Juliana HatfieldPhoto by David Doobinin, courtesy of Sideways Media
When it comes to her favorite artists, Juliana Hatfield wears her heart proudly on her sleeve. Alt-rock royalty and a guitar hero in her own right, she’s recorded full cover albums of her music heroes, artists like Olivia Newton-John and The Police. So, which song might she select as one of particular brilliance in her life? “Make a Move on Me,” maybe? Or perhaps “Can’t Stand Losing You?” Hatfield decided to boldly go in a different direction.
We chatted with Hatfield about one prominent song in her life and the songs on Blood, her 19th solo studio album. We asked how she’s been a prolific songwriter over the years and her thoughts on touring during the pandemic, all ahead of a scheduled tour stop in Houston last month.
“My last tour ended on Valentine’s Day of 2020, February 14th, it ended in New York City and that was just before everything started to get weird,” she recalled. “I feel like we did a whole trip around the country and it was great and then we made it home and I think in March things started to shut down. We made it through the tour without having to worry because no one really knew anything was brewing. I remember hearing about some virus in China when I was on the road but no one was really worrying about it in the United States then.”
At the time of our discussion, Hatfield was expecting to hit the road with Soul Asylum and Local H for a series of late summer dates. The Delta variant was just beginning to strain music tours, including Hatfield’s. Some of the run’s first shows were cancelled or postponed because of the COVID surge.
“I’m just a little worried about what things are like out there,” she admitted during the discussion. “In Texas in particular, I think there’s a lot of new infections happening so I don’t know what it’s going to feel like being out there playing in front of people.”
Hatfield's latest album, Blood, was recorded during the tumult of 2020
Album cover art
About an hour after our chat, Hatfield posted on Instagram that she was dropping off the tour “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Before that, we asked her about the unwieldy wave all musicians are having to ride with the virus. The highs of possibly getting to do what they love by playing for fans and the lows associated with altered and scrapped tour plans.
“I think that being in this line of work you just get used to a lot of disappointment, meaning things sometimes are cancelled or things you’re looking forward to don’t happen,” she noted. “I think you have to have a lot of flexibility because there’s no security, really. There isn’t any job security or creative security. You can’t always count on the ideas coming to you.
“So, yeah, I think I’m much more used to things being uncertain now and I think being in this business and this job has trained me to be much more flexible and open-minded than when I was younger, more tolerant of changes coming at me and more tolerant of things I can’t control.”
We questioned the idea of ideas not coming to Hatfield so easily. She’s been incredibly productive in her career, whether as a solo artist or in bands like Blake Babies and The Lemonheads.
“When I was just talking about ideas running dry, that doesn’t happen to me so much,” she clarified. “I think I’m really lucky that I don’t really have writer’s block very often. I think writing is like an act of will and you just have to do it and you have to push through the moments where it’s feeling uninspired. You just keep going and you’ll eventually hit on something. The ideas eventually come.
“I’m not a conceptual or intellectual artist, I’m more of an intuitive artist so I’m always just writing about what I’m feeling or thinking about in that moment. I never have any grand ideas about what an album is going to be about, it’s just about what I’m thinking of and feeling.”
The latest example of those thoughts and feelings committed to record is Blood. Hatfield recorded it at home in Massachusetts during the lockdown, working remotely with new collaborator Jed Davis. After its release this May, New Noise wrote, “politics is all over Blood making for some of Hatfield’s strongest songwriting in decades,” and Under the Radar called it “a challenging album for challenging times.”
“With Blood I was digesting the past four years of living in this country and I was thinking about just how a lot of ugliness has been uncovered and it’s all out in the open now. The violence in this country made its way into the album because it’s just on my mind,” Hatfield explained. “It’s a reflection of my environment. Not my immediate environment. My immediate environment in Cambridge, Massachusetts is not so violent. But just the thought that in this country there are more guns than people and that’s enough to make me kind of angry and depressed.”
A theme that resonates on Blood is violence against women, certainly not isolated to America, but stunningly obvious here over recent years.
“Part of my life as a woman is dealing with sexism, all through my whole life, starting when I was a child. It’s not the same as racism but sexism and racism are prevalent, present and everyone who’s a woman feels sexism. Its part of what I deal with. It can be insidious but when I write about it it’s a way of venting, I guess, and can be cathartic.”
“Very personal stuff is universal because people are the same. I mean they’re different, but people have the same sorts of emotions," she continued. "I don’t think I’m changing the world by writing lots of stuff, but I know I’m connecting to certain individual people and there’s comfort in feeling that someone else is going through what you’re going through. I know that myself as a listener of music am comforted to hear ideas and feelings that I understand in my own life in other people’s music.”
We asked Hatfield whether she could remember her first attempts to connect to others through song.
“I remember unstructured, unwritten songs. When I was a young child I would just sing about what was around me. I would be in the car with my mom and I’d sing about what I saw passing by out the window. And I still do that. I sing around my apartment, I sing to the dog, I sing that I’m gonna go feed her. I sing about everything,” she said. ““I do remember writing more structured songs starting at around age nine, I think. I made up a song about a girl and a guy meeting on the beach and falling in love. I grew up in a town with a beach and we’d always spend a lot of the summer riding bikes to the beach, so I wrote a song about a love affair on the beach and then at the end of the summer they broke up.
“I became a huge Police fan, the band The Police, and I wrote a song about a dream I had. I dreamed about hearing a Police concert in my neighborhood and I wanted to go to the concert, but I didn’t have a ticket and they were sold out. The dream and the song were about going toward the music and seeing this big, high wall and trying to get into the concert.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, dream analysis-wise, we both agree. But those two early songs are good examples of how Hatfield would write scores more. They also started us on the path to her song of particular brilliance. In 2018, she released Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John and a year later the Police covers album came out. Those albums are fun and let listeners hear iconic songs in Hatfield’s own distinctive voice. And, those songs laid a foundation for the types of songs she wanted to write in her career. Might she do another covers album, we wondered?
“I’m trying really hard to decide. I do want to do another one soon but I’m having a hard time,” she said. “I’m guess I’m going through a languishing period. That’s a thing now that people are talking about, about languishing. Since the tour came up, I’ve been having a hard time trying to figure out what to do with the next album. I have a few ideas about who I would cover but I have to narrow it down,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do Olivia Newton-John and then the Police was a little bit of a harder decision and now it’s getting harder and harder to choose, so I’m trying to figure it out.
“The Olivia one was such a labor of love and it was a labor because it was really challenging because she’s such a great singer and the songwriting is sometimes kind of complex. It was a lot of work, but I put so much love and care into it because I’m such a huge fan of hers.”
So, which ON-J song did she select? We guessed “A Little More Love,” because her cover of the late-70s pop hit is stellar. Our guess was light years away from her selection.
“Okay, I’m going to give you something completely different,” she said. “Like I said, I’m not intellectual or conceptual in my approach to music, or as a listener sometimes I don’t even hear lyrics because I’m just so connected to melodies on a visceral level. So, I’m going to say that the song that really sticks with me over time - and like I said, I’m always singing to myself - and this melody is always coming out of me. It’s the Star Trek TV show theme song.”
“Theme from Star Trek,” is an iconic instrumental piece composed by Alexander Courage for the groundbreaking, 1960s sci-fi TV series.
“There’s no lyrics, you know it’s the original show, it’s like,” and then, in one of the greatest moments so far for this fledgling column, Hatfield began singing the melody to one of the 20th century’s most recognizable TV theme songs right over the phone. “You know that song?” she asked afterwards, but we were too giddy to respond.
“I’m always wanting to sing and sometimes, if it’s not words, that will come out of my mouth,” she said. “I’m also a huge fan of the original TV show. I don’t know what it means that that melody is so built into me and it lives inside of me and it’ll sometimes come out. It’s just like a piece of my history but it’s also a part of the joy that is living inside of me and sometimes I just don’t want words because words don’t say enough or it’s too hard to express feeling with words so melody is more eloquent sometimes.
“Also, I feel like I’m part-alien,” she said, “I might be part-Vulcan, that’s part of what I love about the show itself, Spock. And the humanity in the show, I love that also.”
Maybe it should be the walk-on music for her next show, we suggest. We expected it to be here in Houston. After leaving that tour, she has announced plans to play a live outdoor show in mid-September in her home state, a first chance to boldly go where she’s gone many times before, to connect with fans in a live music setting.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.