The fierce alt-rocker still has a lot to say, but this time she's doing it in book form. "I wanted to do something meaningful and make a stand in support of not being shallow, not hiding and concealing."

By Ilana Kaplan
September 23, 2019 at 12:30 PM EDT
Elizabeth Weinberg

Since her 1993 breakout album Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair has garnered a reputation as a feminist pioneer in the music industry, blending her own candor and authenticity into her songwriting. That much hasn’t changed, though the medium in which she expresses herself for the moment has. 

With the release of her debut memoir Horror Stories, due Oct. 8, Phair unveils personal anecdotes, mistakes, and flaws and connects them to universal experiences of pain, regret, and guilt. In doing so, there’s a layer of compassion and humanity that shines through. The singer, 52, has never quite been this exposed; there was no character for her to play. 

“To me, this is how I go through life and I want to be honest about it,” says Phair over the phone from Los Angeles. “I want people to come away from reading the book being able to tell the people in their lives more about themselves.” 

The alt-rocker’s Patti Smith-like essays, which range from encountering sexual harassment to the unexpected surfacing of survival skills (like ending up alone in the New York City wilderness during a blizzard) tout a through-line of her signature wit and confront the complexities that exist in the world around us. 

Phair’s desire to craft something vulnerable stemmed partly from the 2016 presidential election. For two years, she dedicated herself to opening up in her writing, this time in prose form. “There was such a rush within me to want to connect in a meaningful way because everything was so awful and disconnected,” she says. Then there was the passing of both David Bowie and Prince, along with a conversation with her manager about the uncertainty of death, which had her contemplating her final work. She recalls her manager saying, “You never know when you’re gonna die. Could happen anytime. Is this the record you’d want to make if it was your last one?” It gave her pause. “It got me thinking,” she says, “what would I do if it were my last piece of art? I wanted to do something meaningful and make a stand in support of not being shallow, not hiding and concealing.”

Horror Stories in many ways is just that, as Phair calls it her “warrior stance.” But instead of putting on armor, she’s taking it off. Using stories from her childhood through her career, Phair explores various “horrors” she’s encountered, which aren’t always typical. “We’re all sleeping on a pile of horrors we don’t want to look at anymore,” she says. “It’s so easy to point to other people and say, ‘That’s bad.’ But what are you not acknowledging or accepting about yourself?”

For Phair, it’s recounting observations, examining past mistakes, and sharing the things that changed her perspectives. For instance, falling for a bandmate who had a girlfriend, being a bystander to a girl passed out in a bathroom, or the daily struggle of dealing with sexual harassment and misogyny. “We’re bombarded with images and horror all the time, but what we don’t do is pull back from the spectacle and look at our own emotional engagement. I feel like the world would be better if we were emotionally literate, and that’s the hill I want to make my last stand on.” Phair is also looking for people to slow down, adding, “We skip from big moment to big moment, and that’s the story we tell ourselves about our lives, but most of what we do is small, private, and individually witnessed and experienced.”

Liz Phair performing in 1994
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

While all of the chapters tell intimate details of Phair’s life, there is a section in particular she’s well aware readers will be talking about: one which details her own experiences with harassment while also shedding light on her relationship with Ryan Adams, whose alleged sexual misconduct and emotional abuse were detailed in The New York Times. “I pretty much believed it,” she says of the story. “I didn’t think there weren’t two sides to things — I never think that, I always think there’s a complexity.” One of the most jarring lines of that chapter sums up her and the majority of women’s feelings aptly: “I was dangerously close to being angry at men forever.” 

“That was one of the hardest lines to write,” she says. “It’s tough to think back on that and when you put it all together it looks pretty awful. I was just living my life thinking this was just what life was, but it shouldn’t be that way.”

Following the Times report, Phair, who had been recording a double album with Adams since 2017, responded to a tweet asking if she’d weigh in on the situation. “If I do, I’ll write about it. But I think you can extrapolate. My experience was nowhere near as personally involving, but yes the record ended and the similarities are upsetting,” she tweeted. Phair stood by her words: In Horror Stories, she reveals her perspective on Adams alongside her own personal experiences.  

With regards to the scrapped album, Phair isn’t sure if she’ll ever share the music: “I go back to the best period I had when [Ryan] was prompting me to write and we were actually in the same room together; he was great at that. And I like those songs I wrote [but] I don’t know if I would use them.”

In the book, Phair reveals that Adams had tried to bed her, but it wasn’t something that really phased her then. “At the time, [Ryan] didn’t seem that bad to me. I wasn’t a target…I didn’t feel that I was abused the way the other women felt. I was also just used to…a guy hitting on you in the music business like it’s nothing,” she admits. “What I [am] trying to say is: this is how bad it is because he wasn’t that bad from my perception. It was this interesting intersection of this #MeToo moment and an experience I was involved in that qualified and yet I hadn’t even registered it as particularly difficult. I’ve had worse.” Phair does in some ways seem protective of Adams saying that he tried to help her and “definitely had good intentions a lot of the time [but] just had clear issues.” “What happened with the other women was so much more devastating,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t want to write the story because it didn’t feel like my story, but it prompted my story.”

But Phair doesn’t want the narrative of her memoir to be centered around Adams. “I don’t want every headline about this book that is so important to me to be about Ryan Adams. I don’t. No thank you,” says Phair. It wouldn’t be the first time the singer has experienced her story being lost in a salacious narrative. After releasing Exile, she was given the nickname of a “blowjob queen” from a line in the song “Flower” that was representative of the sex-positive nature of her music. Instead, that quote became the narrative around her critically acclaimed debut. “The blowjob queen thing, it’s not just about one line — it took a long time before Exile in Guyville was [dubbed] a really solid album from start to finish,” she says. While Phair acknowledges that we still live in a “sound bite culture” — something we’re all guilty of — she wrote Horror Stories to combat just that.

Horror Stories is out Oct. 8

Random House

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