On the Mend
On "Sell Out," the lead track of her latest EP, post-punk songstress Juliana Hatfield sings, "It's not a sell-out if nobody buys it." And indeed, that conclusion, while somewhat obvious, is more applicable to the longtime Bostonian's brushes with fame than one might imagine.
The fact is, Hatfield has been teetering on the edge of the mainstream for ten years now. The flirtation began in the late 1980s with the Blake Babies, a bright-eyed collegiate trio with the fusion of punk and power pop heavy on their minds. The band was buoyed by the harmonies of Hatfield and co-leader John Strohm, which lent a certain naive sweetness to their indie-rock twists. But thanks to Hatfield, whose lyrics were often dark and caustic, it was clear that beneath the Babies' implied perkiness lay an attitude with edge. Kiss-offs such as "Save your spit for when you shine my shoes" pointed to outright rage more than anything else.
Though a critical favorite, the Blake Babies generated only modest sales. When the group split up in 1991, Hatfield went her own way, releasing the catchy, but largely ignored, Hey Babe in 1992. she assembled the Juliana Hatfield Three for her second outing, 1993's Become What You Are and had a minor radio hit with "My Sister." That tune furthered her signature sweet/sour dichotomy, its plucky melody taking much of the bite out of a line such as "I hate my sister / She's such a bitch." Hatfield followed that up with a contribution to the Reality Bites soundtrack and even made an appearance on the coming-of-age cult series My So-Called Life. By all indications, the groundwork had been laid for her breakthrough.
But her 1995 solo release, Only Everything, failed to capitalize on her burgeoning potential, and Hatfield dropped out of sight. For a while, there were rumors of drug use and various health and mental problems. Speaking of that uncertain period now, a rejuvenated Hatfield shrugs it all off as a learning experience.
"I retreated because I wasn't ready [for success]," she says. "There was probably a bit of self-sabotage there as well. I took time to get my shit together and deal with everything so I'm better prepared next time -- if it ever happens again."
How big of an "if" that will be remains to be seen, but Hatfield isn't wasting time worrying about it. Aside from releasing a new six-song EP, Please Do Not Disturb, Hatfield played several stops on the Lilith Fair tour this summer. Currently, she's finishing a full-length CD due out in 1998, as well as touring and searching for a new label.
Please Do Not Disturb has the feel of an artist confident in herself and in her music. A cello and Moog provide experimental additions to her usual guitar/drums/bass instrumentation. And for a singer as notoriously self-conscious as Hatfield, her voice is certainly out front for all to hear on Disturb.
"I feel like I took time to learn to love my voice," Hatfield says. "I always felt like my voice was a bit of a curse because it was so girlish. But now I really appreciate it, and it is also getting richer and fuller as time goes by."
That confidence seems to have carried over to other areas, such as her gutsy decision to leave Atlantic Records. Hatfield says a change in label personnel prompted the move. "I just felt like it was time to move on," she says. "It was a different bunch of people at the label than when I first came; they have different priorities than when I first came there -- like Jewel, for example. I think their focus now is more on easy listening, less challenging stuff, which is fine. I think that I would be [more] at home somewhere else, and I think they agreed."
While it may sound as if she's oozing self-assurance, Hatfield is still bashful in some ways. On the back cover of Please Do Not Disturb, the sometime model holds a snapshot of her face in front of the real item, which begs the question: If she's that shy, why is she in show business?
"I ask myself that question all the time," Hatfield laughs. "I think many, many performers are shy people."
With the recent success of other female artists displaying similar talents for combining femininity, intelligence, wit, anger and pain, you'd think that Hatfield might lament being passed over -- or maybe even feel that she's been ripped off.
"No, not at all. God, no," she says. "I don't really hear myself in anything. Whenever someone compares me to someone, I never get it, I never get the connection."
As far as commercial success goes, Hatfield may still be on the outside looking in. But as her latest CD suggests, she's still able to finesse her way past whatever obstacles come her way -- whether they be internal or external.
"Performing fulfills [my] need to connect with people," she says. "That's what music is about -- expressing things that everybody feels that you can't talk about."
Juliana Hatfield performs Thursday, December 11, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Fig Dish opens. For info, call 862-3838.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.