Let’s make one thing clear, right off the top: Juliana Hatfield isn’t here, has never been here, and never will be here, to hand over a phony, girlish smile to anyone who expects it from her.
It may have been more than 25 years since the release of Hatfield’s debut album, 1992’s Hey Babe, but the Massachusetts singer’s disposition hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s gotten steelier.
“I think as time has gone by, I just got better at asserting myself,” she tells Vanyaland. “I never suffered fools, I would never pretend to be happy when someone was being an idiot or an asshole. I would never smile for anyone and put on a happy face.”
But after the vim n’ vigor of her 2017 album Pussycat — a necessary purge of emotional bile, Hatfield says — comes her new album of Olivia Newton-John covers, a collection of songs complete with all the sunshine of the Aussie originals, but also baptized with Hatfield’s signature grit. “I think after the darkness of my last album, I think I was unconsciously reaching towards the light, which is Olivia Newton-John,” Hatfield adds. “I think she’s a very positive person.”
“The pendulum, for me, has swung back towards something more light and positive, which is Olivia Newton-John,” she explains. “But what I do like about her music is that there’s a lot of beauty and positivity but there’s also that acknowledgement of the dark side.”
Don’t get it twisted — Hatfield’s still not accepting any bullshit — she’s just shining some much-needed light on turbulent cultural times.
Peep Vanyaland’s chat with Hatfield about tweaking her covers to perfection, picking her successor to Pussycat, and the timeless sound of Hey Babe.
Victoria Wasylak: You have two huge releases coming out this spring — both the cover album, and the reissue of Hey Babe. Which did you start working on first?
Juliana Hatfield: It was really Joe from American Laundromat Records, it was his idea to reissue Hey Babe. Without him, I may not have gotten around to doing that, so I have him to thank for that idea.
And then, the Olivia Newton-John thing, for me, it came together really quickly. It’s kind of how I work — an idea will pop into my head. It was an idea that popped into my head and then I immediately started to work on it. I think I started in August and went into autumn [working on the album], and then immediately we started getting it ready to be manufactured.
Olivia Newton-John is someone who’s been a big influence on you. Is this something you could have seen yourself doing when you started out?
I think it’s something that I could have done at any point in my life, but I guess maybe I never had the balls to do it until now or something. Or, I feel really free from constraints right now, I feel free to do whatever the hell I want. I guess I kind of always felt like that but I do feel I’m in this stage of my life where I feel like I can and will indulge in any whim that I have. It just seemed like a good time to do it. I think after the darkness of my last album, I think I was unconsciously reaching towards the light, which is Olivia Newton-John. I think she’s a very positive person. I don’t have an intellectual answer or anything, I just have these ideas and I obey the ideas.
It’s interesting that you bring up your last album, Pussycat, because I was going to ask about how the cover album is in really close succession to that — only a year in between the two, really. And I feel like that was such a politically charged album, and I feel like this is more like a happy place for you.
Yeah, like I said, I think Pussycat was vomiting out all this bile, I just needed to get it out of my system. It was gonna tear me apart if I didn’t get it out. And I did it — I vomited it out, and I said my piece with Pussycat, and now I just kind of want to run away from that. I did what I could do. I felt kind of helpless, like a lot of people, and I just think the way that I was able to deal with my angst was to make that album. The pendulum, for me, has swung back towards something more light and positive, which is Olivia Newton-John. But what I do like about her music is that there’s a lot of beauty and positivity but there’s also that acknowledgement of the dark side. It’s not like bubblegum — they’re [the songs] kind of just like life, there’s light and dark, but they’re pretty gorgeous.
As someone who’s been an influence on you, what qualities of hers have you tried to put into your own music?
I don’t know if I’d call her an influence, it’s more like I liked what her music made me feel. It made me feel happy in a visceral way, like the sound of her voice was just very pleasing to my sensibilities. I just felt an affinity with her sense of melody and harmony, because I also love to sing really wide-ranging melodies, with lots of layers of harmonies and vocals. I think it’s like a shared sensibility, maybe. Her voice is not rock and roll, and my voice is not rock and roll either. I always wanted to have a rock and roll voice but I didn’t, so I guess I was truly drawn to her because she also had a kind of non-rock voice, and that was part of the affinity I had for her.
When you went about recording this album, did you change anything in any of the songs?
It was a challenge to decide with each song how much I wanted to veer away from the original and how close I wanted to stay. There were choices I was making for each song. Some of them are pretty faithful to the original versions, whereas other ones I kind of reinterpreted a little. There’s a song called “Make A Move On Me,” which Olivia’s version is kind of swing, but we straightened it up so it’s more of a caveman rock feel. “Hopelessly Devoted To You” is really pretty close [to the original], I didn’t change a whole lot, except I added one distorted guitar in the chorus. Just little choices. It depends on the song how close it is to the original. Like an instinct, each song seemed to tell me what it needed.
Is it hard deciding if you want to tweak it or not?
I like to think I have a good instinct for cover versions of songs, I have a good sense of how to re-work someone else’s song. I think if I’m drawn to a song, I can usually make it my own, and it’s really not something I consciously think about too much. I start learning the song, and playing it, and it’ll just take on a feel because of the way I sing and play guitar. Anyone’s song I’m going to play is going to have my personality because the sound of my voice is unique and my guitar playing is kind of scrappy and sloppy, so anything I do is going to have that unique sound, I think. In a cover song, I don’t try to impose my will on it — I don’t say “I’m going to take this pop song and make it punk,” I don’t put labels on it. I’ll just say “I like this song, how can I sing it so it feels natural for me?” Then the changes will just kind of organically happen.
I know Olivia actually shared the link to your album pre-order, which must have felt pretty epic.
Yeah, that was wild.
Have you met before?
No, not that I remember. No — I think I would remember [laughs]. I haven’t met her.
Did you guys reach out to her to tell her it [the album] was happening?
I know that Joe from the record label was in touch with people from her camp, because I know that since we’re giving a dollar from the sale of each album to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre, that we were in touch with them about that. They were involved early on, making sure it was all cool, and they let us put their logo on the album for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre. It’s for cancer research and wellness and it’s a charity that Olivia’s involved with. But yeah, her people were aware from early on that this was going on.
Switching gears a little bit to Hey Babe — it’s the 25th anniversary of the album. How do you think it would be received if it were released today?
I have no idea. That’s a good question. I don’t know! I do think that it aged pretty well. I don’t think it’s dated in terms of the sound or the production. Sonically, it could be something that comes out today because it’s kind of a timeless sound, I guess. The things that I talk about on the album are kind of universal — young-adult-kind-of theme, insecurities, existential angst. Yeah, universal stuff. It might go over well if it came out today.
When I talk to other women who have been in music for so long, I like to ask about the changes they’ve seen in their lifetime for what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry. How would you say the landscape has changed for women since you released this album?
It’s really hard for me to say. I feel like sexism has existed from the beginning of my life, and sexism is still pervasive in the world, in general, and that’s never going to go away. I think what has changed is that now it’s more obvious that that is true and more people are talking about it, and the fact of sexism is not as hush-hush, it’s more out in the open. That doesn’t mean that it’s gone away, it’s still there — and also I have to say, I don’t think the sexism I’ve experienced as a person has been specific to the music industry, it’s just widespread, generalized sexism in the world.
‘Just yesterday I was telling someone to go fuck himself.’
It’s like racism. They’re different — racism and sexism are different, but they both exist, and they’ve both been there forever, and they’re not going away. And I also feel like, playing in indie rock when I was starting out, it was actually a welcoming place for me. There were a lot of very cool feminist-leaning men that I was playing music with. I don’t mean at the record companies, I mean the people that I was surrounding myself with, like John Stroham and the Blake Babies, he was a very feminist dude, and he was very non-judgmental, and everything was equal in Blake Babies, so that was a great environment to be cocooned in.
It’s only when we went on tour and went out to world where it was just a little problematic because that’s where you see sexism everywhere, but I don’t think it’s changed all that much. I think what’s happened now is that the misogyny and the sexism is just being outed more, and you can’t hide it as much.
It’s interesting that you say that it’s more obvious now, because I think before, people didn’t think twice about a lot of things. I was watching an interview you did in 1995, and the gentleman from MTV interviewing you pinched your cheek and called you “babe.”
Yup. I was pretty miserable all through my 20s, and I wasn’t really conscious of why I was miserable. It’s hard to say, because a lot of it I black out of my memory — I don’t remember that interview, for example. But someone sent me a bunch of press clips from the ’90s about me, and I read them, and I was just vibrating with rage because the attitude toward me was so condescending and so sickening. No wonder I was miserable, just the way that I was treated. And I always had my guard up and I was really careful to try to be honest, and not to be coy and just be straightforward. I was really shy. It was really difficult for me to manage how people approached me and their preconceived notions of me because the sound of my voice was kind of girlish, and people thought they could treat me like I was a little doll or something. It was really hard for me to navigate that — I didn’t handle it very well, the kind of attention I was getting. I didn’t like it and I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just shut down I think.
Do you think that’s something that over time you’ve learned how to deal with better? Or is it a matter of getting older, or — I hate to say it — getting used to it?
No, I never get used to it. I think as time has gone by, I just got better at asserting myself. I never suffered fools, I would never pretend to be happy when someone was being an idiot or an asshole. I would never smile for anyone and put on a happy face. If I was unhappy, people would know it. But I was also pretty sullen and silent, and I had a lot of emotional problems and I didn’t really know how express myself, and [now] I’m much better at saying “no.”
Just yesterday I was telling someone to go fuck himself — someone was not holding up his end of the bargain. I’m much better at expressing my anger if it’s justified, and I think maybe that’s what happens when you get older. If someone’s actually done something that is not okay, you learn that you’re justified in expressing your anger… I don’t think we need to be polite over and over and over again.