Juliana Hatfield - Interview - Winter 2008
12 Dec 2008
"you find yourself approaching middle age, playing another scuzzy rock club, trying to hold onto your dignity, but the toilet is overflowed..."
The first, and only, time I saw Juliana Hatfield was in 1994 supporting Teenage Fanclub in Cambridge. Then, this charmingly shy girl was at the peak of her career - after mild success with her college band, the now much celebrated Blake Babies, she formed her own band The Juliana Hatfield Three, released a hit single 'My Sister', enjoyed radio and television coverage, and appeared on the cover of magazines such as Spin. With her soft voice and troubled spirit it seemed she was all set to be princess of the grunge scene. Everyone agreed she had talent, and at that time we all loved the idea of the troubled artist.
What I, and very few people realised at the time was how desperately troubled Ms Hatfield was. How thoughts of suicide raced through her mind and that at every concert she made sure there was a high window to jump through if required, and how she continues to struggle with depression as an illness and not a mere celebrity trend. No, we just enjoyed the concert and went back to school the next day and talked about that pretty small skinny singer and how we all bought her cd. The next thing I heard about her was reading in the NME a year later in 1995 of her suffering from nervous exhaustion and cancelling a European tour, a little after which she was dropped from her record label. Magazines gradually stopped writing about her and time marched on. I went to university, went to live in America for a year, got married, had children, and every couple of years another Juliana Hatfield cd was released on the independent Zoe record label. I didn't buy them all, but I picked up a few along the years which I always enjoyed listening to and I wondered when she would return to her early success. For she was largely ignored by the music press.
My own story is no doubt typical of those who saw her in 1994, but what about her? What happened to that girl that seemed set for stardom? "You find yourself approaching middle age, playing another scuzzy rock club, trying to hold onto your dignity, but the toilet is overflowed..." These clubs would get smaller and dirtier each tour and she eventually decided something had to go, that there was something not quite right with a 40 year old women playing for a bunch of teenagers in a shabby club.
So she took a break from music, and wrote one of the most honest and insightful books of the year, When I Grow Up. "It's just about what happens when your dreams come true, where do you go from there", Juliana tells me from a cold winter's New York. "The compulsion to create never goes away regardless of how many records you are selling."
The art of creation Juliana returns to again and again during our conversation. "I feel this overwhelming need to write and get something out" she tells me, and explains how she always dreamed of being a prose writer before she was lured into the mystery of rock music. "I always write. I always wanted to write stories and novels."
I took a look at her blog before the interview, and it is not for the faint hearted. Indeed, it is painfully honest at times, as she writes about her time in hospital suffering from depression just a week ago before this interview, yet written so beautifully it is no wonder her book is being celebrated by people who hadn't even heard of her, or thought she had died at some point in the mid 1990s.
"Yes, I am pathologically honest in what I write. I can't help it."
The question remains whether you can be pathologically honest and succeed in the music business. She once told a magazine she was still a virgin in her mid 20's, which only added to the confusion regarding her status - how could such a beautiful girl enjoying critical success still be a virgin? If nothing else, it fueled her reputation as an outsider. But to be pathologically honest and to be a writer, that is a different story. It certainly got her noticed. In 2001 she was appearing at a fund raising event reading a passage about her life. It was part of the writers course she had enrolled on, and a literally agent was impressed, who knew nothing of her music, he decided to take her on immediately after the event. In her book she talks about how she is born to write, that she can't escape from it, and when I ask her to expand on this she struggles for a moment and then finally sighs and tells me:
"Some days I have to really force myself to do it and other days it just comes out of me like a sneeze. It comes in different ways. Some days it's easier and other days I have to drive myself. I learned that if I stop it's ok. I learnt I can take as much time as I need and it's ok. In the past I have I thought I could never stop, I thought I always had to be working and recording and touring and never stop, people told me if you stop your audience will forget about you. I learnt that that's not true. I need to take time and stop away from that and take as much time as I need to write and concentrate and that it will be ok."
The proof in that is surely her new cd, How to Walk Away, which could well be the best thing she has ever written. Subtle, rich in texture, yet gracefully elegant, and Juliana herself explains how she "couldn't be happier with it, with the sound of it and how it came out", certainly the calm attitude in which she examines the break-up of a love affair turned sour enraptures and charms the listener.
We talk a little about books, and her enthusiasm here is deeply contagious. "There are so, so many books to read and so little time..." She tells me how she would much rather be reading than listening to music (she only plays music in her car), and cheerfully talks about a new book she is reading called The Theory of Love which examines what exactly love is, and where it comes from.
"It shows how our brains have something to do with love, and it's not just our hearts but our brains that are wired to repeat certain patterns."
I tell her I have heard of this theory before, and that is an interesting idea.
"It is hard to explain though. It makes me think that we have been wired by childhood that it did something to us we are wired to need certain things from other people."
It seems a good opportunity to ask her straight out if she believes in love at first sight?
"Oh yes, I definitely believe people can have an instant connection..."
She pauses for a moment as if thinking about a particular person.
"But love is complicated."
That is one of the themes of your cd isn't it?
"Yes it is."
Her album explores this issue in enough depth - it seems futile to talk about it further, so I ask instead if writing that album was her favourite creative period so far?
"I would actually say that with the songs that I am writing right now that I am currently in my favourite period. These songs nobody has heard yet. I am writing an acoustic album." She explains that it will be released in 2009, and will be similar to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake. This if nothing else, is a fascinating thought, and with Juliana's new found freedom (she now has her own record company, Ye Olde Records) and her plans to write another book ("I have some ideas I am playing around with"), least of all her re-emergence into music, and the music press as a whole, I doubt we have heard the last from her, or her inspiring honesty.