To say that Grammy nominee Liz Phair’s debut album Exile in Guyville was a cultural disruptor upon its 1993 release would be a grand understatement. The iconic indie singer-songwriter’s fearless, sexually explicit lyrics raised eyebrows and hackles and inspired countless thinkpieces long before the arrival of, say, “WAP” or Lana Del Rey. Phair, who was 25 when Exile came out, wasn’t fully prepared for this polarized reaction — especially when it came to “Flower.” She thought of that vignette as “nothing” at the time — it was, in fact, buried as track 14 in Exile’s double-album sequence — but now she jokes, “I am going to have to wear this for the rest of my life!”
“I thought of [“Flower”] as like a rap, like an explicit rap or a spoken-word piece,” Phair, 54, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, as she prepares to release Soberish, her much-anticipated and already critically heralded first album of original material in 11 years. “I feel very free when I’m making art. I don’t think about the implications of what’s going to happen to me when I’m making it. I think that allows me to have a career, because I have this blind spot for connecting the consequences to my actions, if you will. I think a lot of rebellious people can relate to that. … But then I think I was spending the night at my parents’ and [Exile in Guyville] was about to come out a week later, and I suddenly felt, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ … Cold sweats, like, ‘Can I go to the pressing plant and stop this? Can I call this off?’ But it was too late. And that just keeps following me, till in the end when I’m gone.”
“Flower” was, in Phair’s words, “just wall-to-wall X-rated thoughts, kind of one off to the other, making fun of that rock ‘n’ roll swagger. And so many male bands do that.” But she now realizes why the track generated so much controversy, and she now has zero regrets, explaining: “By putting it in a tiny little-girl voice, I did think of as political at the time, because at Oberlin [College] I learned that the young female voice carries the least amount of authority in society. It’s like the least listened-to voice. And so I thought, ‘If I sing these really raunchy lyrics in this tiny, little, sped-up girl voice, is anyone going to catch it? What is that going to do? What does that juxtaposition do in society?’ And I would like to leave that [legacy] behind. I would like to say that a woman has many facets. She has her intellectual side. She has her introverted side. She has her shy side. And she has her sexual side.”
Now, nearly three decades after Phair made history with Guyville, she is exploring all of those sides on Soberish. Her seventh album reunites her with producer Brad Wood (after an attempt to record with the since-disgraced Ryan Adams didn’t work out, which ended up being for the best), and it is another gamechanger. A reflection on missed connections, modern love, and middle-age, Soberish finds Phair sounding as whip-smart, uncompromising, and relevant as ever. But she is likely to once again be slut-shamed, or mom-shamed, because long after “Flower,” Phair caught flak for other sexually frank songs like 2003’s “H.W.C.,” which was released after she’d given birth to her son.
As for the notion that boldly sexual material is “inappropriate” for a mother, or for fiftysomething women in gwneral, Phair sighs, “That’s illogical. Let’s just start there. I would argue that what I do, because it’s art, is provocative. And art sometimes has to punch a wall — a hole in the wall before a door can be made, if you will. So I definitely felt like [“H.W.C.”] was a punch. But also, I didn’t like the way that people framed you, once you’d had a kid, to be this Madonna person — like you had to sacrifice an entire side of yourself. I didn’t see how that served any good purpose whatsoever, and I saw how it caused a lot of heartache and disconnection in people.
“So here I am, putting out a record at my age, and it’s a new record, and I’m asking people to take it as a separate musical offering in and of itself here in 2021. And as my press representative has told me a number of times, ‘That’s a brave thing to do!’” Phair continues with a chuckle. “It’s asking you to listen to a woman’s life again, in an era like when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re still this open? This is still going on? You’re still getting your heart broken?’ But, yes. I’m still in it.”
Below, Phair chats about Soberish and the hiatus that preceded it, her bittersweet experience recording with Adams, rediscovering her voice after taking time away to focus on motherhood… and how she already has a vision for her next album.
Yahoo Entertainment: When a Liz Phair record is coming out, no one is ever exactly sure what it’ll sound like, because you’ve always been such a pop shapeshifter. I understand Soberish was inspired by a lot of ‘80s new wave and art-rock, and I never realized that was an influence on your work.
Liz Phair: Well, that’s something that I’ve never really brought forward in my work. I think when I was in college, a lot of the guys made me feel embarrassed for my taste. My innocence in high school, of just liking what I liked, became deeply “uncool” when I went to Oberlin College and everyone was like super-indie rock and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of what band had broken up and reformed, et cetera. I felt suddenly as if I wanted to be quiet, so that part of my music I never brought forward till now. [Soberish] touches on certain notes from all of my different albums and all of my different periods stylistically. I mean, they’re still pretty sad songs, truthfully, but with just a little bit of the bop of that kind of music that I remember [from the ‘80s]. Those were my first concerts. That was my first time going downtown from the suburbs. This is how old I am: I’d have a Walkman, and I remember the experience of taking music with you, so that you were in your own music bath. I just felt confident and I felt different from everyone else I was seeing [on the street]. So it isn’t just so much that it’s on the nose, like I took this [‘80s] sound or this synth or the sample. It’s more about that feeling of taking a band with you, wherever you went, and curating the soundtrack of your life.
Speaking of nostalgia, this album reunites you with Brad Wood, who of course worked on Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart, as well as parts of your third studio album Whitechocolatespaceegg. What brought this reunion about?
I don’t think we actually thought about working together until I put out, in 2018 through Matador Records, a boxed set reissue of my first album Exile in Guyville, with all of the crazy cassette tapes called Girly Sound that I had recorded in my bedroom, like as a crazy person in my teen years. I would do mashups with classic songs that people knew; I think I had no idea at that point that anyone would ever listen to my music. So I’m putting together this boxed set and revisiting all of that early stuff, and it connected me to that younger self and sort of my essential musical self — and that led me back to Brad. I remembered who “Liz Phair” was. I remembered how to be “Liz Phair,” because I’d embraced this early work.
I like the idea of you relearning how to “Liz Phair.” I know you were working on a record with Ryan Adams, and for a whole bunch of obvious reasons, that didn’t come to fruition. You wrote in your memoir Horror Stories that when he first approached you about working together, you were in this mindset of feeling insecure and feeling like you needed to reclaim your identity. Tell me about that.
I was artistically vacant, in a way. I was working in television at that point; I switched over to television composing to be home and not tour for a while. My son was in high school, and there was something about “momming” — it just takes up a certain amount of space on your hard drive of your brain. So as soon as I was done, I looked at his high school graduation pictures and he looked great, and I had given everything to get over this finish line. Like, I crawled over the last five feet, you know? And I kind of woke up and he was out of house, and I’m like, “What has happened to me?” And it wasn’t easy to get started — not till I started to sort of connect with Ryan, because he was trying to help kickstart my songwriting. And in fact, he did. The difficulties came later, yeah.
Are any of the recordings you did with Ryan going to come out, or did any of them, even like ideas or snippets, make it onto this new album in some way?
A couple. “The Game,” which is the second track on the album, was one that I recorded originally with Ryan — in a studio with Don Was too, which was really exciting. That was a cool session. Don was playing bass, and my God, what a bass player! Oh my God, I had no idea. The privilege and the pleasure of having Don spontaneously play bass on your song, it was a mindblower. I’m sorry that that stuff isn’t going to get used, but at the same time, I have bad feelings about that. I have bad feelings about that session because of what came out about Ryan Adams later. Nothing that bad happened to me with him, but it resonates, and it feels now stuck together with all of that, with what Phoebe Bridgers was talking about and Mandy Moore was talking about. It’s kind of stuck there. So, do I really want to see that [music come out]? I don’t think I do.
Yeah, it seems your instincts about not moving forward with that project were spot-on. But while you say your experience with Ryan was not like the terrible stories out there, I’m sure you had similar experiences with other men in the industry. Even at the top of this interview, you said that before you were even doing music professionally, you were already contending with men who doubted your musical expertise and credibility…
Oh, but that was a driver for me! I felt like I had something to say. I felt like I was as much of a music fan as anyone. And eventually, you start to look around the room and at the people that intimidate you and they’re all guys, they’re all dudes, and something about that feels weird. And you have to make a choice: Are you going to actually put yourself out there and be vulnerable and be judged? Like, the first time I ever heard my voice recorded in a studio and I heard it played back over the big speakers with a bunch of people, listening to that was one of the most embarrassing experiences in my life. … I think I’d never heard [my voice] except for maybe on an answering machine. But it takes a lot of bravery to make music and to make art in general. And usually there’s a catalyst — and for me, it was all these sort of rock-dude gatekeepers. They were my motivation, to prove them wrong.
So obviously Exile in Guyville, the title says a lot right there. That album made such a seismic, indelible impression at the time, and it still does almost 30 years later. You were talking about this idea of what “Liz Phair” is. Because that album made such a mark, did you ever feel beholden to what other people thought you were?
Yeah, people really did want me to make Exile 2. And I understand that desire completely, but I think it would have been very hard and disingenuous of me to go back in and try to fake something. I’m sure it could have been lucrative. I’m sure there would have been plus sides to that. But I love the fact that I’ve got Soberish coming out now. And actually I told Brad. … I know what the next record is, and it’s going to be Stonesy. So I already I came back to the beginning kind of perfectly organically, rather than being told to do it because the critics wanted it or the fans wanted something to sound like that. I’m back there now with the boxed set; I came back to myself, which is kind of beautiful. That’s its own story, I think, in a woman’s life. You come full circle, absolutely.
Can you explain the mythology behind about Exile in Guyville being a response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street?
That is actually true. That is a real-deal thing, all of that association. I did it because I didn’t know how to make an album, and I suddenly had a producer interested, based on these Girly Sound tapes that I’d recorded when I’d come back from the bar a little bit drunk and I’d start playing with my four-track. Maybe I’d write a song about Elvis, maybe I’d write a song about anything, but I didn’t know how to make an album. So I’d asked this “expert” boyfriend. I was moving house and there was a box of cassettes, and I said, “What’s the greatest album of all time? Like, what should I learn from? What’s the template of templates?” And I saw the Rolling Stones on the label. I’m like, “What about this one? Is this a good one?” And he just looked at me and he had this super-sarcastic look in his eye, and he’s just like, “Yeah right, you should do a double-album for your first album.” I could tell he didn’t think I could do it. I could tell he thought it was an outrageous suggestion. And all the feelings I had been having, all the frustration, it just suddenly galvanized in me. I’m like, “OK, I’ll do a double-album! Watch me!”
So what was the process?
What I did was mix the lyrics. You know, Jagger’s lyrics — if he’s talking about a girl, I play the girl. If I’m in his story, if you look at [the Stones’] “Rocks Off” and you look at [Guyville’s] “6’1”,” he meets someone that he’s had a past history with on the street as he’s coming back from a night with some hot dancer. And he’s like, “Ah, there’s the girl that wants to know why I haven’t called her.” And she can tell he’s doing the walk of shame. So I’m on the other side, looking at him, going, “I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave.” I’m looking at him, like we’re not saying this to each other, but that’s what the instant recognition on the street is.
Have you ever spoken to any of the Stones about this?
I only have two encounters to share. Mick [Jagger] I met at Henson [formerly A&M] Studios. They were debuting their new record; I can’t remember which one it was at the time. I met him in the hallway, and I don’t think he’d actually listened to it, and he was very polite, but he gave me this attitude of like, “Yeah, you’re pretty cheeky! Aren’t you using our name to get famous?” He was perfectly pleasant and cute, but that’s the way it had reached him, you know? And then the other thing with the Stones I have is that Keith [Richards’s] book Life, I got to review that for the New York Times, and then some quotes from that review were picked up for the jacket cover. So that was pretty cool.
I recall reading in Horror Stories that you considered doing a similar track-by-track response to the Beatles’ White Album. What came of that?
So, that Ryan [Adams] record that didn’t happen, what we wrote was that. That was going to be the same concept — maybe a little less serious, because there’s like certain parts of [the Beatles’ album] that you just couldn’t touch. I mean, I honestly don’t know what gave me the hubris to touch Exile on Main Street; I guess it was innocence and stupidity! But looking at the White Album, there were songs on there that I just [could not do]. We never finished it. Maybe that’s a good thing.
So now that you went in a different direction for your comeback album, what are the main themes of Soberish?
What Soberish is really about, I think, is the duality of coming back in touch with this younger self. Like when they legalized marijuana, that was the first time I got in touch with too much-ness and not enough-ness. I felt like I had to go through a second puberty because it was illegal before, so I just didn’t do it that often. And then when it was legal, I was like, “Hey, I can do this all the time!” And that didn’t work either. So I became interested in what is the perfect balance between sticking with reality and escaping reality. And then when we went through the whole Trump era, and it expanded the meaning of Soberish; I started looking at all the ways that we dilute ourselves and all the ways that we hide in these mindsets, so that we don’t have to connect with what’s actually happening. And so it became both a discussion of why you do too much but also how much you need it. Because too little also feels like starvation.
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This above interview has been edited for length and clarity and is taken from Liz Phair’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.