“I Write Things I Cannot Play”: The Secret of Liz Phair

“I Write Things I Cannot Play”: The Secret of Liz Phair

“I Write Things I Cannot Play”: The Secret of Liz Phair

Thirty years after the release of her classic album Exile in Guyville, the singer-songwriter is taking the record back on the road.


In 1992 and 1993, an unknown singer-songwriter named Liz Phair recorded her debut album in Chicago, not knowing that it would become one of the most influential records of the decade. Exile in Guyville hit the music scene with the stiff, stinging rush of the Lake Michigan wind as Phair sang frankly and clearly about sex and young life as a woman. Her album immediately became revered as evocative of a time of economic insecurity and as part of a new generation of women striving to express themselves in more sexually open and emotionally raw ways. Since then, the album’s legend has only grown—crisis and misogyny haven’t gone anywhere. When Guyville was released, besotted critics were reductively focused on seeing it as some kind of feminist response to the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street. Now, with decades of increasing stature, it stands alone, the Stones album barely a footnote. In 2023, Liz Phair is going on tour for the 30th anniversary of Guyville and will perform every song off the album. I spoke to her about a tour that is a testament to the timelessness of a truly great album.

—Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin: What would you say if you could go back in time 30 years and tell yourself that this indie album you’re working on in a ramshackle Chicago studio would be performed to sold-out shows three decades later?

Liz Phair: I’d lie to myself. I’d 100 percent not say that to my younger self, because I would immediately stop recording! As opposed to most people in this business who would be like, “Really? Oh my God!” I would have immediately walked out of the studio and never gone back! Before returning, I would have had to “mom” myself and be like, “Give it a try; see how it goes. You never know.”

DZ: Are you saying that there would be a part of you that said, “People are going to be listening to this in 30 years, maybe I just shouldn’t record it at all?”

LP: I think I would have been so terrified of performing on stage at that point. If I had known you couldn’t just make records—I know it sounds so naïve and stupid. I was a visual artist. I had no knowledge of the music business whatsoever. I’d never performed on stage, and I had no desire to, and I never had the urge to play my songs for anyone. In fact, I played them so quietly.

DZ: This experience of playing this album live in 2023. What is the best part?

LP: The best part is remembering that it all happened—that I was that brave and sensitive, artistic person with knees knocking who actually got up on stage and sang her little heart out. I find that so touching and beautiful, and I’m so much older than she is. She’s sort of frozen in time, and I’ve had many feelings about her over the years, and now I’m old enough that I just want to learn from her, which is very weird. That must mean I’m ancient! I’m not threatened anymore by all the crazy stuff I did. I’m not embarrassed about what people learned about me anymore. All I see is that sensitive person. You know when everyone says it’s painful to be young, and your skin is so thin, and you have no identity? That now to me looks like being so alive. That’s the kind of so aliveness that I crave now. I’ve been walking around the last three weeks feeling like my eyes were tired, and I wanted to cry, and I watched so many sad movies to try to make myself cry, and I couldn’t. I thought, “Part of your branches are dead. I want my tender green shoots again.” I’m in the process of learning from my old self.

DZ: When I first heard Guyville, I was starting out in college, and it connected with me so strongly, because you sang about living in a group house and the economic stressors felt by the young and disaffected. I was treated like “a pit bull in a basement” on more than one occasion. It was written and performed in an economically tenuous pre-gentrified Chicago and was also part of a response to so much of the misogyny that existed in music at that time. How much of that was that in your mind when you were writing the album? Was it intentional?

LP: One hundred percent. Hearing you say that and articulate it so aptly and succinctly is such a catharsis for me because that’s exactly what drove me to do it. I felt exactly like a pit bull in a basement. I felt like I was regularly teased and goaded by the people that I really did not see having the same qualifications that I did, and I was pushed to the side. My opinions about music were mocked. It was part of why I could withstand when everyone hated me when I went pop in the middle period of my career, because it was like, “I’ve already done that. Already been hated, already gone against the stream.” Gen X had it tough in a weird way. When we were young, we were the underground of a mainstream and had no Internet to connect us with each other. We had fan zines and the mail. You had to know who you knew to get where you wanted to go, and I took that seriously. I was a freaking professional at figuring out the best parties and worming my way into places I wanted to get to and having to deal with just, as you say, the misogyny. I’m not sure they were women-hating. I think they were involved—and I talk about this a lot in my book—I think there was a class warfare going on between the men of indie rock and the male rock archetype of mainstream. I think women were just a monkey wrench, like, “Could you not? We’re battling here for a different economic system, a different definition of masculinity, all these different kinds of things.” The men of that scene thought they were in this crusade, and women just didn’t factor.

DZ: How would you assess the person you were in those beginning years?

LP: Good question. Does it sound weird to say that I’m impressed with my old self?

DZ: It does not.

LP: I feel a little bit inadequate to her when I look back in a certain respect because I identify with the artist in her. When I think of being privileged, I don’t think of material things. I think of being privileged to know that I was always an artist, as a woman. It sounds like no big thing, but growing up in America at the age I am—you were going against a number of things that didn’t want you to be that person. There were better uses for me, and I was trained up to my eyeballs to be some kind of model citizen. But I was an artist, and I knew it. There was no shaking it. There was never any other path for me. That’s why I didn’t feel like a part of a scene when I made that album and got up on stage. I felt alone. I didn’t feel like I was with my cool people that I was just hanging out with. Once you put an album out and it’s your own personal songs about heartbreak and loneliness and joy and sex, you’re there to be mocked. You’re there to be adored. You put yourself out there, and it’s suddenly someone else’s choice of how they’re going to treat you.

DZ: Let’s talk about the name Johnny in your songs…

LP: So many Johnnys!

DZ: “Johnny My Love,” “Johnny Feelgood.” Was there a Johnny in your life?

LP: There was a Johnny. And then a lot of times Johnny just became like John Doe. But one of the weird things about writing songs, and this is going to hurt every guy out there who’s pretty sure that the song I wrote is about him, is that you can have a song—and I’m a total cannibal, I will cannibalize my own material anytime I choose, in any cruel way. I may write about one Johnny, put it aside for half a year or a year, and then pick that song back up, and now I get to write it about the new guy I’m obsessed with, and he’s Johnny! So, Johnny is a way to directly speak to the guys I’m interested in while at the same time covering my ass.

DZ: When I listened to Exile in Guyville for the first time, I’d never really thought about “letters and sodas” being three words that would ever go together and sound so melancholy and romantic. Where did that come from?

LP: Let me go back. I’m adopted, and my parents had some fertility issues. But that meant my parents were a little bit older than most of my friends by the time they adopted. So, my mother and father, who were high school sweethearts—I know, disgusting! She was voted “Best Looking” in high school, and he was captain of the swim team. I won the adoption lottery! Anyway, “letters and sodas” came from this deep knowledge that what my parents had—that kind of love—was my example. I was never going to have that. I just freaking knew it. And I was right! I’m just a complicated person, and that is not for me. It’s like God’s like, “That’s not for you! You have something else, but that’s not for you.” But that doesn’t mean you don’t want it and see the beauty of it and long for it.

DZ: My wife has been trying to learn how to play “Explain It to Me” on her guitar. What do you love the most about playing guitar when it’s just you and the guitar by yourself?

LP: Thank you for that! The first part of that is that that my hands during that song are a little bit contorted. They’re about three-quarters of the way up the fretboard and just take the middle hammer on, hammer off thing, there’s no power chord—if she’s desperate to know, I can show you later! But it’s very simple. So, you’re using your index, middle, and ring fingers, and you’re sort of in the middle of the string about three-quarters of the way up, and then to get those low notes, you’re going to reach your ring finger or something really high up to the lowest E string and start hammering that on and off. It’s really hard to play! It’s not natural. And when I’m playing it live, I usually have my guitarist double me for in case I fuck up, because I write stuff that I can’t actually play. But I have it in my head. I can figure it out in my head, but I’m not capable of doing it, so I have to muddle my way through to get what I hear into reality.

DZ: You write things you cannot play?

LP: That’s a very true statement about me as an artist all around.

DZ: How do you feel these days when it’s you and the guitar alone?

LP: I am such a geek that I will enjoy tuning my guitar almost as much as playing it. I like to the think of the physics of the strings. I like to think of the harmonics. I listen. When I’m tuning, I’m tuning to an echo of the note about 16 revolutions down. I’m hearing how it fades. I have such geek hearing that when I play by myself, it’s so hypnotic and it’s much, much slower. And I’m really bent over this instrument and aware of this thing I’m playing, and like making love to the thing and making it make me excited and trying not to hit a thumb note. I’m trying to let the instrument sing, and I’m trying to harmonize with it. So, I write the songs much slower and more intimately, and if I cannot play it, then that’s part of the journey.

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