Juliana Hatfield is not, and has never been, ashamed to admit that two passions as disparate as Olivia Newton-John and the Replacements were the seeds for a musical career sixteen years in the making. That duality was seen early on. After all, Hatfield's first band, the seminal late-Eighties early-Nineties Boston trio the Blake Babies, took their name from William Blake, the Eighteenth Century poet who wrote Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
The Blake Babies' called it quits in 1991, back when girls were played on rock radio, and Hatfield's solo career took off. Her debut Hey Babe landed her a major label deal with Atlantic Records for the follow-up Become What You Are and that dropped her directly into the role of mainstream "It" girl. But when her third album, Only Everything, failed to sell up to expectations and girlhood had become as tired a trend as Dr. Martens, Hatfield was let go. Atlantic Records refused to release God's Foot, nor would they give the album back to Hatfield. Distraught but not out for the count, she did two things: took to her bed and then booked six days in the studio where she made Bed. The record found a home on the Boston indie label Zoe/Rounder where Hatfield has been ever since.
Maybe nowhere was Hatfield's enthusiasm for the two sides of every coin more directly referenced than 2000's simultaneous release of Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure. On the surface the quiet and vulnerable acoustic pop of Beautiful Creature and the ferocious guitar onslaught of Total System Failure mimic one of those early influences, Grease's Sandy Olsen -- one minute pink, pleated and innocent, the next, black, leather-clad and wise -- except that Hatfield has always been both Sandys at once. Wickedly funny, sincere, lonely but glad to be alone, full of hope and doubt, Hatfield remains one of rock's unsung heroines. Her latest release is the best of collection, Gold Stars. The twenty tracks lay out Hatfield's career in chronological order, with a few surprises along the way. Two songs from the ill-fated God's Foot, two covers, (Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and the Police's "Every Breath You Take") and four new songs round out the collection.
The title the record reminds me of getting gold stars in grade school when you behaved well.
Or when you do a good paper. That was kind of the idea.
So was putting together a greatest hits record your way of giving yourself a gold star, like a pat on the back?
Well when the idea was first suggested, I thought, "Why? I don't want to go back and listen to the mistakes and all the embarrassments." And I started thinking about it and I thought it would be an opportunity for me to go back and choose what I was most proud of, so it is kind of a pat on the back. Doing this project made me realize that I do have a reason to be proud and I can stand behind a lot of what I've done and I've accomplished something that makes me feel good.
What were the embarrassments?
Well, they [label, Zoe Records] suggested putting the song "Nirvana" [from Hey Babe] on, and I know there are people out there who have responded to that song and it means a lot to them and I couldn't put it on. It's hard for me to listen to it. Just the words that I use . . . "Fuck shit up," to me that sounds so dated in terms of my point of view and to me that song hasn't aged well. It just sounds childish and I know it's capturing an important moment in my development. The recording is a little bit too metal and it's not exactly how I want to remember the song and I've always done the song different live, always less heavy metal and more organic or something. So it's probably the recording and the words, so I had to veto that one. And they suggested I put on "Might Be in Love" from Beautiful Creature and I just had to say no 'cause I think that song's kind of insipid and doesn't have any weight really. It's the kind of song that could have, in some other world, gotten on the radio but to me it doesn't have enough substance.
Which were the songs you were most proud of?
Well "Cry in the Dark" is a song that I just love. I'm not sure why but there was a whole album's worth of songs that I could put on from Beautiful Creature.
I'd imagine going back over all these songs is like looking through a photo album at times.
Every song brings back memories, like I remember where I wrote all these songs. "Universal Heartbeat" was my apartment in New York City. "My Sister" was at my apartment in Boston. I remember places and I remember what I was thinking when I wrote it.
Ok, so "Sneaking Around" [from Bed]?
"Sneaking Around" . . . actually I don't remember where I wrote that one. I have to be careful about this one 'cause it is sort of a true story. It's a very common scenario. Two people involved, one of them is married . . . to someone else. That's all I can say about it really. It's a situation that really has no good ending.
So it was a bad ending?
Actually, it worked out good. Everyone involved ended up talking to each other, and it was resolved in a good way and the married people stayed married and everyone was friends.
So what about "Houseboy" [from "Total System Failure"]
"Houseboy" . . . that was all kind of written during the recording process. We would do the music and I would go home and write words to the music. It was just this fantasy I had about having a big house and having a hired boy who does all the chores. I know people that live like that in L.A., people who never do their own laundry and never go shopping for food.
"Spin the Bottle"? [from "Become What You Are"]
I remember the room I wrote that in. It was in my mother's house and I was alone and I was in the TV room. I had made plans to record Become What You Are in L.A. with Scott Litt. We were all set to go record and I decided I wanted to try and write one more song for the album and I wanted to do it in five/eight time or is it five/four, I don't know . . . I wanted to add on one song that was a little bit different. I'd been listening to a lot of PJ Harvey's first album and she has a couple songs that are in five time and I just thought that was so cool, those songs are kind of catchy and swing even though they're in that weird time signature. Sometimes I just come up with a title, "spin the bottle," and I thought that could be a really cool song. That phrase brings up so many images and there's so much you could write about. So I explored it and it's sort of like, everyone has an experience with the game or everyone has thoughts about it. It's sort of this collectively understood cultural thing and I wanted to write about that and then to make it more personal, I added in the story line about hooking up with the movie star.
Which of course led to dozens of questions.
They're like, "Who's the guy?"
Do you think people tend to assume that lyrics by female artists are always autobiographical?
That's hard to answer. I think that certain types of people, artists are scrutinized in a different way. People don't analyze Britney Spears' lyrics 'cause they're so obvious, you know? And her image is so kind of blah and mainstream that who really wants to read between the lines, because it's all so out there in front of you and boring and white bread. I guess I was scrutinized because my image is more mutable and my point of view isn't as consistent and solid, so I guess people are curious 'cause I don't lay it all out there for people to see.
It seems like there's a place in rock for women who are really aggressive in their sexuality and women who are really feminine and more traditional. But the women who are somewhere in the middle are called "quirky" and then after a year or so everyone forgets about them.
Yeah 'cause you have to be Joan Jett or Joan Baez. That's what I always think. You choose which one you're going to be so people can understand you and if you don't fall into those categories people are going to be confused. People don't like to be confused. People like to be fed all the information in a very nice compact little package. A lot of people don't like to have to form original opinions or think of things too much. They don't have time to use their brains to figure out their entertainment. I can understand that, I can understand people who just want to put on something easy and simple, something they can understand. I don't like to always use my brain when I listen to music, sometimes I like really simple music. But women who, as artists, are kind of ambivalent about their identity don't fare well for long. Not in the mainstream. Even just being a woman in this society, even if I weren't making music, I think I'd experience some of the same problems. If you don't fit a certain type or profile people think you're strange or mysterious and it confuses people and I have that experience just in my day-to-day life. But those are the kind of people that I'm drawn to -- the ones that are interesting because you can't figure out where they're coming from right away.
You once said that your songs were about "not knowing how to be and not knowing how to act." Do you still think your songs are about that?
I still feel very confused about so many things and I'm still socially awkward and I've always been like that. And I've gotten more comfortable with that fact. I don't worry so much about it anymore. And I'm more comfortable with the fact that I'm a recluse in a way or a loner. I write about it 'cause it's what's in my head and in my life and maybe if I figure it all out I won't need to write about it anymore. Continuing to do what I do is a way to figure out how to be in the world. It's sort of an ongoing process -- while I'm trying to figure out what my place is, that search has given me a place in the world. The search has become how I belong.
Over the course of seven records were there any musical styles or lyrical subjects that you dropped or ones that have been consistent?
I think I've expanded my range of subjects definitely as I've gotten older. My worldview is expanded and hopefully will be reflected in my writing. The theme of isolation is pretty consistent or feeling like an outsider in a way. But when you asked if there things that I've stopped writing about, the first thing that popped into my head was Evan [Dando, Ex-Lemondheads frontman and longtime Hatfield collaborator, friend][laughs]. When Beautiful Creatures came out this asshole reviewer brought up Evan and wrote, "She's still singing about Evan and pining after Evan," and it's like, I haven't written about Evan since Hey Babe, really. And I don't really need to tell people that but it just popped into my head; it was funny.
Well I read the same thing about "Choose Drugs."
It's so completely not about Evan. I've so completely moved on from him as a subject. There are so many other guys out there that are subject fodder [laughs].
So musically, how have you changed?
I'd like to think I'm mellowing out a little bit. I'm breathing more and listening to the musicians around me more and I'm less tense as a musician and I don't need to play so much all the time and try to relax in that way. I think lyrically I've evolved. And then my voice has gotten a lot better, and my guitar playing has gotten more adventurous. But at the same time, I'm so lazy. My guitar playing has not developed as much as I think it could because I never practice. I only play when I'm writing or recording or when I'm playing on tour. When I'm sitting around at home, I never play.
Your voice is very distinct, but also very girlish. Has it been a blessing or a curse?
For a while I thought it was a curse, 'cause I didn't want this girly voice. I wanted a cool rock voice. I took up smoking; I tried screaming every night to make my voice get rougher. It didn't work, so I just learned to live with it, to appreciate it, though sometimes I still wish it were lower. I just hate when people would react as if it's a persona I'm putting on, a girlish thing, but I really can't help it. It's just what comes out of me.
So was your voice something you worried about by the time you made "Total System Failure"?
That was just fun. I think it's fun and funny to put voice in a context that most singers wouldn't think would be right. I just wanted to make some loud songs and sang them the only way I know how.
How did you choose the cover songs?
It's ["I'll Be Watching You"] so iconic, such a perfect pop song and ubiquitous part of the culture. Plus, it's not that hard to learn and not that hard to play. Also it's such a brilliant arrangement. All the parts on the recording are so perfect and really simple and every part makes sense. So I didn't change any parts, I just played a lot of them on guitar rather than the original instrument. The song was so perfectly laid out that it was really ready to be interpreted and I wanted to do it pretty faithfully. I didn't want to make a joke of it. It was an homage to one of my favorite bands in high school, just a thank you to the Police for giving me so many hours of musical enjoyment.
I like the fact that one song is about obsessive love and the other depressive love. Did you intend to set them up against each that way?
No I wasn't really. I was thinking more about the sound of them. But yeah, they're related to two sides of the love coin, it can be creepy and dangerous or sweet and sad you know. Either way it's gonna hurt. And that's why I didn't want to put my song "Might Be In Love," that's just a happy song about new love and it wouldn't have fit. In a lot of my songs there's a searching for a place to belong, trying to find a place in the world that makes sense and a place among people that feels right.
Do you think you're a romantic person?
I don't think I'm romantic at all. I have a lot of faith in the right thing happening. I don't really hope for a lot of particulars, I just have faith that the right thing will happen most of the time.
Kind of hopefully disillusioned.
I think that's another word for being realistic. I strive to be realistic about things. I admit I have moments of delusions of grandeur and on the other end I have these horrible depressive moments also. But I try to balance them out.
There was such a huge music scene in Boston when you got started and such a big pool of support. Do you think that could happen again?
I think it was just weird timing, weird luck that I was there when all this cool stuff was happening. College radio was becoming this outlet for interesting non-mainstream music and I think it helped and made people aware of stuff they might not have been aware of before. Somewhere in the Nineties it got co-opted, commercialized and eventually ruined [laughs]. Now it's worse than it was then. I think a lot of damage has been done to people's innocence and the way the world is now, I don't know if it's ever possible for it to happen again, in this country where there's 200 TV channels, where there's no possibility of anything emerging innocently and without scrutiny and media attention. So when something comes out of the womb with cameras on it, it's gonna be so self conscious from the beginning it's not going to be interesting.
Do you ever miss the whole scene?
I don't miss it. I'm not twenty years old and I don't need to run with a group of weirdos anymore [laughs]. I'm content to travel the world by myself . . . figures.
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