Out of Exile

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I don’t believe in “Heaven,” if what you mean by that is the whole St. Peter–pearly gates–throne of God–angels and harps and togas scenario.
But it would be cool if everyone ascended to their ideal place after they died — a genuine Good Place filled with whatever activities and people and locations they had found most pleasant and fulfilling in life. I’m thinking about this as Liz Phair greets me with a hug on a perfect blood-warm spring day high in the hills above Los Angeles. She smells like pinon incense and honey and she looks like a tiny, blue-eyed angel. Did I die? Whatever; here I am!

Phair, whose lyrics and music have been like scripture for me since I was 12, whose life and talent and career obsess me like no one else’s, is going to spend this whole day hanging out with me at the Getty museum, which in and of itself seems heavenly due to all the cream-­colored marble and its panoramic perch high above the city. Then we’re going to eat several perfect salads at some airy sunlit rich-person L.A. lunch restaurant and a French chauffeur is going to drive us around, past manicured palms and Michael Jackson’s old house and the Playboy mansion. The only out-of-place detail in this me-specific eternal paradise is that I’m seven months pregnant and sort of waddling around and I always have to pee, but in L.A. there’s always a comfortable nice bathroom nearby and you never have to walk very far.

The museum currently hosts an exhibit about ancient Egypt, which fascinates Phair, though history fascinates her in general: She’s always scrutinizing art from other times and places and looking for the women. This is what she tries to do with her albums, too, she tells me. “In my mind, I’m making historical documents. I’m doing these things to log on to history, like, ‘A woman lived in this time, and this is what it was like for her back then,’ ” she says. Phair flits through the gallery like a hummingbird, all flowing hair and floaty boho-chic maxidress. We have fun assessing the statues’ attractiveness; one reminds her of an Egyptian Channing Tatum (stupid-looking in a hot way). A multi-chinned fellow reminds us both of Rob Kardashian. Then we come to the prettiest statue we’ve yet seen, of a boy who died in his prime, a young companion of Emperor Hadrian who, the legend on his vitrine says, was “posthumously honored with a cult.”

“That sounds good. Where’s my cult?” Phair jokes.

Of course, she sort of already has one: a group of faithful who’ve been haunting message boards and collecting B-sides and rarities since the 1990s, venerating their goddess even through career transitions that have flummoxed less-fervent devotees. Phair’s current project caters to those loyalists. A new boxed set titled Girly-Sound to Guyville is the first commercial release of the three bedroom-recorded tapes that first introduced the world to Phair; it includes a brief oral history of the tapes’ secretive creation and quasi-accidental initial release. It also has a simple, poetic essay by Phair about what a typical day of her life was like back in 1991, when she was 25: living in Chicago’s Wicker Park and hanging out in that very macho music scene. It was there that she began to transform these bedroom demos into what would be her debut album, Exile in Guyville—an influential record whose success has defined her career ever since, making her, forever and unimpeachably, a rock star.

From the beginning, Phair was ambivalent about her fame; she initially shared the tapes not to book gigs or launch a career but to convince a select group of mostly male friends that she was “serious.” When I ask if she cared whether anyone ever heard them, she tells me, “I cared, but my ambition wasn’t that wide. I needed certain people to see it. But no, honestly, in a weird way, I don’t have that gene … I have the need to be taken seriously.”

Though she played guitar and wrote songs from childhood on, she’d never considered herself a performer, and when she went to college, she studied visual art, not music. Many songs on the Girly-Sound tapes were composed on an unamplified electric guitar in a tiny Lower East Side apartment during a junior year spent away from Oberlin while interning in New York City for visual artist Nancy Spero. They sound so personal because Phair literally was trying to keep her roommates from hearing her record them in her bedroom. Paradoxically, they are lyrically bold, stadium-­bombastic. Years before it was de rigueur for women to sing about sexual conquests and furious horniness, Phair sang, “I keep a close watch on this twat of mine / … and the condom on your dick’s the tie that binds.” There was a new kind of radical honesty there, too, not just braggadocio: “And we took off all our clothes / had a lot of sex and then fell asleep,” goes one verse of “In Love W/ Yself.”

The agonizing process of taking these songs out of the bedroom and into the recording studio for Exile in Guyville, and then out on tour, had a lasting effect on Phair. “I went from unemployed and super-avoiding-joining-society to being famous. Like famous-famous.” She is claustrophobic — carpools are a no-go, as are crowds and subways. And after her next album, Whip-Smart, failed to catch fire, she was ready to retreat, at least temporarily, into a life that was the complete opposite of the “adamantly free” one she’d described on Exile in Guyville. She met Jim Staskauskas, who’d also grown up in the posh suburbs of Chicago, when he edited one of her music videos, and in 1995, at 27, she married him. At 29, she gave birth to their son.

Elizabeth Staskauskas, as she was legally then known, was an entirely distinct entity from the woman Rolling Stone had featured on its cover under the headline A ROCK & ROLL STAR IS BORN. At first, this was a relief. Being a musician, even now, “doesn’t feel like my rightful job,” Phair explains. “It’s kind of weird — when I’m onstage now, I love it. Once I’m going, I feel like this is where I belong and this is where I am, but leading up to it, Elizabeth takes over. When I’m on downtime, she’s around.”

Elizabeth spent the six years of her marriage near Winnetka, where she grew up, surrounded by the rich Chicago doctors and their wives she’d lived among as a child and teenager. “You have to start giving dinner parties; you have to like do things in the community. There was just a whole extra job component.” I imagine the Phair I’ve long revered in this bizarre, reverse–Sasha Fierce mode, a suburban matron at 30; it makes me see the album she wrote next, White­chocolate­space­egg, in a whole new light.

White­chocolate­space­egg is almost nobody else’s favorite Liz Phair album, but lately it is mine. Of course, when it came out, I was 17, and I didn’t understand it one bit. At 36, pregnant and with a 2-year-old, I tear up as I tell Phair how much the lyric “It’s a death in our love that has brought us here / it’s a birth that has changed our lives” resonates with me. She says she can still cry thinking about that time, too. “I did bait-and-switch him a little bit,” she says of her ex-husband. She had thought that she could live happily as Elizabeth, but it soon turned out that she needed freedom to be Liz. Her claustrophobia isn’t only about crowds and tight spaces; it’s also about commitments. She had written “Divorce Song” many years before her actual divorce, but her insight about how it’s harder to be friends than lovers, and that you shouldn’t try to mix the two, turned out to be prescient.

She took five years to make her next album, a long time in pop culture; the difference between 1998 and 2003, to someone who wasn’t an adult during that time, is hard to explain. People stopped having CD collections and feeling safe in tall buildings? Everyone hated Liz Phair, Liz Phair fans most of all. And to be honest, I don’t love it either. The album contains no trace of Girly-Sound — no vestige of the lo-fi Phair who’d sung at the bottom of her register to avoid being heard. Instead, she posed nude behind an electric guitar on her album cover and sang about seducing a boy too young to “know who Liz Phair is.” The New York Times likened the album to a midlife crisis. Phair was 36.

Thinking about that moment now, Phair muses thoughtfully and without any visible rancor about how male rock musicians have long been allowed to have multistage, evolving careers, whereas women rock musicians haven’t often been afforded the same opportunity. “I felt like women are really seen as a version of a human. We’re not the main humans. We’re not here to stay. We’re not the firmament, we’re a shooting star.” She also says something that she claims no one wants to hear about those early-00s albums — that while she made them, she was “momming.” Her son was young; she was single and supporting him. “Everyone’s like, ‘Where’s your edge?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not attracted to the edge right now.’ But then later I was violently attracted to the edge, ’cause I’m like, Get me out of this momming phase.

My very favorite of her songs, “Shitloads of Money,” appears in an early version on Girly-Sound and in a more polished version, with a very different verse but the same chorus, on White­chocolate­space­egg. It contains what I’ve long thought of as her motto, words that she herself has possibly tried — and failed — to live her life by: “It’s nice to be liked / but it’s better by far to get paid.” When Liz Phair came out, I remember thinking, This is Liz being not liked but getting paid. Is that how she saw it, then, too? And did it work?

Liz Phair.
Clothes by Prada. Photo: Radka Leitmeritz/New York Magazine

Her perspective now, at 51, about that particular dichotomy is that striving for anything pushes you further away from it — like the scene in Alice in Wonderland (which she loves) where walking toward the house pushes Alice further away from the house. These days, her eye is on a different prize entirely: “I’m not in it for approval. I’m in it for a totally different drug. I’m in it for creation itself. I’m obsessed with the creative process. I love it.” It doesn’t bother her that Mick Jagger has, she is almost certain, never heard Exile in Guyville, which she loosely structured as a “response” to Exile on Main St. It also doesn’t bother her that Harry Styles, whom she has run into at her recording studio a few times, definitely has no idea who she is. (She didn’t know who he was at first either; she joked around with him when she thought he was the new intern, then froze in starstruck terror when she realized her mistake.)

It might be that she’s currently — finally — just far enough above the fray to both see it clearly and make the kind of art she truly wants to, for the first time since the early days of her career. But that will come after the Guyville tour — five stops in intimate venues, a challenging prospect not only because she has to play songs she hasn’t played in years, some of which she’s never played in public at all, but also because those songs are so similar in some instances to versions that made it onto her later albums. “I’m actually abjectly terrified to be up there and have like a brain short-circuit.” But it’s exciting to know that she’ll be playing to some of her most devoted fans, as well as some new acolytes.

On the day we meet, Donald Trump’s lawyer’s office has just been raided by the F.B.I., and the national mood (at least in my bicoastal bubble) is hopeful, in that bitter, punch-drunk way we’ve come to be so familiar with. One of the first signs that I’m not actually in Heaven is when Phair brings up Trump: “I’ll do anything I can to take him down,” she says as we stroll through the peaceful gallery full of artifacts of a dead civilization.

But Phair feels energized by current events, not enervated, and almost obligated to be more visible now, even though part of her would still like to stay home and be Elizabeth. “I’m coming out with a lot of content the next couple of years, and it’s specifically to push back, to make sure that that influence is there available and present. Just like … a woman working. Here’s my thoughts. Here are my opinions. I feel like we are obligated to put stuff out to counteract what is coming in.” A new album, the first since 2010’s quirky Funstyle, is in the works and will supposedly be produced by Ryan Adams, who announced with great Twitter fanfare that he was thrilled to be working with Phair, though Phair’s currently mum about the specifics. And Random House has just signed her up to write a memoir called Horror Stories. She says she reads every sentence out loud as she writes to make sure it sounds right.

After our perfect salads, Phair insists that we order dessert, profiteroles for her and a warm chocolate-chip cookie for me, and we talk about my son and her son’s early childhoods and for a moment I forget that I’m interviewing my idol and that this Heaven is temporary, not just an average day in my life. Phair asks tons of questions, giant blue eyes blazing with fervent interest; she makes me feel like we’re close even as she explains that this is a skill she’s honed over years of being a confessor for fans who, tricked by her intimate lyrics, mistake her for a friend. “When people come up to me that I don’t know, and they have something really important to tell me, I have this depth where I can take them in enough to feel what they’re saying, but I don’t have to feel it all the way to my full self.” It’s so nice there in that depth; I wish I could stay there forever.

Liz Phair, 25 Years Out of Exile