Not just anyone releases their first album only to find it on the Rolling Stones list of the top 500 albums of all time, but Liz Phair doesn't follow anyone's playbook. A feminist pioneer in the male dominated rock and roll industry, she has suffered more than her share of small indignities. She writes about her life, career as an indie rock star, and the moments that haunt her in a new memoir, Horror Stories.
Phair tells Jesse Mulligan she enjoys making art that’s a little provocative.
“I grew believing that art is a free space. Is somewhere you can express things that maybe in life you don’t feel as comfortable expressing.”
She took that attitude into writing the book and in one passage she says: “our impulse is always to hide the evidence, blame someone else, put the things we feel guilty about or that were traumatising behind us, and act like everything is fine. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another.”
She says writing down these moments from her life has been cathartic.
“It definitely was something that helped me wrestle with memories I’ve carried with me and never really formalised but have shaped my life. Each story that I chose to tell was pivotal in some way to my learning and growth – even if it seems like a very small moment.
“It’s often the things that affect us most powerfully can be simple things that maybe echo other things that happened in our life and we just decide in that moment to make a change or a shift in who we want to be.”
Phair says she likes immersing herself in uncomfortable chapters of her life because there’s still beauty in those moments.
“There’s still hope and growth, there’s positivity even at a granular level if you’re looking for it. But there’s also the dark, and I think we’re better off for trying to grapple with it.”
The first story in the book is set during Phair’s first year at university and details a young woman at a party passing out in a bathroom and Phair and her friends did nothing to help her.
“It was hard to write about. I have such trouble relating to what allowed me to do that. In hindsight, it seems unthinkable – especially now, in 2019, where there’s a zeitgeist of getting involved and taking action.
“At that particular juncture in my life, I was invested more in fitting in and not standing out. I was afraid to take action and afraid to be wrong a lot of the time in that early university experience. I was overwhelmed by all these new challenges.”
In another episode, she witnesses a father being violent against his son. This time she was unable to act.
“We were up on a dune about 150 feet above this violence that I witnessed. We were having a really lovely day with our young children and we witnessed someone doing something that was horrifically and emotionally traumatising. We watched a man way down on the waterfront hit his five-year-old son off his feet and into the water and we couldn’t get down there to do anything.
“It’s clarifying; you know who you are in that moment, you know what you value and what you wish you could do. It’s like a microcosm of feeling that way in 2019 with the world. I see these horrors and what can I do? You’re emotionally impacted by it, and yet a lot of us feel removed from something happening beyond our ability to intervene.”
Despite the title, the book isn’t all horror stories. Phair balances the books with stories of love and kindness.
“Even in the darkest points, we all are surrounded by so much beauty. It’s important, I think, to keep thinking about all the wonderful things in life that happen just as randomly and just as unexpectedly.”