Liz Phair Revisits 'Exile'

Fifteen years after she released her groundbreaking album Exile in Guyville, the femme rocker is on tour, performing the album live in front of audiences. She discusses Exile's influence on herself as well as the music industry.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. 15 years ago, the musician Liz Phair put out her debut album. It was called "Exile in Guyville." Some of the sexually explicit songs shocked listeners, but most critics really liked this album. Spin Magazine once ranked "Exile in Guyville" number 15 on its list of 100 greatest albums. Now, Liz Phair has re-released the album, and she's performing material from it on tour. Day to Day's Alex Cohen has more.

(Soundbite of song "Shine a Light")

Mr. MICK JAGGER (Musician, The Rolling Stones): (Singing) Saw you stretched out in room ten-oh-nine...

ALEX COHEN: In the early 1990s, Liz Phair was out of a job and living in Chicago when she came across the Rolling Stones album "Exile on Main Street."

Ms. LIZ PHAIR (Musician): It was left in a box in this apartment that I was subletting from friends. It was just sitting in a box of cassettes. That's how long ago it was. It was a box of cassettes. And I think I listened to it in my Walkman.

COHEN: At the time, Phair had put out a few songs on her own, but she was looking to write and record her first full-length album.

Ms. PHAIR: I needed a template. I needed - I'm such a studious little girl. I needed something to tell me how to do it.

COHEN: "Exile on Main Street" became that template in part, Liz Phair says, because Mick Jagger's character on the album reminded her of a guy she had an unrequited crush on.

Ms. PHAIR: So, I kind of used his lyrics and what he was going through in that record as if that was the guy I was interested in talking to me, and then I talked back. And then he was talking to me, and sometimes I agreed with him, you know? And then sometimes I didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: It's so psychotic when you think about it, but - gotta have passion.

(Soundbite of song "Mesmerizing")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) You said things I wouldn't say.

COHEN: The result became 18 songs Phair titled "Exile in Guyville," a reference to the music scene in Chicago at the time.

Ms. PHAIR: Guyville to me was this oppressive force that was supposedly alternative but felt incredibly controlling and conservative in a sense of there was a canon, and you couldn't deviate. And I just remember hating that and feeling like I needed to show up the boys.

(Soundbite of song "Mesmerizing")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I want to be mesmerizing too.

COHEN: The boys took notice of "Exile in Guyville." So did the girls.

Ms. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (Musician, Sleater-Kinney): I will always remember the first time I heard it.

COHEN: Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney blogs about music for NPR. Brownstein was 19 and going to college in Olympia, Washington when she first heard "Exile in Guyville."

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: She didn't have an amazing voice, but there was something so serious and so deadly about her delivery.

(Soundbite of song "Divorce Song")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead. But if you're tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.

COHEN: Brownstein particularly liked this tune, called "Divorce Song," about a guy and a girl on a road trip.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: There's something so devastating about the car ride that she depicts in that song and just this sense of the worst way to feel alone is to feel alone with somebody else.

COHEN: Other songs on the album were not as radio-friendly. Raunchy lyrics and songs about sexual encounters led some critics to call Phair a foul-mouthed novice who was just craving attention. But they were the minority. "Exile in Guyville" quickly became a hit. Soon, Liz Phair appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine with the headline, "A Rock Star is Born."

Ms. PHAIR: I did not know what I was in for. You know, it was a wild ride.

COHEN: Looking back at the time, Liz Phair says she was desperately unprepared for the swift success of her first album.

Ms. PHAIR: I went back, and I read a lot of articles, interviews I'd done at the time, and I was given a clear picture of myself, which was not always flattering. I had some kind of megalomania.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: I had this confidence that I couldn't really back up.

COHEN: Back then, Liz Phair struggled to play "Exile in Guyville" at live concerts.

Ms. PHAIR: Expectations were high, and I couldn't perform to save my life. So I sucked. It was kind of traumatic but very high voltage.

COHEN: Critics were disappointed by her live performances of "Exile in Guyville" and by some of her later albums. In 2003, she put out a highly-produced, self-titled album on Capitol Records.

(Soundbite of song "Why Can't I")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you.

Ms. MEGHAN O'ROURKE (Author and Critic): Liz Phair often sounds desperate or clueless.

COHEN: Culture critic Meghan O'Rourke wrote a New York Times review which savaged the album.

Ms. O'ROURKE: The album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis and a new Corvette.

COHEN: O'Rourke was one of many critics who were disappointed by Phair's later work.

Ms. O'ROURKE: Liz Phair actually has a gift when she writes about, you know, sex and relationships with a real funny intelligence and a kind of bitterness that's offset by romanticism. And it just seemed like this total mistake to abandon all of that idiosyncrasy in favor of, kind of, pitch-corrected pop music.

COHEN: Despite solid record sales, Phair says the critical response took a personal toll.

Ms. PHAIR: All the people who'd been loyal to Guyville felt like I had just slapped them in the face. I think they felt broken up with, and so they just ripped me a new one. They didn't even give it a chance.

(Soundbite of song "Girls! Girls! Girls!")

COHEN: After all the ups and downs Phair went through with "Exile in Guyville," it would be easy to see how she'd want to distance herself from it completely. And for a while she did. But as the 15th anniversary of the album approached, she found herself listening to the Guyville songs again in a whole new way.

Ms. PHAIR: One of the ones that's funny to me is "Girls! Girls! Girls!"

(Soundbite of song "Girls! Girls! Girls!")

Ms. PHAIR (Singing): Because I take...

Ms. PHAIR: "I take full advantage of every man I meet." I can't believe that I really did that. But I really did. I mean I really used - and those girls are now the bane of my existence.

COHEN: Phair decided, instead of ignoring her past, that she would go back and revisit "Exile in Guyville."

Ms. PHAIR: You figure this... I think it needs a new tape.

COHEN: Phair picked up a video camera and interviewed all sorts of folks about the album, including public radio's Ira Glass, musician Dave Matthews, actor John Cusack, and the guy she had that crush on back then.

Unidentified Man #4: But I, you know, always proud of...

COHEN: Those interviews, Phair says, helped her make peace with the album. They also became an hour-long documentary which she released along with the remastered version of "Exile in Guyville."

Ms. PHAIR: OK guys, ready to go back to Guyville?

(Soundbite of cheering)

COHEN: Recently, she's also been performing the album live in concert.

(Soundbite of song "6'1" performed live)

Ms. PHAIR: It's pretty fun to go through the songs and have the resonance between way back then - and yeah, I can certainly play them a lot better than I did when it first came out. It's kind of, it's a nice closure in a weird way, kind of like puts it to bed the right way this time.

COHEN: The Exile in Guyville tour will wrap up in Seattle tomorrow. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

CHADWICK: You can hear more of Alex's interview with Liz Phair and tune in to a webcast from the concert performance of "Exile in Guyville" from last night. This is all at NPR's music website, npr.org/music.

I'm Alex Chadwick, and that's Day to Day.

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Liz Phair's 'Exile In Guyville' Live

300 Liz Phair

hide captionLiz Phair, performing Exile in Guyville live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, Calif.

Adam Cuthbert

A lot has changed in the 15 years since Liz Phair first unleashed her provocative and playfully raunchy album Exile in Guyville. The sexually charged and profane songs, though still compelling, seem almost tame by today's standards. The novelty of chick-rock has long since passed, as countless other women have joined the mix. And Phair herself now says that Exile is, in retrospect, more a sad testament to her personal struggles and vulnerability than an empowering statement.

But Exile in Guyville still resonates — if not for its faded shock value, then for its brilliant songcraft. It remains a vivid, beautifully realized pastiche of hard rock, moody piano pieces and power-pop. Phair's piercing but wryly delivered confessionals, her ringing guitar and muscular riffs, and producer Brad Wood's crisp studio work spawned countless imitators. Exile was a remarkably confident and virtually flawless debut, and 15 years later, it remains a classic.

Since its release, Phair has distanced herself somewhat from the album that made her famous. She says that she avoided listening to it for many years. The kind of music Phair wanted to make evolved as she grew older, and she grew less interested in exploring the themes of Exile. Recalling the feelings the album dredges up hasn't always been easy.

"In a weird way, the reason I can play the record now and be emotionally present in it is because I'm not the same person," Phair tells NPR's Alex Cohen. "I've worked long and hard on personal growth because I wasn't that happy — the thread of that record is pain."

While Matador Records originally released Exile in Guyville and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, the album eventually fell out print. ATO recently acquired rights to the recordings and released a special, 15th-anniversary edition of the CD this summer, adding four previously unreleased tracks.

In spite of her misgivings, Phair agreed to mark the 15th anniversary of Exile in Guyville with a limited tour, performing the entire album in select cities. Phair tells NPR's Alex Cohen the concerts have been cathartic. "It's pretty fun to go through the songs and have the resonance between way back then and now, and I can certainly play them a lot better than I did when it first came out. It's a nice closure in a weird way. It kind of puts it to bed the right way this time."

This performance by Phair was recorded live at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, Calif., on Oct. 5. Alex Cohen hosts.

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