Originally published in issue #88 of The Big Takeover (spring, 2021)
Photo by David Doobinin
There are very few artists from the ’90s who continue to be as prolific as Juliana Hatfield, though casual fans who hopped on the bandwagon with 1993’s breakthrough album Become What You Are (featuring the singles “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle”) may not realize the songwriter’s been releasing material on a near annual basis since that time, especially in the last decade.
In 2014, Hatfield contributed an Elliott Smith cover (“Needle in the Hay”) to the I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson album and that kicked off a relationship with Joe Spadaro, the founder of American Laundromat record label, that continues to this day. For the label, Hatfield has released two covers albums (2018’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, 2019’s Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police) and four full lengths including the politically charged Pussycat inspired by her distaste of Donald Trump and everything he stands for. The last four years – from politics to pandemics – has provided plenty of lyric fodder for Hatfield and her latest album, Blood, doesn’t hold back, calling out the bad guys and holding them accountable.
Hatfield recently took some time to talk about her career, the inspiration for the songs on Blood, and how she’s been holding up over the last year.
CM: I saw Ani DiFranco on CBS This Morning and they were talking about the longevity of her career and how she’s put out more than 20 records and it got me to thinking that you too have put out a lot of records and had a lengthy career. Does it feel like work for you or have you gotten into a cycle where it’s natural and you don’t even think about it?
JULIANA: I don’t really think about it but people lately really try to remind me of how many albums I’ve made. I lost track of the count but every time I make a record, the record company guys want me to say, “Oh, the next one, Blood, is my nineteenth solo album, not including all the collaborations,” and I’m like, “Oh, is it really? Okay. Sure, we can tell people that.” I realize that people think that’s a lot but I just compare myself to people who have “real jobs” or people who are working a minimum of 40 hours a week and, when I’m not on tour, I don’t work that many hours a week. I guess you could say that the artist’s life, everything is work. Ideas are always germinating and I’m always working on stuff throughout every day, but it’s not like 8 hours chunks usually. I feel lazy, actually. My last album came out at the end of 2019 and I hate missing a year. I missed 2020 because of being shutdown. I like doing an album a year, I just made the edge of 2021.
CM: I remember when bands like KISS put out records seemingly every year at the beginning of their career. But. you lived and put out stuff in the ’90s and 2000s and it seems like artists didn’t put stuff out every year, maybe it’s because you were doing a lot more touring to support an album.
JULIANA: I feel like in the ’90s, when everybody was being signed to major labels, this was before, well, it wasn’t literally really before the internet, but it kind of was because it wasn’t like it is now. The record companies still had these promotion departments. They had this big machine trying to promote albums. You know, there was a publicity department and a radio department and you were touring. It took longer to have an album reach people because you were using radio and then you would have to go and visit radio stations around the country. I mean, you would get to, you wouldn’t have to. And then you’re doing interviews in different towns. It took a while, labels would try to build artists, slowly gain momentum and fans. Now, everything is fast, fast, fast and no one takes the time anymore. Plus, for better or worse, there’s not as much money put into as many bands. There’s not that machinery supporting an artist any more, it’s kind of every man for himself now unless you’re one of the huge selling artists and they still have the benefits of promotional teams, I guess. Everybody’s taking it into their own hands now.
CM: How do you feel about that?
JULIANA: I have mixed feelings about it as I have mixed feelings about everything pretty much. It’s kind of great to just go around the record company machinery and the industry machinery and just go direct to the people. I like the idea of that and I like being able to throw an album out there every year. By saying throw, I’m not saying that I don’t work really hard on them, because I do. I work really hard on the songs and the recordings but I’m lucky that I have this record company guy who is totally up for me doing an album a year. He can get it out there and get the distribution channels situated. He’s not a big company with the machine, basically it’s just him and me working together side-by-side on each release and it’s very direct to the people. It cuts out all the middlemen and I like that, I like the speed of it. I hate waiting around, I get impatient. If I want to make a new album, I just want to do it, I don’t want to waste a lot of time.
CM: Can you tell me a little bit about the label you’re on, American Laundromat?
JULIANA: Like every relationship, I don’t remember how it began. I think he (Joe Spadaro) was putting out these interesting compilations like different artists would record a Neil Young song or something and I think somehow someone hooked me up with him and said, “You should record for this compilation.” I ended up doing something for his Songs from the Movies of Wes Anderson compilation. I did an Elliott Smith cover for that. We just started doing whole albums together because he was up for it.
CM: You said you didn’t put out anything last year but …
JULIANA: Oh wait, there was a single. I did do a single for Record Store Day so I did have something out in 2020. It was through American Laundromat, a 7″ vinyl-only single of two of my songs.
CM: So you kept the streak going?
JULIANA: Kind of, it was just a single.
CM: Were the songs on Blood written last year or have they been hanging around for a while?
JULIANA: They were all written over the past year, I was kind of recording them as I was writing them.
CM: There seems to be a bit of violence throughout the lyrics.
JULIANA: Murder? A little bit of a murderous vibe?
CM: Yeah. Is that what 2020 meant to you?
JULIANA: Yeah, 2020 was the culmination of four horrible years, in a way and it’s just been a really ugly, maddening four years and then particularly the last year has been really harsh. So, yeah, the songs were influenced by that, just a feeling of wanting the bad guys to be punished and feeling a lot of anger and frustration and disgust. The violence is metaphorical, it’s artistic. Some of it’s so over the top, you have to laugh even. “Chunks” is sort of funny, it’s so violent. It’s too over the the top, it’s almost cartoonish. I’m making a point with the cartoonishness of it all.
CM: The last four year were terrible when it comes to politics. I’m hopeful that things will change. I don’t know how anything can be worse.
JULIANA: I’m not that hopeful actually. It’s better now than it was a year ago and I feel like we can breathe a little easier for now but the fact that there are a lot of really hateful, nasty people out there, that hasn’t changed. They’ve just been exposed and now they are out in the open and they are still there. That’s something that is never going to change. Humans are a problematic species and I don’t think we can be fixed, I really don’t. I was raised to not trust authority and not have any faith in authority so I’m never going to believe that politicians or the government is really going to help me very much, not in this country anyway. I vote but I never feel like, “Oh, this person is the one. This is the dream candidate.” I’m always just voting for the less bad one.
CM: Do you think you could have written Blood in 2019?
JULIANA: Yeah, because I look back over my songs from the beginning and I’ve always had songs that are trying to punish the bad people. I’ve always had this sense that justice needs to be done and there’s a lot of violence in my songs over the years, like cowboy justice or vigilante justice. I’ve always had a streak of that in my songs because I feel like there’s good and bad and there are levels of bad and levels of good and people do a lot of really bad things. My music is all about exploring that stuff, that darkness. People hurt each other emotionally, people hurt themselves, powerful people hurt unpowerful people, wealthy people hurt poor people. People are always hurting each other and themselves and I write about that.
CM: I haven’t seen the liner notes so I’m wondering, did you record all of this, most of this, some of this on your own or were there other people playing on it? Was it produced in a studio or did you do it at home?
JULIANA: I started recording at home, I did a lot of it into my laptop which is something that I had to learn how to do when I was making this record. I was figuring out how to work Garageband. And, this guy in Connecticut, this guy Jed Davis, who has designed some album artwork for me, he also records in his home studio. He was helping me figure out Garageband when I had problems with it. I sent him some song ideas, just some little guitar snippets and riffs and he put form to them, like the songs “Chunks.” I sent him a tiny little guitar thing I was playing and I said, “I really like the chunk sound at the end of the riff” and he took that chunk sound and he built this whole groove out of the guitar noise between the chords. And then I started writing to that disembodied chunk groove. Some of the songs were with Jed Davis, he’d program some drums and he would put some of my ideas together into forms and then I’d finish them. Others, I did pretty much by myself. You can kind of hear the ones that are just me, like “Gorgon” and “Nightmary.” I start off with a drum machine and then I went into the studio and added some real drums. So, the simple drum tracks, that’s me playing drums. The more programmed drum kit, those are the ones that Jed programmed.
CM: I’ve been listening to Blood a lot and, not to discredit any of your previous albums, but this might be my favorite thing you’ve released in a long time.
JULIANA: You like it?
CM: I love it.
JULIANA: This is the stage where I don’t know what people are going to think. I don’t know if they’re going to like it or not. The programmed drum stuff is not what I typically do and I don’t know if people are going to like it because the stuff that I do more organically, the drums are more simple. I like that Jed threw some more sounds into the mix of some of it.
CM: I like the extra flourishes of noise throughout the record.
JULIANA: I like that gnarly stuff sometimes.
CM: You’ve been doing livestreams pretty regularly, probably something you hadn’t even considered before the pandemic. What that an idea you came up with or did somebody pitch it to you?
JULIANA: Early on in this pandemic when people started doing livestreams, I actually scoffed at the idea. I was like, “I’m not going to play in my bedroom for people.” Like, I don’t even know how. I don’t even have WiFi where I live. Not only do I not know how to deal with this technology from my home, I don’t think anybody wants to see that. But then, when I was working on finishing up the album at Q Division Studios, one night when I was in there, in the other room this woman, Abbie Barrett, was doing a livestream from Q Division with her band and I went in there and checked it out and I saw that it was a legit setup with lighting and they had a couple cameras and then were streaming it through the Q Division YouTube channel which, up until then, I didn’t know existed. That was the moment where I thought, “This is something that might work. And if they can strip it down for me, not have the dual cameras moving around, if I can make it somewhere between me in my bedroom and me with a band in the studio, I think I can do it.” So that’s how I decided to do me alone, a camera at a time, and sitting down at Q Division. I really like doing it now. It’s something I’m enjoying more each time I do it.
CM: You’ve been playing albums front to back during these livestreams. I have to think there might be some songs that are on the records that you’ve never played live before. Is it a challenge to go back and play some of these songs that you haven’t played in a while?
JULIANA: Yeah, I always feel more intimidated before I start relearning the songs. I get super-duper freaked out, like, “Oh my god, I don’t think I can do this one live.” But, when I sit down and start remembering them, it’s usually less challenging than I think it’s going to be. I did Only Everything and that’s kind of a heavy guitar and drums album and I was thinking, “There’s no way this is going to work by myself.” But, when I sat down and started playing, they pretty much worked, most of them translated okay. I think that’s because I’m a songwriter who writes alone and I write songs that I can play and sing on my own to begin with. And then I start adding things to it later in the studio. Some of the songs just need a little bit of rearranging. I just need to figure out how to make some of them work without all the extra embellishments.
CM: Do you decide on the sequence of the songs or do you pitch it to people for feedback?
JULIANA: I always do that myself, sequencing matters to me even though I know it doesn’t matter to everyone, especially now when some people don’t listen to whole albums in sequence. But, I, as someone who listens to whole albums in sequence, I believe sequencing is important. Songs sound different depending on what comes before and what comes after. A song could sound faster after one song and slower after another song. Perception can really change depending on what is before and after. There’s a flow you can achieve by placement of the songs in sequence. It really matters, I think.
CM: You’ve done tribute albums to Olivia Newton-John and The Police and I thought I heard you say you know what artist you’re going to cover next.
JULIANA: I have a few ideas but I’m still thinking about it and I have not started working on it because I haven’t decided yet.
CM: I would love to hear you do Bee Gees songs.
JULIANA: Oh, that’s a good idea although a lot of what’s great about their music is their voices but it’s also true that they have a lot of great material that would stand up with someone else’s voice. I’ve considered them before.
CM: Have you thought about what the rest of 2021 looks like for you? Writing more songs? Maybe touring?
JULIANA: I’m just continuing to do these livestreams and I’m working on writing new stuff. At some point, I’ll start recording another covers album so I’m just trying to keep busy and pace myself, not looking very far into the future.