After 20 years in biz, she’s still ambitious Juliana Hatfield has made a career of writing power pop songs marked by her girlish voice, angsty-to-playful lyrics and infectious melodies. After almost 20 years in the business of making music, releasing over a dozen albums without being studded with Grammy nominations or household name status, it would seem that Hatfield would be frustrated with the lack of mainstream success.
In a telephone interview with NUVO last week, however, Hatfield asserted the opposite.
Juliana Hatfield will perform Thursday at the Patio. “Big award shows don’t reflect what is really good, only what sells,” Hatfield said. “I’m not one of those people that thinks whatever is popular sucks, but sometimes I really think that. Some of the stuff that is really popular kind of boggles my mind. I’m much more suited for the fringes than to the mainstream. I’ve never really been comfortable being in the public eye. I’d have to say I’m much happier being out of it.”
Unsure of if she’s “supposed” to be solo or in a band, Hatfield’s way has always been to experiment with lots of different contexts for her music. It’s this philosophy that has led her from successful indie projects like the Blake Babies with Hoosier musicians Freda Love and John Strohm to playing bass in the Lemonheads with Evan Dando and to her latest project, the all-girl trio Some Girls, which has reunited her with Love and introduced her to Heidi Gluck (see Speakeasy).
All the while, she has also maintained a steady solo career. “That’s my problem, isn’t it?” Hatfield asked. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be. My mood decides where I want to be. All I ever wanted was to be able to create music, really. It sounds disingenuous to say that, but it’s completely sincere. All I’ve ever wanted was to be left alone to do what I do.”
With videos on MTV, placement on the Reality Bites movie soundtrack and an angelic cameo on the cult classic TV show My So-Called Life, Hatfield was a key part of the early ’90s alternative music scene but has remained on the fringes of popular consciousness ever since.
This also closely models the career path of singer/songwriter Liz Phair. There are several similarities between Hatfield and Liz Phair. Both, until the last year, have maintained a similar place in the indie-rock world and have spent the last decade writing and releasing records stamped with their own trademark sounds.
With Hatfield, it’s girlish power pop while Phair’s standard has always been quirky, sexually provocative pop rock. For Phair, aided by one of the biggest media blitzes in recent history, this was taken to a new level for her last Capitol Records release. She enthusiastically adopted the persona of a sexually charged pop tart.
She admits to never being much of a Phair fan: “I’ve never liked the way she always exploited her sexuality.” When asked about her reaction to her contemporary’s choice of going ambitiously mainstream, Hatfield was direct, but also sympathetic. “Before I heard the record, all this negative criticism was telling me, ‘Don’t buy this record, it’s terrible, it’s such a let down, she sold out, she’s a terrible person,’ and that made me almost want to be on her side at the beginning,” Hatfield said.
“I think that, besides the glossy production, the whole package is not a whole lot different from what she’s always done. The only thing that’s really different about it is the approach to making the record and some of the writing is less idiosyncratic.” When asked if Hatfield herself would ever be for opening the same Pandora’s Box of money and publicity and promotion, she responded, “I really don’t think so. I think that, especially now, it would be more of a nightmare than ever. I’m so used to quiet and solitude and I think that would just send me over the edge.” She was also very clear that she’s not willing to make the kind of moves and effort that Phair made with her last record. “That kind of success is not that important to me. I would not put myself in a revealing outfit, I just couldn’t do it to sell records … I would do it for art, [laughs] but I can’t do it for executives.”
The idea for Hatfield’s newest project, Some Girls, was co-conceived by fellow former Blake Baby Freda Love before they had a bass player in mind. They starting writing songs and making demos and made plans to further demo the material in Indianapolis. “I asked Freda if she could find somebody in Indy to play bass, preferably a girl because we wanted it to be a girl band. She suggested Heidi Gluck.”
Although they were not formally acquainted and had never worked together, Hatfield was happy with the results of those sessions. “She was great on the first demo. She was a really fast learner and had really good ideas and wasn’t annoying so we just asked her to join the thing.” The trio has one release under their belt with Feel It, released on Koch Records in 2003, and plan to start recording the next record in January. In the meantime, Hatfield is also working on another solo record.
What comes through when speaking with Hatfield and listening to her records is that she continues to make music because she’s a musician and that’s what musicians do, not because she’s hoping to someday write a platinum album. She’s a perfect example of what happens when more time and energy is spent on writing and recording music than working out a diabolical marketing plan.
“I make records for myself first, but they kind of need to be heard or there’s no point in releasing them to people. I have to acknowledge that the kind of music I make kind of needs an audience … I just don’t need it to be big. I want people to come out and see me, but I don’t necessarily want to play in an arena. A small place is fine.”
Who: Juliana Hatfield, Gentlemen Caller, Heidi Gluck
When: Thursday, Dec 9
Where: The Patio
Tickets: $10 at the door