Singer-(Song)Writer: An Interview with Juilana Hatfield

“I am not good at being a rock star.”

What if an exceptionally smart and sensitive kid — the suburban daughter of a doctor and journalist — fell in love with punk rock at an early age and delved into the world of music clubs, the record business, even television?  And what if she turned out to be both a keenly talented songwriter and musician and — famously — a casualty of rock fame, a performer with a twenty-year career who, ultimately, wound up without fortune or fame or the appetite to tour as a rocker any more?   And then, what if she released in the scope of a single month both a brilliant new album of intensely personal songs and a memoir of her disillusionment with a life in rock?  

Hello, Juliana Hatfield.  

August brings How to Walk Away, Hatfield’s latest — and most personal — album of pop-rock gems.  September will bring her memoir, When I Grow Up, an unusually literate and self-aware rock memoir tracing Hatfield’s music education, music career, and her ultimate exhaustion with the rock ‘n’ roll life, as embodied by a particularly grueling tour.   PopMatters talked to Hatfield, discovering a disarming, honest, intellectual and somewhat jaded writer — of both songs and prose.  


Your memoir, to come out this September, is called When I Grow Up.  The suggestion of the title is that you aren’t grown-up yet, though you were born in 1967.  

The book is all about doing this job that I do, which is kind of a young person’s game.  I am coming to the point in my life where I’m questioning my lifestyle and my job.  The book is both a detailed diary of [a] month-long tour and the history of my career in music, which goes back as early as my childhood and moves up through music college, Blake Babies, then my solo career, up to recording my most recent album, How to Walk Away.  In the book, I find myself doing another tour of these skuzzy rock clubs and thinking, “Is this what a grown-up woman really should still be doing?”  It questions where I am in life and if I should maybe move on and grow up.  Is staying in the music business keeping me from maturing?  

I’ve been reading the essays on your website’s blog [with] each one based around a single song.  They are very interesting, they reflect a broad intelligence and education, and they are emotionally revealing.  What drew you to writing, and how do these blog posts relate to your memoir?

The impulse to write more than what you can express in a song inspired both the book and the blog posts.  I want people to see that there’s more to me than what they think or what they’ve been led to believe by all the years I’ve been written about in little paragraphs.   The blogs explore specific songs, but they do it in more depth than the songs can on their own.  In the blog, I’m riffing, going off wherever my mind takes me.  At some point I think I’ll get more experimental with the blog as I get sick of the format.  At some point I’m just going to go off on something and never mention the song — I’ll just have the song title and never mention the song.  Maybe I’ll have a couple of blogs that are just three words.   In the book I don’t go off on so many tangents.  The book has a narrative thread going all the way through it — there is an actual story, with scenes, and it all ties together.  

I was surprised you wrote a memoir.  I think the Juliana Hatfield cliché is that you are a shy person who got burned in the ’90s by your bout with celebrity.  Is that basically wrong?  

That view of me is partly true.  

Do you worry that the blogs and the memoir will bring more attention to your personal life and open you to criticism — the very stuff that was the worst side of being a celebrity?  

I am a little worried.  But, at the same time, for all these years people have been writing about me, speculating and assuming things about me.  When I wrote the book, I decided that I would explain myself.  All of the power is in my hands, and people will have to accept it for what it is.  I’ve told the story that I wanted to tell, and people can’t assume anything any more.  

But that wasn’t the motivation for writing the book.  It wasn’t anger or frustration.  I just wanted to write more than three-minute songs.  I wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl — long before I was a musician and a songwriter.  When I started making music, I put writing on the backburner.  I’ve always had the goal of writing a book — to start and complete a whole book.  Well, I finished it, I sold it, and now it’s going to be published.  I’m incredibly happy and proud that I did it.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I stuck with it for six years.  And I wasted a lot of time because I didn’t know what I was doing — I had to cut out two-thirds of it to keep it from being 1,000 pages.  

Was your book influenced by any other books?

I tried to stay away from reading any rock memoirs the whole time I was writing.  I didn’t want to be influenced in any way — I didn’t want to have to compare my book to anyone else’s book.  I did read some memoirs by people who have nothing to do with music.  

Is writing about music inherently difficult?

It’s really hard.  There is actually not a whole lot in my book where I’m talking about music.  It’s more about what it’s like to be on tour in small clubs — the stuff that’s happened to me in my life, at music school, like that.  

How  To Walk Away sounds, to my ears, highly crafted or knowing.  Though the lyrics sound related to your personal life, the songs sound more like “stories” to me rather than confessions.  

You are completely wrong. The songs are all very personal, but I put a lot of work into crafting them so they didn’t sound like diary entries.  I want them to be songs that can stand alone.  I’m glad that you think they sound less confessional.  If people can hear the songs as individually well-crafted entities, then there is a remove where people can push me out of the equation and enjoy the songs on their own and not have to feel like they’re only about my personal life.   

The new record is one of your “pretty” records rather than a loud and punkier disc.  Is this alternation between Juliana Jeckyl and Juliana Hyde a conscious one?  

That is not conscious at all.  It’s weird.  I can look back now and see how it happens, but I never plan it.  I think it’s just the natural cycles of my life.  I need to rock, [but] then I need to sing some pretty three-part harmonies and have jangly guitars.  I have those two sides to my personality.  I like those two types of music: pretty, lush — and then rock ‘n’ roll.  

I read somewhere that you feel that the new record is a milestone in that your voice has matured and is no longer so “little girl-ish”.  How has that quality been a problem for you?  

My voice used to drive me crazy.  This sound came out of me and I couldn’t control it — it’s just what God gave me.  Many people did not take me seriously.  The young sound of my voice turned people off.  I was so frustrated.  I’d think, “Why couldn’t I have been born with a voice like Chrissie Hynde or Pattie Smith or someone with cool voice?  Why am [I] cursed with this voice?”  I felt I was doomed never to be taken seriously because of the sound of my voice.  I was incredibly frustrated and couldn’t do anything about it.  I even took up smoking when I was in my twenties to try to make my voice go lower and scratchier.  And it didn’t work.  But time is slowly, slowly lowering my voice.  If you listen to my first album and my new album you can hear the difference.  But I’ll never have a cool rock ‘n’ roll voice.  I just won’t.  

I remember getting your first solo record and loving your voice — the sweet and sour thing, a little girl with a big guitar.  

I hated when people would say stuff like that.  I hated that.  I was not a little girl, but everyone saw me like that because I was shy and my voice sounded like that.  I was like “Fuck!  I’m never going to be taken seriously.  I’m just going to be this little novelty act.”  

As a listener, I felt that you were smartly exploiting the contrast.  

That’s part of what drove me crazy — people thought I was exploiting it or playing it up, and I wasn’t trying to.  I loved rock guitars, and I wanted to make rock ‘n’ roll, but the sound of my voice kept my music from being rock ‘n’ roll.  I was stuck between these two poles.  

Looking back on those records, do you think, “Maybe it’s good I didn’t sound like Janis Joplin”?  Every bar band in American has a singer who sounds like Janis Joplin, but you sound like yourself.  

I didn’t want to sound like Janis Joplin.  I wanted to sound like Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith — I wanted to have a really distinctive, original voice.  Chrissie and Patti and even Courtney Love have really distinctive voices that are … serious.   When I was younger, all my musical heroes were rock ‘n’ roll men like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.  And I could never sound like that.  So I gravitated toward women who sounded like men.  I love the sound of those voices — chicks that sounded like guys.   Now I am accepting of the sound of my voice.  But it has been a frustration throughout my career.  If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that.  

The EP with Frank Smith, Sittin’ in a Tree, is wonderfully refreshing — Juliana with banjo!  To me, it recontextualizes your voice.  I heard it differently with Frank Smith.  Where did that project come from and what do you think it suggests about your craft?  

Like everything I do, there was not a whole lot of conceptual thought put into it.  These guys are friends of mine and I like the band.  I thought it might be interesting.  “Let’s record together, will you guys back me up?” They’re a good band, and it was something a little different.  We played my songs, but doing my songs with them gave it a new flavor.   

Now that you are putting our records on your own label and taking more individual responsibility for your business situation, how do you think about the role of making money in your art?  Another way of putting it:  if there was a time when being a musician was about “making it big”, then what is it about today and how viable is it to keep making rock records into the future?  

These days I worry about money more.  To make this new album I had to go through a big chunk of my savings.  It costs a lot of money to make an album in a studio in New York with a producer and musicians.  I have to pay a publicist every month.  I have to pay for mastering, production, the manufacturing of the discs.  Then, to promote an album properly, you have to spend a lot of money.  With my last album (Made in China) I didn’t spend much money — I recorded it really fast and cheap and didn’t put much into promoting it.  But, then again, no one really heard it.   The great thing about doing it this way is that all the money comes back to me — I don’t have to give any money to a record company.   If this record doesn’t sell, I’m kind of screwed.  I don’t know if I can ever do this again — this might be my last record if it doesn’t get some attention or doesn’t pay off in some way.  Now I’m just hoping I can get some choice licenses — I’m actually praying to get my song on a car commercial or something — movies or TV.  That’s the only way for someone like me to make music these days.  I don’t expect to sell very many of these because (A) people don’t buy CDs any more, and (B) you know, what are the chances that my record’s gonna take off after all this time?  Chances are very, very slim that this record is going to take off.  

So, to do this, you have to love it.  

You have to believe in it somehow.  I really believed in this record.  And if no else believes in it, then maybe I’ll have to quit music and get a real job.  But that’s the risk I took.  I jumped into this not thinking about the future and, even up to this new record, I said “Fuck it, I’m just going to spend whatever I have to spend.  I’ll burn through my savings to do this record the way I want to do it.  And if I run out of money, fine — I’ll get a job and I’ll know that I did everything I wanted to do. I don’t feel sorry for myself though.  I feel really lucky that I haven’t had to have a day job for the last 20 years — how amazing is that?  I’m so lucky.  What a great life I’ve had.  If I have to work in McDonalds, fine — I had a really great run and made a living at music for 20 years, and how many other people can say that?  

Do you still really love to play?

That’s what my book is about — how I came to hate touring in the rock clubs.  I hate touring, but I like playing, so that’s a conundrum.   Touring wears me out.  I get so weary.  I just want to play the show and then disappear.  It’s not that I don’t feel grateful to people for coming to my shows, and it’s not that I don’t want to talk to anybody, but I just have nothing left — I’m drained.  I’m better off not talking to people, because they’re just going to be disappointed.  I wish I could just magically appear on stage and then magically disappear.  

How is writing different from playing?

Oh, writing I am comfortable — I’m in my own private space, there are no distractions.  It’s like heaven, writing: no one wants anything from me, and no one’s criticizing me.  I’m totally in my element — it feels like what I was meant to do.  When you’re doing anything and you’re focused, and you’re in the zone with your mind engaged and your body engaged — it’s freedom.  Writing is freedom.  

Does your ambition as a writer go beyond the rock memoir?

Yes it does.  I started with a memoir because it seems like the most natural thing.  I really know this subject.  But I want to write other things — fiction.  I’m formulating ideas in my head.  

Did selling the book remind you of the record business?

Signing a book deal and dealing with the publishing industry is exactly like signing a record deal and dealing with the record industry.  I knew I had to find an agent to sell my book.  I started cold calling.  The first one I called knew who I was, and I sent them some of the book, but then I didn’t hear for them.  Then, I was taking a writing workshop in Boston and got invited to read at a party for the place that ran the workshop.  The reading was packed, and my future agent was in the audience.  He didn’t know my music, but he liked what I read and how I read it.  He helped me put a proposal together, which he sent around, and that’s how I sold my book.  

How did reading at the party compare to being at a club and playing your songs?  

It was so much easier.  All you have to do is read — nothing is easier than that.  Playing a show is a monumental hassle.  You’ve got to schlep all your heavy equipment into the van, then you’ve got to drive for five hours, then you have to schlep all the heavy equipment out of the van, onto the stage, set it up, do the soundcheck, hang around for three hours, then play the show, which is incredibly draining.  I mean, I love it, but it’s tiring and it’s a big ordeal every night and you get all sweaty — and then you still have to load all the stuff back out into the van and you have to find the hotel.  It’s a really long day.  And then you have to do the entire thing again the next day.  Reading is so fun and easy.  All you have to do is read a chapter.  How easy is that?  

Given my perception of you as shy and sensitive, I’m a bit surprised that the self-revelation of your writing sounds empowering and relaxing compared to the music business.  

My dream is that my book will get some good notices and do reasonably well so I can quit touring with a band and I can write another book.  Making a record at this point has become difficult.  It’s hard, it’s expensive, it involves so many people and so many logistical challenges.  

Do you have more control when writing a book rather than making an album?  

You do.  It’s the most perfect little system — you just sit down with your brain and your pen and your paper.  It couldn’t be simpler or cheaper.  It’s hard because it’s isolating, but I’m isolated anyway, so writing is the perfect way to make use of all the time that I’m sitting around.  A light bulb went off in my head when I was writing this book: “I’m not cut out for being a rock star.  I’m always so conflicted about it.  I’m not good at being a rock star — I should have been a writer.  This is what I was meant to do.”  I had that Eureka Moment; I was like “Shit! I want to be able to make a living at this.  If I can, I’ll be in heaven.”  

I guess you know about all the writers out there who want to be rock stars, like Steven King.  

I know that everyone wants what they don’t have.  But let me ask you — what if I’m a better writer than I am a musician?  Just imagine.  I don’t know if that’s true, but what if it is?  What if I changed careers in middle age, what would you think about that?  It happens to people.  I’m not saying that’s going to happen.  I’m not saying I’m a great writer — I don’t know yet.  But I think it’s great to see past one phase of one’s life and proceed to another phase.  I’m feeling stuck with my lifestyle — stuck in the rock clubs.  I’ve had enough of it.  I love making records, but I hate the rock clubs.  Maybe I can figure out another lifestyle that works for me — where you make records, write books and don’t tour.  I should be so lucky.  

I used to be a lawyer, hated it, and then I quit to teach and write about music, so I don’t mean to be some cynical critic.  

I’m my own worst critic.  Don’t think I’m not terrified of the future, because I am.  We can dream can’t we?