminist hero of 90s alternative rock has increasingly diverged from the woman she is now.
“It’s really weird and I think about it a lot right now, it feels very marked to me. Over time they’ve gotten farther apart, those two sides of my character. ‘Liz’ is talking to you right now, she’s raw and she gets things done, she’s very decisive and not that emotional. She’s fun, she laughs, and Elizabeth is much shier and much more vulnerable and uncertain.”
Perhaps it’s because ‘Liz’ was born of necessity, emerging as Phair moved from a fine art background to become part of Chicago’s male-dominated alternative music scene. “My whole live performance thing, I had to take a pretty steep learning curve because it’s so different from project-making – that’s entirely different skill. It’s something I honed over 25 years because it didn’t come naturally to me.
“When I was out in Wicker Park in Chicago, an indie scene, I had been in the New York scene, the San Francisco scene, but Chicago was particularly male-dominated, which struck me as unusual.
“Even though it was an alternative scene, and supposedly progressive – and politically yes it was – it still felt like a 1950s model community. And we joked about it, ‘Guyville’ was a funny name that ‘Blackie’ Onassis from Urge Overkill came up with. To describe how enthusiastically they adopted this traditionally masculine archetype while promoting themselves as rebels, or non-mainstream, but it really felt pretty conventional.”
It’s a period Phair has been looking back at with increasing regularity as she completes her first book, Horror Stories. “Horror Stories is my memoir, different points in my life and career and it’s almost like highlighting singular moments that were very impactful – or horrifying. But unpacking them in a way that’s very universal and sort of speaks to humanity and what makes us who we are. And what effects the small things in life have on our personalities or character.
“I have plans for a second book called Fairy Tales that’s more about the glory days and my career, things that I’ve done that are excited that maybe are unexpectedly traumatic underneath. I like to play with contrasts – although Horror Stories is about genuinely horrifying, or even humourously horrifying moments, for instance, when I lost track of the song playing while on live television, and I just stared into space on camera. That’s a funny story, but it was traumatic!” she laughs.
Some of those horror stories are already coming into focus. Soon after our interview, a New York Times investigation published a range of allegations against Ryan Adams from former partners and collaborators – all women. The alternative country star briefly worked on an album with Phair, which was never released, an episode Phair has since suggested may appear in future writings.
But while Elizabeth herself has grown away from Liz Phair, she now encounters a generation of young songwriters inspired by her work, from its lo-fi immediacy to its lyrical themes. American groups like Snail Mail, and even Australian bands such as Courtney Barnett and Camp Cope share common DNA with the sound of Guyville. “I think it’s very exciting and it’s reinvigorated my enthusiasm for my career. They’re speaking a language that was always my native tongue, and there weren’t that many people who could speak it. And nowadays it feels like the music scene I’ve always dreamed of.
“To get up onstage with an electric guitar is a very defiant move – for anyone,” she says. “For any human being to stand in front of other people and sing their original songs, especially in the rock format, it’s an aggressive move. But I think a lot of young women are frustrated and have anger, and I think there’s something iconic still even for a younger generation about that ‘rock star’, that feeling. There’s a spiritual expression.
“And so much about what troubles women is about repression, I think it makes sense that we’re reaching a boiling point, and that would be a natural, easy thing to do: pick up a guitar, get on stage you’re on a soapbox, and you’re encouraged to express your emotions and inappropriate thoughts. That’s part of the appeal. It’s accessible, and it fits what is simmering below the emotional life of most women.”
Perhaps that’s another reason why the Liz Phair of 1993 has never gone away.
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11