Liz Phair talks Guyville, sexuality, and creativity with Honest Tune

When Liz Phair exploded onto the alternative music scene in the early nineties, she brought an attitude to the game that had not been seen in the female form since the days of Joan Baez. In contrast to Baez though, her protests had nothing to do with politics.  Rather they were about empowering females through poetically inspired lyricism. Women thought she was sharp and felt enthroned. Guys thought she was hot, but listened carefully to what she was saying.  In reality though she was simply Liz. A creator in many mediums, she has seen and heard criticism from each end of the spectrum. Her debut record, the sexually charged Exile in Guyville, was hailed by critics as an album that would go down in history. In fact it did by being named one of the most important albums of all time by Rolling Stone.


Her self-titled album ten years later was met with radio praise, but many fans felt alienated. In short, she has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet she continues to create and her lyrics sung with the lack of vibrato in her voice continue to resonate just as they always have.


With nearly 20 years and three record labels in her wake, Phair shows no sign of slacking anytime soon. She took a moment while on the road to talk to Honest Tune about it all with a wit, candor, and intellect that lends insight into who she is at her core: a complex, brilliant, and brazenly unapologetic smart woman who is a creative force driven by a sincere desire to share.


Honest Tune: You have had quite a career. It has been filled with indie cred that brought commercial success and commercial success that caused a lapse in indie cred. This brings us to Funstyle, an album. It was obviously an important album for you to release, and one where it seems that you have taken all preconceived notions about music and life even and thrown them out the window…and added a touch of anger. Was that intentional or did it just happen in the writing process?


liz1.jpgLiz Phair: It was totally organic. Like, I wasn’t trying to do anything flagrantly afoul of musical convention. It just happened. I have been scoring television for a couple of years now and that process in the studio involves playing with a lot of sound design and soundscapes and really long hours in the studio. We also have a tight turnaround so we get kind of slaphappy and start cracking each other up just making these things and it inspired me to write the kind of theatrical music pieces that involve a lot of orchestration. Plus what I was pissed about at the time I felt was really ridiculous in the business and I wanted to address it ridiculously.


HT: You are currently on tour. In regards to your live show, what is it like to step onstage to play for fans, such as myself, who have not been without your music since we were teenagers? Also, do you feel a responsibility to span your catalogue?


LP: Definitely. I definitely feel that people like you and who have been fans for a really long time are the people that I am playing for. That is who I get the energy back from. They are who I am having a love connection with when I am on stage. It is really fun to be able to play stuff from all of these years. It is so fun to be able to have as many records under my belt as I do. It seems like every song that we play, people know and are excited to hear it. It is very gratifying to have people who have held on.


HT: Speaking of teenagers, you have one. Does the thought ever cross your mind that other people’s teenage boys were listening to you sing songs like “Fuck and Run” and “Flower?”


LP: (Laughs) Well, I have never been as up tight about sexuality as maybe other people are. I mean there is no doubt that having a teenager moving into his sexual years is disconcerting as a parent. There is no question that it is uncomfortable every once in awhile. No parent wants to think about that. (Laughs)


HT:  Your early style has been written about as being important for female confidence building. However, I have always listened to your music through a male’s ears and identified with it, not because I think I am some overly sensitive guy, but because it is easy to identify with. I see it as almost gender neutral. Why do you think that your music has been able to bridge a gender gap while being steeped in such stereotypically gender geared themes? For example I can sing “I want a boyfriend” in the most heterosexual tone and have absolutely no qualms about it.


liz3.jpgLP: (Laughs) I think that I have always had that issue myself. I mean, I grew up and I never felt comfortable with the prescribed societal roles that were given to gender. I just didn’t feel that that should be so arbitrarily divided the way that it is. Certainly having a boy- when I gave birth to my son, watching him grow up and seeing that he really had just a bunch of boy in him and that there are gender differences was a good awakening for me because I was like alright, there are some things that just really are different.

But I have always had a big chip on my shoulder whenever I read articles, sometimes I get really incensed when they say things like women have no sex-drive or that women don’t think about sex or [in a mocking authoritarian voice] “men think about sex every 16 seconds” and blah blah blah blah. I can tell you what happened. Girls were like boy-crazy up until boys starting going after them. You know what I mean? So they had like possibly early traumatic experiences. Girls could think of nothing else.  Girls would get together and just be like “yada yada yada…this is what you do to him and this is how you do it if you do it.” It was something that I felt like was shut down in girls and women that I refused to let be shut down so I fought for it. I had lots of issues growing up myself. I felt constantly like boys were coming after me. You know there was some traumatic stuff growing up. I wouldn’t say that any of it was assaultive but I always felt like I was a target, so I fought for the right to be a sex subject rather than a sex object. Does that make sense?


HT: Definitely and it is a very eloquent way of putting it.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but in different people’s eyes, you have been and I am sure you remain to be a lot of things…indie queen, blowjob queen, and the queen of sell-outs. How do these stereotypical labels affect you? Are you proud of any of them or particularly discounting of any of them?


liz4.jpgLP: That is a very good question that I am not really sure how to answer. It would take me a minute to really think about it, but I am glad to be relevant either way. That is better than being ignored or forgotten. I mean, my love has always been making music and creating. It is what I am passionate about. It is what I live my life doing.  Sometimes I do get frustrated (when) people spend more time maybe making me a symbol of something than they do paying attention to the fact of what I think I am best at which is generating creativity. And (being creative) is going to take many forms and it should take many forms if you’re really exploring, changing, and growing. You know, when Guyville  first came out, everyone just thought that I was this ingénue who was kind of reading from her diary and it was way more. I was sophisticated. I was creating a particular work which had a lot of true personal experiences in it but I knew I was storytelling. I think that rather than (people saying) “oh, she represents this” or “oh, she represents that,” I wish people just valued me for continuing to create and put stuff out there that were struggles for me and I am sharing with whoever wants to listen. I think that the world could use more people doing that. In short, I feel like I am the queen of less repression, more expression.


HT: Do you ever see Exile in Guyville as a nuisance? 

LP: No! (Laughs) I mean there was a point in which it felt like the fans that were angry at me had sort of taken it hostage and it was their record and they were using it against me. That didn’t feel very good. But once I did the rerelease and did the documentary for it and I went back and spoke to every single person that had been involved with or influential to me when I was making it, I realized that we all had strong issues about it and it was something that happened to all of us. It really gave me my record back. I really felt a huge amount of healing and closure. Now it is more like a wound that has healed.


liz2.jpgHT: So many artists who you came up with in the 120 Minutes days and even those that arose out of Chicago have all but fallen by the wayside. You have not. What do you attribute that to?


LP: I have a shallow answer for you.


HT: I’d love to hear it.


LP: General sobriety. (Laughs) A decent work ethic. I used to joke back in the day, and there is some truth to it, that if you are going to get wasted all the time and stay like that, you aren’t going to be able to function although Keith Richards would cause one to want to rescind that theory.


HT: He’s an anomaly.


LP: Yeah, he may just be an anomaly.


HT: You are a guitar player, vocalist, and songwriter. I spoke with Grace Potter about this several months ago and she had kind of brought this to mind in that she feels that her songwriting comes first. Where do you see yourself if you were to rank yourself, if you will, on those three categories from your strongest suit to weakest, where would they fall and why? 


LP: All of the above is where I see my identity. I think I invest my identity in it all almost like there is a core central soul and then there are spokes in the wheel. I am heavily invested in a lot of different creative outlets and that may be somewhat unique to me because I reject the notion that I pour all of my stuff into one or two areas. I like to live in a way that allows me to be creative and invested with my identity in multiple ways.  So I see myself first and foremost as a creator and then like singer, songwriter, guitar player is secondary to creating things.


HT: You are now on your third label. If you could say that you have learned one thing throughout it all, what would it be and how does it show up on Funstyle?


LP: (Laughs heartily) That art and commerce rarely mix. The demands of art and commerce are diametrically opposed.


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Honest Tune was also on the scene for a recent Liz Phair show in Atlanta. click here to see how that caper came down.