Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Juliana Hatfield Spins her Bottle ‘Round Again

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Timothy Herzog
When you hear the name Juliana Hatfield, you might think of the classic pop favorite, “Spin the Bottle,” that made its guest appearance in Reality Bites, the movie that defined the grunge era. Or maybe you think of the infamous line in her ‘90s hit song “My Sister,” “I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch.” (And no, Juliana doesn’t really have a sister.) Or maybe the name conjures up images of her cameo in the cult favorite, My So-Called Life. Or of course there was the Lemonheads record she sang and played bass on, her early band Blake Babies, or her later band, Some Girls. But the thing that has remained consistent throughout the years has always been Juliana’s solo music career and her love for playing her songs.
 
Juliana Hatfield is and has been loved and idolized by many. Only what I learned about the musician herself after chatting with her in Central Park over coffee and lemonade, is that this truth has always been a hard one to swallow, especially in the height of the spotlight.

If you were to meet the Juliana of today, you probably wouldn’t guess that she once struggled with confidence. She was really intelligent, grounded in her opinions and thoughts, and eloquent in articulating what she was feeling and had felt before. She never flinched when asked a personal or somewhat difficult question, and she was willingly forthcoming with her experiences, even when they were less than pretty.
 
We all want to be inspired to try harder, push our limits, and reach for the tip-top, but we also need to be constantly reminded of our humanness in order to feel like there are people out there who relate to and understand us. This is what Juliana does best, and it also seems to be what her fans admire about her the most.

She’s back for more and the best she’s ever been—she even said so herself. Be sure to check out her new record, How to Walk Away, which was released on August 19, 2008 on Ye Olde Records, and her book, When I Grow Up: A Memoir, which will be published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. on September 29, 2008. Prepare to be impressed.

Jesse: You are known for having frequently drawn from personal experiences in the past, and the songs on your new album in particular are said to be some of your most candid ever. What do you want people to take away from your candidness? And—this is kind of a separate question—how do the people close to you feel about being written about in your songs?

Juliana: I don’t know if the people close to me are necessarily going to recognize themselves because even though the songs are very emotionally honest, I don’t think I put a lot of personal detail about my actual life in there. So, I think the songs are disguised enough that the people I was thinking about when I wrote them may not necessarily recognize themselves.

But if they do recognize themselves, I think they’ll understand that I’m just trying to be honest with my music, and I’m not trying to hurt anybody. I’m trying to express myself and vent a little just to get this stuff out of me. Everyone who knows me knows that that’s what I do—I’m a writer, and I’m going to write about my experiences. But I’m really not out to expose anybody.

Jesse: Yeah. What do you want people that don’t really know you to take away from your candidness?

Juliana: Well, what I would really like is for people to recognize their own lives in my songs. When I’m being honest about myself, I feel like I’m just speaking for a lot of other people who maybe don’t have the knack for that kind of writing. I feel like I’m just like everybody else; I think people are pretty much all the same.

Jesse: I think that is what people get from your music. In the comments I’ve read on your Web site, people seem to really relate to what you’re saying.

Juliana: Yeah. I mean, I write—I don’t know why I write—it’s just a weird compulsion I have, and I think anyone who’s an artist will say that’s why they do it…unless they’re doing it for money and fame, which isn’t the main motivation for me. I’m just writing about my feelings and ideas that I have. Hopefully other people will recognize what I’m talking about and they’ll get something out of it, like they’ll feel comforted in their pain, you know what I mean?

Jesse: I think they do for sure.

You keep a blog on your MySpace page where you write about songs selected by fans. In your press release, you warn: “Read it at your own risk – illusions may be shattered.” What do you mean by this?

Juliana: When you listen to other people’s songs, you get images and ideas in your head…you interpret a song a certain way. I just meant that, if I’m going to explain these songs, I may contradict someone else’s interpretation. Or you know, sometimes you’ll hear lyrics, and then you’ll realize later that you heard them wrong.

Jesse: I do that all the time!

Juliana: Like there was a hit on the radio in the ‘70s…I don’t know who did it, but it was called “Driver’s Seat.” It was like, ‘Driver’s seat, ooh-ooh ooh-ooh, driver’s seat.’ “Driver’s Seat,” but when I was a kid, I always thought they were saying, “Privacy!” ‘Privacy, ooh-ooh ooh-ooh, privacy.’ So, that kind of thing…

Jesse: I love that kind of stuff.

Juliana: So, I just meant that, if I’m going to tell you what I meant by this song, it might not be what you thought I meant.

Jesse: Totally, I like that.

This question is pretty complex, and I hope I get across what I mean to say… It’s pretty amazing to me that, as a woman, you started playing guitar and bass (along with piano, electric piano, organ, and drums at various points too) at such a young age.

As a female musician in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you were certainly a part of a larger scene of other women doing the same kind of thing—Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, The Breeders, Hole, Veruca Salt, etc.—but even still, it wasn’t like there were a ton of women in comparison to how many guys that were out there doing the same thing.

I find it interesting that, despite such a bold and fierce career attitude, you speak towards the end of your memoir about meeting this new guy, Bill, and only then feeling freed of worrying about whether or not you’re good enough, fabulous enough, talented enough, etc.

I often find many girls that are doing some of the most amazing and brave things in one respect—often with art, music, or writing—are also lacking in self-esteem even despite all their wonderful accomplishments. I know this is a huge question, but what do you make of this?

Juliana: I don’t understand it, but it does seem like a lot of artists, writers, and performers are really insecure…

Jesse: And not insecure in these other ways…

Juliana: I know! I can’t explain it to you; it’s just weird. I think maybe in performing and wanting to put music out there, it’s like we’re looking for some kind of acceptance because we don’t feel it within ourselves, and we need it from other people. I don’t think it’s healthy, what I do!

I actually think if I could really get my shit together and grow up for real, I would stop making records and I would stop touring. Because doing that—putting records out for sale and playing shows—it means you want people to clap for you. You want them to like you and to make you feel validated. And unfortunately, up until now, I haven’t really felt that coming from within, that I was really any good. I had very low self-esteem. I can’t explain it; I don’t know if I can answer the question.

Jesse: I think that might be the answer; there kind of is no answer.

Juliana: I think there are probably a lot of performers who know they’re great, but I’m not one of those. I was never the greatest performer just because I was so shy.

Jesse: Do you feel like the music industry contributed to or worsened your insecurities? On that note, is there any advice you might have for girls that are up-and-coming in this industry since it’s so tough?
 
Juliana: Well, I think anything at all amplified my insecurities—any interaction with any person—I was just a bundle of insecurities. But yeah, being in the spotlight and being judged and critiqued constantly didn’t help me really. People always would tell me, ‘Oh don’t listen to the critics!’ but I couldn’t help being affected by it. It’s my own weakness—a negative review or just a comment or a misunderstanding, they would all hurt me.

But at the same time, just hearing from people and certain critics who really appreciated what I was doing, that it made people happy, that was such a gratifying feeling. It made me feel like, ‘Yes, I’m doing something worthwhile with my life. This is good, what I’m doing.’

Jesse: Even what you were saying before about self-esteem…in a way you want attention, but in this other way, you’re still giving a lot of girls a sense of hope and confidence, which makes the whole thing even more complicated…

Juliana: I know. You asked me what advice I would give to young girls, and I don’t know because I feel like it’s such a hard, complicated road to go down if you don’t really know yourself, and if you’re not really confident and secure. I’m just now getting to the point where I feel like I’m okay, and I’m confident, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. But if you don’t have that when you’re starting out, it’s hard—all the criticism, constant criticism—it’s really hard.

And on top of the criticism of your work, women get all this criticism of their appearance and their femaleness, and that just complicates things even further. I always wanted the attention to be on my music and not so much on me or my looks, but people didn’t want to talk about the music as much as they wanted to talk about all the other stuff.

Jesse: Do you think guys even get that at all?

Juliana: Some do. Well, no, it’s not anything like [what women get], no.

Jesse: Right, it’s just not the same at all.

What is it like to continue to make albums after so many years in the spotlight? Do you try to keep a certain consistency that relates to the music you’ve written and performed at an earlier age? Is there pressure to keep a similar sound throughout your music career?

Juliana: No, I don’t feel any pressure. I don’t really conceptualize my sound at all. I just do what feels natural at the time. And whatever comes out, I feel like that’s what it’s supposed to be at that moment.

Not one of my records is a radical departure from the one before it. It’s been more of a slow, steady progression, especially with the sound of my voice. If you listen to my new album and you listen to my first album, there’s a real difference in the sound of my voice. It was a lot higher back then.

Jesse: Yeah, you’re kind of belting it out on this album.

This relates to what we’ve already been talking about a bit…You gained notoriety in the ‘90s due to the positive way you addressed serious issues faced by young women through your music and interviews. And—I love this part—you even upped your role model status when you admitted in an interview to being a virgin in your mid-twenties, which I thought was awesome. What are some examples of songs you wrote that were proactive? And, who was your Juliana Hatfield?

Juliana: It’s so funny that you say I was a positive role model because I felt like such a mess! I felt like I was just writing about what a mess I was, and how miserable I was. I was miserable all throughout my twenties and I was just writing about it, and if that helped people, that’s great, because I certainly needed help myself.

Jesse: I think it definitely helped people and continues to do so.

What are some examples of songs of yours that were proactive? I know you deal with body issues in one of your songs…

Juliana: Oh, “Feed Me?”

Jesse: Yeah! What was the motivation behind that song and songs like it?

Juliana: I don’t know; I don’t see them as proactive. I just see them as exposing my “messed-up-ness.” I don’t think I had any answers. I was just kind of being an emotional exhibitionist, like, ‘Look at me; these are my problems.’ But I suppose that writing about them is a proactive act.

Jesse: I think so for sure…

Juliana: Now, who inspired me? I was inspired by different females along the way. I remember back around the time of my first album for Atlantic, the one with “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle” on it; I was very into PJ Harvey’s first album, Dry. I was really, really kind of obsessed with it.

I felt like it really spoke to me. The things she was singing about, I recognized in myself, and I just felt like, ‘Yes! You’re speaking my truth. Thank you! Thank you for talking about it!’ And I loved that she was doing her own thing, and she had her own sound. She didn’t have a Svengali, and she wasn’t a puppet. And she had this ballsy sound! I loved her.

Before that, Exene Cervenka from X was a big inspiration. And then radio pop from the ‘70s, like Joni Mitchell, Olivia Newton-John, and the Carpenters—stuff like that really gave me a love of vocal melody and harmony. And, of course, Chrissie Hynde and then a lot of rock guys.

Jesse: Totally. On your new album, the song “Just Lust” is said to be a postfeminist anthem that turns the idea of women as the emotional, needy sex on its head, addressing an emotional needy male, which I loved. Did you feel there was a societal need to write a song like this, or was this more of a personal thing?

Juliana: It really was just a very personal song. But I guess I realized when I was writing it that people were going to hear it and think of it in terms of male/female relations and culture. And that was okay with me because I think a lot of times women are assumed to be the weaker sex and the needy sex, and I’m just saying in the song, it’s not always like that. I’ve known plenty guys that were weak and needy and jealous and clingy, when I am not. So, I’m just writing about my truth.

Jesse: I think that’s another one of those things where it’s just an awesome idea to put out there and to get into people’s heads…

Juliana: And I think a lot of women and girls will be able to relate to the song, don’t you think so?

Jesse: Yeah, totally. That’s why I liked it a lot. That sort of reverse dynamic—where the boy is needy and the girl is not—it’s not talked about enough at all.

Juliana: I know! Like the women in the movies are just pathetic, or they’re the girlfriend or the wife who is desperate to please her man, and she can’t live without him. And it’s just like, that’s not a realistic depiction of womanhood across the board, I don’t think.
 
Jesse: Yeah, or even the whole savoir thing in movies—I feel like that seriously ruined my idea of dating when I was younger because waiting to actually be saved by a guy is not realistic at all.

Juliana: It’s such a bad example of how to live.

Jesse: I know.

Juliana: Women need more, better examples of how to live than that, like in foreign movies. Stop watching Hollywood movies!

Jesse: Do you have a favorite foreign movie?

Juliana: I don’t have one favorite. I just saw a really great one by Éric Rohmer…

Jesse: Oh, so did I!

Juliana: …from 1972, Chloe in the Afternoon. I don’t know why I had never seen it before, but I just discovered it, and it was really great.

Jesse: That’s amazing! I know which one you’re talking about. Claire’s Knee is what I just saw. So good!

Juliana: What year was it from?

Jesse: I’m not sure exactly…early ’70s?

Juliana: I don’t know much about him, but now I want to know more.

Jesse: I know, same!

Juliana: Chloe in the Afternoon was filmed in 1972 Paris, and the women’s clothes are so cool! It’s so great to look at!

Jesse: Yeah, in Claire’s Knee, I felt like everyone was really well dressed too, and equally adorable.

Okay, this is my one weakness question. I’ve always loved your dynamic with Evan Dando. What was it like to play in the Lemonheads, and what is your friendship with Evan Dando like these days?

Juliana: We’re not really in touch these days.

Jesse: Really?

Juliana: Yeah, the last time I talked to him, I called him a degenerate actually, and that was three or four years ago. He just made me mad, and I kind of told him off. But you know, I’ll always love him. He’s an exceptional character—really, really intelligent although he does stupid things sometimes. He’s really smart, really entertaining, really funny, really fun; but he can also be really dark, and he can drag you down with him. He’s a complicated character, and I’m really glad I got to know him and spend time with him. And he’s a great songwriter—I think he was a really underrated songwriter. You were asking if men got the same treatment from the press as women…I think Evan is a case where he was almost treated like a woman by the press.

Jesse: Why do you think so?

Juliana: They talked a lot about what a pretty boy he was, and I think he was never taken seriously as a songwriter because he was so good-looking and charming; and in a weird way, that his experience was like what a lot of women go through.

Jesse: Wow, that’s really interesting.

Juliana: Because I think he was really underrated as a songwriter actually.

Jesse: I love Evan Dando!

Juliana: Yeah, but in the press, he was always kind of ridiculed in a way. It’s weird.

Jesse: Yeah, that is weird.

You seem to have a pretty definitive take on mainstream media and culture today, particularly culture for young women, i.e. your diatribe on your blog about believing that cable television—shows like The Hills in particular—and the Internet are ruining our country. What do you think would be a better example for teen girls?

Juliana: Well, I don’t think it was a diatribe. I think I was partly being ironic because I love watching The Hills.

Jesse: Me too!

Juliana: And I love going to Topshop on the Internet—that’s where I get all my clothes. So no, I’m not against popular culture…

Jesse: Maybe diatribe is the wrong word, yeah…

Juliana: …but I think I did go off on a tangent. You know, I was asking, ‘What are the effects of all these channels, and all the Internet clicking and clicking, and just like the whole world at a click?’ I just really think that it’s doing something to the modern brain. It’s harder for people to concentrate for any length of time. I think I was just exploring the idea of, ‘What effect is cable TV and the Internet having on us?’ It has completely changed the world and the culture, for better or for worse.

Jesse: What kind of effect do you think it does have?

Juliana: Well, that remains to be seen. Ask me that again when children that were born five years ago are twenty-five. Can they read a five hundred-page book from start to end? Can they use a dictionary?

Jesse: Write a letter, not an e-mail?

Juliana: Right. Can they read a map?

Jesse: Seriously! It’s weird because I grew up almost my whole teenage life without ever having the Internet, and I’m so dependent on it now. It’s weird to think that I existed without it, and also that other people never have to.

Juliana: I know! I only got a computer three years ago, and now I need it so much just for my work. Like for my book, the editors these days edit on the computer—they don’t write. I sent all the chapters to my editor as files on the computer. And with the record label too, everything is done using a computer.

I tried so hard to stay away—I’m trying to be a Luddite—but I was sucked into it just because I wanted to put my own records out and write this book. I was kind of forced into it, and now I’m sucked in.

Jesse: It totally sucks you in!

Juliana: But I’m going to get out one day, I am. I’m going to decide to shut it all down one day, and I’m going to shut it down one day because I don’t want to live my life like this. I’ve noticed a lot lately how the Internet is such a distraction. I wake up, and the first thing I do after breakfast and the newspaper is I go check my e-mail. And you know, I never did that before.

This past weekend, I had a twenty-four hour period where I didn’t turn my computer on, and it was like a revelation. I was reading books! And it just made me really think, life is better without the Internet. It is. I mean, I need it now…

Jesse: Yeah, I totally know what you mean. When I go away sometimes and don’t bring my computer…

Juliana: Isn’t it great! You can just enjoy your life and the world around you. E-mail is a constant distraction because it’s coming in twenty-four hours a day. And it’s terrible when you think about it because it’s sucking your brain space away from everything else you could be doing.

Jesse: Yeah, e-mail is the biggest distraction in my life!

Instead of the Internet and watching TV, what would be a better medium for teen girls to be inspired and entertained by?

Juliana: Books, movies—obscure movies, foreign movies, Russian movies, Italian movies from the ‘60s—play a game, play sports…Go to a house that has no electricity and just see what happens, figure it out, you know. Talk to people; look around.

I don’t know; I don’t know if I can answer that. But when I grew up, there was no Internet, and there was no cable TV, and there were no answering machines, and I was fine. I did a lot—I played sports, and I wrote, and I read books, and I had friends, and we went swimming, and we rode bikes and listened to records. I think people are too dependent on electricity and electronics and gadgets, and without them, they feel naked. But I think people should learn to rely on themselves, their bodies, and their brains more, and to just figure things out without needing help from gadgets and electronics.

I feel lucky because I grew up without that stuff, so I know what it’s like without it, and I look back on that time with a lot of nostalgia. So yeah, it’s great to go surfing on Topshop every day, and see what new clothes they put up. It’s also great to be able to download a song and not have to buy a whole album when there’s only one good song on the album…

But, for inspiration, I would recommend bird-watching. It’s a really great hobby. You go out with binoculars and a bird book, so you can identify them, and your mind gets so concentrated on finding the birds and focusing on them, just listening and trying to find them. I think it’s the best exercise for a person. It’s like meditation.
 
Jesse: I’ve never done that before. I’ll have to try it.

Okay, this is kind of personal...Depression seems to be a prominent issue for you, and as a result, one that frequently turns up in your songs and your writing. Do you feel like depression is simultaneous with creativity, or do you feel more like depression inhibits productivity? So, basically, is depression a good thing (for your music) or a hinderer?

Juliana: I know that when depression was really bad, I couldn’t write; I couldn’t concentrate; I couldn’t do anything productive, and when it’s so bad that you start thinking of jumping out of a window, there’s nothing good about it. So, I’m not afraid that curing my depression is going to take away my creativity. And I’ve basically learned how to manage it without drugs or anything, so I’m not depressed like I used to be. I think my work is better than ever, so, no I don’t believe you have to be miserable to be a good artist. I used to believe that.

Jesse: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Juliana: When you’re young and feeling depressed, you feel almost like a martyr. You want to romanticize it like, ‘Oh, I’m suffering so much,’ and instead of trying to pull yourself out of it, you wallow in it, which is a terrible thing to do because it’s such a horrible state of mind.

But yeah, I would say now I think depression is just bad. It was a good thing to go through because it taught me empathy, but I wouldn’t want anyone to have to—actually, it would be good if everyone could have a little bit of it because then it makes you appreciate when you feel good.

Jesse: Yeah, that totally makes sense.

In your memoir, you speak of your upcoming album as possibly being your last chance to give people something to remember you by before you give up for good. Are you officially retiring from your music career? What next?

Juliana: Well, I’m going to see what happens with this record. I feel like it’s kind of going to make me or break me because it’s getting harder and harder to do what I do. I don’t have the energy I used to have to prove myself to everyone over and over again. My audience is small, and I feel like every time I go out there, I have to prove myself all over again because I haven’t built up this huge following.

I just don’t know how long I can sustain the record-making. I don’t know how long I can afford to do it, and if I have the energy to do it, because it takes so much…it takes more and more out of me. I’m kind of exhausted from it, from making all these records, and touring all these records. I’m just really, really tired, and if I don’t get a lot back from this record—I don’t mean financially—but if I don’t get a lot back, I’m going to have to reassess what I’m doing because it’s just such a huge undertaking—making an album and touring—that I can’t do it if I’m not getting a lot of help. Does that make sense?

Jesse: Yeah, that totally makes sense. Have you thought about what else you might want to get into afterwards?

Juliana: I want to work for PETA.

Jesse: That sounds like a good idea.

One thing I haven’t asked you about yet is the My So-Called Life Christmas episode you made a cameo appearance on. That was totally my favorite show when I was fifteen, and I especially love that episode. What was that like? How did you come about doing that in the first place?

Juliana: Oh, thanks. I was contacted by the TV show people to see if I would write a song for the Christmas episode, and I went in to talk to the TV people—the My So-Called Life people—about the song, and we got along great. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this, I’ll give you the song,’ and then, after meeting me, they asked me if I wanted to play the part of this homeless girl, which hadn’t been cast yet. I guess after they met me, they thought I had the right vibe or look, and so that’s how it happened.

Jesse: That’s cool. So, that song was especially written for the show?

Juliana: Yeah. Well, there was a soundtrack album too, and it’s on the soundtrack. It was on an Atlantic Records Christmas compilation also.

Jesse: Awesome! I didn’t ask you about your memoir at all yet either. How did you decide to write it, and when did you start?

Juliana: I started writing it about five or six years ago. It took me that long to write it. I was on tour back then, and I deliberately brought a journal and took really detailed notes every night…

Jesse: I always wonder how people deal with memory with these kinds of things…

Juliana: Well, all the tour stuff was in the diary and the book actually started out as just a tour diary—that’s what it was. It’s a month long—every day is in there—and then later it became more this history of my career, and I wove in the history with the tour. The tour is showing you what my life is now, and the history tells you sort of how I got there.
 
Jesse: Right. So, that’s all one specific tour?

Juliana: Yeah, I had the idea, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a tour diary,’ but a literary one, not like a “diary” diary, more of a narrative. It was more written than a diary…I wanted it to be well-crafted.

Jesse: Is there anything else I didn’t ask or touch on that I might have missed?

Juliana: I don’t think so.

Jesse: Okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much!

Juliana: Thank you.

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