Liz Phair on going back to ‘Guyville’ and playing hurt at Turner Hall
When Liz Phair unleashed Exile in Guyville, it almost defied comparison. There just wasn’t much — or anything — like it at the time. It was straightforward in its sound and its message. Both aspects sent ripples up and down your spine. Add the fact that the album was Phair’s debut, and it solidifies why it’s still viewed as such a remarkable piece of art three decades after its release.
The state of the world has something to do with that as well. Phair said as much when she sat down with 88Nine’s Dori Zori ahead of her tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of Guyville that visits Chicago this Saturday and Madison on Dec. 8.
“It’s such an interesting contrast to think about when I first made the record and the way it struck people then,” she said. “It’s endured, actually, over time. In fact, after the ‘Me Too’ movement, it became even more relevant again in a way. You can say whatever you want to about that, being that it’s still pertinent.
“I guess there’s something kind of beautiful about that in that one young woman’s experience trying to go up against the male establishment still gives courage and still gives meaning to people in 2023.”
Her response was the start of — as Phair put it at the end of the conversation — a “fabulous interview” that explored quite a few side roads just off memory lane: retreating to Chicago post-college, the Barbie orgy that could’ve been Guyville’s cover and the medical assistance required for a flu-ridden Phair to power through a Turner Hall show.
You can listen to the full interview using the player at the top of the page, find a few highlights below and visit Matador Records’ website to pick up the 30th anniversary edition of Exile in Guyville.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On her journey from college to San Francisco and back home to Chicago:
I didn’t want to get a real job, so I burned through my savings and had a great old time, but then had to come home when I ran out of money and failed to learn the life lessons. I was pretty much feeling like a failure, actually. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I knew that was going to be hard, but I kind of had to invent myself.
I think a lot of people relate to the record because it speaks to that time in a lot of our lives — that weird moment between childhood and adulthood where you get to decide for yourself who you’re going to be. I think it’s kind of emblematic of that in my journey.
On the first challenges she took on as an artist:
I really had separated myself from the world of my upbringing. I was really by myself, reinventing myself, totalling living hand to mouth. I was practically a grifter, actually, in retrospect.
It’s that commitment that artists have to make at some point. You have to just say, “I’m going to do this.” And no one’s going to say, “Oh, please, become an artist! Yay! Wonderful!” No one’s going to say that. The competition’s going to be stiff. There’s no one path. There’s no security. And so that was my moment to just really grab my dream by both hands and hang on.
On overcoming illness (with some help) at Turner Hall:
My dad was a doctor. I called him and was like, “Dad, I’m incredibly sick, but I gotta play this show. I want to kill it. What do I do?” He’s like … You know the show Mad Men? He’s that version, doctor-wise, in a way. Not the awful traits, but he was sort of like, “Yeah, OK, here. Take some steroids.”
Well the dose he told me to take was waaaay too much. So I was, like, tripping on that stage. And it tilts because it’s an old vaudeville stage. So it’s actually on an incline. I am always sober when I perform. That’s the only show where I was, like, “Whoa.” And it was an overwhelmingly cool crowd. It felt to me, too, like I was at another level. It’s one of my best memories from that tour.