Volume 78 / Number 21 - October 22 - 28, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Music

Juliana Hatfield
Thursday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.
Housing Works Book Café
126 Crosby Street
$25; 212-334-3324; housingworksbookstore.org

Singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield is the author of a newly published memoir, “When I Grow Up.”

So good to be ‘So Alone’

Juliana Hatfield finds a new place in the spotlight

By Adrienne Urbanski

Fame came quickly for Juliana Hatfield. She garnered a devoted fan base with her former band, the Blake Babies, while still a student at The Berklee School of Music. When the band broke up – a split due in part to Hatfield’s contradictory loves for punk rock and bubble gum pop – her solo career catapulted. Hatfield’s face hit the covers of both Sassy and Spin, while her song “ My Sister” became a radio hit and “Spin the Bottle” was featured in the iconic slacker film “Reality Bites.” Hatfield’s sweet, little girl voice, catchy choruses and optimistic lyrics placed her in sharp contrast to some of alternative rock’s more acerbic women. Even her more socially aware songs such as “Supermodel,” which comments on the media’s objectification of women, sounds cute and upbeat on a visceral level.

Despite her music’s optimism, however, Hatfield was suffering, seeing the life of a touring musician as a dark and depressing one. Hatfield spent the summer of 1995, after the release of her third album “Only Everything,” surveying her concert venues in search of windows through which to throw herself, and crying backstage. She wasn’t looking to commit suicide but to find a way to “not feel anything,” wishing that she could just be unconscious. Although Hatfield felt pressured by her record label to trudge on in the name of driving a profit and establishing a bigger name, she knew that continuing on could kill her. And so, Hatfield dropped out of the music scene for a year, looking to repair herself, entertaining the idea of never returning to music again.

Hatfield recorded an album the next year, but found that her label Atlantic Records was unwilling to release it and take a financial risk on her. Hatfield begged to be let loose from her contract, walking away from an album she couldn’t release. Hatfield put out an album on Zoe Records, only to go on and create her own company, Ye Olde Records. “How to Walk Away” is her second album on the label.

Twenty years into her career, Hatfield, 41, finds herself at a turning point, and her music reflects a new level of confidence and personal expression. Perhaps most noticeable is Hatfield’s voice, which has deepened over time, no longer the high, little girl voice that embarrassed her in her twenties, leading her to chain smoke as a way to change it.

“I just feel more comfortable,” she said in a recent phone interview, “more confident with the way I sound. My voice has deepened, and I finally feel comfortable using it.”

The lyrics of “How to Walk Away” show a change as well. While Hatfield’s two most famous tracks, “Spin the Bottle” and “My Sister,” depicted fictional scenarios, this album reveals distinctly personal and autobiographical writing that expresses her disillusionment with the music industry, as well as heartbreak stemming from her personal relationships. Among the album’s most noteworthy tracks is “So Alone,” a song that embodies Hatfield’s contradictory embrace of dark indie rock and catchy pop. While “So Alone” is as catchy and sweet to listen to as her hits in the ’90s, it manages to express a darkness and honesty within its lyrics her previous work never conveyed.
Hatfield said that the song was created while she was experiencing extreme loneliness. “I was just feeling depressed and alone and was trying to find someone to talk and was calling up my friends, but no one was around, so I took an Ambien to help me sleep. Pretty soon each piece of furniture was talking to me and each one had a distinctly different personality and voice and I could hear the walls breathing. And the song just came to me, there was one verse about the furniture speaking to me but later I took that out.”

The album’s combination of emotionally cathartic indie rock and stream lined pop is one that Hatfield credits in part to her collaboration with producer Andy Chase, known for his work with New York-based group Ivy. The recording process was a joy for Hatfield, allowing her to feel a passion and freedom she hadn’t felt since the early years of her career.

“We found this whiskey bottle left behind in the studio,” Hatfield said, “and it was so good, so amazing, it was like nectar, and we just drank it while we were recording. We said what is this whiskey, because we had never heard of it before. We said that we were going to have to go and buy ourselves another bottle when we finished recording. So we both went and got a bottle and I tried it and it just didn’t taste good at all. And we both realized that it had tasted so amazing because recording had just been so enjoyable.”

A common thread between Hatfield’s work on the album and her previous work is a stated preference for solitude, one she first confessed more than a decade ago. Her song “Just Lust,” which features lyrics desiring an emotionless fling, are undercut with a refrain repeating her usual desire for being alone.

“I always seem to like being alone more than other people,” Hatfield said. “Sometimes I’m just happiest being on my own. I don’t always need another person around. Sometimes spending periods of time alone can feel very therapeutic; I feel cleansed.”

Hatfield has also been exploring the use of writing as a means of therapy, and has taken to keeping a deeply personal public blog that seeks to add personal connection to her songs. While taking a yearlong hiatus from music in 2006, Hatfield decided to instead try her hand at writing, taking a memoir class that lead to her writing “When I Grow Up,” which was released by Wiley in August.

Hatfield believes that by making both her blog and her memoir available to the public she is giving a new dimension to her music, allowing listeners to connect more deeply to her songs. While other public figures take on ghostwriters to pen their memoirs, Hatfield wrote hers independently. “I’m not really interested in current music, I’m much more interested in books and writing right now,” she said, adding that she has considered leaving music to be a writer. The memoir itself is well written, a part tour diary, part personal story, showing Hatfield in the past and in the present simultaneously.

Hatfield has also tried acting, landing one-episode roles in the ’90s on “My So-Called Life” as well as “Pete and Pete.” She sees this as a medium she could explore more. “I would love to have just one more role – one really good role – and I would be content,” she said. “I don’t want to be an actress, I just want one more role. Before wasn’t as good because I had no idea what I was doing.”

Unlike other female singers dealing with depression, including Cat Power and Fiona Apple, Hatfield has never been one to break down on stage, always pleasing the crowd, delivering a streamlined performance. “I’ve always liked performing and shows, it’s more all that goes along with touring that I don’t like, it really wears me down,” said Hatfield. Her memoir shows the life of a touring musician to be a taxing one, spending months alone, hopping from one budget hotel and dingy rock club to the next.

She’s been looking forward to playing at Housing Works Book Café, a venue she remembers fondly from prior gigs, and perhaps now that she’s an author, it’s also a more fitting venue – and certainly one with a better cause – than a rock club.

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