The long, strange journey of the ‘Girly-sound’ cassettes—the legendary 1991 recordings that led to Liz Phair’s Gen X classic Exile in Guyville
Liz Phair’s Girlysound Tapes
tae won yu received a cassette tape in the mail. It was 1991, when bootlegs flowed freely through the postal service, like pollen in springtime. Vanilla Ice had the top-selling album in America, and Nirvana was months away from breaking through to the mainstream, but the underground scene was vibrant. Yu, then the guitarist for a rock duo called Kicking Giant, frequently received homemade tapes from musicians he knew in the indie fanzine world: Bratmobile. Bikini Kill. Daniel Johnston.
This particular cassette was special. The songs— bracing and raw—had been recorded at home by Yu’s friend, an unknown 23-year-old songwriter named Liz Phair. “It was astounding and fully formed—both the sound and the ease of her lyrical dexterity,” says Yu. “I felt very lucky and also jealous of my friend.”
For over 25 years, the tapes—recorded under the name Girly-sound—have circulated among fans, first in analog form and then as digital files, amassing a reputation as the holy grail of alternative-era bootlegs. Now, after decades of semi-legitimate circulation and word-of-mouth mythology, the complete tapes are being commercially released for the first time, compiled in Girly-sound to Guyville, a boxed set honoring the 25th anniversary of Phair’s 1993 debut and masterpiece, Exile in Guyville.
This is the story of how those homespun cassettes landed Phair a record deal (with some serendipitous assistance from Yu). It’s also the story of how talent could be spotted in ways both primitive and miraculous, long before the advent of Spotify playlists.
‘LIKE A SISTER OR A BEST FRIEND’
It all began at Oberlin College, where Phair studied visual art during the late 1980s. “Everyone had a band,” she recalled in a 1994 profile. (Phair was not available to be interviewed for this piece.) “There was a lot of rock ’n’ roll spirit, but it was an intense place.” It was here that she met a young musician named Chris Brokaw, later of the bands Come and Codeine. “She was dating someone I knew,” Brokaw says now. “She was just my friend’s girlfriend.”
In 1989, during her junior year, she spent some time in New York interning for the artist and activist Nancy Spero. Two crucial things happened: Phair wrote a ton of songs, and she befriended Yu. “She was like a sister or a best friend almost immediately,” he says. “I felt like I’d known her all my life.” They both lived in the East Village and shared an interest in music, though she remained secretive about her songwriting.
After graduating from Oberlin, Phair decamped to San Francisco, and Brokaw happened to be friends with her roommate. When he spent a week crashing at their loft in late 1990, the two became closer. Phair had a guitar in her room, and he asked her to play him one of her songs. Brokaw was impressed: “I was like, ‘Man! Play me another one.’” She ended up playing a few, and he remembers each as shockingly good. Brokaw asked her to make him a tape, and a month later, after moving back into her parents’ suburban Chicago home, she did.
The first Girly-sound cassette, recorded in her childhood bedroom in late 1990 or early 1991, was cheekily titled Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word to Ya Muthuh. It had 14 songs, and so did a second tape, Girls! Girls! Girls!, recorded a month later. The tracks had an invigorating sense of emotional and sonic intimacy, with vocals—double-tracked over a barely amplified guitar—that were low, wobbly and untrained. At times, Phair sang quietly, like a teenager who doesn’t want her parents to hear her from the next room.
Yet there was nothing timid about the lyrics, which confronted sex, rejection and desire with startling frankness. By 1993, Phair had an audience enraptured by her ability to speak plainly to the vulnerabilities and indignities of being a young, unfulfilled woman. (The beloved example is “Fuck and Run,” whose fed-up narrator swears off casual sex and declares: “I want a boyfriend/i want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.”) But in early 1991, Phair had no “audience”; she had friends.
She mailed copies of the first tape, then the second, to Brokaw and Yu, followed by a third, Sooty, featuring an early version of the gloriously profane
“Flower,” in which Phair inverts the male gaze and fantasizes about having her way with a shy male crush.
“The lyrics had an urgency and a directness that you find in literature and films, but it was rare to find it in rock music,” says Brokaw. “It was certainly rare to hear it in a female voice.”
The tapes revealed Phair’s blunt sensibility—and her humor: She experiments with goofy voices on “Elvis Song” and cartoonish accents on the spoken-word gem “California.”
Brokaw made copies for his then-manager and his sister. Yu went further: He made dozens of copies—“i daresay over a hundred,” he estimates. “He thought she was a genius,” says Brokaw, “and I don’t know what possessed him, but he sent those tapes everywhere.”
There was no aim to profit. It’s important, Yu says, to understand the anti-corporate cassette-sharing ethos that flourished back then. “A very engaged community of people communicated through mixtapes and tapes,” he says. “We were rejecting the idea of waiting for a label or corporate backing to be ‘legitimate.’ ‘Have you heard this amazing thing?’ was the subtext behind much of our correspondence.”
Yu was in regular correspondence with underground artists and DIY punks around the country. They exchanged postcards, tapes, zines— the noncorporate music press that flourished before blogs—and he introduced all of them to Phair’s music. “I sent it beyond my circle of friends, to Calvin Johnson [of the band Beat Happening and founder of K Records] and Mark Robinson [founder of Teenbeat Records].”
Another recipient: Yu’s pen pal, Allison Wolfe, the lead singer of Bratmobile, part of the pioneering feminist punk movement riot grrrl. When she heard Girly-sound, she was enthralled. “Her lyrics were so explicit,” says Wolfe. “She was singing about alternative guys and saying how they’re the same old sexist jerks as anywhere else.”
Wolfe brought the cassettes to the West Coast when she went to Evergreen State College and put the song “Open Season” on mixtapes. Her punk friends were unimpressed. But one day, as she was buying food at a collectively run café, a student worker approached her. “I heard you have these Liz Phair tapes,” she said. “Can I please dub them?”
That student was Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, an 18-year-old musician who would achieve indie fame under the name Mirah. “I loved every song and every sound,” Mirah recalls in an email. “That tape is what made me determined to train my little hands to play barre chords, and it impacted my songwriting too.”
Phair’s tapes zigged and zagged through the underground, becoming popular in the zine universe. At some point, Yu wrote an effusive review of Girly-sound for the fanzine Chemical Imbalance. (The review included Phair’s address and implored readers to “send her some cash for a tape.”) “I really wanted the world to know about this brilliant talent,” he says.
By Phair’s own account, this was an aimless period for her. She had stage fright, rarely, if ever, performing live. “I was living this completely post-college, flat-broke, only-cared-about-going-out-at-night existence,” she said in a 2013 Spin interview.
Through a friend, she met Brad Wood, who would become a trusted collaborator and produce her eventual album. Wood told Phair, “You need a label.” On a whim, she dialed up Matador Records in New York. Her timing was miraculous: “I get a lot of silly, audacious calls,” Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy told The New York Times in 1994. “But the day before, I’d read a review of a Girlysound cassette in Chemical Imbalance.” It was, of course, Yu’s review. The label was intrigued.
AN UNEXPLODED BOMB
If you’ve read this far, you know what happens next: Matador signed Phair in 1992. Exile in Guyville (much of it adapted from the Girly-sound tapes) was instantly revelatory and widely acclaimed. She got famous. She got
“We were rejecting the idea of waiting for a label or corporate backing to be ‘legitimate.’”
widely imitated and debated.
But even as Phair graduated to professional status, she kept returning to Girly-sound. In 1994, when her second album, Whip-smart, came out, Phair appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. “I go in there and rip stuff off,” she said of the tapes. “It’s like a library.”
Nine Girly-sound songs wound up on Guyville with fuller arrangements and, in some instances, new titles; five more appeared on Whip-smart, and two more on1998’ s white chocolate space egg. Only in the new millennium, when Phair tried to remake herself as a glossy pop singer on a polarizing, self-titled album in 2003, did she seem to leave the cassettes fully behind.
The 1994 Rolling Stone piece reported that Phair would “not release the tapes anytime soon.” Back then, she seemed a little embarrassed by their unpolished nature. But her unwillingness to officially release the recordings only contributed to their mystique. (“You had to know someone who had it to get it,” Mirah says.) Much as Guyville was sequenced as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., the Girlysound tapes could also be slotted into a classic-rock tradition: the sought-after bootleg. For boomers, it was Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder or the Beach Boys’ aborted SMILE. Gen Xers had Girly-sound.
“If albums are the signposts of rock history, bootlegs are a portal to rock’s shadow history,” Steven Hyden writes in his new book, Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. “The only music greater than the music that moves you is the music you’ve been told over and over would move you if only you could hear it.”
Thankfully, plenty of people did hear Phair’s cassettes. As her profile rose, the tapes spread far beyond Yu’s underground network of collectors. “You can imagine the contrast between Liz as she existed in the early ’90s, on the cover of Rolling Stone, versus this very quiet voice singing incredibly heartfelt songs into a recorder,” Yu says. “The idea of these incredibly pregnant songs existing,
unknown, without a label—it was like an unexploded bomb.”
By 2006, the tapes were 15 years old, and bootleg culture had shifted from Cd-trading to file-sharing. Ken Lee, a self-described Liz Phair archivist who had founded the Phair fan site Mesmerizing, managed to obtain low-generation dubs of the first two tapes—which he made digitally available to fans on Girlysound.com—but he couldn’t find copies of Sooty. Lee urged fans to aid in the search. “They gotta be out there somewhere, doing time as squeegees, as drink coasters .... So PLEASE (with fucking candy sprinkles on top) LOOK for them!”
By this point, Phair’s views on releasing the tapes seem to have evolved, and in 2008 she reissued Guyville for its 15th anniversary. In an interview with Pitchfork’s Stephen Deusner, she mused about passing out the tapes for free, “just like they were originally.” When Lee hand-delivered the singer CD copies of his dubs, “she was OK with it,” he says now. “She asked if I made any money off of them. I never did, as it was a labor of love for me.”
Subsequently, Phair included 10 Girly-sound songs as a bonus disc with her 2010 album, Funstyle. In recent years, they have influenced an entire new generation of songwriters, some not yet born when they were recorded. “I would say those tapes are why I write music,” Lindsey Jordan, the 18-year-old musician who records under the name Snail Mail, recently told Phair. “They’re so honest.”
In 2017, Matador asked Yu to dig out the original tapes, in preparation for release. Yu still has a boom box, and he listened to them for the first time in years. “The freshness still hits me,” he says. “They’re incredible.”
GIRL! GIRL! GIRL! 1992 Polaroids of Phair recording at Idful Music in Chicago. Center: with Exile in Guyville guitarist and engineer Casey Rice and producer Brad Wood.
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AXE TO GRIND Phair playing Lounge Ax in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1993. an early Exile in Guyville show.