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.

New Times: The first cut on Please Do Not Disturb is called "Sellout," and it is ironic that it is the most catchy. Is the song about record-industry woes?

Juliana Hatfield: Yes, but it's not a true story. It's more like a warning. What could happen to someone when they stray too far from themselves.

NT: Well, judging from lyrics like, "You said that I was the real thing . . . so why don't you want me?", there must have been some true parts to the story. What exactly happened at Atlantic?

JH: I just thought that it was time to move on from Atlantic because they're a completely different label than when I signed with them. They have different ideas that don't really include me anymore. They're more into middle-of-the-road stuff like matchbox 20 and Jewel, and that's kind of what they're focusing on, and I don't really fit there anymore. I don't think I should be there anymore. Nothing really bad happened; I just felt like I should be somewhere else, and they let me leave. They're really not interested in me anymore at the label, and a lot of the cool bands like the Lemonheads and Madder Rose have left also.

NT: So they're only interested in their high-priority acts?
JH: They're not interested in trying to put across interesting things anymore. I mean, I know a lot of people really love Jewel, and she has more mass appeal than someone like me, but I just want a label that understands that. It's just typical of record labels. It's just natural--like having a problem with your boss, that's all.

NT: I heard some college-radio DJ assuming that your new song "Give Me Some of That" is about Jewel. The lines "You're so young, you don't even know what you have . . . you don't really need it . . . you don't even care if they take it all back" are particularly interesting. They seem to be related to the media's image of Jewel as a humble artist that cares little about her huge success.

JH: Naw, it's not about anybody in particular. It's just a general song about envy, about the things I want and don't have.

NT: What is your take on the current flux of female stars? Like Jewel, Fiona Apple, and Alanis Morissette?

JH: I think what Jewel does is in a very traditional vein; it's kind of singer-songwriter type, kind of folkish--God! I sound like a journalist! Oooh! I shouldn't generalize like that--I just don't find her interesting at all, but she's a great singer and she's talented. It's just not my cup of tea.

I can understand why she has such huge appeal, because it's not challenging and people can understand it. Fiona has some really cool songs. I think "Criminal" is so catchy. I love it. On Alanis, I remember getting a free CD when I was on tour and never listened to it, but later on I checked it out. She's a good singer. But I'm a sucker for a great pop song.

NT: Is there anything that you really dig?
JH: Yeah--they're not necessarily women, though. I love Verbena, a band from Alabama, and Third Eye Blind.

NT: My personal favorite on Please Do Not Disturb is "As If Your Life Depended on It." It has "classic" written all over it. The theme recalls tracks like "Feed Me" or "Forever Baby." What inspires such lyrical loneliness?

JH: Thanks. I actually like that one a lot myself. Well, it was really inspired by a conversation with a guy in a band on tour who said that he missed his wife and kid and couldn't wait to get back home. I was in my own town and couldn't wait to go on tour because I have none of those things to keep me rooted.

NT: What is the source of your angst in "Get Off"?
JH: I think this was originally directed at a journalist, but it became something about clingy types projecting their needs onto willing participants in the game of love.

NT: You've been quite frank about journalists on a couple of occasions. You've had difficulty with a few in the past. Some have pressed you for answers on your private life. On "Ugly" you sing "Ask me a question and I will mess up/I'll tell a lie and I'll never 'fess up . . . I'm really lost and I don't want to be found." Is this your own paradox, or do your songs temporarily reflect an emotion or feeling that you deny publicly because you no longer feel that way?

JH: I think people will move on. They'll stop asking me about that private stuff. I don't know, someday. I really don't like it when people ask me why I do stuff. I mean, someone asked me the other day, "Why did you write a song in French?" I mean, what do you mean, "Why?" Why in hell not? Why do anything? I don't know why, I just do it. There aren't reasons for everything.

A lot of times, I just give answers just 'cause they asked, and in trying to answer those questions that I don't know the answer to, I would end up saying something stupid or something that wasn't really true just for the sake of trying to answer these questions that can't be answered.

NT: So how old are you, anyway?
JH: That I can answer! I just turned 30.

Juliana Hatfield is scheduled to perform on Friday, December 5, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Fig Dish. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

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