Liz Phair on ‘Guyville’ and the Secret to a Successful Topless Photo Shoot

Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Liz Phair’s 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, was a feminist manifesto of sorts — a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street on which the not-so-perfectly voiced Phair wrote unabashedly of how girls could be overtly sexual and heartbreakingly vulnerable at the same time. This week, old-school Liz followers will have a chance to reclaim their heroine, when she reissues Exile (plus a few new songs) along with a documentary about its making, Guyville Redux. She’s also beginning a tour in which she’ll sing the album in its entirety, making stops at the Hiro Ballroom tonight and tomorrow night. Phair spoke to Vulture about coming of age in a real-life "Guyville," her own knee-jerk feminism, and the lipsticking of one’s nipples for porny photo shoots.

These days you’re on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. What’s your relationship like? He seems so chill, while you’re a bit more high-strung…
Never underestimate my shortness; I may be really high energy and aggressive, but he’s a big man, and guys who are bigger tend to find me funny because they’re not particularly threatened. They’re like, “Look at that, she’s so cute, just yappin’ away!” That’s how it works out.

How does it feel going back to the material on Exile for the rerelease?
Listen to what’s on my car radio right now [turns up “Dance of the Seven Veils”]. I need to relearn all this stuff. I don't know that it's ever going to come out of me the same way, but when I listen to the record, I can feel that vibe coming over me — I can feel where I was at. Back then my life was so simple. I just lived in this state … it wasn't a particularly happy state, it was a kind of pissed-off, fuck-the-world, separate-from-the-world state. I didn't engage in the world. I could barely make it to the grocery store. So that's a challenge for me — getting back into that singular point of view.

In the documentary, John Cusack says he saw you as “the wrath of the repressed.” Did you feel like that when you were making the record, and do you still?
I did, and I still do occasionally, though it’s much different now. At the time, I was seething at the surface. I was a boiling hot tub of oil ready to scald if I could, ’cause I pretty much spent my youth trying to be perfect for everyone in a very preppy sense, and then abandoned that and went all the way to the dark side. I rejected everything and everyone I'd ever known before. Now I get pissed off about the most random things. I have this kind of knee-jerk feminism that comes out in ways I don't even understand — it's fucked up!

Like how?
Well, I was at a dinner table at an L.A. restaurant, and a nice one, and I reacted in a very strange way to the whole Obama-Hillary thing. I think Obama's amazing, and I wish he'll be president and she'd be V.P., but I was voting for Hillary, and people who are Obama supporters I felt were just really fucking aggressive, ripping her to pieces. I was like, "You know what? She's done a hell of a lot more than you have!" It was like it was me they were shredding. All the gender prejudice I've felt in my life. And I became this person I didn't even recognize. Someone was like, "Well, my mom worked on the Dianne Feinstein campaign, so I think I'm qualified to say…" and I did this thing where I, like, stuck my thumbs up in his face like, "Grrrrreat!" and the whole table went silent. It was so immature and weird.

It was interesting to learn from the documentary that you were pretty surrounded by guys on the making of Exile.
I really was in Guyville. When I went back to the documentary, the one unifying thing with the guys is, they all talk a really long time, and then I get a tiny little word in edgewise. They were all like, "This is what's good," "This is what you should like," and I was like, [sing-songy] "fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you."

One amusing instance of which was the shooting of Exile’s cover photo…
That was so funny. I turned in a still from a friend of mine's student film for the cover of the CD — it was an orgy of Barbies floating in a pool. Matador was like, "What the FUCK is this?!" They called up Nash [Kato, of Urge Overkill] and asked him to help. So he comes to me and goes, "Lizzy, listen, the record's great, but they're not digging this. Why don't you go into the photo booth, take off your shirt, leave on your necklaces." And before I went into the bathroom, he was like, "Oh, and remember to put lipstick on your nipples," because I have very light-pink nipples, and I figured it was some weird porno thing he knew about. Like, "Wow that’s why the nipples always look so good!" So I went in the photo booth, and for the first couple of shots, I was sort of shy. He really wanted me to just be like sex.

And you were down with that?
Oh, completely. I was always game to try fun and somewhat reckless things. And the last shot was just sort of wow — and that became the cover. And that one little nipple showed, which was a big deal later on — over the years various major labels recropped it. But it's back! Now you can enjoy the nipple. —Rebecca Milzoff

Related: Liz Phair Plays All of ‘Guyville,’ to the Best of Her Memory