Liz Phair on Creativity, Sobriety, and Releasing Her First Album In 11 Years

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Dropped seemingly out nowhere during the summer of 1993, Exile in Guyville was Liz Phair’s album-length middle finger to male entitlement and rock misogyny. The mainstream music press spent as much time balking at the lyrical content—“I'm a real c--t in spring / You can rent me by the hour”—as it did heaping praise on Phair’s unorthodox arrangements and sneering vocal delivery. Conceived as a track-by-track response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Guyville quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation. It also set up wildly unbalanced expectations for the then-26-year old, a recent Oberlin grad who recorded the demos for Guyville on a dinky four track in her Chicago bedroom.

“For a while, I think there was a resistance in me to addressing that album because I felt like no one wanted me to do anything but another Guyville, and I didn't know how to do that,” Phair told Vogue over a recent Zoom call. “If I could perform on command, I probably would've done something different with my life.”

It was only decades later that Phair felt she was able to take ownership of the album that turned her into a supernova. Ironically, it was hearing how the album had become something of a burden for other people involved that allowed her to come back around to it. “Hearing everyone’s stories about how Guyville dogged them in some way made me feel a whole lot better about the experience," she says. “I'd sewn up some disagreements and healed old wounds." By the time Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary was released in 2018, featuring a remastered version of Guyville along with the aforementioned Girly-Sound demos, she had made her peace. And after a nearly decade-long hiatus from recording, she was even back in the studio with Ryan Adams working on an ambitious new project, a double-album response to The Beatles' White Album. 

Liz Phair in 1994. 

Photo: Jeff Kravitz

That project, however, was ultimately scrapped after The New York Times reported on allegations of sexual misconduct against Adams in 2019. (Phair later wrote of Adams in her memoir, Horror Stories: “Did he hit on me and try to get me to sleep with him? Yes. Did I take him up on it? No.”) The resulting fallout left Phair back at square one without an album or a collaborator. 

It was around the same time that she reconnected with Brad Wood, the producer who helped Phair shape the spiky, lo-fi instrumentation of Guyville and it's follow-up, the superb Whip-Smart. “I got seduced back into being that person I was so many years ago,” she says of the return to her '90s influences. “It made me yearn for the way that me and Brad worked together—I wanted to capture what it felt like for us to be in the studio that first time.”

A few years later and the resulting album, Soberish, is less a recreation of Guyville than a sort of spiritual successor. Out now, Soberish is a candid reminder that fears and anxieties don’t simply dissipate with age. “There’s so many ways to fuck up a life," she sings on “Good Side,” the album’s first single: "I’ve tried to be original.” Her songs have often stood as monuments to the art of falling apart, and at 54 years old, Phair is still figuring her life out (and courteous enough to let us watch her do it).

Soberish marks her first album since 2010’s self-released Funstyle, a delightfully bizarre LP that, in her own words, cost Phair her management, her record deal, and a lot of sleep. She kept herself busy throughout the last decade with a side-gig composing and scoring music for TV shows, including CW hits like The 100 and 90210. It paid the bills while also broadening her technical expertise in the studio, informing her creative approach for what became Soberish.

“One of the things you hear on this record is my interest in sound design,” she elaborates. “I wanted to take the musical alphabet of Guyville and come up with a new language.” Making music has always been a very “sculptural” process to Phair, who spent most of her young adulthood planning to be an artist. “Every song on this album felt like making a 3D floral arrangement,” she says. “I used to be so heavily driven by writing, like the music was just supposed to move along with the words. I think scoring was illuminating in the sense of how much you can express with just music.”

That lack of restraint paired with Phair’s sense of playfulness is present throughout Soberish’s thirteen tracks—a rollicking mix of indie rock and experimental pop that stands among her most accomplished work. It’s another highly unusual album from a singer-songwriter who has long been averse to traditional chord progressions or song structures. The chorus for “Spanish Doors” alone features four vocal parts singing different lyrics at the same time, the melody pulling in and out at a frenetic pace. Compare that to “Soberish,” which went through several iterations before Wood suggested stripping down the instrumentation to highlight Phair’s storytelling.

“I wanted it to sound how it makes you feel,” Phair says of the title track, which depicts a drunken rendezvous with a lover at the St. Regis. “You know that feeling when you're waiting for a guy and trying to look casual about it? I wanted you to feel the awkwardness of sitting alone at that hotel bar with me.”

The title Soberish holds a dual meaning for Phair—one superficial and one slightly more esoteric. Trump’s 2016 presidential win coincided with the legalization of recreational marijuana in California, and the emotional toll of the former often made Phair turn to the latter. “The Trump years really got to me—to the point that I became less sober than I'd been during most of my adult life,” she says. “Or at least since my early twenties.” A longtime marijuana proponent—Phair’s Rolling Stone cover story from 1994 opens with her getting high at an aquarium—here she was in middle age struggling with the stoner’s quandary: How much of a good thing is too much?

“I found myself going through something of a second adolescence,” she laughs. “I was having so many bullshit discussions with myself where I’d think “Stop, don’t buy any more weed!” before going “Actually, I should buy more—it’s great for me!"

"I just keep trying to be what my childhood self would've idolized." 

Photo: 

But eventually Soberish came to describe more than just Phair’s state of being. “Once you start thinking about what’s good for you versus what’s bad for you, it opens a Pandora’s Box in terms of life balance,” she elaborates. “I started to think about all the ways that we make reality a little easier to accept. If it’s not pot, it’s a fad diet or overworking, and sometimes it’s meeting a guy and falling in love.”

Phair considers Soberish the most ambitious project in her catalogue since her self-titled LP from 2003. After Matador Records—the indie label behind Phair’s first three albums— terminated a partnership with Capitol Records in 1999, the latter retained her contract as collateral. Practically overnight, the darling of indie-rock was suddenly label-mates with Neil Diamond and Coldplay. Concerned with the lack of potential radio hits on Phair’s next album, the label president set her up in the studio with The Matrix, a team of pop super-producers behind Avril Lavigne’s string of early-aughts hits (“Complicated,” “Sk8r Boi”). The album that resulted was, she says, “stressful as far as retaining creative control.”  By the end, she says, she "gave the label those four pop songs, and they basically said 'Put whatever else you want on it!' Like I’d earned the right or something.”

Depending on which sector of her fanbase you ask, Liz Phair is either a top-notch collection of pop-rock anthems or a glaring stain on her artistic legacy. The eponymous album saw her lean into her pop sensibilities more transparently than ever before. And while the gambit paid off in certain respects—the Matrix-produced “Why Can’t I?” remains her highest-charting single to date—music publications had a field day, accusing Phair of selling out for the sake of commercial viability. The New York Times dismissed the album as Exile in Avril-ville while Pitchfork gave it a rare 0.0 rating in a scathing take-down: “It's sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would be reduced to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop." (The writer recently apologized to Phair publicly via Twitter, calling his review “condescending and cringey.”) 

Phair is quick to point out that she’s still proud of those songs—"Friend of Mine” remains a personal favorite. “I never hated that record, everybody else did,” she says. “I grew up listening to pop radio and that’s part of what Guyville was about—men didn’t take me seriously because I liked soft music and didn’t just listen to stuff on the fringe.”

Liz Phair in 1998. 

Photo: Steve Eichner

Soberish is ambitious in the same sense, combining the scrappy, DIY energy of Phair’s earlier recordings with the pop melodies that later divided so much of her fan-base. And while she still performs a handful of Liz Phair hits to this day—“Why Can’t I?” has turned into a crowd favorite—she’s more eager to take Soberish on the road and test how those songs play live. 

She’ll find out this summer when she joins forces with Alanis Morissette and Garbage for a nationwide tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill, Morissette’s decade-defining LP. Phair’s relationship with Morissette dates back to their '90s heydey, when Jagged Little Pill first became a sensation. Arriving just two years after Phair bucked traditional expectations for women in rock with Guyville, the thrashing guitars and unfiltered emotion of Morissette’s LP drew instant comparisons between the two. This line from a 1995 profile of Morissette is telling: “She has been called everything from brilliant to naive, with stops at most points in between. Perhaps naysayers are pissed that the public has chosen to make Morissette a star instead of the critically lauded Liz Phair.”

“The press sorta pitted us against each other by pushing this idea that she got all of the success that I opened the door for” Phair recalls. “It felt like they wanted us to mud-wrestle.” The truth was more mundane: that Morissette and Phair were actually two uniquely different artists who happened to admire each other’s work. Phair even ended up opening for Morissette on her 1998 Junkie tour. “We were looking at what people were writing about us and both had the instinct to reach out and hold hands in whatever symbolic way that we could,” she says. “It was such a superficial reading of women in music because I didn’t come out of nowhere. I came standing on the shoulders of the greats, and so did Alanis.” 

Garbage front-woman Shirley Manson “intimidated the hell” out of Phair before the two ended up connecting at a party hosted by a mutual friend. “When the three of us get together we just hit it off so well,” Phair says. “We have so much in common but the ways in which we’re different are almost comical. It adds a lot of flavor to the mix, and you’ll see that onstage.”

Liz Phair's first memoir, Horror Stories, is out now.

Photo: Courtesy of Random House 

After the tour wraps in November, Phair plans on finishing the sequel to her 2019 memoir Horror Stories. While that book focused on the darker, often traumatic chapters of her life and career, Fairy Tales will be its antithesis. She hoped to make some progress on the book while in lockdown, but trying to survive a global pandemic made Phair less inclined to write about happier times. “Everything I wrote turned into another horror story,” she laughs. “I didn’t have it in me to look at life through a positive lens. It took me a while to get into Fairy Tales but I'm finally writing from a place of humor and joy again.”

Phair is even taking a crack at fiction with her first novel, a music-biz satire tentatively titled Side Man that she’s been writing on-and-off for several years. The process has given her a newfound appreciation for novelists and a better understanding of why so many of her writers friends never finish their “Great American Novel.” She compares writing fiction to the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the contest winners walk down a hallway that gets progressively smaller and tighter. “The farther in I got, the more stuck I was on paths that I had already laid down.”

As for new music, Phair doesn’t have any immediate plans to get back in the studio. “I need a little more time,” she says. Soberish took a lot of energy out of her and she’s eager to explore other projects that bring her the same sense of creative fulfillment. But whatever comes next, she promises not to make fans wait another decade for it.

“My best-case scenario: I just wanna continue making things but not have to sell them," she says. "Can someone tell me how to do that?”

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