Twenty-five years ago, Liz Phair came up with an interesting concept for her debut album: She would record a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 double LP Exile on Main St. Eighteen songs later, she had the cheekily titled Exile in Guyville, a brash, candid and swaggering album that became a key addition to the alternative-rock canon.
It’s a testament to Guyville‘s own brilliance and influence that the album is hardly remembered for its Stones-y origins.
“I had a lot to say on the subject matter they put forth,” Phair tells Rolling Stone. The Stones’ reflections on their own rock & roll lifestyle inspired her own musings on the Chicago indie scene she cut her teeth in. “I wanted to touch it because it was so untouchable.”
Touching the untouchable allowed Phair to tap into a fresh well of emotional honesty. Her lyrics cut to the core of her feelings about the male-dominated rock scene, her relationships and her sexuality while flexing her signature monotone delivery and experimental, freeform guitar playing. With help from her producer Brad Wood and guitarist Casey Rice, Guyville became an immediate success, but it was a polarizing topic in her local scene.
“Some people were very excited but a lot of people suddenly didn’t know how to look at me,” she recalls. “They didn’t even know I was making music and if felt a little bit sudden, abrupt. I didn’t feel comfortable walking into old restaurants and bars in a matter of a month.”
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Releasing the self-assured album led to a bout of low self-confidence. “It was the first time in my life that people really stared at me,” she explains. “It was a surprise to all of us and none of us handled it very well, myself included. That was the closest I ever got to anorexic.”
So she left it all behind for a bit, flying to the Bahamas to record follow-up LP Whip-Smart and coming to the realization that she didn’t “have to live and die by this one neighborhood’s opinion.” With time, the fights and the stares and the questions of whether Phair’s sudden success was deserved have become water under the bridge.
“Everyone looks back on it like our heyday,” she says with a laugh. “No one remembers the fights. We all just remember what an awesome time were having in the city.”
In honor of that heyday and a 25th anniversary reissue of Guyville that will include a remastered version of the LP and restored versions of three bedroom cassettes she released under the name Girly-Sound, Phair spoke in depth about each song on her untouchable debut.
That has always been a fun song because any time people meet me and [see that] I’m so small, there’s always a sort of momentary joke where they’re like, “Oh ‘6’1″,’ I guess you’re not that.” To me, it’s the encapsulation of what the rest of the record is going to be delivering. It’s got that bravado that I manifest. Sometimes it’s real and sometimes I’m putting it on in the rest of the songs. It’s standing up to the boy; it’s standing up to the guy.
“Help Me Mary”
The Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint” was the corresponding song to this one. [Their song] was all about sort of the attitude of these rock guys that would just kind of roll into town, create trouble, sleep with other people’s girlfriends and leave a big mess behind. I was writing about my own experiences hosting [laughs] these spontaneous gatherings of rock dudes and how just hidden my real self was in that male scene. There weren’t that many women in the scene and, like, everybody either was like a girlfriend or a den mother.
I love the organ on “Glory.” It’s talking about this sort of intimidating rock dude that everyone knows – someone that’s legendary in the scene. I’m talking about how his tongue snakes out in the club and there’s just kind of, like, this wispy, high organ that I always associate with the character’s tongue just kind of running through the song. I love that.
“Dance of the Seven Veils”
In this, Johnny was actually not the romantic lead. He was the roommate who was basically – and rightfully so – convinced that I had bitten off more than I could chew and this was going to be a disaster. It was my sort of Salome lie. “Just you wait ’till the end of the play. Let’s see who comes out on top.”
[This was] just kind of like about the music scene and how catty it was. People were always getting upset about something that someone had said about their band or whatever the latest gossip was. To me, I love the way that song is speaking in a rock shorthand. Like, “I ain’t done nothing wrong, I never said nothing.” There’s something insouciant and punk rock to just overtly speak in street language or street lingo or something. There’s just something that I always liked about that.
And Brad’s knotty, lo-fi drums are so good on that. Casey’s ringing guitar he’s just basically playing one note over and over again. It’s like [singing guitar part] ding, ding, ding, ding, which is brilliant. Brad might have written that. I’m not sure who is getting credit for what, but there’s just something so lackadaisical about our delivery. Even in the drums, I always thought he had a great drum fill. It’s just knotty and laid back, full of attitude that I really like.
“Soap Star Joe”
When I was in my twenties, I was always dating older men, and they would always pick me up in cars and take me to dinner. I felt like I was always sitting in the interior of some dude’s car on my way to or from dinner and just how weirdly generic it all felt. Like, every Friday, Saturday night, someone was taking you out somewhere. I just had all these thoughts and feelings that I never shared, and it kind of came out in my songwriting, and “Soap Star Joe” is a perfect example. I’m kind of skewering the guy, but at the same time, I’m also lovingly aware of his plight in a weird way.
“Explain It to Me”
I love the songwriting. I think of that as a perfect little jewel song. It does so very little. Some songs, when I write them, come out completely formed, and I don’t have to work on them at all, and “Explain It to Me” was like that. It just sort of fell out of me. It’s about a ruined rock hero and seeing one of your greatest figures at their weakest, I guess.
I think a lot of people get something different out of that song, but it’s the only piano song that I’m playing. It’s about the loss of innocence and facing the pressures of being a young woman in the world and what men want from you while you’re still kind of on the cusp of your childhood. There’s a period of time where you pretend to still be a little girl, but you’re confronting all this bullshit in the world that is suddenly your new role. Kind of like the Reviving Ophelia kind of moment.
I think of that as a very real song because a lot of the songs on Exile in Guyville have a tough front, and “Canary” is much more like my real internal [monologue], the way it plays out in my mind quietly and silently.
Did you know there’s a dog at the end of it? Her name is Piggy. It’s Casey Rice’s dog, and she was the Australian sheepherding dog. She was just hilarious. Not a pretty dog. And she would always grab hold of stuff and just not let it go, and so at the end of the song, Casey is actually lifting her off of the ground while she’s holding onto a chew toy because she doesn’t want to let go and she’s just going [growls]. It’s really cute. It’s the last thing that you can hear. You can hear her dog tags jangling.
“Fuck and Run”
I’m always interested by the way I used my voice back then. It’s just so laid back. I almost feel like “Fuck and Run” has a bit of spoken word to it in a funny way. It’s classic pop song, but the things I’m saying are so nakedly emotional and I’m saying this in this deadpan delivery. It’s just such a strange contrast. The song, to me, is probably the most emblematic of what made people like my music in the first place, with these stories that you wouldn’t think that you would be privy to or that you wouldn’t expect to hear are just absolutely laid down in a kind of classic rock or pop song format. Like, “There you go. Yep, just sat up in bed. I’m not quite sure who this guy is, but, like, I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.” You never heard those stories in popular culture.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”
What I love about this song that very few people comment on is the obnoxious sort of stand-up comic in the back that I’m being. I’m being second vocal where I’m imitating the narrator, which is also me. [Laughs] I’m dragging my own vocal. I love it because I’m basically talking about being able to get away with murder, turning the tables on the stuff that you’ve seen that I’ve been upset about before. Earlier in the record, you can tell it’s hard to be a woman in a man’s world, and then you get to this song, and you see how the knife cuts both ways. You can manipulate the system to your advantage, as well, which women, we do both. We try to live a certain way, but when it gets really hard we sometimes flip the tables. We use it to our advantage, and then we go back to trying to make the world the way it ought to be.
I’m not surprised that people pick [“Divorce Song” and “Fuck and Run”] out as their favorites. Again, it has that deadpan delivery. It’s an ordinary person doing ordinary things, and the action in the song is really just about relating to another person. It feels like an action-packed song. You’ve done a lot, you’ve been a lot, you’ve seen a lot, you’ve heard a lot, but really it’s just two personalities trying to be intimate and bumping up against each other on a road trip and that’s all that happens.
So much of what happens in our lives that we feel so deeply is really no action at all. The stuff that’s in movies never happens. There’s rarely an earthquake, there’s rarely, like, a break-in, and most of your day, you feel like you had drama, but it’s just these micro-interactions with people. “Divorce Song” is very much about that.
There’s also a really funny story about that song. John Casey plays harmonica on it. He came in and played the whole song, like he never stopped. He was playing the entire song. We only left him in the mix just for the very end [laughs]. On the raw track, he’s playing wall-to-wall harmonica throughout the entire song. It would be funny some time to just kind of have a John Casey director’s cut.
“Shatter” is such a beautiful pause in the album. It’s a winsome guitar sound. I did a lot of things on Guyville that I think are interesting songwriting-wise where I’d break songs in two; it happens on “Johnny Sunshine,” and it happens on “Shatter.” It’s like two separate songs, kind of matched up together, so you get this whole part.
There’s also a feedback element, which we were using a lot. I mean, a lot of times Brad doesn’t even use a bass line. He never even suggested putting a bass on some of these songs because the things I’m playing in the guitar are melodically complex and there were so many elements. I was basically hinting at bass notes in a lot of my guitar playing and I think he just wanted to let my guitar-playing stand as the complexity. There’s a lot of words being sung, and I really appreciated that on “Shatter” because he captured my freeform guitar playing that is hardly ever evident on any other record.
And I have a theory – I’ve run this by Brad and he is only sort of lukewarm about the theory – but he was trained in jazz, and I think he recognized in my freestylings of the way I make chords a jazzy uniqueness that he was comfortable with. He wasn’t trying to turn everything into majors or whatever. Other producers try to edge you closer to mainstream, or they try to make it sound like something they’ve heard before. He was much more comfortable, as a producer, letting me be musically weird and dissonant and original.
What’s beautiful about this is the contrast, like the menacing sound of the guitar. I mean it sounds like the guitar, the electricity is turned up so high through this. It sounds like it’s crackling on the edge, like a transformer blowing up outside your house or something. It sounds that menacing. Then you have this little, tiny girl voice singing these blue, filthy lyrics about wanting to give blow jobs and stuff. That encapsulates the Girly-Sound project that came before Guyville that was all about how the young female voice carries the least amount of authority of any voice in society. What does it take before you listen to what she’s saying? What is she allowed to say?
I felt like everywhere I turned, people were denying my experience of my own sexuality. I was very interested in sex. I wasn’t promiscuous, but I was as interested as any boy that I knew. Also, it was the era of AIDS, so I was highly conscious of health.
I got tired of reading articles justifying social norms with these really limp studies about how animals behave. They hadn’t studied the female brain enough at that point, and they were still trying to tell you that you didn’t have a G-spot and that women were less interested in sex, and I’m like, “Maybe because they married a guy for security and they’re just not into him.” Like, there are other explanations.
I felt like it was really important to want overtly and to lust and to be able to own my own sexuality. I was scared to do it, but I felt like it was important to take the territory back for myself.
This is one of my favorite examples of Brad’s drumming. It’s one of my favorites. He just has a way. It’s a continuing loop, but he makes it, he breaks it up, and he adds, again. I think you can hear his jazz flavor in it. There’s that great separate vocal that I’m doing. It reminds me of the songs I learned at summer camp when I was young when one of the part of the cabin would sing one part of the song [laughs], the other one would do the counter melody.
This was [the counterpart to] the Rolling Stones’ “All Down the Line” in my saga. They’ve just been in their disagreement moment and now the guy is checking out and hitting the road. He’s going back out on tour. I liken “Johnny Sunshine” to investing all this stuff in this relationship and then you’re just taking off. It’s that feeling of abandonment that you feel when you’re like, “Fine! Go! I don’t care.” Then, of course, you break into the truth of it, which is that she’s devastated.
“Gunshy” I connect to “Canary” because it’s more of that true-confession, diary-entry singing. There’s no pretense or bravado. It’s really saying, “I don’t know if I am cut out to do what it seems to be that society wants women to do.” It’s the little things, the little habits that I can’t handle. It’s the fear of being married and the fear of being in that role. It’s a confession as opposed to other songs that are proclaiming loudly.
And I like the way it’s produced to echo that sentiment. It’s very small and creepy, and it feels the way you feel when you feel like The Truman Show is happening. That’s not a good analogy. Let me think. Stepford Wives – the town is all in on it and you’re suddenly realizing that you feel like an alien.
Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t tell me that they booked 27D on their airplane seat specifically to have that experience [laughs]. It’s amazing.
When I lived in England as a young seven-year-old, and we went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit where Shakespeare lived. [The name came from] the whole pretentiousness of the guy scene that Urge Overkill dubbed Guyville and we all ended up calling Guyville. That preciousness of it was really important to the tastemakers who lived there, and I wanted to give it that kind of pretentious name like [in British accent] “Stratford-On-Guy.” [Laughs]
They felt like they were the arbiters of cool and “Stratford-on-Guy” is me waking up as I travel out of there and just getting out of that neighborhood and it all falls off of you. It all just falls away. There is this sense that you’re literally at 30,000 feet above the scene that you are so involved in and this relationship you’re so involved in and it’s just a literal perspective shift above it. A lot of the bullshit just falls away.
I must have been using a Peavey amp still. I had this little shitty amp that I wouldn’t get rid of because it’s a very high, weird guitar tone that I have. It’s very natural and simple. But it stands out as the last song. This is a reconciliation song. It’s about saying, “Yeah, OK, we’ve been through a lot of shit. You’re fucked up, and I’m fucked up.” There’s a sense of having moved past the Sturm und Drang. We’ve gotten some distance from it all and it’s conciliatory in a weird way.
It’s a great way to end the record to have it fall apart at the end. There’s this great outro where we’re all just jamming because it has been a long journey. It’s been 18 songs, and we’re just kind of whizzing through this improvised end section, and then I had the idea that we’d just have the instruments just fall apart at the end of the whole cycle, and I’ve always been very proud of that.