Catching Up With... Juliana Hatfield

Music  |  Features
Catching Up With... Juliana Hatfield
Twenty years into her career, Juliana Hatfield is still trying to figure herself out. As always, she’s doing so on record. Beginning as singer/bassist of Boston’s Blake Babies, Hatfield emerged as a definitive solo artist of the ‘90s and peaked as alternative rock experienced its mainstream crossover. She guest-starred on ABC’s angst-ridden My So-Called Life, lent a song to the soundtrack for Gen-X time capsule Reality Bites and played bass on The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray. Since her grunge-rock heyday, she’s oscillated between raw alt-rock and manicured pop on album after album, though always maintaining her signature confessional lyrics and eternally girlish voice.

Now she’s gearing up to release her tenth solo record, How to Walk Away, coupled by a memoir, When I Grow Up: a double-feature of retrospection and existential head-scratching. Paste caught up with her about MTV’s The Hills, what it's like to write a book and feeling burned out on recording and touring altogether.

Paste: Tell me about the sound of your new album. Were you consciously going for a mellower pop sound than some of the grungier rock of your earlier albums, particularly your last full-length, Made in China (2005)?
Hatfield: Yes, I was definitely going for that.  That's why I hired Andy Chase to produce it.  He's known for well-produced, sleek, very pulled-together recordings. And, you know, very pop, very polished. I thought that the combination of Andy and me, with my kind of raw sloppiness, would make a cool mixture of raw and slick… I wanted something that was very nicely produced, but didn't lose any of the energy, you know what I mean?

Paste: In the opener, "The Fact Remains," you wrote: "Next time maybe I will know how to walk away with pride and grace and faith in myself / knowing how the world works and the way that things change." Is this about a relationship that's gone sour, or is it about your life and career?
Hatfield: It's everything, yeah. It's kind of both, I guess. I think it's just stepping away from a situation or situations that have gotten kind of messed up and needing to get away from [them] just to get some clarity. And trying to learn from past mistakes so I can move on, move forward and not make the same mistakes again.

Paste: This album dovetails nicely with your memoir When I Grow Up. Both works seem to try and reconcile your past experiences with where you are now and where you want to be. Tell me about what readers will get out of your book.
Hatfield: It's hard to know what anyone will get out of it. Maybe I'll dispel some of the mystery. There's a lot of mystery surrounding anyone who makes records for a living because we give people these songs, these little three-minute creations and people have their own ideas about the songs and the person behind the songs. And I've never been comfortable with that. I know there are a lot of artists that sort of cultivate mystery and they have a persona that is...whatever it is… I think with the book I'm just trying to get rid of all the mystery surrounding me and let people see what I'm really thinking, so that they can understand me and stop assuming things about me. Because if you're putting yourself out in the public with making music or whatever you're doing, people are going to make assumptions about you.  And I'm just kind of tired of it… I just wanted to be really honest about myself and let people see my insecurities and my dorkiness and my bad moods.

Paste: From what I've read, it sounds like you're going back through specific experiences in your career and explaining certain songs. Can you go into some of the specifics of the book?
Hatfield: The book is sort of two parts that are weaved together throughout. One part of it is a diary from a month-long tour that I did about five years ago. And the tour, it's a van tour, the crowds aren't very big. And then the rest of the story is kind of the history of my career and my young life and how I got to where I am on this tour. It's sort of explaining how I started, and all my ambitions and my dreams, and how a lot of my dreams came true, and then how nothing's as simple as a dream and everything's more complicated, and how some things went wrong. And then my career took a dip from a peak in the '90s and it's just... The idea of When I Grow Up, it's like "OK, I'm still playing these clubs and I'm in my mid-thirties. Is this really what I wanted my life to be?" and trying to come to some sort of conclusion. Do I want to sort of keep doing this, playing the grungy-rock clubs into middle age or do I want to stop?

Paste: You really hit at that point in the '90s when alternative rock was becoming mainstream. Is that ever an era you feel nostalgic for, or do you think it's a time we look back on with rose-colored glasses?
Hatfield: I don't feel nostalgic for that time at all, mostly because I was so miserable then. I was just miserable, unhappy. So, no. I was just always dying to get out of my twenties. And I was just so happy when I made it out of my twenties and into my thirties and I'm just really happy to be getting older.

Paste: But do you ever miss the music scene at the time, being part of the Boston scene?
Hatfield: I just don't. I never really felt like I was part of that scene. I mean, my band started in Boston, but I didn't feel so much like part of anything. I always felt like an outsider. I don't really have any bad memories of Boston or anything. It was really great to be around all of these wonderful bands when we were starting out, like, I remember Blake Babies playing an early show with the Pixies and, you know, we played with Throwing Muses. And there were all these great bands around and it was great, but I never felt like I was really one of them.

Paste: You've also often grappled with the term "women in rock." Twenty years into your career, is this something you even think about anymore?
Hatfield: I was always really uneasy with being lumped in with a bunch of other women just because we were women. It didn't seem fair to me that men weren't lumped together as "men in rock." Even the term "women in rock" seemed really demeaning to my music and to all the other women who were making music. And I didn't feel like I was allied with any of those women in any particular way except that we were women. And I was always really uncomfortable whenever people wanted me to be a spokesperson for women because I felt like I so didn't have my shit together and I was such a mess, and I was so unhappy and miserable. I didn't understand anything, and I felt it was really dangerous when I was asked to comment on the whole issue. I didn't want to be a role model because I was a mess. I didn't really want to have to be a mouthpiece for anything because I was just going to say something stupid. I was always saying stupid things to the press.

Paste: What is your perspective on this now? Has it changed at all with time?
Hatfield: No, I still don't really have any interest in talking about it. I don't think it's a very interesting subject, actually. And fortunately, I don't think it's such an issue anymore... I think people have evolved a little bit, and it's not such a novelty to see a girl playing guitar anymore. Which is good, because all I ever wanted was to be accepted as a songwriter and a musician. And I didn't really want people to single me out because of my gender because I thought art and music should transcend all that man-and-woman stuff because music is superhuman…

Paste: Not to dwell on the whole female identity thing, but I read some comments you made this year about how vacant the women of The Hills can be.  It reminded me of the song explanations on your blog about "Make It Home," which you performed on My So-Called Life. You said how the character Angela Chase reminds you of what you were like in high school; she's this smart and emotive character, but she's imperfect. Do you think there’s a lack of this kind of female role today in pop culture?
Hatfield: Yeah, I think they've always been lacking. And, I mean, popular culture is The Hills, right? Like, that is the biggest, most popular show on cable TV. And My So-Called Life was cancelled. Popular culture is filled with girls...

Paste: Gossip Girl.
Hatfield: Yeah, you know, girls who are really well made-up and have nice bodies and are pretty. And I like watching shows like that; I like watching The Hills. I hate myself for liking it, but I do. And I've watched Gossip Girl, and it's like entertainment, you know? And I like looking at the clothes people are wearing and... But yeah, I wish there were more characters like Angela and more characters that were more realistic-seeming and more complex and less plastic-looking. Less literally plastic. Breast implants just bum me out so much. They horrify me, actually. Obviously, I have opinions about these things.  My whole point is that I don't see why my music had to be... I didn't want to infuse my music or my persona with any of these obvious female characteristics. You know, like boobs and coyness or whatever these stereotypical feminine traits are. Like Angela Chase is a character who you don't think of as a female character. She's just this really interesting character, and she just happens to be female. She was an individualistic, original character. Like a real person.

Paste: You feel like you know her.
Hatfield: Yeah, and with the girl on The Hills, Heidi Montag, she's a real person, but she doesn't seem like a real person because she looks like a Barbie doll and it's just weird to think that real people make themselves look like that. I don't understand the appeal of it and I don't understand the motivation to want to look like something that's a cookie-cutter of something else. It baffles me. It's just not interesting to me.

Paste: Let’s get back to your music. You have a number of collaborations on this album and your last release was an EP you worked on with Frank Smith. Your songs are very personal, so is it weird for you to work with other songwriters and musicians?
Hatfield: Yeah, it's pretty weird. It's not that easy for me. I'm always really uncomfortable when there are other people in the room. When I'm writing, it's kind of impossible for me to write with anyone unless someone gives me a recording to record. I'll take it home and work on it alone. And [with] the EP, I could deal with that because the songs were already written.  And then I had a few rehearsals with the band and worked on arrangements. But yeah, it's really hard for me to collaborate. Music is just such a personal thing, and it's hard to blend with other people who have their own unique ways of doing things.

Paste: What music are listening to these days?
Hatfield: To be honest, I'm kind burned out on music right now. I'm pretty much not listening to any music, and I haven't been for a while. I know that might sound weird coming from a musician. I just needed a break and I can't... I can't listen to music right now. I listen to NPR and baseball games when I'm in my car. I mean, exclusively NPR and baseball games, and that's it, as far as the radio. I haven't been listening to any records. Lately, I'd rather read books.

Paste: Where do you see yourself going in the future? Do you want to continue to record albums?
I'm not sure what I'm going to do. It's a weird feeling to not know. But I've got to the point where I'm not sure I want to make another album and I'm not sure if I ever want to tour again. And that's kind of the subtext of the title of my album. It's like, maybe this is me walking away from my career. I'm not sure yet, but it could be my last album. I don't want to say that [it's going to be]. I definitely need to take a break. I'm kind of burned out. Definitely burned out on the rock clubs. And those are the places that I have to play because I don't draw well enough to play at the theaters. And so, if I hate the rock clubs, then I'm going to have to stop going to them and figure out another way to live. So, I don’t know. It might be my last album.

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