“It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves,” Liz Phair writes in the prologue to her new memoir, Horror Stories. She would know, having confronted those difficulties very publicly. When her debut album, Exile in Guyville, was released in 1993, everyone had an opinion about the brash, unapologetic musician, who was like a cross between Alicia Silverstone and Anaïs Nin. As a relative unknown, Phair’s bold entrance onto the Chicago music scene drew pure vitriol from many of its denizens, though her music galvanized just as many others, in particular the legions of young women eager to see their own stories reflected back at them in a heavily male indie-rock scene.
In her book, Phair once again pulls back the curtain on her life, letting readers in on some of her darkest, most personal moments; she reminds us that our flaws and failures connect us and make us stronger, so there’s no use in hiding them. Ahead of a conversation with writer Jessica Hopper as part of Chicago Ideas Week on October 15, Phair sat down with Chicago to discuss her book and what she has planned for the future.
In the prologue to Horror Stories you write that the book is “about the small indignities that we all suffer daily” and that you try to “describe them in a way that makes them worth the effort.” The book is less a straightforward recollection of your life than a series of vignettes that had a part in forming you. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
I think that’s how I feel inside. I don’t walk around or live with my own career very present in my thoughts — I tend to stay in the artistic frame of mind. I’ve never personally been much of a fan of the straightforward career narrative that a lot of memoirs have. I’m more interested in people’s lives.
How did writing this book compare to songwriting?
I did find that when I did these stories, they felt like long songs. I approached them from the same point of view. You know, a lot of my songs, I drop right into the middle of a scene that’s already in progress, and I think I do the same thing in these chapters. It’s life as it’s going on at the time, and you’re looking at it through my eyes and seeing what I see and feeling what I feel, hopefully. I think that’s the same as songwriting.
In the book, in reference to the frank sexuality on Exile in Guyville, you note that you were “sick and tired of feeling like a prey animal.” You write: “I stopped running and instead turned the tables and charged right back at the predators.” Do you still feel that need to resist objectification by making yourself the subject of your sexuality?
I’m going to say the bad thing that you’re not supposed to say: When you reach a certain age, they don’t come after you as much. I still get hit on a lot, but I don’t feel, as a mature woman, that same sense of vulnerability that I felt then. But should I have to feel that way? No. But am I treated with more experience and less likely to slip up and make a mistake and sleep with you once in the afternoon? Yeah. No one really thinks that’s going to happen. But I think with young women, you come from college and everyone just hangs out in each other’s dorms, things are much more informal. You don’t know the rules yet, and I think they get taken advantage of a lot.
You grew up in Winnetka and famously spent a lot of time hanging around Wicker Park when you were working on Exile in Guyville. What was Chicago like then and how did it influence the record? It seems crucial, like if you were anywhere else it would be a completely different album.
I think it would be totally different. I was very influenced by the other musicians in the music scene that I was in at the time in Wicker Park, like Urge Overkill and Red Red Meat and Material Issue. There were a bunch of musicians in the area who really impressed me and I wanted to do something that was professional and comparable. I felt like no one took me seriously as a creator. I wanted to establish myself as a legitimate songwriter. That time in Chicago was so much less, to use a popular phrase right now, woke than today.
When I think about it, it seems dark, it seems cold, it seems exciting and lawless, in a way. Like, we were in a transitional neighborhood and a lot of us didn’t have a lot of money, but we all got together, anywhere we could, and shared music interests, listened to each other recording in the studio. There was a lot of cross-pollination with creative people in Chicago back then. And you actually had to go be with them to get that. There was no internet, so you couldn’t check them out online. You had to go see them play. It forges personal relationships, for better or for worse.
You were a part of Lilith Fair in the late ’90s, and prior to that, you noted how everything about the music industry was male, from the musicians to the executives to the roadies. What’s it like to be a working musician now? Do you see progress in that area?
I see a ton of progress. And I think still, by and large, men are the most common people that you encounter in the music business. But there’s so many more female artists and especially young female artists right now who are all unique and original. They seem to have a real sense of themselves. They’re not conforming to each other or to the standard of sort of male music. They’re being very much true to themselves and that is very inspiring to me.
In the chapter titled “Labor of Love,” you describe a ridiculous moment when midway through labor, your anesthesiologist asks for your autograph, but you don’t say whether you ended up giving it to him or not.
Because I really don’t remember. I’m sure I did sign it at the nursing station, I just don’t have any recollection. Like, once my son was born, I just don’t remember anything else. I hope you got the humor and it didn’t seem strictly traumatizing, because it wasn’t.
You’ve already signed on to write a second memoir. Do you have an idea of what themes that might touch on?
It’s the companion piece to Horror Stories, called Fairy Tales. And Random House bought both books, understanding that they were two parts of a memoir. I conceived of it as a yin-yang relationship. Horror Stories is about the dark, sort of subconscious, watery, darker, inward stories, with bright centers of beauty and light in it. Fairy Tales is going to be all about the big, exciting rock ’n’ roll moments that seem so triumphant and glamorous, but that actually have a dark center of something disturbing or disquieting. They are like bookends.
You’re working on new music with Brad Wood, who coproduced Guyville and its follow-up Whip-Smart. Can you talk about that?
We are and the album is almost finished. We did something that I didn’t know if we could actually pull off and it took awhile to find something that felt like it was us. If you like the first album, then you’ll like this music. But it feels like a new combination of us, much later, and we’re trying different things. I’m quite proud of it, and I hope people will like it. I think a lot of people are like: OK, great, book, but what about us? And I totally got you, I got you covered.
Horror Stories is on sale October 8, 2019. Random House, $28.