Q&A With Juliana Hatfield

julianaqaBy the time Juliana Hatfield had reached her mid-20s, she’d become the poster girl for ’90s indie rock. She was looked upon as the thinking person’s alternative to the riot-grrrl phenomenon, and the future seemed rosy. Hatfield had formed revered combo the Blake Babies, launched a red-hot solo career, played bass on the breakthrough Lemonheads album and gained national attention when she told Interview magazine she was still a virgin and wasn’t too worried about it. The backlash from those without much of an attention span was inevitable. In the ensuing years, Hatfield has honed her art and produced a wealth of stirring, self-confident albums. Peace & Love, out next week on her Ye Olde label, is an utterly sincere revelation that proves well worth the wait. Hatfield will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our exclusive excerpt from her 2008 memoir.

MAGNET: Howe Gelb once told me about an ad hoc band you, Evan Dando, John Convertino (Calexico) and he had back in the early ’90s called Fruit Child Large. I don’t think I ever saw you play, though.
Hatfield: Yeah, that was hilarious, this weird thing we threw together and somehow we pulled it off. It was Howe’s genius idea to incorporate something from the Lemonheads, which was the “Fruit,” something from my band, the Blake Babies, which was the “Child,” and then Giant Sand was “Large.”

Howe sent me some great photos from a European tour.
Yeah, that’s all we did. I’m glad he kept a record of it, because I sure didn’t. I think it was my first time in a lot of those places in Europe. I remember this dark tiny town in Bavaria, and we just had the best time. The club was packed with people, and it had this low ceiling. People were buying us tequila shots. It was just a really, really fun night.

Did you play songs by all three of you?
Yeah. Then we did a bunch of covers also, and we kind of improvised. We did some jamming. I remember we did a really slow version of a Blondie song. I think it was “Shayla” from Eat To The Beat. She was a great singer.

Tell me about playing the first Lilith Fair. I thought that was a great idea. I’ve always hated to see rock as an exclusively guy thing. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know. I just think the best female rockers have a lot of testosterone. Like Courtney Love has this great rock ‘n’ roll voice, and it’s very low—and also Brody Dalle from the Distillers, another really low voice. They’re just really powerful rock singers, and I think it’s partly because they sound like men. I hate to sound sexist, but I think rock ‘n’ roll is kind of a male art form. There are exceptions, of course. Some of the great rockers of all time—like Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde—but they’re sort of in a class by themselves. They’ve set a very high standard that few measured up to.

I’ve been doing this for so long I did a great interview with Grace Slick, certainly one of the great rock singers from the ’60s. She set the bar pretty high for rock vocals.
Yeah, she’s great. But in terms of rock ‘n’ roll with guitars, it’s male-dominated, I think.

Well, frankly I think that’s a drag.
Me, too. But when we did Lilith Fair, there wasn’t a lot of rock ‘n’ roll going on. Let’s see, I was only on the tour for 10 dates, I think. It was Sarah McLachlan, of course, and there was Fiona Apple, the Cardigans, Tracy Chapman, Victoria Williams and Jewel.

OK, good stuff, but definitely not Sleater-Kinney, Hole or the Breeders.
No, no one was bleeding onstage.

Your mom was the fashion editor for the Boston Globe. Any interest in fashion? Do you ever watch Project Runway? That’s my favorite TV show.
No, I don’t have cable television. Of course, I’ve seen the show, but I don’t like it all that much. The older I get, the more I’m interested in fashion, the aesthetics of it. I’m definitely more into it and more aware now than then, but when I was younger, I didn’t care. When my mother was the fashion editor, I didn’t really have any interest in fashion.

What do you not like about Project Runway? What’s not to like about Tim Gunn?
I find some of the characters to be really grating.

Yeah, but probably on purpose. I’m sure they pick ‘em that way.
Well, sure. But I find a lot of ‘em unlikable. They’re in a very harsh, competitive environment, and that can bring out the worst in people. I don’t know. I feel the pressure they’re under, and it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me anxious. And a lot of really ugly clothes come out of it. There’s a lot of bad fashion. I’d rather look at the European fashion magazines.

Why did you decide to become a singer in the first place?
I never decided to become a singer. Singing was just something I always did. From the time I could make noise come out of my mouth, I was singing. I made up songs in the car when I was three or four years old. My mother always told me I used to make up songs about the scenery we were passing by. And I’d sit in the back seat and sing. I started writing songs at an early age. I wanted to be a writer of prose, first. Then when I was in high school, being a professional singer was kind of out of reach for me. I’m really good at staying in tune and really good at making up melodies, but my voice is not a strong, technical instrument. So, I never believed it was something I could do until I discovered punk rock. Certain bands like X were great. Exene Cervenka was a big inspiration for me. Before that, it was all band with guys in them: the Police and the Replacements. I didn’t really have any role models I could relate to. I loved Olivia Newton-John, Karen Carpenter, Chrissie Hynde, Blondie, Pat Benatar. But they were all out there on a different stratosphere than me until X came along. Exene is not like a great technical singer, either, but she’s creative and original and totally cool.

Sure. I asked Exene about her unique sense of harmony. She just hears it and sings it.
Yeah, what she’s doing is something you can’t learn in school. She’s probably breaking all the rules of musical school. It’s an instinctive thing that makes her an original.

Were you a Joan Jett fan?
I didn’t have any of the albums, but I loved the singles on the radio. She’s an icon. Loved the Runaways.

There’s a film in the making about the Runaways. That should be good. When you and John Strohm formed the Blake Babies, you had a boy/girl vocal thing. Was that because of X?
No, we both wrote songs and we both wanted to sing. He sang the songs he wrote and I would harmonize. And I sang the songs I wrote and he would harmonize. We didn’t have as unique a sound as John Doe and Exene. I have my own esthetic, and John Strohm had his.

How many songs have you had placed in films? I know I heard one recently.
A bunch. Every time I hear them, it’s really weird, exciting and shocking. Last year, I had a couple songs placed in TV shows, and it’s like they don’t tell you when it’s going to happen. So you sit down and watch, and you don’t know when your song’s coming on. The suddenly it comes on and it’s really exciting.

Why break up the Blake Babies?
Lots of reasons. I was the instigator. I wanted to go off and do my own thing, play with other people. John and Freda (Love) wanted to grow as a band, but I was pretty set on the idea that we’d done all we could musically. I felt we had these limitations. Plus they wanted to move out of Boston and move back to Indiana.

You were born in Maine. Did you spend a lot of time there as a kid?
No, my parents moved to Massachusetts. My father always loved Maine, so we spent many summers up there. He’d sail us up there on his boat, and we’d tool around up there.

My wife and I spent some time up there on our way to Prince Edward Island. I loved Maine.
Maine’s amazing. It’s so special. It’s not like any other state. If you were to drive the coastline, it would take so long. It’s so vast. If you stretched the Maine coastline into a straight line, it would probably go halfway across the country. My dad always had a boat that was big enough for a family of five to sleep on it. Every summer, we’d take off for about two weeks and just sail. Sometimes we’d go down to the islands, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Or we’d sail up to Maine and anchor off little islands up there. We’d see Maine from the coast in.

Last time I saw you play was in ’03 with Evan Dando and Chris Brokaw.
That was a kind of weird tour. I think I was kind of in a bad mood on that tour. It reminded me, “Oh, yeah, I don’t really like playing bass.”

Cobra Verde also played on that tour with J Mascis on guitar. Did you talk to J?
As much as one is able to talk to J. I don’t know him very well, because I’m kind of shy and he’s really kind of hard to talk to if you’re shy. I didn’t really know how to talk to him. We never really got to know each other. I like him, though. It’s good to be around Evan, because Evan can talk to anybody. It’s always great to watch J play guitar. He’s one of the greatest guitar players of my generation, if not the greatest.

Is this true, or is it an urban legend: You’re part of the Hatfield clan from the Hatfield-McCoy feud?
My dad claims that he traced his side of the family back to the West Virginia Hatfields. There really was feud. It started with a pig. One of the McCoys accused one of the Hatfields of stealing one of their pigs. It was right there on the border of West Virginia and either Tennessee or Kentucky.

You made a big splash with your quote in Interview magazine that you didn’t care much about sex.
Is that what I said? I think I said that I hadn’t gone all the way yet.

I couldn’t find my old copy of the mag. As I recall, it caused a big hoo-hah at the time. Do you remember?
Sure, I remember. I was really annoyed by it and surprised that people made such a big deal out of it. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t know why people sensationalize certain things. I guess most people have had sex by the time they’re … I think I was 23 at the time. And that was shocking because in this country, most people have had sex by then, a lot. I guess I was an oddity, especially because people always assume that people in the rock world are living these dissolute lives of sex and drugs. And I didn’t fit the mold of a rocker doing sex and drugs, so people thought it was shocking that I was a virgin.

There was a time back in the ’90s when, for want of a better term, you were the It Girl. How did that feel? Did you feel like you were It at the time?
No, I just felt like a loser, and why was anyone paying any attention to me? I didn’t understand it. I felt that my music wasn’t that great. I was just beginning. I hadn’t perfected my art yet, I hadn’t come into my own as a person. And I was aware of this. I was aware that I’m just this young, immature loser who’s trying to figure stuff out. And people were giving me attention I didn’t really deserve at that point. Now I deserve the attention. Now I’m making really good music, and I’m much more confident. But now people aren’t as interested in a sensationalistic kind of way. People who notice what I’m doing now can understand what I’m doing. And they can see the quality, if they’re paying attention.

—Jud Cost

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5 Comments

  1. Sogger
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    WOW MAGNET. SUPER GOOD JOB. SO WHATS IT LIKE BEING A WOMAN IN ROCK WHAT ABOUT LILITH FAIR WHAT ABOUT RIOT GIRL WHAT ABOUT EXENE WHAT ABOUT JOAN JETT WHAT ABOUT MARGINALIZING WOMEN IN ROCK TRENDS OF THE PAST THAT I AM CURRENT EQUATING YOU WITH AND WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER YOUR TECHNIQUE YOUR–OH WHO CARES–WHAT ABOUT FASHIIIN.

    Boring and insulting! Bravo a two-fer.

  2. redbeltaroundmymind
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    hahaha, sogger.

    i do sort of feel as though i just read an interview from the mid-90s. jud, you’re tight with the likes of grace slick. you’ve been at this for sooo long, man. couldn’t bring up something post-2003? what about all of her music she’s released year after year? nope, better ask about how many songs have been in films. what about her new album due out next week? i believe it’s like her 11th solo album. couldn’t make this a bit more interesting? fashion? project runway?

    i think there are many people who haven’t really even listened to juliana for many years (probably because she chose her own route and hasn’t been in the mainstream so much, and they haven’t taken it upon themselves to follow her), and often they’re still stifled in the haze of generalizations made over a decade ago. (“hey, remember the lemonheads, and evan dando?; what ever happpened to the blake babies?; remember how rock was male-dominated and female musicians were marginalized and then this great idea called the lilith fair came along, and chicks were finally allowed to rock out?; remember that magazine i lost that you said you were still a virgin in almost 20 years ago?; remember when you were the It Girl?” might as well throw my so-called life in there, while you’re at it.)
    so, i’m pretty sure this interview helped.

  3. Posted March 10, 2010 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the interview. Juliana answering to things in retrospect seems more assured and well thought out. It is somewhat disconcerting that the focus was less on Juliana’s current status as an artist but she handled it well.

  4. Hmmm...
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Who would’ve thought that almost 20 years later, she would still be asked about the sex thing, god. Veeeeeeeery sad. Music, man, music! Work, man, work! Do I care about the journalist sex life? nope. Mine? nope! Neither about JH’s sex life in the 90s or nowadays.

  5. Posted September 5, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    It’s great to see that she’s still “doing her thing” .
    I havent paid much attn. to julianna through the years but i recently ran into one of her songs on the radio and “flashback!”
    Reminded me of the early 90s when young girls and ambition seemed to go hand in hand, especially the indie rock scene.
    Well, it took me back to a better time in my life when the artists i was listening to seemed to have a certain level of talent.
    I’ve got some catching up to do on julianna.