An Interview with Juliana Hatfield

Paul Caparotta
Juliana Hatfield (Photo: David Doobinin)
Juliana Hatfield (Photo: David Doobinin)
Whether interpreting the genius of Olivia Newton-John or pushing her songwriting to the next level, Juliana Hatfield continues to deliver! The singer-songwriter returns to the Bay Area to kick off 2020 at Slim's on January 28th. As of this writing tickets can still be found here. We last spoke with Juliana back in 2015 which you can find here, but we recently caught up with her again to talk about her new album and look back over her extensive catalog. You can find our full interview below and hope to see you at Slim's on the 28th!

SFBAC: I was re-reading When I Grow Up (Amazon) this weekend. You put a lot out there. Do you still feel that it captures how you feel about making music ten years later?

Juliana Hatfield: I never look at the book! I try to pretend it doesn’t exist. I think I said too much. It was my first book, and even though I edited it down a lot, I still think I said too much. You know, I think I have changed since then. I’ve streamlined my life—I’ve stripped away everything that’s unnecessary and unpleasant. I have a better grasp of what I can and cannot handle. In the past I was probably doing too many things that I wasn’t equipped to do. A little bit of distance between me and publicity, the industry and promotion was good—I needed to be a little less accessible! I think it’s better for me to quietly go about my work—to put it out there into the world simply. I do my work, quietly, and then the world can accept it or not. I’m not going to kill myself trying to convince people that it’s important. Though, it is nice to talk about the work sometimes since I work from a solitary space!

SFBAC: Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton John (iTunes) was a bit of a surprise for me. It’s this fun, sneaky album that slowly works its way into your mind. I particularly love your integration of "A Little More Love". What were you thinking about while you were making that album?

Juliana Hatfield: It was really challenging. A lot of that songwriting is pretty sophisticated and mind blowing. That song, "A Little More Love", has all these levels to that song. All these steppes. It’s almost like a construction that goes up and up again—I can’t believe all the places it goes! It’s very impressive songwriting. And then the singing: Her voice is high, then it goes low, then high again—it’s very challenging. I think I pulled it off somehow—at least I captured my love of the song. I like to get inside a song—put myself inside it. Rather than sprinkling something on top of a song, or standing next to it and trying to mimic it, I like to get in there and put my hands on it. So, I do feel like its my own in a way. I’m not afraid to claim it as my own—I think that’s the only way it’s going to be authentic. You have to get dirty.

SFBAC: Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police (iTunes) is in the mix—what did you learn from your work on Sings Olivia Newton John that you applied to this recording?

Juliana Hatfield: I have to have an emotional connection to the song or its just not going to work. There are Police songs that I love and that are beloved by other people, like "So Lonely", that I couldn’t do because I don’t relate to the subject matter—it’s a straight up love song; I love you I love you, I miss you I miss you. I can relate to the more twisted love songs, like "Every Breath You Take" and "I Can’t Stand Losing You", which are pretty dark. They have that creepy violent side—though I’m not saying I’m a creepy violent person! (Laughs) I understand that everyone has a dark side, and I don’t like to pretend that it’s not there. I want to acknowledge that truth and I like using it in my music.

SFBAC: I was going to ask, 'Why The Police?'—but clearly you are drawn to their darker, more twisted elements!

Juliana Hatfield: Yeah, human nature is weird and complicated. The Police, although their songs are hooky and catchy, they definitely explore the dark side—not just when it comes to relationships, but when it comes to the world. They’re not afraid to dig in to some of the ugliness out there. They just sing about it with catchy melodies—I love that.

SFBAC: Most of your albums have their distinct identities, but Weird (iTunes) has a little extra character woven into many of the songs—the structures are more tilted with some interesting synthesizer flourishes, some extra effected guitars. What were you hoping to do with that album.

Juliana Hatfield: The album wasn’t fully constructed when I started working on it. I didn’t have the lyrics written which is a different process for me. Usually, I have the lyrics all written and I’m confident about them when I start recording. This time, I went in with the songs half done, and I think that allowing myself to experiment in the studio brought some other elements to the songs. I think that I wasn’t try to be so controlling of everything. After I had done basic tracks I took a month off to write lyrics. So, lyrically, in terms of the subject matter, they were very much based on my state of mind at the time. I was spending a lot of time alone. Also, I have to give credit to the engineer who was working on it. This guy I’ve been working with lately, James Bridges, he has a lot of suggestions—and tons of effects pedals. He has these ways of treating guitar sounds—he’s very helpful. He’ll suggest running a keyboard through a distortion pedal, or adding delay and echo effects that are fun to work with.

SFBAC: They add extra texture to the album—a bright balance for certain moments.

Juliana Hatfield: I think it was so focused on that moment of time—inward focused. I was trying to capture my own quirks—embracing the freak flag or something like that! (Laughs)

SFBAC: I was listening to Become What You Are (iTunes) yesterday and it still sounds fresh and raw. You toured recently again with The Juliana Hatfield Three—

Juliana Hatfield: Yeah, a few years ago…

SFBAC: I think it was 2014 or 2015.

Juliana Hatfield: Sounds about right.

SFBAC: It still feels like a vital album. It is particularly resonant in the age of 'Me Too'—ahead of its time in terms of a woman exploring complicated, conflicted female characters in the early 90s. Do you feel that it resonates with fans today—does it feel relevant to you?

Juliana Hatfield: That record in particular? Nah, I don’t get a sense that people are going back and discovering a new significance to the songs. I don’t think so—or at least I’m not getting that feedback. I was not the best messenger for that message. I was trying to say before, when you asked me about my book, that I didn’t always know how to talk about my work. With that album, not that I was so spectacular, but I was an idiot savant—just in the sense that I couldn’t talk about what I was trying to say. I didn’t really know how to articulate in speaking what I was trying to say. But I do think there are a lot of feminist ideas and attitudes there. But, I couldn’t ever verbalize or articulate those feelings.

SFBAC: But it’s that confusion, those paradoxes that make it so great. "Supermodel" is the perfect example of a conflicted character trying to say something authentic and real.

Juliana Hatfield: I’m sympathetic toward the way women are seen as objects. I think that’s maybe why people…I was kind of a divisive figure back then. Some people thought that I wasn’t feminist enough. Some people thought I should have been defending models but I had conflicting feelings of my own sense of being an object. I think I was confused. But, like you were saying, it’s raw because my feelings were raw. I was trying to get them out—all of my experiences of being seen as an object and being thrust into the public eye and not knowing how to deal with being seen. So yeah, it was raw; I was just trying to get it all out there. When I look back I can see that this was serious stuff I was trying to deal with in my life. That culture of a woman in rock.

SFBAC: People will return to this album. The tension in some songs—trying to figure out yourself in a complicated work—it’s special. The themes of feminism never feel isolating or alienating to me.

Juliana Hatfield: I’m remembering that song about killing a rapist on the album—"A Dame With a Rod". Saving a woman from being assaulted and killing the assaulter—that was pretty radical. I still can’t believe that they let me put that song on that album. I’m pretty amazed that happened.

SFBAC: It’s so catchy that if you’re not paying attention you could miss elements of it.

Juliana Hatfield: Yeah, it’s like "Every Breath You Take"—although it’s not like that at all! (Laughs) It’s angry, so angry—it’s literally murderous. I actually have a lot of songs in my oeuvre that are murderous; describing murderous urges. There’s so much anger that I didn’t know how to express in my life that I put into these songs. Much of it was overlooked by people because the songs were catchy and my voice was girlish. That anger didn’t translate to certain people—maybe because they don’t want to hear it, or they don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to hear anger expressed through the voice that I have sonically. People can’t compute: How can this voice be angry? It’s girlish.

SFBAC: I saw you twice in San Francisco with Some Girls and once with The Juliana Hatfield Three. How do you feel about coming back to The Bay?

Juliana Hatfield: Honestly, I love the audiences there. I hate to generalize like that but it’s really true. I get a certain feeling—I feel like I’m understood in a way that I’m not in many other cities. I get this feeling of solidarity—people understand the humor but also the anger. I just feel heard and seen when it comes to San Francisco. I just feel warm and welcomed when I play there. It’s not like that everywhere else, even when the crowds are big I don’t get that same warm, welcoming feeling.

SFBAC: Well we are very much looking forward to your return. Thanks for your time!

Juliana Hatfield: You’re welcome!

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