In celebration of the 30th anniversary of her acclaimed debut album, Exile in Guyville, singer songwriter Liz Phair is back on tour, performing the record in its entirety—this time set to concert visuals from painter Natalie Frank.
Both artists are known for their unabashed embrace of female sexuality. Guyville pushed the envelope with lyrics expressing a young woman’s desire in unvarnished terms, with Phair memorably proclaiming “I want to fuck you like a dog” in the song “Flower.”
Frank, meanwhile, has created work illustrating the original—and surprisingly violent and sexual—Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the erotic French novella Story of O, as well as portraits of dominatrixes.
“Liz Phair changed music,” Frank said in a phone interview in between rehearsals for the first stop on the Guyville Tour, which opened Tuesday in the city of El Cajon in San Diego County. “She did things that the industry had never heard women do, using words that they didn’t allow women to say. And she wrote songs like ‘Shatter’ that were about breaking all the archetypes and all the rules.”
The painter came on board the tour courtesy of her friend Kevin Newbury, an opera and theater director who himself came across Phair’s radar thanks to his work on the Courtney Love-starring operetta Kansas City Choir Boy in 2015.
“Kevin and Liz both thought my work with feminist fairy tales and with erotica mirrored her work so incredibly well that it seems like a really great fit,” Frank said. “Of course, I listened to Liz Phair in the ’90s—she was like the soundtrack to my adolescence, so it was incredibly exciting to be asked to join the team.”
To create the concert visuals, Phair tasked video designer Greg Emetaz to work with Frank’s artwork and her own archival video footage and photographs. There are also elements from a new film project featuring Kate Douglas and Daniel Rowan-Lyons as the young Phair and her rockstar boyfriend. Each song in the set list gets its own video, some leaning more heavily on the art, others on the videos and photographs, while others meld the two together—but the themes are constant.
“It’s all about sex, positive feminism and creativity, and freedom, both in terms of the body and the mind and art,” Frank said. “I think that the kind of message of Exile in Guyville is that it’s not about the men. It’s about ourselves as women and artists, and what we have to say about our sexuality and our artistry.”
The project was a new challenge for the artist, who has previously adapted her artwork for the Austin Ballet and a short opera for PBS.
“I was able to combine all of these elements of past work that I had been doing, whether it was making stop motion painting or producing visuals in time to music or designing books,” Frank said.
“But the scope here, with a 40-foot stage, was very different. For the ballet, the stage was about 30 feet, and we used flat scrims to project my drawings and animations onto,” she added. “This is a very 3-D set. There are multiple surfaces to project on, and it’s much more involved in terms of lighting. And because it’s a rock show, there’s the single performer who you don’t want to distract from, but you want to aid in the process of her storytelling.”
In the end, Phair ended up integrating work from the full 17-year arc of Frank’s career, using her paintings, drawings, and paper pulp works to create new, immersive visuals to serve as the backdrop for the show. (Completing the full effect for the stage production was lighting designer Japhy Weideman and costume designer Vita Tzykun.)
The goal was to honor the biographical nature of the album, but to make it “abstract enough to resonate with this time period of the early ’90s that also felt imaginative and surreal,” Frank said.
“For the song ‘Flower,’ which is quite graphic, I felt strongly that it needed to be all art and move in syncopation with the music,” she added. “It becomes like a Rorschach with flashing colored screens and my work divided into this beautiful mosaic that moves and represents a lot of the graphic imagery that’s in the song itself.”
“Liz ends the concert with ‘Strange Loop.’ And so that is a look back at the entire album,” Frank said. “I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s kind of a survey of the entire show. Her diehard fans will recognize imagery that she’s used before, and will find a lot of Easter eggs that we have put throughout the concert.”
Liz Phair’s Guyville Tour runs November 7–December 9, 2023. She will play in New York at Kings Theatre, 1027 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, on November 24, 2024.
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