Liz Phair Returns to Wicker Park & Confronts Her Critics
Liz Phair pulls up to the front of the restaurant where we had arranged to meet just a few minutes after noon. “I’m not sure where to park!” she says after rolling down the passenger-side window. I hop into the front seat next to her and she waves an apology to the anonymous driver directly behind her on North Avenue in Wicker Park, the northwest neighborhood where she lived and recorded her debut album, Exile in Guyville, nearly twenty years ago. We turn left onto a residential street to find a parking spot, but she’s unfamiliar with Chicago’s strict parking laws and I advise her to find a place on North Avenue.
“You just moved to New York from Chicago, right?” she asks. “Why’d you leave?”
I explain that I had moved to Chicago after college, having grown up in a small town in Virginia. “After five years,” I say, “Chicago started to feel like a small town of its own.”
“That sounds about right,” she replies.
Phair moved with her family to Winnetka, an upper-middle class suburb on Chicago’s North Shore after spending her early childhood in Connecticut and Ohio. “Chicago feels like my home,” she says after we park the car and walk into Piece, a pizzeria and brewery on North Avenue a block east of the six-cornered intersection at Damen and Milwaukee. “I make it back here about twice a year. I always fantasize about Christmas in Chicago, but it’s way too cold. This is about as much as I can take.” It’s two days before Thanksgiving (she and her teenage son are staying with her parents in the suburbs, and it’s her parents’ silver Lexus that she has borrowed for the afternoon), and the weather has turned bitterly cold.
Phair hasn’t lived in Chicago for ten years – she left in 2000 to move to Los Angeles, where she now lives – but she spent the majority of her twenties in the city, primarily on the Northwest side. “There was nothing out here then,” she says of Wicker Park. “There were a couple of bars, and I remember a restaurant opening up right below the train station, but it was mostly Polish families.” The gentrification of Wicker Park in the last ten years has been notorious; massive restaurants sit at the major intersection, and swanky boutiques and chain retailers like Urban Outfitters, Club Monaco, and American Apparel line the streets. An old fire station that was famously converted into the Real World house in 2001 now houses a Cheetah gym.
“The yuppies did not live out here then,” she says. “There were a lot of artists. It was weird, because you’d walk down the street and see these little cleaning ladies coming home from work, carrying their supplies. And then you’d spot the Urge Overkill guys walking around looking like rock stars and wearing blue sunglasses. They always dressed like that!” Today, Phair dresses appropriately for the neighborhood, pairing a black wrap sweater over a bright metallic miniskirt with a thick gold belt just above the waist.
Chicago was hometown to a handful of musicians who had their big break in the early ’90s, and the neighborhood was the center of the male-dominated music scene. It was a perfect place for Phair to put the final touches on her original demo tapes (which she passed onto friends under the name “Girly Sound”), recordings comprised of songs she wrote during her last years at Oberlin College and a brief stint in San Francisco, where she moved after graduating from college. “I blew through my savings,” she explains of her return to Chicago from the West Coast. “I mooched off of everyone. I was afraid of my parents finding out how poor I was. I remember going to my friends’ houses at lunchtime hoping they’d have something to eat. Even now I always look in the pantry to see what my friends have. I got so used to doing that.”
The Girly Sound tapes eventually caught the attention of John Henderson, the founder of the label called Feel Good All Over. “John liked the songs and wanted to work with me,” Phair says. “He offered me a room in his apartment for cheap, so I moved in.” The partnership did not prove successful. “We argued all of the time,” she says of the collaboration. After sending her demos to Matador Records, she recorded what became Exile in Guyville with producer Brad Wood.
Guyville is widely considered to be about the scene in Wicker Park; the name comes from an Urge Overkill song called “Goodbye to Guyville,” and the term was coined by a regular patron of the Rainbo Club, a hipster dive just south of the neighborhood in the bordering Ukrainian Village. It was just around the corner from Rainbo that Phair lived with John Henderson. We drive by the apartment after lunch. She pulls into the alley next to the generic, slightly run-down two-flat building and points at her old bedroom window. “And there’s the back porch,” she says, alluding to a story Henderson recalled in the documentary that was included with Guyville‘s reissue in which he fondly remembered her practicing her sets to an invisible audience in the backyard.
Phair has hardly been the critical darling that she was following her debut. Guyville is still widely considered a groundbreaking record, but it proved to be an accomplishment to which her later works would always be compared. Critics are prone to use the term “sell-out” to describe her after the release of her eponymous album in 2003, on which she collaborated with pop producers The Matrix. “I wasn’t happy with the songs I had recorded with Michael Penn, and we had run out of money,” she explains. “Capitol would only pay for me to record with The Matrix.” I ask if she regrets that collaboration, and she shakes her head. “I’ve never felt forced into anything. I’m not a victim! I was open to trying something new.”
“They still hate me here, and I’m not sure why,” she sighs. “They saw me as this suburban girl who flung her guitar around and flashed her tits on the album cover. They never took me seriously.” By “they” one must assume Phair is referring to the men of Guyville, the musicians and producers and “tastemakers” she called-out in the lyrics on that album. “I was attacking those guys, and they weren’t even mad about that! After I broke, a bunch of A&R people from the labels came to Chicago, and I think people here resented me for it.”
One fierce critic was Steve Albini, who infamously wrote in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Reader that Phair was “more talked about than heard” and “a fucking chore to listen to.” Phair features Albini in the Guyville documentary. “I tried to push him into saying he hated [the album], but he wouldn’t. I even asked if I could record at his studio,” she laughs. “He said no! I don’t know, I thought he was so friendly when I saw him that maybe he’d be into it.”
I bring up the mini-tour she did to support the reissue of Guyville in 2008, admitting that I was in the front of the audience at The Vic when she played Chicago. Of the four shows she did – she also played the album in its entirety in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York – the reviews in Chicago were the only poor ones. I mention seeing NPR critic Jim DeRogatis sitting in a VIP booth above the crowd and that he sat behind his laptop for the entire concert. Phair rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? That was a really good show.”
Like the Westside neighborhoods that provided the setting for that first record, Liz Phair has done a little bit of gentrifying, too, which is a truth that some of her fans – and a lot of music critics – have had a difficult time accepting. Each of her albums since Guyville has gotten a little more listener-friendly, a little less angry and gruff. Her voice has softened with age (and with the help of voice lessons), but she seems to sound and look like a woman much younger than her 43 years. She has retained the sex appeal she had as a twenty-something, but instead of commanding that sexuality with an aggressive nature, the forty-something Liz Phair seems more playful and less domineering. She’s still single, and perhaps the misconception that she’s an intimidating figure doesn’t help her find what she’s looking for in a mate. “I don’t like weak men,” she says. “I like a man that makes me feel like a woman. But at the same time, I don’t want someone to be mean to me.”
We park in front of the Wooden Gallery, an art space in Ukrainian Village above which Phair lived for a brief period of time. She pulls off her puffy black coat (“This was my coat when I still lived in Chicago,” she tells me. “I left it here when I moved to LA”) and shakes her shiny blonde hair so that it naturally falls on the shoulders of her black sweater, which, like the car she is driving, she confesses to have borrowed from her mother. “I still owe the landlord a month’s rent,” she says. I suggest we walk around the neighborhood to find more familiar sights. “Oh, we are definitely going to drive,” she replies. “It’s not that it’s so cold or these heels are hard to walk in. I just feel like I could get trapped here.”
Phair zips north through Wicker Park’s side streets and alleyways, pointing out the old apartments where friends once lived. I ask her about her friends, specifically the women. She doesn’t write about women much, and one song in particular (“Girls! Girls! Girls!” from Guyville) pits them as her competition. “I have a lot of girlfriends, but I am guy-crazy,” she tells me. “I see art-making as a chance to unleash what needs to be unleashed and to tell something about myself almost by accident. I write to figure out my issues.” She sings the opening line of “Miss September,” a song on her self-released album Funstyle: “I’ve been in this Garden of Eden a long time, and I’ve never seen Adam do anything that I understand.”
We talk about Funstyle, the divisive album Phair released out of nowhere on the Fourth of July, in the context of her original Girly Sound tapes. Those demos included several songs that never made it onto her proper albums, some six or seven minutes long and featuring Phair singing in crazy voices or telling jokes in accents. She considers herself to have come full-circle with Funstyle, on which she impersonates record executives and even raps over bhangra samples. While her hardcore fans didn’t seem to mind a return to her playful roots, music critics were less thrilled with the album. “People can’t take a joke,” she complains. “The majority of those reviews seem like the critics wanking off. I’ve started writing book reviews, and I try to say what works and what doesn’t, but get to the point! It’s not about you!” Perhaps that’s the reason why Phair’s fans have turned on her – her songs are so personal, so completely relatable, that it’s easy to take offense at the notion that she wanted to pursue something different. It’s also hard to ignore the negative impact that a debut album has on an artist. She was doomed from the beginning and has always been expected to recreate Guyville on every subsequent album whether she wanted to or not. It’s difficult to fault her for taking those risks. After all, each Liz Phair album sounds completely different, and that is the reason her fans and critics get so excited whenever she releases something new.
As we drive north on Damen, Phair gets visibly frustrated by the line of cars standing still at a stop light. She cruises by them, fiddling with the buttons on the stereo to change it from the classical music station her mother had been listening to the day before. “This is probably super illegal, but I don’t care,” she says as she drives in the bike lane, “I’m an aggressive driver. I’m a driver. Everyone in LA is a commuter, and they’re all ten-and-two.” She slams her hands at the DMV-recommended spots on the steering wheel. “These people are my enemies,” she says while gripping the wheel and hunching forward in her seat. “Are you ten-and-two?” I laugh a little nervously, admitting that I didn’t have a car while I lived in Chicago, letting myself off the hook.
We head east on Fullerton Avenue toward Lincoln Park, the neighborhood where Phair lived after she got married and had her son. It’s starkly different from the neighborhoods to the west. The two-flat apartment buildings look much cleaner and polished than those in Wicker Park, and most have been converted into single-family homes. She maneuvers the one-way streets and finally finds her old house on Geneva Terrace, a lovely two-story red townhouse, which she hasn’t seen since she moved to LA. “They painted the door! And they ripped out the tree in front – that’s not cool!” She seems to reminisce more about living in Lincoln Park than in Wicker Park; she drives by her son’s old preschool, excitedly leaning over in the car to look inside the front windows. “This is probably really boring,” she apologizes.
“Chicago can be so lonesome,” Phair says. “Everyone stays inside in the winter, and you can hear that wind howling by the windows. I think Guyville expressed that loneliness.” I ask what her parents thought of the album when it was released. “My mom cried,” she replies. “They were hurt and embarrassed, and I didn’t understand why.” Listening to the album again to prepare for the reissue, she admits that she started to hear it in a different way. “I thought I was so cool back then, so fearless. Now I know that I was miserable.” I admit to her that I never considered the album to be as empowering as people hail it to be, that there’s an overpowering sadness to it. “Well, you’re not a woman,” she responds with a raised eyebrow, somewhat taking me to task. “There’s something about being stripped down and naked and exposed because it forces a confrontation. That‘s empowerment.”