LOS ANGELES — When Liz Phair meets somebody, she can often tell right away what they know about her. Maybe they don’t know much. But maybe they know that 25 years ago, she made “Exile in Guyville,” one of the sharpest, boldest rock albums of its era, or any era. An album that was stunningly accomplished and also rapaciously, almost gynecologically carnal — the latter is surely what people mostly remember about it now. For men who came of age in the mid-’90s, Liz Phair was their potty-mouthed dream girl. This presents Phair with a late-’10s problem.
“I think it’s part of why I’m single,” Phair says one day in March, over coffee near her home in the South Bay region of Los Angeles. “I’m not kidding. I filter out most options, because I can see in their eyes, they have an expectation. They’re not really seeing me.”
In person, Phair is huggy and likable and warm and, at 51, so utterly unchanged by the decades since “Guyville.” She has been cool-person-famous for over half her life and can usually spot a guy who wants to go to bed with Liz Phair but is uninterested in waking up with Liz. “I don’t want to be a notch on a belt. I think it’s hard, once you’ve set a persona, to go back and get to know the person.”
“Guyville” will be reissued in May as part of a lavishly appointed, seven-LP set titled “Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary.” At its rueful, defiant heart, it’s an album about a 20-something trying to assert her place in the complicated underground world of men with guitars, constructed as a song-by song response to the Rolling Stones’ classic “Exile on Main Street.”
When Phair attended Oberlin College, it felt as though almost everyone she knew was in a band. Being a musician seemed approachable and not that hard. After a post-college stint interning for artists in New York, and for a brief period in San Francisco, Phair returned to the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, to the childhood home where her parents still live. She settled into life as the cute, slightly obnoxious girl at the end of the bar, the one who was always trying to get somebody to buy her a drink. She tried to figure out what to do with her life. She had already begun tinkering with “Girly-Sound,” the rudimentary but powerful series of bedroom recordings that would provide a blueprint for her debut.
Guyville was modeled after Wicker Park, a then-gentrifying neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, but it almost doesn’t matter: Guyville is a state of mind. “There’s a million Guyvilles,” Phair says. “It’s in the studios, where you try to get movies made and cast. It’s anyone being white-privileged, being whatever it is that gives you invisible safety or invisible benefits. ‘Guyville’ could be a catchphrase for any oblivious community that has no idea that they’re shoving people to the side. I don’t know where it isn’t.”
“Guyville” the album was born out of anger. At the men of Guyville, who, whenever she mentioned something she liked, would tell her what was wrong with that thing. At her own willingness to make herself smaller so they could be bigger. At her art history book, which featured almost no women.
Phair’s songs eventually made their way to local producer Brad Wood, who was immediately struck the first time he listened. “I will never forget that feeling,” he says. “As I walked home that night, my head was just spinning, trying to figure out how these great songs and cool lyrics could be recorded well. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t screw this up.’ ”
Wood, Phair and engineer Casey Rice began working in fits and starts, and Matador Records quickly signed Phair. She told almost no one she was making a record. None of her girlfriends from the neighborhood knew, and she never thought to mention it. Nor did she tell the men of Guyville, whose acknowledgment she so longed for in the first place. At some point, because she had to, Phair sat her parents down and played them her album.
“I think the most poignant thing was, my mom said, ‘I didn’t realize you were that sad,’ ” she says. “That just broke my heart. I didn’t think of it as a sad record. Now I hear that. I hear the vulnerability, I hear the loneliness.”
“Guyville” landed with terrifying force. It was confrontational and conversational in ways that mainstream pop albums, at least ones made by women, weren’t and still aren’t. Most of its best lyrics — and at least one of its song titles — can’t be printed in a newspaper such as this one.
“You listen to it now, and there’s a frankness that’s pretty uncommon, at least in pop songwriting,” says Chris Brokaw, founder of the band Come and a friend of Phair’s who was one of the first people to hear the “Girly-Sound” tapes. “It wasn’t difficult to hear that in movies or in literature, but in pop songwriting, it was uncommon.”
“Guyville” made Phair’s life and also ruined it. The album barely scraped the bottom of Billboard’s Top 200 chart, but it eventually sold about 500,000 copies. Phair went into rotation on MTV and made the cover of Rolling Stone. One journalist referred to her as the “thinking man’s minx,” which was gross but not entirely wrong. She wasn’t quite a pop star, but she was more famous than any man in Guyville.
To her, fame was foreign and surprisingly unwelcome. She was not used to performing live and had seldom done so, finding it terrifying and exposing and unnecessary. And it turned out that the Wicker Park scene-makers whose approval she had sought never liked her very much in the first place and now liked her even less. She partly blames herself. “I probably acted like a spoiled suburban b---- when I was young. I thought I was so much more hot s--- before I got famous than after, and that’s something very bad and probably telling about me.”
Her life seemed to be on the verge of crumbling. Her record label threatened her with legal action if she didn’t tour. Her father, figuring his daughter was a financially successful rock star, took her off his health insurance. Phair was smoking a lot of pot and trying to avoid reality. “I was, like, throwing checks on the desk and not even knowing where they were or cashing them. I was in some sort of stoner world of my own making.” She struggled to understand what people wanted from her. “I made the record, that was all I needed to do for me. And suddenly I had this whole career.”
Phair toured because she had to, but she was unhappy, onstage and off. (When describing the “Guyville” era, the word she uses most often is “traumatized.”) Wood, who also played in Phair’s band, was a struggling musician who had waited years to perform for people who were actually paying attention. Now they were there. Famous people, too — he would look into the audience at Phair’s shows and see Kim and Thurston, Laurie and Lou. He was not sympathetic to her plight.
“I tried to impress on Liz, ‘This is a really great thing; it won’t always be like this,’ ” Wood said. “I remember vividly her getting angry at me. She would say, ‘I don’t want to be this. This is fine for you guys, but this is not what I want.’ I think she wanted to be left alone to work on her music and live her life and maybe go back to the way it was when she wasn’t being recognized on the street.”
One day, Phair saw a picture of herself in a book. She was wearing a silver dress, standing against a wall. “I was pretty much close to anorexic at that point, and I remember looking at it and going, ‘You look really f---ing thin.’ I looked fearful. That’s sort of what led me to get married. I shut it down and went into retreat.”
Marriage was a way out, a one-way ticket back to the comfort of the suburbs. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go back to my upbringing, and I’ll be that girl.’ I trained my whole life for that. I didn’t train my whole life for this.” Phair married Jim Staskauskas, a film editor who had worked on one of her videos, and had a son, Nick, who is now 21. Marriage wasn’t the refuge she had hoped for. “I couldn’t do the job of marriage, like, ‘Now you’re a married couple, you must throw dinner parties,’ ” she remembers. “It’s not really me.”
Phair had a reservoir of songs she dipped into to make “Guyville” and its 1994 follow-up, “Whip-Smart.” By the time “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” an underrated mix of folk and psychedelic pop, was released in 1998, those reserves were diminished. It would be the last album made by the Liz Phair everyone had come to know.
Phair became a major label artist when Matador signed a partnership deal with Capitol Records. Matador eventually exited the deal, but Phair was stuck, marooned on a major label she hadn’t signed to, facing the very real possibility that if she didn’t make the album Capitol wanted, she wouldn’t be allowed to make any albums at all.
“Liz Phair,” released almost exactly 10 years to the day after “Guyville,” wasn’t just a pop album: It was an Avril Lavigne-style pop album, partly fashioned by producers the Matrix, who had previously worked with Lavigne and Hilary Duff and whom the label had insisted on using.
“Liz Phair” buried some of the best things about Liz Phair — her playful sense of humor, her unique guitar-playing style. She remains proud of the album, which put her in front of bigger audiences and produced her sole Top 40 hit, “Why Can’t I?”
“My hardest part was helping the fans and the critics through their emotional process, their anger and betrayal,” she says. “Hours of phoners: ‘It’s okay. You don’t have to buy this music.’ They felt betrayed, they felt that they had been tricked.”
The backlash was swift and savage: Phair was seen as a desperate sellout whose short skirts were unbecoming for a mother in her mid-30s. (“They’ll bury me in a miniskirt,” Phair says now, sounding amused.) Pitchfork gave the album a rare 0.0 rating.
There was a growing sense that she had let her side down. That she had sent up a flare for all the women who lacked her platform, then abdicated that responsibility.
“Guyville” began to seem more and more like an accident. “I always knew where I came from,” she says. “I knew how intentional ‘Guyville’ was, but I think they thought that was, like, a bedroom confession, and that I walked off and was like, ‘Money! Power! Fame!’ ”
Phair recorded and released albums steadily throughout the ’00s. She did some scoring work for TV shows, including the rebooted “90210,” but found it tough to break into scoring’s top level, where the real money is.
Eventually, she began writing fiction. She is now working on two books for Random House. The first is a memoir of sorts, told in short stories; the second is a book of fairy tales. She hasn’t released an album of new material since “Funstyle” in 2010. “I was laying low and being quiet,” she says.
The reignited women’s movement inspired her, and then the rerelease of “Guyville” brought her the rest of the way back. Phair doesn’t view “Guyville” as a landmark in feminism, but more as a signpost on the road, a data point on a continuum that stretches behind her, from Debbie Harry and riot grrrls, and after her to Lilith Fair and Alanis Morissette and beyond. It’s long been an article of faith that Morissette had the career Phair might have had, if only she had cared more and tried harder.
“I remember when Alanis had that huge record and everyone was like, ‘Aren’t you pissed?’ I wasn’t, I was psyched. I opened for her. I wanted what we have now. We have women in bands all the time, everywhere. It’s not even a big deal anymore.”
Female musicians today have a more level playing field than Phair ever dreamed of. “I don’t think they know how bad it was,” she says. “They’re looking around and thinking, ‘This still sucks.’ But it’s so much better.”