30 Years Exiled in Guyville: A Conversation with Liz Phair

The year Liz Phair’s track-by-track retort to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. — her debut record, Exile In Guyville — was released was 1993, a year when the best-selling albums by female artists were mostly of the shimmery pop and radio-ready R&B genres. Mariah Carey’s Music Box. The Bodyguard soundtrack by Whitney Houston. Celine Dion’s The Colour of My Love. Ace of Base’s Happy Nation.

The lithe, blonde, 25-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist Phair emerged, by contrast, with candid, gritty, horny and often (understandably) sour expressions on womanhood and dating. Alternative rock fans salivated at the double LP’s range of musicality, Phair’s finger-picked and power chord guitar parts, her deadpan vocal delivery. Young women, especially, raised their fists and blared the tunes in solidarity, empowered by Phair’s illumination of the patriarchal systems firmly in place but rarely sung about, and the self-admonishment that comes with even desiring attention from and connection with undeserving men. Sentiments like those on “Fuck and Run” were satisfyingly shocking coming from a female artist in the male-dominated rock music scene of Chicago (the Guyville she painted on the record) and elsewhere:

I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas

I can feel it in my bones
I’m gonna spend another year alone
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen

“Fuck and Run”

Over Zoom, in preparation for her Exile In Guyville 30th Anniversary tour now underway and stopping at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on November 27, Phair told me, “One of the things I’m most proud of about that album is the way that I sort of give personhood to the girl experience. I don’t say you have to be happy or you have to be angry. I give you the full range of the feelings you might have. It feels great that young women will hear [the album now], too, because it sort of gives them the license to be whatever they are and to feel whatever they’re feeling.”

Reflecting on the time of the record’s creation, and its fast rise to both critical acclaim and cult status upon release, Phair admits she vacillated between popping off and paralyzed.

“I felt like I was in a state of either trying to grift and take advantage of the men to get where I needed to go or I felt completely intimidated, I barely felt like I could raise my voice in a conversation… I didn’t see a path for myself…It’s like I was facing a cliff face with no way to get up it, and I just had to feel my way along. There were times there’d be people who wanted to sign me and I’d bring all my friends to dinner and they’d have to pay.” Phair laughs. “We were starving artists. And so there was a certain sense that I was going to take advantage of the man. I don’t know that that’s admirable, I don’t look back on that with pride. But it was either that or totally feeling intimidated and fearful and scared.”

Thirty years later, Phair can appreciate her own persistence in the music industry — she’s made six more records since that ambitious but raw debut she co-produced with Brad Wood, who reunited with her on 2021 full-length Soberish — and her navigation of that wild time breaking through. She agrees it’s special that the 1993 record can serve as a bridge between Gen X’ers that also came of age in Guyville and new, younger fans who now expect such frankness from their artistic role models.

But the indie rock icon is extra impressed by young women working in music now. When asked if she can see her fingerprints on this new generation of sharp-tongued bedroom pop-rockers often compared to her — artists like Sophie Allison, who leads Nashville darlings Soccer Mommy, and Blondshell, the project of Sabrina Teitelbaum, who is opening on this tour — Phair said no.

“What I hear is individuals actuating…When I was coming up, girls in bands acted like boys. Now I see young women coming up, artists who have their look, they have their video…They want it to sound this way. And each album, they change their genre. I see the freedom and the selfhood that I would have wanted to bequeath. It’s nice to see fully realized young female artists with confidence and running their own shows.”

As far as her own show, Liz Phair and her band are bringing a more theatric quality to Exile In Guyville in concert, she hinted on the day we spoke before the anniversary tour started. She hired a creative director, she said, “to help deepen the story that I was telling you in relation to Exile on Main St.” Along with a special 30th Anniversary purple vinyl reissue of Guyville released by her label Matador, this tour celebrates the 18 songs that solidified Phair as an impactful and influential American artist — songs that are, in 2023, as resonant as ever.