Liz Phair is a Grammy-nominated rock icon, best known for her 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville, a response to the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street. Since that time, Phair has put out half a dozen albums and built a generational cult following. Now she is an author, with a book of vignettes from her life called Horror Stories. I strayed from my usual lane of sports and politics to interview her about her book and more.
Dave Zirin: I wanted to ask if you’re still scared of spiders or if that’s been conquered at this point?
Liz Phair: Ha! I’m still completely afraid of spiders, but I have a relationship with them now. We always, in our household, try to trap them in glass and re-release them. My worst fear is that a spider will drop on me while I’m driving and then it’s definitely going to be a wreck.
DZ: OK. We’ll move on from that particular horror story. In reading the book, I kept feeling like each chapter was a song and the book was an album.
LP: That’s exactly it. I can’t believe how accurate that is. That’s 1,000 percent the way I conceived it myself.
DZ: What binds the stories together, for you? What makes them collectively “horror stories” in your mind?
LP: To me, they’re all different kinds of horror. There’s the kind of every day horror or particular-to-my-life-horror. The title of the book itself, Horror Stories, is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek poke at all the big-budget horror films and our obsession with gore and jump-scares and all that kind of stuff. And I wanted to talk about, what does horror really look like in our individual lives? Luckily, I have lived a life where a lot of my horror has been either cognitive dissonance or betrayal, or sometimes even my own betrayal of my own values, in times I’ve acted outside of what I think my character is. Those are my personal horror stories.
DZ: There’s this famous quote by Red Smith, the old columnist, who said that writing is easy because “you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
LP: Haha, truer words were never spoken! It was very difficult to really go there and open myself up as fearlessly as I could, to not censor it and not try to sanitize my version or make a story my argument of why I was right and someone else was wrong.
I knew that with this book, for me, I was throwing down that challenge, the way I did my first record, Exile in Guyville, to completely not hold back and to, as you said, open up a vein and really be as honest as I could.
I think that in the length of my career, the things that people value the most about what I do, tend to be the hardest things to share. I think we’re all pretty lonely and isolated in our own realities. You’re always opening your sensitivity, rather than closing it over.
DZ: What do you feel like you learned about yourself, your background, your life, writing about these difficult moments?
LP: One of the things that really surprised me was how much religion plays into my subconscious. I don’t have any conscience awareness of being wrapped up in my Christian background, or thinking of life in terms of God and the Devil and all that kind of stuff, but in my subconscious, it’s all over the place.
I mean, what I learned as a child really stuck with me and shaped my sense of morality, it turns out. So it’s wild to see what’s actually driving you, when you actually do plumb the depths of your subconscious. What are the factors that really are sort of setting the tone for your whole life that you may not even be aware of?
DZ: Was writing this therapeutic?
LP: You know it’s funny, people ask me that. It wasn’t really like therapy. I wasn’t actually able to wipe my hands of this or that problem and say “that’s not going to be an issue in my life anymore.” What it was, was to be able to go in and have compassion, possibly, for my younger self, or for the people that caused me any pain to kind of reinhabit a moment in time and examine it with a little more remove and safety so that I could really understand it. What I gained from this book was understanding, rather than catharsis.
DZ: I’ve seen some people, in reviews of the book, compare it to another singer’s books: Patti Smith. Was there a book or an author that provided inspiration for you to write this?
LP: I like plain American literature, written by a really clever or intelligent person. So I guess if I was looking for any goal or what I really admire, I’d say J.D. Salinger, or Mark Twain or Toni Morrison. Something that makes it feel like you’re there and this is how people really spoke and this is what it was like back then. I tried to write each chapter from the voice from the person I was, at the time, rather than the person I am now.
DZ: What has it been like to share the book with your son?
LP: He hasn’t gone really deep into the book. He doesn’t really listen to my music. We kind of keep our relationship mostly mom-son. He definitely did the re-touching on a lot of the photographs which was a really fun experience, to share that with him. He’s a great graphic designer… It almost keeps the peace, in my family, where my art is kind of like, you can check it out if you want, but if you don’t we’re not even going to refer to it. The art is going to be somewhere else and we’re going to be a family. That works for us.
DZ: How has the reaction to the book been, so far? And how has that felt?
LP: It’s been really confirming and I am moved by the amount of people that have said how much it resonated with them. Either you’re looking for a traditional memoir and then reviewers are like, “Meh,” or if they go with the concept, that it is like an album of chapters, then the response has just been poignant and powerful and I’ve been incredibly touched to see people respond to it like that.
DZ: We talked about how there’s this common thread in the book of relationships. Can you say now, having been through some of these intense experiences, what your general take is now on relationships?
LP: I always love relationships, so I’m definitely still looking for them and interested in being a part of them and enjoying it when I’m with somebody. So yeah, I’m still in the 20th century, ‘Let’s get together and have a relationship.’ It may be a really self-destructive impulse, but I’m totally still a romantic.
DZ: I am curious because there are a couple of times in the book where it seemed like you were saying ‘I’m done with that, forever.’
LP: I think at times I was done with that. You know, like at the time, if I go through a really bad breakup, I’m definitely taking a couple of years off. I will step away from anything, either work or personal, that feels overwhelming and I just need to re-center. But no, I’m forever a romantic.
DZ: Because this is The Nation magazine, I gotta ask, you know a lot of people are living through their own horror story, right now, politically, and I wanted to know if you had any advice for our readers, as we head into 2020, or any wellness advice, as far as the pressures of politics and how they can invade on people’s mental space on a day-to-day basis.
LP: It is really hard. I don’t have advice, I have questions. How are we supposed to absorb what is happening around us when we feel powerless to do anything about it? I think we all are suffering a current climate that is untenable for how our bodies physiologically work.
DZ: Have you started to think about the 2020 elections?
LP: I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking since 2016 happened The game is not to stay eternally checked in. The game is to stay sane and check out, every once in a while. I could easily worry and fret about 2020, 24 hours a day, if I let myself, but I think everybody needs to vote, we need to stop gerrymandering and we need to espouse what our most fundamental, core beliefs are, in America.