Juliana Hatfield Conjures Up New Trio Gems (INTERVIEW)

Juliana Hatfield was a star. Her 1993 album, Become What You Are, which she recorded with her band The Juliana Hatfield Three, hit the ground running, spawning the #1 single “My Sister.” She was all over MTV, made the cover of Spin, had a song in the Winona Ryder flick Reality Bites, hung out with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads; even played an angel in an episode of My So-Called Life. She toured, did interviews, made videos, became a modern day Joan Of Arc symbolizing that not-so-popular girls could be cool. “We had a lot of fun,” Hatfield recently told me about those whirlwind days of the early 1990’s. But yet with all that going on, it still couldn’t fix everything in the normal world of Juliana Hatfield.

Twenty-one years down the road, Juliana is still Juliana. The sweetness in her voice still slaps with the rawness in her words. The young girl singing about body image and self-esteem has matured into a woman who still feels the angst of the one she used to be. Although living a happy life near Boston, sometimes you couldn’t tell that by reading her modern day lyrics. Like most females, the stigmas attached to being the beautiful half of the human race has it’s faults and Hatfield has always been able to capture those feelings and spout them out in a way everyone could relate to – from young girls wondering if they will ever get asked to a dance to the middle-aged divorcee wondering if she is capable enough to start all over. Hatfield puts all those thoughts and worries into words when our own articulation has been strangled.

Last month, Hatfield handed us another humble human offering: Whatever, My Love. Reuniting with her former trio’s Todd Philips and Dean Fisher for this new recording, the songs conjure up the fresh sound of Become What You Are naturally, as a portion of the track list are older songs just seeing the light of day. Currently out on a month long tour (she will be at SXSW on March 20), she is performing her hit album in it’s entirety before jumping into songs from her latter-day catalog, including a few tunes from Whatever, My Love. Her current video for “If Only We Were Dogs,” may cause some people to tilt their head and wonder about the undertones of what Hatfield is really trying to say by spending the video entirely on her hands and knees, when in reality she is just imagining what life as a dog would be like.

Glide spoke with Hatfield a few weeks ago, when the Boston blizzard had her car snowed in and a quick trip to her vet ended up being a major ordeal. Hatfield was honest, realistic, hopeful, reserved and excited. All the things you would imagine from someone whose life has been up, down and finally steady.

How did it feel recording with Dean and Todd again as a team?

It felt very natural, there was an ease to it. We fell right back into the groove of being a band and the chemistry was definitely still intact, which was really nice cause we didn’t know that it would still work after all this time. Cause you know a group chemistry, it can be a fleeting thing. It can kind of go away. But it was still there and it was really nice to hang out with them again cause we have a good time together. There were a lot of laughs.

So there was no awkwardness?

Not really. I mean, we had to work a little bit on some arranging of the songs but it was really pretty smooth sailing. I think that now that we’re all a little older, you learn how to get along with people as years go by, you learn to pick your battles and it’s easier to just let water slide off your back as you get older. At least for me. So it was pretty nice making the record. It was a very good experience.

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You came in with these songs already written. Did you have just twelve or did you have an overflow?

We had a couple of others. I think we had one or two that we discarded and then another one we recorded and mixed but it didn’t end up on the album. It may turn up on maybe a vinyl version, if we put out a vinyl version. It might be an extra special track.

Did any of the songs change much once you got into the studio with the guys?

Well, some of them just really came to life because they were just acoustic demos, like the song “Wood” for example. The demo was me with an acoustic guitar just playing those chords and singing a melody. So that one we had to put it together. Like, I had no idea what the bass and drums would be sounding like. Todd and Dean came up with those parts and then I came up with all the keyboards and other guitars and then the lyrics I wrote in the studio. So that one really came to life in the studio cause the demo of it was very, very skeletal.

A lot of people like to have most of that done before entering into the recording phase.

I do too. I’m a person that likes to come prepared with the songs finished but this one I just didn’t. It took me to the last minute to finish the lyrics. But I really wanted to record it because I loved the music. But I’m also good under the gun and if I have to get something done, I’ll do it. If I have to finish the lyrics, I’ll do it.

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Which one of the songs almost didn’t make it onto the record?

Well, I think “Blame The Stylist” was one. I was thinking of leaving it off. I just didn’t know if it fit among all the other songs cause it has a different sound and the subject matter is kind of different from everything else on the record. But then I put it on because I was trying to tie this record somehow back to the first record and some of the songs have similarities to songs from Become What You Are, and “Blame The Stylist” has a little bit of dramatic similarity to “Supermodel” from the first album. It’s about image and stuff like that so I left it on the album.

Is that a newer song or one of the older songs you already had written?

That one I had an acoustic demo of that for a long time. The demo actually is on a cassette. I made a version of it on a 4-track recorder a long time ago but I never really finished the words so I really just had the title and some chords. Then when we went back into the studio I rediscovered it on this old cassette and I thought like, wow, this is really still totally relevant and we could make an interesting song out of it.

Your new video is for “If Only We Were Dogs.” It has a very interesting idea. Whose concept was that?

The general idea was mine, and it was such a simple concept and the concept was, I’m going to be on my hands and knees through this whole video. I want to be a dog. That’s all (laughs). That was the whole concept. My bandmates will be housemates and I’m their dog and it’ll just be a day sort of doing normal stuff. Then we hooked up with this young director named Caroline Jaecks. She wrote out a treatment with some scenes, more detailed scenes, cause for me, my whole idea was like, I want to be in my dog’s crate and I want to be, you know, begging for food while Todd and Dean are eating breakfast. I was just observing my dog and I wanted to do stuff that I’ve seen my dog do. And Caroline kind of put a story of a day in the life together.

I mean, you could read into some subtext if you wanted to and I’m sure that I have some issues that might play into this subtext but my concept was actually very simple. In really simple terms, human behavior makes no sense to me but dog behavior does. I understand dog behavior, they have very simple needs, simple ways of expressing what they want. But human relations are so complicated and I guess that’s what it’s all about.

 

When you were writing “Push Pin,” were you consciously going back to that theme of the first album?

Actually, “Pushpin” is pretty new. I wrote it, I guess, a couple of years ago and it was really just very specific to that time. I sort of bumped into a person I used to know and it just brought back all these feelings, brought back a lot of emotions from a long time ago. You know when you run into someone or reconnect with someone from the past who you thought you had gotten over and a lot of stuff just comes instantly back and you feel a pull back to a place where you’re helpless. Emotions are funny that way, they sort of never go away, they’re buried but they can be really easily summoned by circumstances. So that was just like talking to someone from my past who I had kind of moved on from but talking to this person again made me feel like, oh my God, I’m back in this complicated situation and I need to get away; make me remember why I wanted to get away in the first place. It was that type of thing. It’s like, take the pushpin out of my cranium, like the metaphor of something banging on my head trying to get back in my head and getting in, the pin is getting into my skull, and I want it out.

When you’re finishing a song, what is the emotion you feel when you complete it?

It’s not sadness. I would say it’s elation and calmness at the same time. It’s really the best feeling in the world. Completing a song, knowing that it’s finished and knowing that it’s good, it’s really the best feeling in the world. It’s probably the best point in the whole process of being a recording artist for me. It’s actually really fun, in the studio too, but when you’ve just completed a song, there is a feeling of pride, humility, elation and calmness. It’s complicated but it has the best of everything.

What was the first thing that sparked you to ever write a song?

Who knows where that instinct comes from. From as far back as I can remember I was making up songs. When I was a very young girl, in the car, I remember my mother driving me somewhere and being five years old and looking out the window and singing a song about what I was looking at passing by me in the car, making up the song. I was always doing that. I don’t know, some of us are just creative and we have that instinctive need to express the things we see and feel artistically.

When you got older, were you writing poetry or were you always writing words and feelings through music?

I always wanted the music. I thought the music transported the words to a more exciting place than just reading them did. I don’t think my lyrics always look so good on the page, some of them do, but they don’t all work as poetry. I felt that music just made everything better, gave the words a boost they didn’t have on their own.

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Did you always take your songwriting seriously?

Yeah, I always took my songwriting really seriously. From early on I did. I always had confidence in my, if not in my abilities then in my potential as a songwriter. Ever since I was in high school and I remember them so vividly, like songs about my experiences and songs about my dreams and to me the songwriting was so serious. Even in high school at that time I felt like, I really need to do this, I need to write about MY thoughts and feelings and dreams. They feel important. I think I have trouble communicating with people and I think songwriting just helps me to communicate, or it helps me to understand things about myself.

I read where you were in school choir and you had an early band in high school. Did you have to force yourself to get out on that stage in front of all those people or did that part of it, the performing, come natural?

No, that part was harder than writing but I always made myself do it even though it was really uncomfortable. I think I just always wanted to push myself. I believe that making yourself do things that feel uncomfortable is good for you. You know I was on the gymnastics team in high school for four years and I would compete on the balance beam and on the floor exercise and competing on balance beam was like a horribly nerve-wracking experience cause you’re in this big high school gym and four inch wide high balance beam and sitting in the middle of this gym and you have to walk out there, jump up on it and do all these moves and it’s just like the most terrifying so scary experience. And I would make myself do this over and over again, year after year. It’s not that I’m a masochist but I just think that putting myself in situations that feel uncomfortable or scary is good for me. It helps me to grow and have new experiences. Cause I don’t want to get stuck feeling that everything I do is safe and comfortable. That’s really not living. That’s just being too comfortable. I don’t want to be too comfortable cause I want to move forward and grow. I think that it’s a lifelong process of not being complacent and not getting stuck in your ways. Having routines is good but you don’t want to have the exact same routine for your whole life cause then you’re just sort of a robot.

Who have you always related to and gravitated to in terms of singers and musicians?

I always felt really drawn to and connected to Paul Westerberg from the Replacements. He was an early sort of role model in a way. No, I feel like we were kindred spirits and he was sort of like a touchstone.

Why do you say that?

I don’t know, it’s like this ineffable thing, that quality that transmits through his persona and his image. I just felt very connected to it like he was a soul brother somehow or we were related in a past life or something. I can’t really explain it but it was just a really cool combination of unpretentious, funny, mean and sensitive, and I liked that his songs were kind of complicated emotionally. They weren’t one note ideas, they really covered the whole range of human emotion. Other artists you don’t get that much range. You get sort of either tough or weak or romantic but you don’t get it all at the same time.

You got to tour with Jeff Buckley. What was he really like?

Funny is the first thing that comes to mind. He was actually hilariously funny and he would do these impersonations of lots of singers. He could do the singing voices of all kinds of different singers, women and men, and he would get them spot on. It was hilarious. It was a great tour. We had a good time.

What do you think it was about his music that struck a chord in people?

That voice. His voice was so otherworldly. He just had this incredible voice and it was bold. What he was doing with his voice was bold. He was an incredible guitar player too and both at the same time, the singing and the guitar playing, was really just impressive. Then the writing, I think, was sort of brave and kind of experimental. His music was kind of challenging and he was going full on with the voice and the songwriting and guitar playing. It wasn’t really dialed back. It was like going for it.

What do you think it is about your music that strikes a chord with people?

Oh, I don’t know. I think people can sense that it’s really honest. I’m not trying to pretend, I’m not trying to fool anyone, I’m not trying to fake anything, I’m not trying to sell anybody anything. It’s just honest and I guess that can be refreshing.

Have you ever written a song that was so personal that you thought twice about releasing it?

I look back and almost all the Blake Babies stuff I can’t really listen to cause I feel like it’s a little too much. I felt like I was so raw and I can’t really listen to it. That’s mortifying.

When you look back at that girl who wrote those songs and performed those songs in the Blake Babies, can you still relate to her? Or would you rather not have anything to do with her anymore?

Like I said, I never listen to that stuff so I don’t know if I can answer that cause I don’t know. I haven’t listened to it in a long time. But I think I have a lot of compassion for the young me and I feel like, oh, that poor girl, she was so miserable. I was so miserable back then. I was not happy and I was trying so hard to rock, you know. I wanted to rock and I wanted people to take me seriously as a person in a rock band and I was trying so hard and I just realized, honey, you didn’t need to try so hard. I was just straining against everything. You can hear it in my voice and my bass playing. I just wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted to express myself. I think I just have a lot of compassion and I’m proud of everything that we did. I’m really proud of it even if I can’t listen to it. We were so sincere, so earnest and sincere.

When Become What You Are became such a big hit after, like you said, working so hard for people to hear you, did that give you any relief when it did become such a big hit?

Well, sadly, not really because I was still so miserable. I was just confused and miserable. I mean, yes, it was great, it was great to be appreciated by so many and have big crowds at the shows. It was really fun and great but it didn’t solve my emotional problems. I had a lot of emotional problems. But yeah, it was wonderful to have some success like that, especially because I wasn’t really expecting it so it kind of took me by surprise a little bit but it didn’t solve my problem.

Did you have fun at all?

Yeah, we did, definitely. We toured a lot and we went all over the world. We saw Japan for the first time and we had a lot of fun, definitely.

When a mood hits you, are you more prone to sing or pick up your guitar and play?

Sing, definitely. I’m always singing. I sing to my dog, I sing in the bath, I sing when I’m making dinner, I sing to the television. I’m always, always singing.

I saw on your Facebook you had a list of guitar players you liked and one of them was Luther Dickinson. What about his playing attracted you?

He’s so good. It’s actually been a long time since I listened to him. I haven’t listened to very much music in the past few years but I was really kind of obsessed with one of the North Mississippi Allstars records, Shake Hands With Shorty. I was so obsessed with this record and playing it non-stop and he’s just a great guitar player and he’s so fluid. He did some great soloing.

julianaspin3What has disappointed you the most about being in the music business?

I don’t know. I’m kind of a fatalist, I just take things as they come and I deal with them, and I don’t like to hold on to a feeling of disappointment. There have been a lot of disappointments but I just endure, I just keep going, you know. I try to do my own thing. I guess I don’t like it when people say mean things about me or about my music. Critics, and I don’t mean just rock critics, especially now when there are so many people writing reviews, and I know I’m not supposed to be affected by that stuff but sometimes a negative criticism that’s not correct, that is just misguided or misinterpreting things, that’s just always annoying. Negative criticism that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have any basis in the truth. I can completely understand bad criticism that is based in things that are true. That I can understand. But some criticism is very personally aimed at me by people who have never met me. And that never feels good. People will say things that are just very mean, people that have never met me, and that was always kind of a bummer.

You have a tour about to start. What can fans expect that are coming to see you?

We’re going to be playing the whole Become What You Are album from start to finish. We’re going to play that album from 1993 and then we’re going to do some other stuff, new stuff and other old stuff. This tour is about a month and then we’re going to do some more in April and then we may go to Europe in the fall but it’s all kind of up in the air after April.

Are you writing?

No, when I’m doing a tour that’s kind of all I can deal with. I don’t really get much else done. I don’t really do any writing on tour. My brain can’t go there. Playing shows every night and traveling kind of takes up all my energy.

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