The Boston-based singer and songwriter—who has played with the Blake Babies and the Lemonheads—has carved out a multifaceted solo career since the early 1990s. In addition to her most recent solo albums, Pussycat (2017) and Weird (2019), she has also recorded two expressive albums of cover songs by Olivia Newton-John and The Police. Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police was released on November 15, 2019. Juliana Hatfield spoke with Bob Gourley for PKM.
Since her start in the late 1980s with indie-rock trio The Blake Babies—which she joined while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston—Juliana Hatfield has maintained a prolific solo and collaborative career. While she’s been generally consistent musically, she’s recently branched out by releasing covers albums focusing on specific artists. First, there was Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, released between her own Pussycat and Weird albums, and now Hatfield has one focusing on The Police.
The Blake Babies—their name supplied by Allen Ginsberg—released their debut album, Nicely, Nicely, in 1987. After releasing three albums, the group ended in 1991, with Hatfield releasing her debut solo album, Hey Babe, in 1992. While 1990’s songs such as “My Sister,” “Universal Heartbeat,” and “Spin the Bottle” are her most widely known, Hatfield has been consistently putting out strong solo albums on various independent labels as well as her own Ye Olde Records.
Juliana Hatfield Three – “My Sister” – Live at KEXP studio
Having played bass and sung backing vocals on The Lemonhead’s breakthrough “It’s a Shame About Ray,” Hatfield has continued to take on various collaborations. In 2001, she joined Blake Babies bandmate Freda Love and Heidi Lynne Gluck to release two albums and tour as Some Girls. Hatfield formed Minor Alps with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and put out the album Get There in 2013. Other collaborations include Sittin’ in a Tree (a 2007 EP with the band Frank Smith) and 2016 Wild Stab album from The I Don’t Cares (with Paul Westerberg.)
Juliana Hatfield: I’ve really gotten into recording covers. Last year, I put out that record of all Olivia Newton-John songs, and that experience was so great to be immersed in her music. Then I made another album of my own, and then I wanted to do more. I wanted to go deep into another artist’s body of work because it was really interesting for me. I think it helps my own music; it helps me to get away from my own writing for a while and explore someone else’s writings.
I chose The Police because there were just a really, really huge presence in my life when I was younger, when I was in high school. I spent huge amounts of time and energy absorbed in The Police, and I knew their music really well, inside and out. That’s kind of why I chose them, because I was just a huge superfan.
We weren’t thinking we were part of a scene. It was just like we were in a band and there were other cool bands and it was cool how none of the bands sounded the same. There was a lot of musical eclecticism and there was no Boston “sound,” that’s for sure.
PKM: Some of the tracks are fairly straightforward covers, while others, like “Murder by Numbers,” are a very different take on the material. How did you decide how to approach things?
Juliana Hatfield: I had a list of songs that I wanted to record, and I just went in song by song. Like when I decided to record “Murder by Numbers,” it was like an instant decision. I thought, let’s kind of dumb it down and do it really fast and punk. That just seemed like the most obvious way to interpret that song. It seemed almost so obvious. I can’t believe someone else has not done it, or maybe someone has, and I just don’t know about it. So that one was just like, oh yeah. A light bulb went on over my head: do it really fast and loud and dumb, as in take away all the nuance and the irony of The Police version and bash it out, to bring the ideas to life in a new way. Other ones were not so clear. For a couple of them, I had to start over. I just scrapped the first versions to do them over because I didn’t have a clear concept. “Next to You” started out as kind of a heavy metal ballad with really heavy guitars, and it just wasn’t working. It was really sluggish. I just started all over again with the drum machine. So, it was just a song by song thing.
PKM: Being a Police fan, were there any lesser-known songs you wanted to bring to people’s attention?
Juliana Hatfield: Well, yeah, I think maybe that’s partly why I chose “Landlord,” which was an early, early single before the first album. Some people don’t know that one. It’s such a great song, and I still think it’s pertinent and relevant. They were such a hugely popular band. I think most people know all the songs I recorded. I really do. Like even something like “Canary in a Coal Mine,” which was maybe not a hit single, but it was still an album track and people know those albums.
I have a musical personality that I can’t really get away from. Playing other people’s music is an escape from that; it’s like I’m escaping myself
PKM: How did the experience making the album compare to the Olivia Newton-John release?
Juliana Hatfield: I have to say that it was easier doing this one because with those songs, the songwriting was more complicated and trickier in terms of the chord structures and chord progressions. For the most part, the Olivia Newton-John songs were much more complicated and harder to sing. The Police songs were, by comparison, much simpler and easier. I used to sing in a cover band in high school, and we did it a bunch of Police songs. I had experience singing them, so it was kind of a piece of cake, but it was little bit challenging figuring out what to do with some songs.
PKM: Were there any Police song you attempted to cover that didn’t work out?
Juliana Hatfield: I think there were one or two that I tried and then abandoned because they weren’t working. There were a couple that I forgot to do that I wanted to do. So, I might have to do a volume two or something!
PKM: You’ve been actively releasing original albums. Were these cover albums done completely separately, in between, or recorded alongside your own music?
Juliana Hatfield: Everything was done separately. I mean Olivia Newton John was recorded all at once and then after that, I recorded my last album, Weird. And then after that was done, I did The Police. I was hoping that playing other people’s songs would influence me, but I don’t know if I can really see any direct influence. When I went to make the Weird album between Olivia and The Police, it was like I kind of fell back into all my old habits. I guess you have kind of like a musical shtick. I do. I mean not a shtick, because it’s real, but I have a style and habits that I just can’t stop. I have a musical personality that I can’t really get away from. Playing other people’s music is an escape from that; it’s like I’m escaping myself, and it gives me a different perspective, but it doesn’t really change the way I write my own music. I seem to have a routine that I’ve fallen into. It’s pretty much the same for covers and for my own stuff. I’ll say I spend roughly the same amount of time in the studio recording and mixing. I’m pretty consistent, and nothing changes dramatically when I’m recording someone else’s song.
When I was in my early twenties, I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. I read every single novel of his. I was not so much into the poetry, but I went through all the novels, one by one.
PKM: How did your approach to your latest original album, Weird, differ from its predecessor, Pussycat?
Juliana Hatfield: Well, Pussycat was me looking outside of myself. I was thinking about what was going on in the world around me, and in this country I live in and reacting to that. Weird was kind of the opposite. Weird was like going inside myself and exploring my own interior. Pussycat was more exterior and Weird was more interior.
PKM: You mentioned that you’ve developed a creative routine. Could you elaborate on that? How has it evolved over the years?
Juliana Hatfield: It has taken a while for me to figure out who I really am. In my life and in my career, I have been in the process of figuring out what I’m trying to do and who I am. As I get older, I get closer and closer to figuring out who I am and what I’m doing. Everything in my life is falling into place in terms of what feels right for me, even down to what I wear. I’m getting rid of a lot of things I never felt were really comfortable for me to wear. I’m streamlining everything. I’m streamlining my wardrobe; I’m streamlining the way I make records. Everything’s falling into place in terms of what is really me and who I am musically and what I’m trying to do. I’m not flailing around as much and just settling into what feels natural.
PKM: You had been releasing on your own Ye Olde Records, but the past few albums have been on American Laundromat Records. Are you no longer continuing Ye Olde Records?
Juliana Hatfield: For now, I have not been putting out my own albums there, but it’s not like I’ve closed up shop, because there was no shop. I mean, the shop is me, so I would not rule out releasing more things on Ye Olde Records in the future. I might do that if I felt like it. I just kind of go with the flow.
PKM: Your first few solos albums went through major labels. What impact did moving to indies have on you?
Juliana Hatfield: When I started out in The Blake Babies, we were totally self-sufficient doing everything ourselves. When I left and signed to Atlantic, there were lots of other people doing things for you, like promoting your albums and doing whatever goes on behind the scenes, publicizing, putting up money for recordings. It’s like a machine that you’re a part of, and then when I left a major label, I went back to being indie. It was like a weight was lifted off me because I didn’t have the pressure of the machine anymore. It was like I could get back to doing things myself and doing things my own way. I’m up for whatever. It’s like I can deal with whatever situation I happen to find myself in, and I’m a fatalist that way. So indie or major, it’s all different pieces of the same pie.
PKM: What was it like reuniting with The Blake Babies?
Juliana Hatfield: We’ve done a few over the years. It hasn’t been a big deal, the reunion itself. We’ve played a few shows here and there over the years, and since we broke up, it’s been really nice to see them again, to see John [Strohm] and Freda. It’s easy to fall back into playing with them, because we have a musical chemistry. It’s like slipping into an old suit of clothes, which is really cool. We just approach it as though we are getting together now. We’re not looking to try and recreate anything. We all live in different places. We all have very different lives, so when it comes together, it’s like the songs and the music is the unifying element. It’s not a big conceptual project. It’s just like, let’s get together and play these songs. It’s really that simple.
PKM: Could you elaborate on The Blake Babies getting their name from Allen Ginsberg?
Juliana Hatfield: Well, that happened before I was in the band. The story John and Freda tell goes like this: John came to Boston for college and Freda was his girlfriend at the time. She came to Boston with him, and they wanted to get a band together. I guess they hadn’t met me yet, but they had this idea for a band, so they went to see Allen Ginsburg read or something, at Harvard, I think. Then after the reading, there was a question and answer session, and they stood up and asked Ginsburg, “What should we name our band?” And he said The Blake Babies. That’s the story I was told. We met pretty soon after that, I think.
PKM: You appeared on a track on Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness. What was it like providing your interpretation of Kerouac’s work?
Juliana Hatfield: I haven’t heard it since I recorded it. I think I remember being embarrassed. I didn’t really know what to do with the material, but I wanted to be part of it. When I was in my early twenties, I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. I read every single novel of his. I was not so much into the poetry, but I went through all the novels, one by one. I felt a little unmoored with the material. I didn’t really know what to do with it. Maybe if I heard it now, I would love it. I just haven’t heard it in decades.
Juliana Hatfield sets Jack Kerouac’s “Silly Goofball Poems” to music on Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness:
PKM: What was your experience like emerging from the Boston music scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s?
Juliana Hatfield: Back then, we didn’t think about what scene we were in. We were just making our music and there were bands around us who also happened to be making their music. We were friends with The Lemonheads, so we knew each other, and we played together, and I knew some of the other bands. There were lots of cool bands at the time that I loved watching, like Throwing Muses and bands like that. We weren’t thinking we were part of a scene. It was just like we were in a band and there were other cool bands and it was cool how none of the bands sounded the same. There was a lot of musical eclecticism and there was no Boston “sound,” that’s for sure. There were the Pixies and Throwing Muses, and there was Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Jr. Every band sounded different, which was cool. There was no sense of competition. No sense of like, we are out to beat this band. It was not competitive at all. People were just doing their own thing, and it was cool.
PKM: You played and sang on the Lemonhead’s It’s a Shame about Ray album. What was it like collaborating with them?
Juliana Hatfield: Yeah, and then on the next one Come on Feel the Lemonheads. At least I sang on the next one also. I was friends with them, and our bands had always been chummy. So, when Evan went to make that album, it just seemed to make sense that he would ask me to be involved because we had already been playing music together, and I was available. So, I did it and I loved the music.
PKM: I see that you’ve been selling artwork on Etsy. Could you discuss that?
Juliana Hatfield: I’ve been making art since I was a child, ever since I could hold a pen in my hand. Making music and art is a lifelong thing. I just do it. I spent a full year full-time in art school about eight years ago. I devoted a whole year to a post-baccalaureate year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I took the whole year off from doing any music to do that. It’s always been something that I have done, and I have so much artwork taking up space, so I started selling. I have so much of it that I need to get rid of some of it. I use some of the proceeds to give to animal shelters that I’m connected with.
Juliana Hatfield will be touring beginning January 2020.