Liz Phair Promises No 'Bullshit' In New Memoir

ISSUE 20 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Phair onstage in 1994. 

“I felt an extreme need not to bullshit,” says Liz Phair of her forthcoming memoir, Horror Stories (Oct. 8, Random House). For the indie-rock trailblazer — who today is calling while en route to the Los Angeles recording studio where she's been at work on a new album — such candor is nothing new: Beginning with her groundbreaking 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, and throughout her career since, Phair, 52, has favored blunt and honest over anything rose-colored. So when it came to writing a book, she wasn’t about to offer anything but a collection of real-life tales of motherhood, fame, death, love -- and all of the haunting mistakes she made along the way.

You’ve always been very frank in your music. Did you feel obligated to express that same openness in Horror Stories?

I felt it, but not in an internal way. I didn’t feel like a fan was looking over my shoulder. But I did really feel that, what was the point of putting out something that wasn’t honest? I had to fully, and in an artful way, be as honest as I could.

In an Instagram world, where we constantly see curated lives, that kind of honesty is rare.

Exactly. We’re all our own product, and that’s not really life. I always felt grateful to writers who would share their real lives. I wanted to be a part of that, and I wanted this book to feel real 50 years from now. I remember my mom gave me a book at Christmas of poetry by women in antiquity, and it always blew my mind when you could see the real lives and emotions and romantic ups and downs of these people. I wanted to be a part of that. And sure, I pushed these stories into shapes that are literary, but at the same time I did not spare myself. Right now, it's so powerful to hear the un-curated. 

What’s the “horror” in these stories?

I started writing because I was so upset with what was happening in the world, and it was my way to feel empowered when I felt incredibly powerless and horrified. You see something really traumatic, and then you just go on your lunch break with colleagues -- that kind of cognitive dissonance between absorbing all the stuff that’s emotionally impactful and then carrying on as if it’s not. I wanted to monumentalize caring. I needed to monumentalize giving a fuck.

What was the most difficult horror to write about?

What I was looking at in the culture is people not taking responsibillity for their actions — people doing things that were incredibly hurtful and not caring — and I couldn't understand that. I looked down deeper and asked, "When have I done that?" I didn't like showing the bad side of things I've done, and I don't really forgive myuself so much as I have changed my behavior and outlook. You can't quite erase, but you can polish it up or give a cautionary tale or sense of solidarity for other people who have fucked up.

Horror Stories is the first of a two-book series. What will the second look like?

It’s a companion piece called Fairytales. It will be more about the big, flashy career moments and big exciting things that also are wrapped up in the lies we tell ourselves -- the way we perceive things versus the way we really are.

The 25th-anniversary reissue of Guyville synced up with #MeToo, and you became a bit of a face for the movement. Did you feel comfortable with that?

I felt a little unworthy. People were looking to me for something, and I was just as lost as everyone else. I realized that everybody just needed to come together where they could to support something that flew in the face of what was upsetting to them. I became a symbol for a couple of months, and it was weird at first, but then I embraced it and realized I needed it as much as they did. My music became a collective “Fuck you,” but in a good way.

And now you're making new music again. Did being on the road again recently feed into that process?

I came back to [producer] Brad [Wood], who recorded Guyville. That happened after reconnecting with fans, putting out the reissue, and immersing myself in what we had done and coming full circle. I don't feel like I have to prove I can do something on my own anymore. Playing every night made me feel like what I used to feel like, and the demons and monsters of my brain were not as dark as some of the real things out there. Getting together and playing old music made me want to revisit that environment. 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.


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