Juliana Hatfield: "What is the opposite of 'I Wanna Sex You Up'?"

"I'm confused a lot of the time, and I'm just honest about my confusion in my songs," the singer tells Salon

Published February 20, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

Juliana Hatfield      (Brad Walsh)
Juliana Hatfield (Brad Walsh)

For a brief moment in the early- to mid-'90s, Juliana Hatfield was a fixture on alternative radio and MTV, thanks to the grungy pogo-pop of "My Sister" and the "Reality Bites" soundtrack anchor "Spin the Bottle." Anyone who dug deeper into her catalog, however, would've found plenty to unpack beyond these hits: The singer-songwriter made herself incredibly vulnerable as she worked through her conflicted relationship with her body, grappled with society's unrealistic expectations for women and expressed ambivalence about sexuality and romance.

Hatfield's profile was arguably the highest when she and her band, the Juliana Hatfield Three, released 1993's "Become What You Are." The album was a comfort to anyone who found relationships and societal norms difficult to navigate—the people for whom physical and emotional interaction could be easy one day and impossible the next. Having Hatfield's perspective as part of the mainstream music conversation felt like a victory for anyone who couldn't relate to romantic disappointment, the people for whom even having a reciprocated crush felt like an unreachable, distant achievement.

The new "Whatever, My Love"—the first album released by the reunited Juliana Hatfield Three since "Become What You Are"—explores similar themes. The anxiety stemming from (attempting) a connection with someone else permeates "I Don't Know What to Do with My Hands," a song Hatfield originally recorded with Nada Surf's Matthew Caws for their Minor Alps album. The strident, '70s-classic-rock vibe of "Blame the Stylist" matches Hatfield's anger at being forced into an uncomfortable role: "I knew the dress was wrong/But I tried to get along/She made me look like a whore/Who am I being sexy for?" And on the creaky indie-pop waltz "Wood," Hatfield admits, "Honey, I know I'm not easy to love," before idly asking on the chorus, "Oh, maybe somebody can set me on fire." Musically, "Whatever, My Love" also fits neatly and logically within Hatfield's catalog, nodding to both contemporary influences (the nonchalant, Speedy Ortiz-esque indie rocker "Push Pin") and timeless flourishes (the chiming, midtempo pop sigh "Invisible").

In a recent conversation with Salon, Hatfield says falling into a rhythm again with her bandmates—bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Philips—"was pretty easy—I keep using the analogy that it was like riding a bike." That ease extends to the rest of the chat; despite her well-documented discomfort at being in the spotlight, Hatfield is in a talkative mood throughout. In fact, near the end, she exclaims, "I feel like this is a really much-too-serious conversation! I don't know why that is. Considering when I'm with Todd and Dean, we're laughing at everything. Everything is hilarious."

Why was now the time right for you, Todd and Dean to reunite and make a new Juliana Hatfield Three album?

It was really just a whim. I wish I had a better answer. I don’t really even know how it happened—it seemed like it just happened to us, and we were there. I had this bunch of songs, and I wanted to make an album. A solo album, I was thinking. I asked Todd if he wanted to play drums on the album, and Todd said, "Yeah—and hey, why don't you ask Dean if he wants to play bass?" And I hadn't even thought of it until that moment Todd put the idea in my mind. And then suddenly something clicked in my brain, and I thought, "Wow, yes—hell yes! What a great idea." I asked Dean, and he said yeah.

I had booked this studio time without having played with these guys in over 20 years, and so it was kind of a risk. We didn't know that it would still work, playing together. I was nervous leading up to the recording of the album, because there was no guarantee it would even work, or it would sound good. Fortunately, it worked, and we still had the chemistry.

For you, what was the biggest challenge putting "Whatever, My Love" together?

It was really just trying to get my head back in a space of sharing. Normally, as a solo artist, I'm kind of the only person who makes the decisions. I don't have to consult with anyone; I don’t have to ask anyone's opinions if I don't want to. I can just say, "This is what we're doing; I'm paying you this much to do this job. This is what we're doing. Period; that's it." I had to get back into the space of a group—I'm still the leader of this band, but I had to remember how to be a fair leader. I had to remember how to be patient and tolerant of other people's points of view. Which was great for me, because I do spend a lot of time alone, and I don't collaborate a lot.

In the past, I haven't always been the most diplomatic leader, but I think with the passage of time I've mellowed. It was really nice to be able to relinquish some of the control I usually have. It felt nice to listen to what those guys had to say, and to have them contribute. I feel less pressure on myself now. I feel like I'm back with my gang, sort of.

On "Whatever, My Love," you guys re-did "I Don't Know What to Do with My Hands," which was on the Minor Alps record you did. I was curious why you chose to do that song for this album too.

The way Matthew [Caws] and I recorded was, we wrote these songs and then we went to the studio not having really clear, detailed visions of how the songs would turn out. We kind of let the recordings take shape in the studio. As a result of that, the Minor Alps version of "I Don't Know What to Do with My Hands" turned out a certain way. And then after some time passed, and I went back to listen to it, I was unsatisfied. I liked what Matthew and I did, but I feel like it's not quite right. I needed to record it again to see if it would do anything else for me; I thought it needed another chance.

When I went in with Todd and Dean, we had a different approach. We went in as a band to try to just jam it out, and it has a more groovy, strummed feel. And I guess that's how I started to envision the song after Minor Alps recorded it. And with Todd and Dean, I was able to get that new version down. It was really just a personal goal to get a version that I felt more satisfied with.

And it's nice to have a do-over—not everyone has the chance to do that.

I think about the American Songbook. I don't include myself, but there's all these classic songs. [And] there's songs that multiple artists record throughout the years. And I feel like any song, if it's a good song, it should be able to be recorded over, even by the same artist. If it's more than just a crass ploy to bring in more money; I think it's totally valid to re-do a song—if you're doing it for creative reasons, personal curiosity reasons.

Do you have any other songs in your catalog you wish you could re-do?

The song "If I Could," which is on the new album—that's a song I recorded at least three times, three versions of the song over the years. It's been around for a while. I demoed it first with Todd back in like '98 or something. David Kahne, this producer—who I think was at Columbia at the time—he commissioned some demos; I was looking for a new label, and he had me go into the studio and record that song with a different drummer. And that never amounted to anything. And I recorded another version somewhere else, and I was never satisfied with any of the recordings, but I didn't want to give up on the song, because I always loved [it]. I was really, really happy to get it right—finally—with Todd and Dean.

Some songs… sometimes they just resist, and you can't nail them. It's a weird thing when you try so hard to get something right, and the song will say, "No, you can't." It's like the song has a will of its own.

And you stuck with the song for 16 years, to try to get that right!

I wouldn't hold on to every song that long. Some songs that I wrote back then sound really crappy to me now, and I would be embarrassed to bring them back. I thought that one was kind of special, and had always had a special place in my heart--that's a terrible thing to say. I mean, it's [a] ridiculously overused phase. I couldn't let go of it. I liked it too much. And I don’t think it sounds dated at all.

I really liked "Wood" on the new record, because I think it speaks to something that's always appealed to me about your songwriting--the idea that when it comes to relationships, emotions and physicality are nuanced and often in conflict. This is something not a lot of lyricists acknowledge, that these things aren't black and white.

It's frustrating sometimes listening to the radio, and you hear these very overly simplistic sentiments that I just can't relate to. I don't know why this is popping into my head, but a song called "I Believe in Love," I think it was maybe latter-day Dixie Chicks? [The chorus was] "I believe in love." And I'm just like, "What does that even mean? A, that doesn't really mean anything. And B, I don't believe in love, so I can't relate to stuff like that." It's too simple for me. I need more out of a song to keep my interest.

You hear so many songs that are like, "Baby, I want you so bad" or "Baby, I love you, and I believe in love." Human relations are way more nuanced than that and way more complicated, at least for me; I find all that stuff incredibly complicated, and I have so much emotional confusion going on almost all the time when I'm involved with other human beings. I like to explore that stuff in my songs, because it's stuff that I often can't figure out in my personal life. So I write about it. It doesn't really solve the problems in my life, but it's interesting to talk about that stuff in songs.

I would like to think people want to hear about stuff like this in songs, or just want to listen to stuff that is more a realistic reflection of their complicated emotional lives. I guess some people listen to the songs for simple ideas, because I guess there's something soothing about a very simple idea like "I wanna sex you up"—I pulled that song out of the air too, I don't know where that came from. But I feel like, what is the opposite of "I Wanna Sex You Up"? A lot of people, when they're feeling lust—lust is pretty simple. It's a pretty cut-and-dried feeling. But then there's all the other feelings when you're not feeling lustful—what about all the other stuff? What would the other side of the coin [be]? I want to hear about that. That's interesting to me.

It's multi-dimensional. Listening to the record, it reminded me a lot of "Become What You Are," at least thematically. I was a super-awkward kid, and when I would listen to that record, I related to it so much, and the conflicting emotions on the album—one day you feel powerful, one day you are a daydreamer, another day you feel totally shy and awkward. I appreciated that—and that's what I've always appreciated that about "Become What You Are."

I appreciate that you appreciate it—I do. I think it has been hard for some people to enjoy what I do, or get what I do, because it veers around like that. I'm confused a lot of the time, and I'm just honest about my confusion in my songs. But I think that confuses certain people—certain people want to have more of a simple, understandable persona when they're listening to an artist or looking at an artist. I like people who are complicated. I like when you [get to know] someone new, and you think you're starting to figure the person out, but then the person does something to surprise you. You realize there's more and more layers to this person. I like people that don't fit into categories. Or you can't categorize them, and they don't fit into boxes. Interesting people are like that—and interesting music is like that.

Especially in music, people don't know what to do with artists who aren't a stereotype or an archetype of something.

In my so-called career—I hate that word, career—but I think my career has probably suffered because of that. I resist categorization, and I don't make it easier for people. I've never made it easy for people to sum me up. I just do what I do; I'm not consciously trying to confuse people. I guess I'm kind of a complicated person, and that's reflected in the music.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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