With a new album and a memoir out, Juliana Hatfield is finally emerging as her most authentic self.
By Naila Francis
“…at heart, I am not a rock and roller. At heart I am a librarian, a bird watcher, a transcendentalist, a gardener, a spinster, a monk … I don’t want loud noise and fame and scandal and drugs and late nights and flashing lights; I want peace and quiet and order; solitude, privacy, and space for contemplation.” — Juliana Hatfield, excerpted from “When I Grow Up”
It may take some readers by surprise — this stark confession from the modern-rock star who in the early ’90s became an indie favorite on the strength of albums such as “Become What You Are,” and its accompanying hits “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle” (featured on the soundtrack to 1994’s quintessential Gen-X flick “Reality Bites”).
Yet 20 years into a career spanning several group and solo efforts, more than a dozen albums, much critical acclaim — as well as coveted profiles in magazines like Spin, Guitar World and Guitar Player — and guest-starring roles on TV shows such as “My So-Called Life,” Juliana Hatfield still wears that fame like an ill-fitting suit.
Never one to be lured by its trappings, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter has instead clung to an often-misinterpreted integrity about her art.
“I made sure I didn’t have an image because I didn’t want to exploit myself that way,” says Hatfield, speaking from her Cambridge, Mass., home. “I was overprotective of myself. I was so determined it was going to be all about the music and nothing else. I was very dedicated to being honest with everything — the way I made my music and the way I presented myself.”
In the fickle, cutthroat world that is the music business, however, such authenticity rarely has a place. And for someone like Hatfield, a shy, painfully insecure woman only now coming to relish a newfound confidence and self-acceptance, the pressures of catering to the razzle-dazzle parade proved too much. She won’t say she’s giving up her music career, but with her new CD, “How to Walk Away,” released last month, and a memoir, “When I Grow Up,” to be published by Wiley & Sons on Sept. 29, she’s certainly shifting toward a less burdensome pace.
As its title suggests, the disc, released on her own Ye Olde Records label, chronicles a series of extrications, from pained relationships and self-sabotaging perceptions, unhealthy attachments and futile, repetitive cycles. And while most of the songs are delicate pop-rock confessionals, there is an edge, too, remnants of the more biting, grunge-rock sound that initially catapulted her to success, as she callously shoots down a lover’s potential misunderstanding of her overtures on “Just Lust” and exits a draining creative partnership with assured finality on “Now I’m Gone.”
Produced by Andy Chase (of the alt-rock/pop band Ivy), the album, she says, bears the best of their imprints.
“I knew he would give each song what it needed to be the most it would be, and that just meant the album would be smooth and lush and rich-sounding.
“That’s his aesthetic. Mine’s a little more sloppy and lazy than his,” says Hatfield, who comes to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Wednesday. “He helped me to bridge the gap between my rock side and pop side.”
Though the overall tone may be one of despondency, especially with tracks like “This Lonely Love” — featuring the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler — and “So Alone,” a wrenching portrayal of depression, there is an air of resilience, too, that speaks to Hatfield’s own contentment these days.
“I think it’s more interesting, the darker stuff. It makes more interesting songs,” she says. “The dark stuff is the stuff people don’t talk about or don’t know how to talk about; they suffer silently. So I’m just giving a voice to the things that hurt people. If you can recognize your pain in a song, it makes you feel less alone.”
Still, she adds, “the hope is subtle, but it’s definitely there (on the album). It’s kind of bittersweet. If you go through bad times and you come out of it, then everything’s good because you know you’ve been through it and you’re stronger and have more wisdom.”
And Hatfield has had her share of bad times. Though her songs have tended toward the lyrically dismal or lacerating, openly mining her own neurosis and failings, she offers an even more probing look at her life in her memoir, which serves as part tour diary, part biography of her life, from her childhood growing up in the Boston suburb of Duxbury to the recording of “How to Walk Away.”
“I thought I had a unique perspective and I just wanted to tell my story because you don’t really hear that kind of story that often,” she says, of her decision to write a book. “You hear about famous stars in their heyday and famous people who reached the top and crashed and burned, but you don’t hear about people who were in the spotlight for a little while but then the spotlight kind of went away and she’s still doing her work.
“My motivation and desire to make my music was always there and never wavered. But at some point, I got a little bit burnt out by the lifestyle of vans and skuzzy rock clubs and I had to take a step away and, for the first time, figure out if this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Hatfield got her start at 19 as a member of the Blake Babies while at the Berklee College of Music. When the group disbanded in 1991, she launched her solo career with the album “Hey Babe” on Mammoth Records, former home to the Blake Babies. Later signed to Atlantic Records, she released the album that broke her to a wider commercial audience, “Become What You Are,” as The Juliana Hatfield Three. She would leave Atlantic following the rejection of her third album for them, “God’s Foot,” landing on Zoe/Rounder Records for a while before starting her own label in 2005.
Hers may seem a somewhat satisfactory trajectory on the surface, but “When I Grow Up” explores the bleak, often-anguished thread woven through those years, Hatfield plagued by a torturous sense of inadequacy and self-loathing that also fed into a desperate desire for approval, even as she shunned most efforts to get her to play the coy and cute pop starlet.
With unflinching honesty, she shares her battles with depression, suicidal thoughts and anorexia, and then just as courageously admits to learning to cope with the help of therapy, discipline, constant vigilance and self-forgiveness.
“I’m really just telling the truth about myself, and I don’t think there’s anything scandalous about being honest,” she says, recalling how a now-infamous confession to still being a virgin at 23 in Interview magazine drew more attention than the “Hey Babe” album that she was promoting at the time. “Part of writing the book was I wanted to obliterate any last misperceptions about me. If anyone had any last questions about who I am and what I’m thinking, I just wanted to lay them to rest and dispel and settle the mystery.”
Throughout her travails, music has remained a sustaining force — something she grew to appreciate even more when she deliberately took a year away from it, giving up writing and touring, and found a well of inspiration — and the seeds for “How to Walk Away” — waiting at the other end.
“Now I know that I can let (music) go and it will come back to me, and that’s such a good thing to know,” says Hatfield. “And it’s a good metaphor for everything in life. Now that it’s not so desperately important to my survival, I’m able to enjoy it more.
“And I just want to stress how lucky and grateful I feel that I get to do this.”
– The Intelligencer