After more than thirty- five years as a recording artist, Juliana Hatfield continues to create diverse and compelling music. Recent years have been especially prolific and she’ll release her twentieth solo album, Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO, on November 17. Hatfield was gracious enough to chat with us as she was preparing for her upcoming solo tour and return to Cincinnati. Our interview started right on time and it immediately reminded me of Rob Reiner as Marty DeBergi talking about Spinal Tap (“I remember being knocked out by their exuberance, their raw power- and their punctuality!”). She shared her thoughts on her upcoming solo shows, interpreting other musician’s music and why, even with all the ups and downs, she can’t quit music. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wow, you are super punctual! That's not very rock and roll [laughing].
I'm not very rock and roll.
In terms of punctuality [I’m not].
It's like, what was that one Coen's brothers' movie…Miller's Crossing. “Good manners are never a waste of time.”
Yeah. Yep. Exactly.
I’m really excited to see you coming back to our area. I was trying to recall when the last time you came through here, feels like it's been a while. (The last concert mention I found was 1998 at Sudsy Malone’s, but that seems impossible.)
I've been trying to recall also. I don't know, because it has been such a long time. I can't remember when.
It's good to have you back and I don’t know that we’ve ever seen you solo. I was rereading your memoir (When I Grow Up), which I loved, and I was listening to the Lived Through That podcast the other day, which recapped a lot of that experience.
I was really struck by a few things. One is just how vulnerable you are in that book and how raw you are and how authentically you talk about how much music means to you. It’s very moving and there was a really beautiful passage, I have to find it… [finds the passage where she talks about how bands and singers have made her feel “…like I was melting, but also strong, superhumanly strong, like my heart was alchemizing into gold because of a joy that was much too powerful to be contained in blood and flesh”]. I thought that was one of the most beautiful articulations of what it feels both to make and listen to music. Just gorgeous.
So having said that, also a lot of part of your writing in that discussion was about music, really having to get out in the world and be listened to and kind of appreciated by a listener and that feedback loop you have with the crowd when you're performing. So, I'm wondering, memories of Covid are still pretty raw, that time gap…what was that like for you as both somebody that wants to get their music out to live performance, but also maybe having to spend time with yourself and having more latitude to create?
Well, I have to say that the enforced isolation was kind of just a continuation of my normal life. I’ve pretty much always lived alone. I don't have a partner or children and I live a pretty isolated life, and so lockdown was not difficult for me. It was just like, oh, okay, I'll keep doing what I've been doing, basically being locked down, which is my life pretty much. Except when I go on tour, that's totally out of the norm for me to be getting out like that and being among people, it's not the norm for me. I don't really go out when I'm at home. So… and when I talk about sharing music, it's not so much that I need an audience giving me immediate feedback in front of me physically. It's more like I just think that I want the music that I create to be out there in the world so people can hear it wherever they are so they can listen to it.
Because I know that it's hard for me to control the live show. Obviously, it's a thing that's happening in real time and there are a lot of factors out of my control. Just like every room, every venue sounds different. I can't control the sound of the room; I can't control the behavior of the audience. I can't control the way that the sounds are bouncing off all the other sounds. So yeah, live performance is not like, it's not my favorite thing in the world all the time. My point is, I did not really miss going on tour during the lockdown because going on tour is hard. It's difficult, it's challenging, it's physically really draining to me. So, I did not really miss going on tour and I continued to record music during the lockdown. I took the opportunity during lockdown to finally force myself how to learn how to record into my laptop, and that was a great thing that I needed to do, and I continue to work that way and I made the ELO record at home on my laptop.
Oh wow. Cool.
Yeah. But I'm glad to, having said all that, I'm really looking forward to going out and playing these shows in October. There is something nice about when I do the solo shows alone with an electric guitar, I can… it's a cool kind of freedom that I have to play whatever I want. The band does not have to be rehearsed. I can do whatever I want to do.
I wanted to ask you about that, especially in regards to the ELO material. I was listening to some of your [released] tracks and then I was listening to the original ELO tracks [that she’s covered but are not released yet]. I wanted to ask you about adapting them for a solo show. If I look at a song like “Bluebird is Dead”, that seems like, okay, that's a pretty straightforward one, but something like “From the End of the World” is lush and layered and very, very different on record. And I guess obviously on your laptop or studio you can overdub and layer as much as you want, but how do you go about reconfiguring those for a solo stage show?
Well, I go back to just, I'm playing through them all, and you're right, “Bluebird is Dead”, does work really well in that context of “no band”. Yeah, “Bluebird is Dead”, that works well with just guitar and vocal, and… others, I'm figuring it out right now, which ones are going to work. It's just a process of playing through them all and seeing which one holds up without all the instrumentation. And the songs are generally, I mean, they're all so well- constructed that they would all conceivably work on their own with just one guitar, but I'm just going to choose the ones that I think sound the most complete on their own in that stripped -down version.
There’s this thing I found on YouTube, it's Jeff Lynne and his piano player playing through a bunch of his songs in his, I think it's a room in his house, like a gigantic room in his house with hit platinum records all over the wall. But he's just playing through a whole bunch of his songs, his hits, he's playing a guitar and his piano player's playing and the songs sound really good in that stripped- down atmosphere. It's just a testament to how well-written the songs are and how solid they are, how solid the constructions are. That's when you know a song is a good song -if it can just be played by someone on a guitar and played on its own and it sounds good.
Yeah, absolutely. And related to that, at the end of the nineties, my wife and I were living in Chicago and we used to go to Lounge Ax quite a bit, which I'm guessing you may have played along the way.
And Jeff Tweedy would play every once in a while and do solo shows. So occasionally he would do cover songs either acoustic or electric. And one night he did a cover of “Dreaming“ by Blondie, and I think it was on acoustic and slowed down a bit with just his voice and the guitar. And I've heard that song a million times in my life and it was like the first time I'd ever heard that.
And just the beauty of the lyrics and the structure of that song, it really just knocked me out. And I was shocked that something so familiar could feel that different and special. And I had exactly the same feeling when I was listening to your cover of [ELO’s] “Can't Get It Out of My Head,” where when you start singing, I've heard that song a hundred, thousands of times. I don't know that I ever internalized the lyrics. And when you sing those first few lines [“Midnight on the water/I saw the ocean's daughter/Walking on a wave, she came/Staring as she called my name’’] it just kind of hit me like a brick. I'm like, oh my God, this song is gorgeous and these lyrics are phenomenal and I've never really heard them.
Right. Yeah, that’s what happens with songs that are so familiar. They just become, it's like they're part of your DNA and you don't think about it. You don't think about the fact that your heart is pumping blood all the time. You don't think about all the breaths you take in and all the breaths you breathe out, you know? But then I have a version of a song that I think really shows the disparity between what we think we know and what we don't know. I have a version of the Rolling Stones’,” It's Only Rock ‘n Roll”… “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, (but I Like It)”. And I did a really stripped-down acoustic version of that song and it's really, really poignant and it's like I had never really listened to those lyrics. All I remembered is it's all [singing] “Yeah, yeah, it's only rock and roll, but I like it.”
But if you actually listen to the verse, it's very poignant and moving, and I highlighted that. You can't help but highlight that when you put a song alone without the Rolling Stones backing you. You should check out that song and check out the lyrics of that song.
Nice. Yeah, I'm thinking of the lyrics as we're talking. I'm like, yeah, I can totally see that, how raw that could be and how poignant it is.
I think someone like Jeff Tweedy, who's a good songwriter, it takes someone like that to know that, to understand or to call attention to the fact that a song like “Dreaming” is actually more than you might think it is. Over familiarity makes people stop paying attention.
Yeah, absolutely. It just kind of becomes this background noise. And frankly, I'll say ELO is a bit like that for me because I remember it, we’re roughly the same age, and I would remember it being on the radio when I'm eating breakfast, going to school, or on the bus or in the summertime. I remember “Telephone Line” that one summer was on the radio all the time,
...and it just becomes this kind of background of your life then. I'm going to ask you specifically, now you've done three albums like this, where you're interpreting other people's work is when you do kind of slow down and take, in your case with a point of view to interpreting those and actually playing those songs, are you finding surprises like that either in lyrics or chords or phrasing, or are you just startled by sometimes, “Oh wow. The composition of the song is just like, I never really appreciated it before.”
Yeah, there were moments in the Olivia Newton John record where I realized the songwriting was really more complex than I realized. A lot of the songs were written by this guy named John Farrar. And I had always been familiar with his name because I had all of those Olivia records and I would be reading along as I listened them and his name [was there] ‘written by John Farrar, written by John Farrar’. So yeah, I started recording a song for the Olivia Newton John record called “Suddenly”, it’s a duet with Cliff Richard that’s on the Xanadu soundtrack.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
And as I was learning it and as my band was learning it, we were just like, ‘Oh my God, there's so many chords’ and the new chords just keep coming and coming and new modes. And it was really kind of mind blowing and it actually literally blew my mind and I had to give up on it because I couldn't handle it anymore. We got through it, we recorded, I think we got the basic tracks down, but then I was like, I can't go on with [it]. I don't know what to do. It's too heavy, too much stuff going on.
So, with ELO, some of the songs are more simple than that. Well, they're deceptively simple. Like “Don't Bring Me Down” I thought it was going to be so easy to record because it's like one drum beat all the way through. No cymbal crashes at all. It's just like, how hard could that be? But then when I started learning it, it's actually kind of involved. I mean, they're repeated sections, but they repeat in different places and it kind of goes on and repeats here and then it doesn't there. And then it's just really hard to keep it all straight. It's more complicated than it seems, and it's really…I started off recording and I played the drums. I thought, oh, the drums are so simple, I can do that. And I played it and we looped the best part of it of my drum beat. And we started with that as the beat. And it's just like, I started adding things on and it wasn't working. It just sounded so flat and lifeless. And I realized there's more to this song than just a drum loop, and it's a mystery. And the mystery only deepened as I got into it. I was like, I can't possibly match the magic that they created in the studio with this song because it was a moment in time and I wasn't there. So, I just had to do my own thing, which was just make it more poppy and bubbly like my voice is, and just kind of like go with that groove and do my own thing. I had to do my own thing because I can't match their energy.
Well, and I would think as an artist, you don't want to do quite such a literal take on it. You’ve got to bring your own point of view to it.
Yeah, I want every song to feel like it's my own. I mean, I want to respect the original and I want to pay tribute to it, but I also want it to feel really natural and organic when I'm doing it. Otherwise, there's no point. I don't want to be just copying. I don't want to be, what do you call it, I don't want to be a mimic or something. I don't want to be a Vegas act.
[Laughs] Right. It's not karaoke.
I think you did that very effectively on…I loved your take on “Roxanne” by The Police. I thought that was very different but super effective.
I think those are the ones I'm most excited about where you can see your individual creativity coming through and really shifting things. So, I'm excited to see how those translate in the live experience. I wanted to ask, and you mentioned this both in the book and the podcast, and I thought it was fascinating about, I guess eleven years ago you walked away from the music business and for a year and didn't write, create music, but focused on visual art and in potentially pursuing an MFA. Actually, I think about the same time I got some art from you online. I actually have a self-portrait of you a painted, I think it's about five by seven acrylic and a 9 by 12 landscape that's kind of blue and white.
I was really happy to get those. But I was intrigued by that stepping away from something that you love so much. It was such a part of your being for so many years, focusing on visual aspect, intentionally not writing, and then kind of coming back out the other end. And you mentioned you were on fire and the songs just flooded out. I'd love if you could speak a little bit, how do you think, say the visual art, maybe cross-pollinates songwriting? I know you were also delving into prose, obviously you did the memoir. So, you're not just a songwriter. You have prose skills, you have visual skills. And I'm wondering how those kind of cross-pollinate each other and I think mostly as they feed the songwriting.
Well, they're all just creative expressions of what I'm thinking and feeling. And I think I use them all. I use visual art and prose. You know, I write a lot of prose that no one ever reads. I write all the time and I do it for myself. And drawing and music also, it all helps me to, I think it helps me to figure out what I'm feeling because I'm not what you would call “in touch with my feelings”. I think that was an expression from the seventies, “you got to get in touch with your feelings.”
But I had a long period of time where I was just in such a daze. I think I was traumatized from things that happened in my adolescence maybe, and nothing that I want to talk about, nothing so particular that I could pinpoint it, but just a kind of dysfunctional upbringing. And so, I went out into the world as an adult and I was, I really cut off from my feelings and I felt so confused and I couldn't deal with feelings. So, I didn't know how to feel them or express them. And so that's when music just became crucial to me because I felt I would die if I couldn't make music because I had no other way of communicating. I didn't know how to communicate. I had no verbal skills, no social skills. I felt like a wild animal being let out into civilized society. And so, all these media…writing, drawing, painting, singing, it all helped me to just gather my wild thoughts and feelings and to try to tame them a little bit or to try to figure out some form of expression just for my own survival really. And I know that some of it, I'm embarrassed by some of it now. Some of the early, some of the Blake Babies songs, some of the stuff I wrote in the book, I, I'm kind of embarrassed by some of the way that I'm so open and raw and exposing my feelings like that. But I had to do it. It was just a survival mechanism for me.
And when I “quit” the music business, it wasn't as if anyone even would notice that I went away. My audience is small enough at this point that not that many people would know if and when I disappeared. So, it was more like I was still going to make music for my own wellbeing. But the part that's so fraught for me is having to put it out into the world. That's where it becomes difficult for me. And touring is kind of difficult and promotion, talking about it is difficult. Talking about the work is difficult. I don't know. I don't have the words for it. And what was my point? I was trying to make a point. Oh yeah. So even when I was thinking, I was always thinking I got to quit the music business. I'm not good at it. I'm not good at being a public figure. That's part of it. I'm so bad at that. I'm not good at being, I wasn't good at being famous and I'm not good at even being a little bit famous. I can't deal with it. And then I would always try to quit all the time. But then I kept going back to it. Now I just accept I can't quit music. I can't quit music. It's like the love of my life. I can't quit it, even though I hate it sometimes, I can't quit.
And it sounds like it's more a hate of the business side of it than the music side of it.
Yeah. And also, just the social side of it. Yeah. I'm not a social animal. I'm probably not like most people. I've learned how to deal with things on my own and I don't need the emotional support in my day-to-day life. I can take care of myself. And so, it's not like I don't need people the way other people need people. I guess I need them to hear my music. That's what I need from people or I need them to get something from it. That's how I give, that's how I give to other people. I give through music rather than in my day-to-day life or a personal back-and-forth way. I like to think I'm a decent person and I do help when I can, but I'm not living in a day-to-day domestic partnership situation. I never have really been.
But I think it's beautiful and it's very pure, at least to me from the outside, creating the art. It sounds like you're doing what you want to do because you love it. And then trying to get the audience to come around. I think it was in the book, you [talk about having] the Field of Dreams approach - if you build it, they will come. It's like, I think that's totally true. At least I hope it is.
I'm still hoping that'll be true. Still hope.
Is it easier? Is the business easier at all today or better or worse? I think about, and I guess it was ‘98 when you kind of were separating from record companies and going out on your own. A lot of the technology and social media structure and business models like streaming didn't exist. But now today, as you said, you can make an album on your laptop. You can distribute it digitally. We don't really need big companies for a lot of the means of production and distribution anymore. But as an artist, is it any better or do you feel like it's any easier? Or is it…
It's easier in some ways and more difficult in other ways. I see everything as both... I see every cup as half full and half empty at the same time. So, there are pros and cons to both modes of…yeah. So, it's like, yes, we can record, we can cut out the middleman and get our music out there, but everyone can do it now. So that kind of dilutes the field because everyone's doing it and you can get anything. And I was talking to someone about this the other day, how when I started going back when I was in my forties or something, I started to go back and explore things that I was listening to in my childhood and watching. I went back and started listening, trying to find the music that I heard when I was a child, stuff like ELO and Olivia Newton John. And then I went to go watch Columbo.
And stuff like that. And it was just mind- blowing to go back after a couple of decades of not having experienced any of that and to go back and see and hear that stuff with the brain of an older person. It really brought me back to how I felt as a child. And that's some of what I love about seventies music is that when I listen to it, I can go back and feel what I felt when I was a child. And that's kind of a mind- blowing thought that I can, I feel, I can actually feel things that I felt when I was an innocent nine-year-old. That's amazing. And today, people can't do that. No can go back. No one can listen to something that they haven't heard since their childhood because now everything is available and accessible, from day one. Nothing is shut away in a vault anymore because it's not out there. Anyone can get anything. And so, I feel like I benefited from having a bunch of years without internet. I don't know, what's my point? I forget what…
I was just asking you, are the overall industry aspects any better with the…
Oh, yeah…there's a thing about, yeah, we can all put out our music, but we also have to do everything else. I started my own label for a little while and I was like, I can do it all myself now. But then it's like, yes, you have to figure out. It's not wait, it's kind of complicated. You have to become an accountant. You have to start getting in touch with all the graphic designers, people who manufacture the CDs and the LPs. You have to deal with all that, the shipping, you have to do invoices. You still have to promote yourself. You have to figure out a way to let people know that you have new music out. And, so, you're actually, I was doing more than I had to do before. I had to become a businessman, which I don't want to be. And I ended up not doing my label anymore because I didn't want to do all the business stuff.
Yeah, I can definitely see that, right. You've not only got the artistic stuff, but now you're managing everything else.
It's taking your attention away from making the music.
Yeah. Yeah. I totally get that. As I was rereading your book, I could really feel your pain when you had the opportunity tour with Paul Westerberg, and that fell through. So, I was thrilled to see that you got to do the  I Don't Cares project with him (an album where Westerberg let Hatfield pick songs from his vaults for them to finish). And I gotta imagine that was a mind- blowing experience to be tapped for that project.
It was mind-blowing, but I also had, at that point, I had known him for like twenty years. I ended up meeting him a long time ago. After that tour fell through, we did eventually meet. And so, I've known him well for at least a couple of decades at this point. So, when I did the I Don't Cares, we already knew each other really well, but still there were moments where I would look at him across the basement, his studio in his basement. I'd be like my 17- year- old self...my head would've exploded just thinking that I would ever be making music with him.
Yeah, absolutely. And then would you have the same feeling realizing…I guess the Juliana Hatfield Three album [Become What You Are] just turned thirty, right?...
…to think you'd still be at it at this age and still so prolific? Are you surprised it's kept going this long or not? Or does it just feel like a natural part of life?
I'm not surprised. I think that I just always was so desperate to do it and it was always a lifeboat for me in a world that I could never really navigate. And it's, I guess it's still something that I clinging to. It's something so pure and fulfilling for me and it's really, it's a thing that I need to do, so I keep doing it.
I'm really happy that you are [doing it]. I will say, frankly, I think I'm enjoying your more recent work that's more personal and kind of stripped down than some of the stuff that was coming out around when “My Sister” came out that was on the radio all the time. I think you've grown tremendously as a songwriter, as a performer, as an artist, and it shows in your work and it's really beautiful to see. I never saw you back in the day, so excited to finally see you play live.
Well, I'm glad, and I think that I'm trying to live up to the title of my bestselling album, which is called Become What You Are. I'm really trying to do that with my music. I've always been trying to get to the place where I'm making great music and I just think I'm getting… I like to think I'm getting closer to that place, making really great music.
Juliana Hatfield (solo) plays The Woodward Theater on Wednesday, October 11, 2023. On Being an Angel opens.