Beauty and Sadness

Recently emancipated from Atlantic, Juliana Hatfield tests the waters with a new indie EP

A definition of irony proved to be too enigmatic for Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) in the alterna-classic movie Reality Bites. She tells her would-be employer that she "knows irony when she sees it," but such an answer denies her any chance of being hired for a position in the newsroom. Frustrated, she returns home and tells her pot-smoking roommate, Troy (Ethan Hawke), what happened. Dazed but not confused, the unemployed couch potato quickly replies, "It is when the implied meaning is opposite the literal." Lelaina is stunned.

In pop-music terms, Juliana Hatfield comes very close to that definition. The semipopular songwriter has become the princess of paradox; she insists that her literal existence is not based on the world of insecurities implied within her seemingly autobiographical songs. Consequently, Hatfield has been cursed with the burden of proving that her songs are not autobiographical, and this has proven to be most difficult. It is her embodiment of contrast that is essential to her artistry.

And it's no wonder. For years, Hatfield has strapped on a Les Paul guitar and composed gritty ditties of disappointment and desperate desire with every sensitivity and pain cranked up full volume. On the opposite end of her sonic spectrum, her voice, although determined, sounds very childlike and naive--like a blindfolded little girl trying to hit a pinata. This is not the voice one might expect for such Marshall-driven misery. But somehow, there's something seductive about this bittersweet symphony. The musical mixture works, and this sound is the foundation of Hatfield's house of pain.

The emotional essence in Hatfield's songs may have deep roots for the Bostonian. She's been quoted as saying that she was somewhat "tortured as a child" and picked on by brothers who used to "beat on me and make me feel really worthless." Perhaps her je ne sais quoi stemmed from child psychology transformed into prodigy.

Hatfield attended Berklee College of Music and was a member of the long-defunct Blake Babies. She would shortly thereafter gain recognition with the Lemonheads, a band fronted by Evan Dando. Their commercially successful album It's a Shame About Ray featured Hatfield on bass, but she chose not to tour with the band. Instead, Hatfield wished to gain exposure on her own and proceeded to record her debut solo album, Hey Babe. Released on Mammoth in 1992, the album featured special guests such as Mike Watt, John Wesley Harding and Dando. Songs like "Everybody Loves Me but You" and "Forever Baby" were ritualistic romanticisms deep with wanton insecurities and low self-esteem. Conceivably, the power in such pop confessions could have been pieced together from clippings of her personal life; by then, the ubiquitous Dando was known to be a rock 'n' roll Romeo. On MTV's 120 Minutes, he announced to viewers that Hatfield was his "sometimes girlfriend." Fortunately for Hatfield's career, Hey Babe won favor among critics, and questions addressed to her about Dando would wane.

As a result of Hatfield's Mammoth success, Atlantic penned a deal, and 1993 saw the release of Become What You Are. The disc was produced by Scott Litt (R.E.M., Replacements), and the MTV-friendly single "My Sister" enjoyed moderate success with its infamous "she's such a bitch" punch line (Hatfield does not have a sister). Radio then reached for the singles "For the Birds" and "Spin the Bottle." The latter track is also featured in the aforementioned movie Reality Bites, although, if ears could blink, the song would easily be missed. Become What You Are elevated Hatfield's exposure to a new height. The front-page coverage by Spin, Sassy and Alternative Press provided additional evidence.

After extensive touring, Only Everything was released by Atlantic in 1995. This album attempted to cut a harder edge, but the trimmings represented a less original and more commercial effort. The single "Universal Heartbeat" contained the bittersweet lyric, "A heart that hurts is a heart that works." This has become another line of scripture in Hatfield's bible of beauty and sadness. Unfortunately, Only Everything proved far less universal and faded from the public's view.

Hatfield possibly came a bit ahead of her time, but as a forecastle nonetheless. A wave of talented female singer-songwriters has since reached the mainland, traveling a course that was male-dominated just a short time ago. In a sea of musical mademoiselles, Hatfield turned out to be a buried treasure in what is truly ironic but ultimately positive. She got some acknowledgement as a forerunner by being invited on last summer's Lilith Fair tour, a freighter of feminine talent which included Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple, and Joan Osborne. On selective dates and in opening slots, Hatfield rocked the boat with her stormy anthems and anecdotes.

Hatfield has left Atlantic and recently released a new EP on the indie label Bar None. Please Do Not Disturb contains six self-produced songs that once again redefine female-pop conventions. Hatfield will release another indie EP and a full CD on a new major label in the future. In support of the EP, Hatfield set aside a few minutes to discuss her new songs, Atlantic Records and a few of today's heavily rotated artists.

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