With her seminal 1993 debut ‘Exile in Guyville’, the singer-songwriter dismantled the rock patriarchy and provided a generational touchstone for the young and the reckless. As she releases her first album in 11 years, she talks to Adam White about backlash, Britney, and her plans to leave music behind her
Liz Phair can’t tell you how many times she’s been told she’s committed career suicide. “It’s happened a lot,” she says, almost proudly. “The most consistent thing in my entire life is being told by people in authority that I have talent but I’m shooting myself in the foot.”
Depending on who you ask, Phair is rock royalty, a pop misfit, or a chronic self-saboteur. Maybe all three. For her hardcore fans, she’s always been a mirror. Exile in Guyville, her seminal 1993 debut, was rocket fuel for a generation powered by their own bravado. An autobiographical document of Phair’s time as a girlfriend and sounding board for sexism and mansplaining on the Chicago rock-band circuit, it was cocky, transgressive, and tinged with hurt. Few albums better capture being young, brave, and brilliantly obnoxious. Or having sex with the wrong people but realising it won’t kill you if you do. It made her a star.
Criticism always trailed her – she was too middle-class, too vocal about wanting to make money, too unapologetic about her sex life – but it became more vitriolic once she ventured outside of indie-rock. A self-titled pop album in 2003 saw her work with Avril Lavigne’s producers and appear on the soundtracks for Kate Hudson romcoms. Pop melodies always underpinned her work – a box set of early, pre-Guyville demos released in 2018 only drove that home – but it was viewed as a betrayal. She became a punching bag for the Pitchfork set, fought record labels, and started rapping (“Has Liz Phair written the worst album of all time?” asked The Guardian of 2010’s riotous Funstyle). Then she retreated, mainly to compose scores for TV shows. Her jangly, introspective new album Soberish is her first record in 11 years. It only happened because everyone else seemed to be dropping like flies.
“When Prince died and Bowie died, my manager called me and he’s like, ‘What are you doing with your career?’” the 54-year-old remembers. “‘Do you know you could be dead tomorrow? Are you making the work now that you would want to leave behind if it were your last?’” Soon afterwards, Soberish came pouring out of her. Phair is calling over Zoom from her home in Manhattan Beach, the same one she’s been sharing with her 24-year-old son during the pandemic. She looks like California, sporting a surfer’s tan and dirty-blonde hair, with chunky jewellery dangling from her neck. Two guitars are propped up against the wall behind her and the room is a violet purple; it’s as if she’s modelled it all on that apartment in Friends.
If she hadn’t made Soberish, her last full body of work would have been Funstyle. “Scary, huh?” Phair jokes. Funstyle – a gonzo collection of rough sketches and comedy skits – is secretly a riot, but isn’t a great send-off for a dearly departed Phair. Her headspace while recording was “almost like kids in the back of the class f***ing off while they had a different assignment”. She was in conflict with her label, didn’t want to tour because her son was in school, and her band at the time was composed of random session musicians and a drummer with a broken arm. “So yeah, it would have been terrible if I had died after that,” she laughs. “I will not make that mistake again.”
For her new album, she reunited with Brad Wood, who produced Exile in Guyville. “When Brad and I made that record, we were fumbling in the dark and the unknown, and coming up with something that surprised both of us. We knew we had to get that back and, 25 years later, stumble into a new sound while using these familiar building blocks.”
Soberish is named after that lightly sozzled feeling that grants you just the right amount of swagger. It builds hooks atop hooks, surrounds Phair’s vocals with flowery reverb, and has a nervous energy to it – Phair always seems to be coming and going, disappearing when things get hot, embracing the new but then chickening out of it. “Restlessness is where I’m at right now,” she explains. “I’m coming out of a period of being mostly a mother, and kind of mostly single. After a couple of intense relationships, I’m fearful of giving myself over to that again. I can feel myself getting kicked out of this isolated comfort I’ve been in. It’s great, but you’re kind of kicking and screaming at the same time.”
A decade spent reissuing past albums and considering her legacy has also made her a bit nostalgic. One track finds her revisiting the location of one of her best-loved hits, “Polyester Bride” from her 1998 album Whitechocolatespaceegg, in which a compassionate bartender advises her to pull herself together. In “Dosage”, its sequel of sorts, she’s now the wise elder doling out advice to the reckless and wild. It resembles her place in the music industry today.
“I feel like I have a couple of different hats to wear,” she says. “One is the mentor figure, like with all the young women artists out there. We connect on social media, and they give me props and I give them admiration. There’s a real sense of community that wasn’t there for me when I was younger. I didn’t have a group of women to be friends with, to commiserate with, or to be peers with.” That transition to young rock star agony aunt has been hard, though. “I feel like I’m the youngest of the old people,” she says. “And that I’ve got this job to stay vital and kind of anti-authority even as I become the authority.”
To call Soberish a return to her roots would suggest Phair has specific roots to return to. She’s always been more of a shapeshifter than an artist with a specific style, which is why the aggressive condemnation of her self-titled record has always felt slightly bizarre – perhaps in particular to the generation of fans who discovered her in her Avril period and then went backwards.
“I was suddenly unforgivable,” she remembers of the backlash. “It was a time when everyone had divided up into sides: ‘I’m against this, and that’s what defines me.’ There was a real sense of us versus them, which I didn’t feel. That’s one of the things that got me in trouble. I was expected to be a representative of something. ‘Be what we elected you to be’ – only I didn’t realise I’d been elected.”
Endless interviews from that period ended up becoming combative, with journalists lecturing Phair as if she had turned her back on them. Did it make her defensive? “In the sense of when I hear my mother’s voice in a [stern] tone say ‘Elizabeth’ – you know what I mean? Like if I had stolen money or snuck out of the house or whatever. But I was determined to be free, to be inventive and playful and experimental and adventurous.” She recalls a track from Exile in Guyville called “Strange Loop”. In it, she sings: “The fire you like so much in me is the mark of someone adamantly free.” She says it still stands. “Even if I took pies in the face, or got tarred and feathered and ran out of town, I wasn’t going to change,” she says. “I was always going to dig in deep to find freedom as an artist.”
It’s probably how she survived. Phair rose to fame in an era of women fighting for agency in an industry rife with sexualisation. In February, she tweeted that she has “Nineties solidarity” with Britney Spears, whose experiences of sexism, harassment and subjugation in music were the focus of a high-profile documentary earlier this year.
Phair realised early on in her career that her appearance and her sexuality would be “on the menu”. “My idea was: if they’re going to do it to me anyway, I’d rather be an active voice in it.” She saw the same thing happen to Spears. “This toying with being a schoolgirl,” she remembers of her “Baby One More Time” video – “The gestures and the strength in her body was certainly not passive. She could have made it like, ‘Here’s your meal.’ But she was like, ‘I’m the cougar, I’m the jaguar.’ Now is that fully evolved? No. Are my blowjob songs fully evolved? No. They were engaging with the dialogue that was. It was a time where men talked about sex and it was nothing, and a woman talking about it was like…” She dramatically gasps and clutches her face, like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. “But you’re gonna have to wield a sword if you engage in that. You’re gonna get tainted. It was a legitimate way to make change, but there’s a price. There’s a cost.”
In her 2019 memoir Horror Stories, Phair dedicated a chapter, “Hashtag”, to the abuses she experienced both before and after becoming famous. “Being female in the entertainment industry can sometimes feel like running a never-ending gauntlet of horny dudes,” she wrote. It was also the chapter in which she addressed the subject of her one-time collaboration with Ryan Adams, who in 2019 was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. Phair and Adams worked together on an ultimately unfinished record a few years ago. In her book, she described him making a pass at her and then losing interest in their project as soon as she turned him down. She had to be coaxed into writing the chapter by her publishers, and didn’t find catharsis by the end of it.
“I’m glad I did it, but I was super mad about it,” she says. “I don’t like looking at those things. I don’t like remembering those things.” Something that nagged at her, too, was the possible implication that all of it had on some level helped her become the woman she is today. “All this s**t happened,” she sighs. “I played a lot of dodgeball and did whatever it took to get through it all. Did it lend fire to Guyville? Certainly. But did it really give me any lasting benefit to be good at that kind of thing? No. Some people are like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad that I went through that, because it shaped me into this strong person.’ I didn’t need any of it. I just had to live through it. I would have done just as well without it.”
Stardom was never a goal, nor was a long-lasting career in the music business. In 2016, shortly after her manager insisted she start recording new material, she even devised a game plan to get out of it. “I decided I was going to do four projects: Horror Stories, Soberish, [a second book called] Fairytales, and then the next record. And I could wrap it into a fairly substantial box set of new work that was going to cover all my bases, and then I could hang it all up after that.” Is she serious about quasi-retirement? “F**k yeah!” she insists. “It’s time to host dinner parties and get my way into some great Cape Cod house and, you know, drink wine and talk about literature. Doesn’t that sound good? Doesn’t that sound fancy and good?”
It does, though it doesn’t sound very Liz Phair. But why stop defying expectations now?
Soberish is out on Friday 4 June