Since her early output with the Blake Babies and her then-nascent solo career, Juliana Hatfield has learned many truths about herself, such as how she truly appreciates the restorative power of solitude, and the helpfulness of creating within boundaries. Both of these ideas come into play on her new album, Weird, which draws a small circle around the themes of disconnection, self-reliance, and blissful aloneness.
Conceptual focus has become more prominent on her recent albums, like the furious post-election release Pussycat, and her sincere tribute album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. It's an approach that suits her well, with Weird delivering 11 songs that retain her distinct musical hallmarks, accompanied by a sharp and cohesive set of lyrics.
We spoke with Hatfield about being the "anti-Kardashian," writing lyrics at the kitchen table, and her new song that harkens back to the heady days of guitar-heavy 90s alt-rock.
AllMusic: Your latest albums have been laser-focused on specific moods and feelings. Is that something you also felt in your earlier work, or was this a recent development?
Juliana Hatfield: I think I’m getting better at focusing on a certain mood with each album. In the past I think it was a little more scattershot, just talking about random feelings, but I think now I’m trying to really capture a state of mind with each album.
AllMusic: Is it always helpful to have that kind of focus, or can it feel limiting?
Hatfield: I think it’s really helpful. I always believed that fewer choices leads to more freedom. I think if you have unlimited freedom, it can be kind of overwhelming. Too many choices can be kind of crippling, you just freeze because you don’t know what to do, there are too many choices. So I like having a little bit of a box within which to work, I think it really helps to focus each project.
AllMusic: Once you settled on the theme for Weird, did you have to set aside any songs that didn't fit?
Hatfield: When I went into the studio, I was working with just music, I didn’t have lyrics yet. Sonically, I knew that most of it was going to work, and after I recorded basic tracks, I took a month off from recording and I went and wrote the lyrics. That was different for me, usually the songs are fully written when I go in the studio. I think writing all the lyrics at once after recording basic tracks gave the album even more of a focus, because I was really concentrating on the subject all at once.
AllMusic: Do you have a routine for writing lyrics?
Hatfield: I need to be alone at home, I’m not a person who can go to a coffee shop and write, or read, I find it’s too distracting to concentrate when there are other people around and music or whatever, I need to be alone in my apartment. It’s not very big, but there are a few places where I like to do most of the writing, like at the kitchen table, or sometimes I’ll move into the living room. It’s mostly done at the kitchen table.
AllMusic: "It's So Weird" really lays bare your contentment with and inclination towards solitude.
Hatfield: I was intending to have it be an album about the comfort of aloneness, or the comfort of living in a small space and not venturing outside of a small radius, outside of a few blocks. I was going to focus on all of the things that went on in this small apartment. I know from experience that there are people out there who don’t really understand how being alone can be a wonderful experience. For me, I really love solitude, and it’s like medicine. After I’ve been with other people, out in public, I always feel a little bit weakened, and I need to go be alone, and that gives me my strength back. I think a lot of people are afraid of being alone, they don’t want to be alone, a lot of people have the goal to find a partner to share their lives with, but I’ve never been like that. I understand that it makes certain people uncomfortable.
That song starts with a conversation I was having with my brother, and he was asking me, “Don’t you ever need your arms around someone?” and I’m like, “No, I don’t. Is that weird?” I’m a little sensitive about it, because I think people are going to think I’m weird, or they’re not going to believe me. There are always people who are like, “You just haven’t found the right person yet,” and people who say that to me just don’t understand what it is to be content, alone.
AllMusic: As an only child myself, it's a theme that really clicked with me.
Hatfield: Growing up, my family was kind of wild, there weren’t a lot of rules and regulations. My parents were working, then they got divorced and one of them left, so we were like wild animals let loose every day. I was always wanting to escape the family, and going and being alone was so soothing to me, after being with my wild family it was like, “I just want to be alone for some peace and quiet,” and now maybe I’m overcompensating, but I always retreat to solitude and it always makes me feel better. That said, I’m not a hermit, I have friends and I do things, I just don’t share my space with a partner, and I don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone on certain days.
AllMusic: How much of that disconnection do you feel is foisted upon you as opposed to self-created?
Hatfield: It’s kind of both. I’ve wrestled with it a lot. It can be really uncomfortable when I find myself in a social situation that I need to flee, it always makes me feel very confused and anxious – less now than it used to, I know now that I can leave and most people won’t take it personally – but it’s difficult for me to be in certain situations. Most of the time I really like being alone, I like doing solitary work and I don’t need emotional support, I just don’t.
AllMusic: Is that something you've developed over time, or was it always there?
Hatfield: There were a lot of nights, sweating through awful nights of anxiety and yearning and pain, but it was like I was training myself to be self-sufficient, because I didn’t like the feeling of needing people. I felt they were illegitimate needs, that it was something else disguised as a need for other people, and I was right, because I broke through to the other side, where I’m really content being alone, and I wish other people could feel that. It’s a great feeling.
AllMusic: Did making this record help you come out the other side of that?
Hatfield: I was already there, I’m at the point where I am where I am, and there’s no turning back. I’ve become who I am, I’ve embraced who I am. That’s how I see it. I’m not fighting it so much, I’m not trying so hard to do things that are against my nature, I’m really embracing my loner-ness.
AllMusic: So when you hear your earlier music, do you hear someone still figuring herself out?
Hatfield: Yeah, I’m like, “Oh my god, you poor child, you poor thing, what a lot of wasted misery.” It wasn’t wasted, because I got a lot of music out of it, but I did waste a lot of time being miserable about things I had no control over or that I didn’t need to feel miserable about.
AllMusic: Are there songs you avoid because you can't relate to them anymore?
Hatfield: It’s hard to listen to some of the Blake Babies songs, it’s like, “Jesus, couldn’t I have held back a little bit?” The emotions are just so earnest and honest, almost like diary entries or something.
AllMusic: That said, a song like "Broken Doll" on the new album still feels very direct and sincere.
Hatfield: Yeah, it’s plainspoken, but it’s really me trying to lay out a picture of where I am right now in my life. It’s not so much about emotion, it’s more about the things that happen as you get older. It’s kind of a song about aging, but I also think the song’s really funny. It makes me laugh, and I don’t know if other people understand the humor. Like the fact that when I brush my teeth, sometimes I spit out blood, I just think it’s funny. Maybe I’ve seen too many vampire movies. Some of the things that happen, like bruises and cuts, it’s like the anti-Kardashian. I am the anti-Kardashian, I am an anti-Barbie. The images that you see on TV of women are often so unreal and so airbrushed and so photo-shopped, I just wanted to be an antidote to all of that, I wanted to present a real picture of a real woman. I’m a little bit broken, because that’s what happens to a person. When you reach a certain age, your eyes start to go, your teeth start to go, and I’m fine with that, that’s just what happens, that’s reality.
AllMusic: That's a theme that dates back to your Made in China album.
Hatfield: Yeah, and I’ve been thinking of the idea of image and how women singers have to present themselves, there’s this issue of image that I’ve always tried to ignore, but if you ignore it, other people will construct an image for you. People will deconstruct your looks, decide what they think about you based on the image you’re presenting to the world, and I always thought that was so complicated and problematic. I never put much thought into image, but still, that was my image, I was trying to present something authentic, but it was confusing to people. Reality is confusing to people who just want a simple portrait.
AllMusic: "Receiver" is my favorite song on the record, I really like how it builds from the simple riff into something much bigger. What was the process behind that song?
Hatfield: It’s always a mystery and a puzzle when I start to add instruments to a song, I’m really intuitive. I’ll listen to a song and have a feeling that it needs a keyboard in a certain place, or I’ll have an idea for a guitar sound or a part. I knew I wanted it to get kind of prog at the end, I wanted to have that build. I guess I was thinking it could be like something that was on my Only Everything album, it could be kind of 90s guitar, like Dinosaur Jr. I was thinking I could do another song with that kind of vibe, like I’m influenced by J Mascis again, and I want to get really heavy and prog at the end. It was really a process of experimenting with ideas that pop into my head, like I just heard a keyboard coming in at the end, then it goes up an octave. Prog was a keyword for that one.
AllMusic: And then there's the bursts of drums that sound like they're from another song.
Hatfield: That was James, the engineer. I knew I wanted it to get weird and instrumental at the end, and James was messing around with that drum stuff, and I really liked what he was doing, so I encouraged him to keep doing it. We were also having some trouble with some of the timing at the end, so we were adding drums on top of drums just to cover up some weird timing issues, so that’s masking some other weird drum stuff.
AllMusic: When that song has so much going on, does it make you say, "OK, that's one we probably won't play live."
Hatfield: No, actually. There are some that I think I couldn’t do live, but that’s one that I could do and could be really fun if I got the right guitar sound, it could be really cool, heavy and groovy, it could be like Kyuss or something.
AllMusic: Do the Olivia Newton-John songs still have a place in your live set?
Hatfield: Those songs are really hard to do live, they require more instrumentation than just bass and drums, which is how I like to tour, with a pretty simple band setup. It’s hard to make those songs work without keyboards, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, another electric guitar…they’re also really hard to sing. A lot of them, I sang in the original key, and the range is difficult to capture while I’m playing guitar, they go really high and really low, and the melodies are complicated. So I think there’s only a couple of those that I’ll do live.
AllMusic: I appreciate how this album is about proudly embracing solitude, when there's so many albums that wallow in loneliness.
Hatfield: I can’t explain it to people who don’t understand it. I guess I could say that I don’t understand people who are afraid to be alone. Or I can understand it, but I feel sorry for people who are afraid to be alone, or who need to always be filling up empty space with conversation. I love the silences between people. I think silences are wonderful, and a lot of people talk too much, and they should stop talking and let the silences exist. I’ve had a lot of anguish, and I’ve done a lot of suffering on my own, but that’s only strengthened me. I think that’s the great thing about suffering alone, is that you come through it and you’re stronger and you find that you’re less needy at the end of it. I feel very self-sufficient, and I think that’s a good way to be: emotionally self-sufficient.