The Boston Phoenix
May 11 - 18, 2000

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Double visions

Two sides of Juliana Hatfield

Cellars by Starlight by Matt Ashare

Juliana Hatfield You don't have to go too far back in time to reach a point when Juliana Hatfield seemed on the verge of becoming a major star. But that was still long enough ago that it's worth recounting some of the details. There was this Boston band called the Blake Babies, a trio fronted by Hatfield who arrived in the late '80s and helped keep the city's reputation for smart and tuneful left-of-center pop intact up through 1990, when the wall that had separated the alternative underground from the commercial mainstream rapidly began to crumble. Hatfield then embarked on a solo career that landed her in the perfect position to capitalize on the alterna-rock explosion just a few years later. Working under the Juliana Hatfield Three banner with bassist Dean Fisher and former Bullet LaVolta drummer Todd Philips, she delivered Become What You Are (Mammoth/Atlantic), a tight and tuneful collection of guitar-driven pop songs that had just the right mix of muscle and melody to suit the needs of the rising alternative nation, plus singles ("Spin the Bottle," "My Sister") that smelled distinctly of teen spirit. It didn't hurt that she'd also been the bass player on It's a Shame About Ray (Atlantic, 1992), her pal Evan Dando's best Lemonheads album.

"I have to say that when all that was happening, well, first of all, it was bizarre to me, it was weird, and even then I felt I was on the fringes," Hatfield reflects over lunch at the S&S Deli, in Inman Square. "I grew up listening to AM pop Top 40 radio, and to me, to really be important in the history of rock, you had to be Top 10. I know that sounds dumb, but I just felt like some shmuck who happened to get carried on this little wave of modern rock. I was still in the modern-rock ghetto, and I never really broke out. I'm not disparaging what happened -- it gave me exposure and I've been able to sustain my career because of that. I would say that I definitely wasn't ready for all the stuff that happened. I felt that my music and my voice really weren't fully developed yet, so I was uncomfortable with all the attention. I had this weird sense that I wasn't fully myself yet, as a musical entity. So I've needed the time between then and now to try to come fully into myself."

Whether or not she felt ready for it, with Lilith just a few years down the pike in '93, Hatfield should have been sitting pretty. But when her turn to play McLachlan's femme fair arrived, in '98, Hatfield had gone from the cover of Spin to being an artist without a label. And instead of performing on Lilith's main stage, she was invited to join the traveling women's music show for just a week of dates on the second stage. Nevertheless, she garnered some rave reviews as one of the few truly rockin' artists on the disappointingly uniform and mellow Lilith line-up. That she covered the X tune "The Unheard Music" as part of her Lilith set only reinforced the point that, though women's voices had become a more potent commercial force, it was largely just more of the same: pretty, folky singer-songwriters. The women who defied convention by rocking as hard as the boys were playing the unheard music. Hatfield, whose combination of beauty and brawn had been the perfect mix just a few years earlier, wasn't Lilith enough for the Fair and was too fair for everything else.

Which brings us to this Tuesday, May 16, when Hatfield will join an exclusive club that includes Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses by releasing two albums at once. One of them, Beautiful Creature (Zoë/Rounder/Island), is the kind of mature and moody pop disc that she was on a course to make at Atlantic before her relationship with the label went south. The disc emphasizes the quieter, more acoustic-guitar-based side of her songwriting, though there are several strategically placed rockier pop tunes. Beautiful Creature also features one of the more techno-savvy tracks Hatfield's ever recorded, the vaguely sinister "Cool Rock Boy," which finds her collaborating with former Bostonian Wally Gagel. Gagel, who played bass in Orbit, produced bands at Fort Apache, and worked with the Folk Implosion on their hit "Natural One" (as well as on their latest, the Interscope album One Part Lullaby), gets a writing credit on the tune, which is rooted in a "Natural One"-style groove and wouldn't make a bad radio single. Gagel's other co-writing credit comes on "Don't Rush Me," a brighter, brisker, more organic-sounding production that also wouldn't sound out of place on the radio.

"Beautiful Creature is really a bunch of demos that were recorded piecemeal in different studios, with different people, at different times over the course of a year or so," Hatfield explains. Along with Gagel, she worked with Austin-based singer/songwriter/guitarist David Garza, who recorded several tracks at his studio and played some guitar; producer Scott Litt at his studio in LA; and drummer/producer Andy Kravitz at his studio in Philadelphia. "I've been collaborating more and more just to get away from myself because I fall into songwriting ruts that I can't get out of. I'm learning that it sometimes takes other people to help drag me out of a rut, you know?

"I love what I do, but sometimes I just get sick of myself. That's all I can think of to describe the feeling . . . especially being on the fringes of the industry like I am and not having a lot of people around me giving a shit what I do. I basically have total freedom. I'm in control and I'm making all the decisions. But it's like, I have to think of everything, all the ideas, and then make them happen, and I get together all the musicians, and sometimes I just get tired of having to have a vision or I get tired of my vision. Those are the days when I long for being part of a band where everyone is an equal contributor and equally important. I don't want to devalue the musicians who play on my albums, but there's something that's really special when you're in a band where all members' personalities are equally important."

Which brings us to the second album that Hatfield will be releasing this Tuesday, Total System Failure (Zoë/Rounder/Island), by Juliana's Pony. Although not a solo disc, it's definitely a Juliana Hatfield album. But it's pretty much the polar opposite of Beautiful Creature. For starters, it was recorded and mixed in just a couple of weeks at one studio (Cambridge's Fort Apache) with the same players on every track: Weezer bassist Mikey Welsh (formerly of the Heretix, Left Nut, Slower, and Jocobono) and former Stompbox/Chevy Heston drummer Zephan Courtney. Welsh gets writing credit on four of the songs, but Hatfield says the album, a grungy, metallic collection of angry, pounding, distortion-and-feedback-laden tunes, was meant to be a collaborative project. "Somehow it ended up not exactly being a band. It's really more like a side project. I guess it wouldn't have been a real true band just because it was too conceptualized from the start. I think a real band has to kind of just happen. This was more like, `I'm going to make a band!'

"But the recording sessions were so fun -- everyone was there and we were jamming out the songs. So it's me, but it's also kind of different from something I'd come up with on my own. I mean, the lyrics are mine and they're not a joke. Most of the songs are celebrations of disgust or something. And I feel like that sometimes. It's like a mood I get into. And then some of the songs might be funny, but I mean those, too. Like "Houseboy," where I'm singing about wanting a houseboy. That's actually always been a fantasy of mine -- to have a big house and a houseboy to take care of it and to water the lawn, feed the dog, and clean the pool when I go away on tour."

Hatfield, who for the first time since leaving Atlantic has a record deal of sorts (she's signed on to do one more with Zoë), is planning to tour behind the two new albums, though she'll mostly be doing songs from Beautiful Creature and her previous solo discs. She also has another project in the works, something long-time Hatfield fans will be happy to hear about. Late last year, the members of the Blake Babies (Hatfield, drummer Freda Love, and guitarist John Strohm) reconvened along with Evan Dando in Bloomington, Indiana, where Love lives with her bassist husband, Jake Smith. They recorded an album of new material that Hatfield confirms will be coming out sometime in the future. The band also played a New Year's show in Bloomington, all of which has given Hatfield a chance to reflect on the course her music and her career has taken over the past decade.

"The old Blake Babies songs seemed so frenetic and intense and fast, and the new stuff is much more laid back, more relaxed. I guess part of the Blake Babies' energy was that tension: we were like a taut string about to snap. But I think the string is a little looser on the new stuff. I know in my music I'm focusing on the groove more. I never used to care about that aspect. I mean, the Blake Babies had our own kind of a groove, but that was just about keeping it going, bashing it out, and not letting go of anything. I didn't know what groove was or was afraid to let it happen because it felt like if you let go for a second, everything would just collapse. But 10 or 12 years ago when I listened to music, I hardly heard it. It's hard to explain, but I never heard lyrics either until much later. It's like part of my brain was closed. Now that I can actually hear lyrics, I'm thinking about them in a different way. The greatest lyrics are the ones where the stuff that you really feel and think about is the stuff that's not said, the stuff between the words. I haven't achieved it yet but I'm thinking about it."

One thing that Hatfield is done worrying about for now is whether she's a rocker or a pop person. "I love rock and pop. Yesterday I was driving in my car. First I listened to the Sex Pistols, then I listened to Faith Hill. I love them both equally. Well, maybe I love the Sex Pistols a little more than Faith Hill. But it's like I love rock and pop and I'm sick of trying to define the difference between the two. I guess I feel like I can't decide what I want to be so why not just be both?"

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