Juliana Hatfield Harnesses Sweet High-Res Melodies

Being appointed one of the queens of the alternative music scene was never one of Juliana Hatfield’s goals. But there she was, right in the thick of the then-burgeoning movement — first in the alt-rock trio Blake Babies, then as a titular solo artist known for meshing expressive vocals with intrinsically catchy melodies fueled by a combo punk-and-pop sensibility. “I was very moved by melody and harmony from a very early age,” Hatfield says. “It affected me very powerfully.” Her sweet, sweet hypnotic sound is best exemplified by songs like “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle,” which can both be found on The Juliana Hatfield Three’s 1993 release Become What You Are (Mammoth/Atlantic). Since then, Hatfield has decamped to mostly solo territory, albeit with a few intriguing collaborative efforts with the likes of Some Girls and Minor Alps, but all of it serving her ultimately beguiling creative muse.

After a two-decade break, she recently reunited with her JH3 compatriots, bassist Dean Fisher (above right in the photo) and drummer Todd Phillips (above left), for the uber-catchy Whatever, My Love (American Laundromat Records), a 40-minute ride through Hatfield’s world of melodic, introspective angst, from the acoustic lament of being “Invisible” to the moth/flame dance of “Push Pin” to the odd-meter frustration of “Wood” (the latter of which features a cool, feedback-laden outro guitar loop). Hatfield, 47, and I got on the horn to discuss her vocal techniques and recording goals, her natural sense of melody, and her ongoing struggles with communication. Whatever and ever, amen.

Mike Mettler: I really like the overall vibe of Whatever, My Love, Juliana. It’s a very clean, organic-sounding record. You double your vocals pretty much all the way through it, right? Why do you like doing that? I have to say, you sure sound great harmonizing with yourself.

Juliana Hatfield: I often do that, but not always. I like the feel of it. My voice is a bit thin, and doubling it gives it a little more heft, I think. It makes it a little bit less thin. I just like the effect too. It’s a really sweet effect sometimes when you double a vocal. I’m kind of a fan of it.

Mettler: Is there a certain way you want people to hear this record? We’ve got digital options, high-resolution downloads, vinyl — is that something you think about, the way people listen to music today?

Hatfield: Well, now that music is digital, it’s ruined, and I don’t know if you can fix it. That’s how I feel about it. I have a very fatalistic view of technology. Nothing is going to sound as good as it once did. Even cassettes sounded better than anything today. When I used to make records in the ’90s, I would get a cassette of all the mixes. When CDs came around, I would get both a cassette and a CD of all the mixes, and cassette always sounded better. I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t want to go backwards, but I think nothing’s ever going to sound as good as it did when we were using tape. I can’t fight it.

Mettler: Maybe it’s more of an analog vs. digital kind of thing for you — that is, a feel thing, especially when you’re trying to capture musicians playing off of each other. Maybe digital is too cold for you and makes it feel to you like, “Hey, this doesn’t sound like the way we played in the room.”

Hatfield: Yeah, maybe. So many MP3s sound like crap, and the things people listen on are crap. People don’t care, so I’m not going to worry about it. I just hate having to keep buying all the new technology.

Mettler: I know what you mean. As much as we love new gear, some people get to the point of drawing a line in the new-technology sand. Was vinyl important to you growing up?

Hatfield: It was the format that was the most popular, and I bought records because that was the technology. But I loved playing records! It was such a nice experience. You got this nice, big, fun package to look at — and a gatefold was even better; you could look at it as you were listening. You could pick it up and hold it in your hands, take the record out of the sleeve and put it down, put down the needle, and then flip it over. It was a nice ritual.

Mettler: I totally agree. Can you recall what the first record was that had a deep impact on you, one you really got into?

Hatfield: There were records that were handed down to me as a child — strange things from my parents, and then there was stuff like this Disney record with Jiminy Cricket — a song that was so haunting to me. And then there was The Point!

Mettler: Oh, you mean the animated Harry Nilsson/Ringo Starr thing, with “Me and My Arrow” (1971)?

Hatfield: Yeah yeah yeah. There was some ’70s stuff I heard as a kid that had great, great melodies.

Mettler: Speaking of that, melody is something you clued into as a kid, when you were 3 years old.

Hatfield: People always ask, “When did you start singing?” but that’s such a strange question. Don’t we all just start singing as soon as we can?

Mettler: I’ve thought about that a lot myself, personally. Music is something that we all have as part of ourselves. Even before we’re born, the first thing we hear is our mother’s heartbeat, so we already have an inherent sense of rhythm. I guess the differences come when or if we decide to manifest it after we’re born.

Hatfield: Are there people who don’t ever sing? Is there anyone who, when they’re in the house, doesn’t sing or hum along to the radio? Doesn’t everybody sing?

Mettler: You would think so, right? You’re in the car doing it, and you don’t even realize it half the time. It’s part of your DNA, in a way.

Hatfield: Yeah. I guess for some of us, it’s a bigger part for sure, but it’s something that I’ve always done. I was very moved by melody and harmony from a very early age. It affected me very powerfully. Certain songs affected me when I was very, very young.

Mettler: Like what songs? Any of them still stick with you now?

Hatfield: I remember particular songs being so hauntingly beautiful to my childhood brain, like the “Theme to Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” by Diana Ross [a No. 1 U.S. single in 1975]. When that intro would come on — (sings), “Do you knowww” — hearing that song on the radio, it felt like I was going to heaven every time I heard it. I don’t know why.

Mettler: Wow. That makes me think of a song I heard as kid — Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (1973), where I’d hum or sing along and not really know what the lyrics were about. It’s a melody thing, right? You sing along as a kid, and then years later, you realize, “Oh wow, that’s a pretty heavy vibe there.”

Hatfield: Yeah! You’re not even noticing the lyrics at all.

Mettler: Is sequencing still important to you? I feel like I need to hear this record in a specific order.

Hatfield: It is really important to me. I care about it a lot. I still think of albums as albums, you know? I put a lot of time into sequencing, even though I know a lot of people don’t listen in that order. But it matters to me, yeah.

Mettler: The first line of the album is, “You make me feel like I’m invisible” [“Invisible”] and the very last line is, “So many metaphors for pain” [“Parking Lots”]. I figure that had to be a very deliberate choice on your part — how this story begins and ends.

Hatfield: Putting “Invisible” first was a very conscious choice. I guess it has more to do with my place in my legacy, or non-legacy. It’s a lot about that. And I guess the “metaphors for pain” thing applies to all of my music, but I don’t really want to talk about it with anyone. I make songs so I don’t have to talk about it.

Mettler: To me, the overall theme of the record seems to be, “communicating my own level of non-communication.” You’re struggling to get yourself across to people, if you even want to.

Hatfield: That’s a great way to put it! I like that. I have to write that down. Exactly. The inability to communicate is a theme for sure — in this record, in a lot of my records, and in my own life. I’ve come to accept it. I’m never going to be able to communicate in my day-to-day life.

Mettler: And you wrote a great book about it too — When I Grow Up – A Memoir (2008). I read it when it came out, and you were able to articulate certain things that you can’t say out loud —

Hatfield: — and what I don’t want to say.

Mettler: Right. In a way, this is the art of conversation, because lots of people are more interested in talking about themselves, aren’t they? You can turn it around so you’re doing the questioning, and they’re no longer delving into finding out about you.

Hatfield: Exactly, yeah! And if we were in a social situation, I would never be talking about my album with you unless you asked me about it, you know? I never volunteer any of this information in a personal context.

Mettler: It’s that’s internalizing, struggling-artist effect. Did you have a specific goal in your head when you went into the studio for how you wanted this record to sound?

Hatfield: No. I generally don’t have references when I go to make an album. I don’t have references in my head like, “Oh, I want this to sound like whatever.” I focus on the songs and the sounds, and I knew that I wanted it to be not over-produced. I don’t like to hear too many effects on things.

I was more focused on getting the band to sound good together because we hadn’t played together for 20 years. When we got to the studio to start recording on the first day, I was worried about, “Would this even work?” It was really a gamble. But as soon as we started playing, it just worked. The chemistry was still there.

Mettler: Is there one specific point where you went, “Ok, I feel comfortable now”?

Hatfield: It was pretty much right away. I don’t remember what we played first, but Dean [Fisher, bassist] had learned all the songs great. I had sent him demos of everything, so he knew the chord changes. And Todd [Phillips, drummer] did too. Dean couldn’t come [to the studio — Nuthouse Recording in Hoboken, New Jersey] until the next day, so the first thing Todd and I did was “Ordinary Guy,” a simple rocker. And it felt good. So we had the rhythm guitar and the drums, and when Dean came in and started playing along, I knew it was going to work.

Mettler: Well, you’ll have to try not to “Blame the Stylist,” to borrow one of your song titles.

Hatfield: Yeahhhh. Just blame me. Blame me for everything.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.