<i> Angst</i> , With a Hook : Juliana Hatfield cranks up the volume on her latest album to take an aggressive new musical approach.
Juliana Hat field is sipping tea and discussing her new album, “Only Everything,” when she feels a sudden urge to pay homage to one of the underappreciated pop heroes of the ‘70s: Olivia Newton-John.
These days it’s practically de rigueur for hip, alternative artists to profess their admiration for pop icons associated with the century’s cheesiest decade. If Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon can worship Karen Carpenter, why begrudge Hatfield her fondness for the Aussie bombshell?
“She was one of my earlier favorites,” Hatfield says, staring out the window of a small coffee shop near her apartment in the West Village. “I don’t think she gets enough credit as a singer. She’s pretty soulful, you know?”
It’s appropriate, and rather touching, that the 27-year-old Hatfield should feel protective toward this sweetheart of yesteryear. After all, Newton-John is forever embedded in the consciousness of every girl who grew up in the late ‘70s as Sandy, the terminally virginal heroine of the film “Grease.” Beyond that, she’s known for her breathy, sugar-sweet soprano and for having maintained the wholesome beauty of a prom queen well into her 30s.
Hatfield, of course, became the most famous real-life virgin since Brooke Shields a few years back, when she told a reporter that she had “never gone all the way.”
And since leaving the college-rock band the Blake Babies to pursue a solo career in 1990, the baby-voiced singer has imbued many of her songs with an almost Peter Pan-like quality--charming and poignant to fans, frustrating to detractors--of eternal adolescence. It’s not every grown woman who can parlay jealousy toward an imaginary older sibling into a celebrated single, as Hatfield did with “My Sister,” from her 1993 album “Become What You Are.”
Actually, Hatfield has an older brother, with whom she grew up in Duxbury, an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston. Her early musical education was, as the Newton-John reference suggests, “extremely sugary white pop--like ‘70s AM radio stuff.”
As a teen-ager she graduated to punk-influenced pop, singing Police songs in a band called the Squids and later discovering the Replacements, R.E.M and X. While earning her degree in composition and writing at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, she hooked up with two fellow students to form the Blake Babies, who released the first of their four albums in 1987.
Like Liz Phair, that other (but decidedly non-virginal) Generation X it-girl, Hatfield has so far been more successful at seducing the press than the record-buying public. Nonetheless, as she points out, her sales have improved steadily since her days with the Blake Babies, who despite favorable notices never made much of a splash outside Boston.
“Become What You Are” sold nearly a quarter-million copies--three times the total of Hatfield’s first solo album, 1992’s “Hey Babe.” And “Only Everything” may do better still, judging by the catchy first single, “Universal Heartbeat.”
Atlantic Records President Val Azzoli is optimistic: “We deal in magic here, so you never know what’s gonna be a hit and what isn’t. But Juliana has established such a strong fan base already, and I think this record is just going to take it to the next level. We’re hoping to make it a gold record.”
O n this Sunday afternoon, Hatfield does little to betray her persona. Though her intense blue eyes are made up to dramatic effect, she’s dressed casually and demurely in jeans and an oversized sweater, and her manner is instinctively shy and girlish--when she’s first encoun tered in her apartment, she’s playing with a yo-yo.
She speaks in soft, high-pitched tones and stops herself now and then to express insecurity (“I don’t know what I’m trying to say”) or embarrassment (“I shouldn’t have said that”). The first topic that she approaches with any real confidence is her guitar work on the new album.
“I’ve realized that I have to take the reins with my guitar,” she says. “I used to be too timid with my playing--I guess because I was afraid of screwing up. But you have to attack the instrument to make it respond.”
Indeed, the album marks a newly aggressive musical approach ( see review, this page ). The catchy pop hooks that have always distinguished her writing are in place, but where her arrangements used to simply jangle, they now also roar and crunch. Working with co-producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, whose credits include Hole and Dinosaur Jr., Hatfield has cranked up the volume and poured on the distortion.
She’s also ditched the bare-bones Juliana Hatfield Three concept she used for her last album, keeping bassist Dean Fisher but replacing drummer Todd Phillips with two forceful percussionists, Josh Freese and Mike Levesque. Even her singing sounds a little less delicate--though no one’s going to mistake her for Courtney Love.
“I’ve always had a problem with the sound of my voice,” Hatfield says. “I actually started smoking at one point, trying to make it lower or raspier. I got addicted and everything, but it didn’t work, so I gave it up. Now I’m trying to appreciate my voice for its good qualities, rather than fighting its limitations.”
In her writing, too, she has modified her approach: “I’m experimenting with the idea of writing without thinking too much about the words. With the new songs, I made the lyrics less focused, more oblique, more open to interpretation.”
Her themes, nonetheless, are often less than lighthearted. She says that the single “Universal Heartbeat” is about “trying to make sense out of sadness.” Another track, “Live on Tomorrow,” was recorded under the working title “Garbage” because “It was a bunch of crap, in a way. On the surface, it’s a really optimistic song about overcoming all these difficulties, but you can’t really pull yourself out of the quagmire of depression--it’s hopeless.”
Come on, Juliana--have you never been mellow?
Hatfield becomes tentative again.
“I feel stupid complaining, because the kind of suffering I go through has nothing to do with terrible outside circumstances; it’s just white, middle-class Angst .”
Part of that Angst involves relationships, naturally.
“I have a convenient excuse for not having healthy relationships--I’m always on the road,” she says with a rueful smile. “I spend too much time by myself, I think, and I feel guilty about that. But then when I’m out with friends, I find myself wanting to be alone again. I need to bond more with people.”
Clearly, Hatfield is still less than comfortable discussing the most popular type of interpersonal bonding. She seems so uneasy recalling her coming-out as a virgin that you don’t dare ask for an update on her sexual status.
“I knew that I wanted that statement to be printed somewhere. But I was naive--I didn’t know how long it would be in print.”
When it’s suggested that the disclosure could be viewed as an assertion of strength--given that young women have never faced greater risks where sex is concerned--she brightens a bit.
“Yeah, I did want to prove that I had a mind of my own. The songs on my first solo album made me sound so vulnerable and hurt, and I wanted to show that I’m actually strong, that I’m not so easily swayed. Plus I guess it was a rebellious thing--a reaction against rock-star-cliche behavior.”
Speaking of cliches, how does Hatfield assess her chances of now making the leap from media and dormitory darling to MTV idol?
“I think it’s vulgar to talk about ambition,” she says. “Anybody can become a little bit famous these days. It’s like Andy Warhol’s prophecy about 15-minute fame has come true. I’m not worried about longevity, though, ‘cause when I started out, I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I can only improve, I think.”
She pauses, then adds, “That sounds really bigheaded of me. But it’s reality. I’ve embarrassed myself so much that I can only get better, you know? I’m not gonna succumb to the pressures of this business."*