[9 December 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
One of the more desperately humorous turns in Juliana Hatfield’s recently published memoir, “When I Grow Up,” deals with fame - or, more exactly, the quickest available exit from it.
It outlines the singer’s attempts to get out of her contract with Atlantic Records. The label initially had managed to bring Hatfield’s indie-rock renown closer to the pop mainstream. But in its corporate hunger for a hit single, Atlantic refused to release what would have been her third album for the label, a doomed 1997 project called “God’s Foot.” So Hatfield wanted out.
In a chapter titled “Begging to Be Dropped,” she describes the nails she planned to drive into the coffin of her major-label career. Most dealt with personal hygiene. A week before meeting with Atlantic president Val Azzoli, Hatfield stopped bathing. She stopped brushing her hair. She avoided sunlight. The persona she wanted to reflect is summed up in three words: “ugly, crazy, dirty.”
The truly sad part of the tale is that this is one of the few true, joyous victories Hatfield, 41, entrusts to “When I Grow Up.” Although many parts are wickedly funny, there is an underlying sadness to the book’s parade of broken love and faith in personal and professional circles.
“I’m able to see humor in a lot of things,” Hatfield said by phone.
“Even at the time these things were happening, I thought they were funny,” she said. “I remember my manager and I laughing about the Atlantic meeting. ‘Yeah, I’m going to stop bathing.’ Of course, it was also kind of sad.”
For Hatfield, who became a near-iconic figure for a blooming indie-music revolution during the 1980s with the Boston-based band Blake Babies, stardom started unfolding with her debut solo album, “Hey Babe.” That’s when Atlantic came calling. Her first album for the label, 1993’s “Become What You Are,” yielded a pair of sizable radio hits, “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle.”
Hatfield’s subsequent return to the indie ranks, along with a brief Blake Babies reunion in 2000, wasn’t always a cheery experience. Most of her post-Atlantic records have been well received critically, but Hatfield details in “When I Grow Up” her own dashed vision of her life and work.
One sentence savagely sums up that feeling: “I had no faith for what I was doing.”
The times took a physical toll, as well. After a Blake Babies tour in 2001, Hatfield’s weight dropped to 100 pounds. In a chapter titled “Hunger,” she describes confronting an eating disorder with roots that stretch back to her high school days. Such passages play out with such frank and conversational detail that one wonders how comfortable Hatfield had to be with herself to share them in the first place.
“That’s the question I have to ask myself a lot,” she said. “In this world, where everything happens so fast, it’s hard to sit back, take the time and contemplate. ‘Should I do this or not do this?’ So I just went with my gut.
“I’ve always done that with my music. Sure, I run the risk of leaving myself vulnerable by being so open. But I’ve always been honest, emotionally honest, in the music. With the book, I’m just continuing the tradition of telling the truth about myself. It’s just done in a more plainspoken way.”
Although Hatfield said she shed a few personal demons in writing “When I Grow Up,” her battles with anorexia didn’t end with the book. With a string of late-fall concert dates already confirmed, the singer entered a clinic that treats eating disorders earlier this fall. In keeping with the frankness of “When I Grow Up,” she wrote about the experience as it was happening in her online blog.
In an entry posted just before her discharge in mid-November, Hatfield said, “In this environment, they shorten ‘eating disorders’ - the name of our problem - to ‘E.D.’ and say it like a man’s name (‘Ed’) like he is a bad man, an evil man we need to cast out of our lives, our psyches.”
In the interview, Hatfield said, “I felt refreshed getting this stuff out of me. It’s like purging, to use a ... well, it’s like purging. It feels healthy to get them out. It’s a way of not going crazy.
“There was a real benefit from the blog posting. I think I was reaching out for help and support from people. I needed sympathy from whomever I could get it from. I reached out to friends, to everyone I could think of. With the blog and the book, I received tons and tons of well wishes, prayers and support. That was what I needed most.”
Saying she is now “on the mend, back on track and ready to rock,” Hatfield is writing songs for what will be a predominantly acoustic follow-up to her critically lauded 2008 album “How to Walk Away.” The challenge there might be mightier than she planned. “How to Walk Away” is a bold pop record detailing the desolation, desperation and, in some cases, indifference revolving around romantic encounters. With vocal help from Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, “How to Walk Away” has been deservedly described in numerous reviews as one of Hatfield’s finest recordings.
So how does all of this bode for the future? With an album widely praised by critics and fans and writings that have revealed her demons to the world, has Hatfield reclaimed the faith that she confessed had been lost?
“Yeah, definitely. I have it all back. I have the same motivation I had when I started out. Motivation is just this potion to create stuff, a compulsion to express the truth of my own experiences in this life.
“So the goal is to make better music, to sing better and to keep improving every year. All I’m trying to do is to keep going and keep evolving.”