WICKER PARK — Wicker Park may have changed a lot since the 1990s, but Liz Phair is still someone who the neighborhood is proud of, even if she was only there for a short period of time and actually grew up in Winnetka.
They still claim her, as they did with Nelson Algren before her, even if she has been living in California for years. It’s probably fair, as her most critically-acclaimed album, her 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville” captured the scene in Chicago in the 1990s and Wicker Park was the epicenter.
Phair, now 52, may have moved away long ago, but she’s still making music (a new album is wrapping up now), and her first ever book, “Horror Stories” comes out Tuesday.
Despite its title, it is not the story of a lone woman in “Guyville” or a tell-all about the male-dominated industry or the Chicago scene in the 1990s. Rather it’s a brutally honest collection of stories of things that affected Phair greatly, making her who she is.
She may be well known for provocative lyrics, but she’s never been as naked as she is in the well-written book, which includes stories from her childhood, before and after her big break in music, giving birth, her former marriage and a few relationships, as well as random encounters with strangers. The horror in “Horror Stories” is not a big, bad monster. Rather, it’s the everyday shortcomings and personal disappointments that stick with us all.
Block Club Chicago contributor Bob Chiarito talked to Phair about her book, the differences between it and her music, her new album and more.
BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO: A lot of your songs tell stories. However, a lot of them are open for interpretation. With book, the stories you tell are literally spelled out. Was this something you were aware of when starting to write the book?
LIZ PHAIR: I knew it would be my full self speaking, rather than “Liz Phair” and I think over the years, that side of me has become very defined and a very, strong narrow signal. There’s a way that I speak in “Liz Phairian” when I’m writing songs that I think at first was a challenge. Like, how do I stretch a three-minute song into a chapter and make it my actual self speaking? So, I had to find a voice and that took awhile.
BCC: That said — there are stories that have more than one lesson, like the story of you finding your way to back to New York’s Flatiron Building in the middle of the night during a blizzard in 2010. That was on purpose?
LP: Yeah. (laughs)
BCC: Have you journaled all your life? Is that where these stories came from?
LP: No, I really don’t. I have a very selective memory and there’s a whole swath of time that I really can’t remember anything from, and then I have these captured, vivid, super-realistic memories. Like, when I saw the movie “Inception” I thought, “Oh my God, that’s how my brain works.” A lot of it’s gone but what remains is super vivid, like I’m actually almost tripping when I think about it. I smell and see and feel. I don’t know why some things stuck with me and some things didn’t.
BCC: Early in the book, you tell a couple stories that you felt bad about — the passed out woman on the bathroom floor and the man who smiled at you on the “L.” Like some creatives, you think about the stories of these people, what their lives are like, etc.
LP: I’ve always done that. I always wonder about people, what are they really feeling, where did they come from, where are they going to. I think that’s the artist in me. I think in a way the book shows the engine that creates the other stuff. I’m a very sensitive person who can turn it off when I have to but most of the time I’m doing the observing rather than being the observed person.
BCC: I was struck how at times you felt bad or guilty, and those stories specifically felt like the scene in “Schindler’s List” where Oscar Schindler laments how he could have done more. Do you feel like that?
LP: I take it pretty hard when I disappoint myself. I think when I was younger I ran from it more but the older I got, the more I could face my own failings. When I did my first documentary about “Guyville” in 2009, I called it “Guyville Redux” and I did it for ATO Records. And going back and speaking to everyone, I had run away from my past after “Guyville.” I kinda left that neighborhood and stopped hanging out with those people. Going back and talking to everybody whose lives had moved on and who have gone on to do different things, but they all remembered that record being sort of a flash-point in that neighborhood. It was such a healing process that I think I had a little more faith going into this book that even if I didn’t want to look at some of the things I had done, I was going to be better for it if I could grapple with it and turn it around like a Rubik’s Cube and just fiddle with it for awhile and try to figure out why I still remember it and then try to put that to bed.
BCC: You did tell me when I interviewed you last year that “Horror Stories” was a way of exercising some demons. Do you feel like you’ve gotten some sort of weight off your back by writing the book?
LP: I do. I feel like I’ve been sort of arguing in my own subconscious about those incidents for years and I think through the process of writing, you have to take a stand. You can leave it ambiguous but to a certain extent I tried not to leave it ambiguous. In the beginning of the book I talk about how my manager said after Bowie died and Prince died, my manager said “If this was your last record” or, in response to the book — “If this was the last piece of art that you left behind, would that satisfy you?” Like, have you said everything you needed to say? And I thought I haven’t even come close to saying everything I need to say and this book and the next book which will be fairy tales which are all the fun, showy, glamorous memories that also have quiet moments. It will be the yin yang, so this book is the darkness with the bright spot of truth and beauty and light in the center of it and the next book will be all the bright, showy glamorous stuff with the dark spots.
BCC: How far along are you on that book?
LP: Not really at all. I’ve been finishing this record and working on “Horror Stories” while touring, I just didn’t have time to start Fairy Tales but I am really ready to turn to the bright side of things.
BCC: I didn’t read anything about your book before reading it and wrongly assumed it was going to be about a female rock star in a male dominated industry — but it’s not that at all. You touch on that a little bit but it’s more about you as a person and I think a lot of the stories are universal and probably more relatable to the readers.
LP: That interests me more. The big career trajectory doesn’t even interest me. It doesn’t interest me in my life and it does’t interest me in other people’s lives so much. My dad loves that, he loves historical figures and figuring out how they got where they got. Like, how did Napoleon…(laughs). He lives for that. That’s like our miscommunication because he wants to know the dates and the times and the facts and I’m so much more in the moment and I’m really connecting emotionally with people. I’m trying to get their spirit and their essence. It’s just where I focus and I had to take a stand. I knew people would want the other stuff but this is more what I believe in, this is what I think is important in life.
BCC: Do you wish you could have read this book about yourself when you were 19?
LP: (Laughs) You mean, would I like to not make the mistakes younger? (laughter) I just feel like I would have made other mistakes. I think the best takeaway for me writing this book was finding compassion for myself for the things that I really, absolutely don’t forgive myself for. I don’t have to forgive myself for doing it but I can have compassion. We all struggle, we all make mistakes. We’re all muddling through, we’re really honestly trying.
BCC: You famously have stage fright but the stories you tell in the book seem to be a lot more soul-baring than anything you’ve ever done. Did you have any fear about being so open?
LP: I do. I would say the last two months have been kind of excruciating because I didn’t know what people would make of it and I knew I had put it all out there. So, I had to white knuckle it until I feel there was an audience for it, but just knowing the family and friends— aargh! They made the mistake of introducing me to great, fine art and explaining what great, fine art was when I was young and I took it to heart. I thought if you’re going to make art, you better throw it all out there and leave it on the field. So, I do that but it’s not comfortable. I don’t just waltz through that like it’s nothing, it’s actually very painful. But I do believe in terms of things with lasting value, you kind of have to.
BCC: A lot of things seem to have a life of their own in your imagination and reading your book, the writing is excellent. I get the sense that if you wanted, you would be a fantastic fiction writer. Is that something you’ve ever considered?
LP: Do you think?
BCC: Yeah, I do. Is writing a novel something you’d ever consider?
LP: I would. I tried it early on and it was so daunting because all the world building, there’s so many pulleys and levers for fiction, it terrified me. It seems easy but when you actually try it, it’s so difficult. How do you justify why this character is here? How do you make sure the character spoke like a realistic sounding person and also moves the plot? There are so many things, and I’m getting all spastic and excited here because I think I would like to try doing it, it just seems really — I’m so much more impressed with people who write fiction now having written this book.
BCC: You will be embarking on a reading tour soon in a few major cities. You’re speaking on at the Chicago Ideas Week event on October 15. One is a conversation about “Horror Stories” but you’re also speaking on a panel called “Do We Have All the Answers?” Seems that perhaps it’s related because in a way the book was your way of exploring a lot of questions in your own life, correct?
LP: What’s funny about that is that I didn’t know I was going to be on a panel (laughs). That’s exciting. I knew I was doing Ideas Week but didn’t know about the panel, but yeah, one thousand percent this book is about that. This is as close to my time capsule, when I think about this book I hope in 50 years some girl picks it up, finds it in some used book store, and it still feels like she suddenly has a friend who knows her secrets and who she can tell her secrets to. That’s the big payoff that I’m in it for. So, in a sense, do I ever think we know all the answers or can know all the answers? Of course not, but we can confirm with each other that this is what life is like. I think that’s why I’m so big on honesty because we are only here for such a short amount of time, why are we faking and tripping all over ourselves to disguise what this experience is because we miss it in our efforts to distract and make you look over here. I think it’s cool enough just to exist and we should all share our truth.
BCC: You said you recorded a new album, when will that be out?
LP: I want to put it out now, I want to go, go, go. (Laughs). We’re putting out the first single next Friday. It’s called “Good Side.” A bunch of the songs aren’t fully mixed yet but it will be all wrapped up by the end of the month.
BCC: What’s the name of the album?
LP: I don’t know yet, I don’t know. But I recorded it with Brad Wood who worked on “Exile in Guyville” with me and we’re going to get Casey Rice to do some guitar. It will be the old crew, back together again.