“Exile in Guyville” at 20—The first Liz Phair interview

exile-in-guyvilleMany years ago, Hitsville lived in Chicago, where the column “Hitsville” graced the pages of the Chicago Reader, back then a formidable journalistic presence in the city. One night at Lounge Ax, I met a diminutive, talkative woman, who after a lively conversation gave me a blank-label cassette of songs she’d been working on for Matador.
I listened to it, and called her the next day. We had breakfast on on a cold snowy Sunday at the original Wishbone. She was a lot of fun to talk to, even then displaying her highly attuned perception when it came to pop imagery, particularly in the sexual realm. Somewhere I still have the napkin on which she sketched her intent for the cover of the album—the now-iconic “blowjob queen” image—which was going to be a topless photo-booth shot cropped strategically at the nipple.
My column about our conversation, which ran that week, began a highly enjoyable period of Liz Phair mania in Chicago over the next year or so. The best part was the first six months, which culminated in the official release of the tape she had given me, Exile in Guyville.
The column ran Jan. 28, 1993.
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Greetings From Guyville: Liz Phair’s Girl-o-centric Exile

By Bill Wyman

Liz Phair says she decided some years ago that her first record would be a double album; having heard that Exile on Main St. was a fine example of the form, she immersed herself in it. The title of her eventual debut, Exile in Guyville, is a grateful salute. (The rest of the title is a sardonic nod to the Wicker Park band scene dubbed “Guyville” on the last Urge Overkill album.) The 25-year-old Phair, brash as they come, insists that the songs on her record are designed to be read in an intense and exact song-to-song correspondence with the original Exile: Her 18 songs, she says, should be consumed in 5-4-5-4 bursts matching the original work’s four sides. Indeed, mention a song from the Stones’ Exile and Phair will immediately launch into singsong lyrics, rapid-fire analysis, and intermittent bursts of air guitar to illustrate this or that musical point.

While no one knows what Exile on Main St. is really about, I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the addictive, debilitating toxicity of things like sex, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Those are Phair’s subjects as well, but while she acknowledges the dark side of the equation, she runs it all through a giddy, girl-o-centric grinder. Exile in Guyville‘s epic contextualization is leavened by an unshakabe pop-rock sensibility (“You can say I like classic rock”) that ties irresistible melodies and friendly, sometimes anthemic guitar riffs to recurring themes of lovesickness, carnality, emotional laceration, and the inter- and intramural gender wars. Her theses are sweeping and cheerfully kaleidoscopic, from postfeminist mournfulness (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?”) to post-postfeminist horniness (“I want to be your blowjob queen”), from dissections of the male psyche (“I bet you you fall in bed too easily”) to her own (“I get away / Almost every day / With what the girls call murder”).

Phair delivers the musical chops as well. Her remarkably facile voice sounds soft and biting one minute, soaring and regretful a few minutes later; she’s a hormonal rocker on one song, an abstract scatter the next. If she learned one thing from Exile, it’s that a good double album needs to include reach, ambition, surprises, and an overriding sense of a journey under way. Phair recorded Guyville at Idful studios with the help of a couple of local musicians–engineer Casey Rice and former Shrimp Boat drummer Brad Wood. It’s a bit lo-fi, but utterly convincing as it wildly dispenses bits of Big Star pop deliciousness (“Never Said”), effortless tune making (“Help Me, Mary”), irreproachable alternative rock (“6’1″,” “Fuck and Run”), Joni Mitchell-y balladry (“Dance of the Seven Veils,” though Joni Mitchell never used the word “cunt” in a song), occasional nods to guitar dissonance a la Pavement or Sonic Youth (“Johnny Sunshine”), and even Fleetwood Mac-ish atmospherics (“Explain It to Me”).

Chatting with Phair over breakfast provides entertainment on a par with the record, as she blithely makes pronouncements on her education (“Oberlin was a total PC training ground, and I’ve been put through the rigors”), feminism (“I’m perfectly comfortable being a Sassy-style quasi-good-girl slutty type”), sex (“Monogamy is the thing. I’m 25!”), ambition (“I used to call it Double-Album-for-World- Domination-Plot”), even interviews (“I’m not currently dating anyone, and my mother, well, she beat me constantly”). Phair came of age in Winnetka, the adopted daughter of a prominent doctor and an Art Institute docent and educator. She’d been writing songs for a decade when tapes she’d made for friends made their way onto New York college radio and caught the attention of Matador, the respected New York alternative label. Word’s already out on Guyville, which will be released next month, and bigger companies are sniffing around. Phair is smart enough, and a canny enough judge of her own talent, to know that she’s going to have to make some big decisions soon. “I’m completely serious about success, but I also realize the pitfalls of that, you know? But what’s going to happen to me if everyone thinks it’s hot shit? Am I ready for that? Am I prepared to achieve at the level I might have to? ”

Her voice turns mocking: “‘Pride in your work’–that’s bullshit, I’m midwestern.”

Zoo records has already flown her to LA; she’s had other bites as well, for one album, two albums, five albums. It’s a bit stressful. “I’m talking to anyone who wants to talk to me right now,” she says, with uncharacteristic vagueness. “I’m going to make whatever decision makes the most sense…” She stops in exasperation. “My second album’s already written, basically. I’m going to make the fucking product first, and then I’m going to see where it should go. Bottom line.”

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See also: “Liz Phair—The Option Interview”

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