For years I have wanted to meet Juliana Hatfield. It was 1990, the year of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, New Kids on the Block and I was desperately looking for something cool to listen to. I discovered Boston’s Blake Babies: Garage pop music built around lush melodies, a live-wire voice, and masterful guitar riffs. “This band is going to be huge,” I assured all who would listen. There soon arose a sizable contingent of people who heeded my advice, bought Blake Babies albums, and loved them as much as I did. Then Blake Babies broke up. Broke my heart.
The story has a happy ending. The lead singer of Blake Babies is now three albums into a successful solo career, and continues in my mind to redefine the parameters of coolness. The subject matter of her songs ranges from unrequited love to eating disorders, and covers most of the young all-American hobbies in between. In January, I finally met Juliana Hatfield at her hotel room in Los Angeles on the occasion of the release of her new album, Only Everything . I was nervous in the elevator.
Steven Cantor What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Juliana Hatfield I’m listening to Jeff Buckley. That’s all I’m listening to right now. I just met him a few weeks ago in New York.
SC He definitely goes against the grain.
JH I was blown away by his new album; he has a lot of guts, singing the way he does in this day and age. All that grunge is so popular and people probably don’t consider it very cool, very happening to sing falsetto or vibrato. What he does with his voice and guitar blows me away from a technical standpoint.
SC It’s always seemed to me that you also have guts, you present yourself with no real . . .
JH No real ability.
SC Definite ability, but no real conscious effort to create an image.
JH Yeah, I’ve set myself up in the past for ridicule, I’ve fucked up, but I don’t regret anything because at least I’m trying to do something.
SC What’s your biggest fuck-up? To the public eye?
JH A certain photograph I’ve done, or a video, where I’ve let myself look stupid. Or I’ve gone out and played shows and didn’t really know what I was doing. Before I knew how to sing, I was playing shows: I went out on stage before I felt comfortable.
SC In that period in the mid-’80s, when all the Boston bands were starting out, was there a communal, help-each-other attitude?
JH Yeah, there wasn’t any competitiveness in that whole scene. Everyone was really cool to each other, we played together and supported one another. Bands were getting in touch. I was envious of a lot of the bands, like the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and Throwing Muses because they were getting more attention. I felt in awe of them. I wished I was that cool. I felt like things happened a year too late for me, so that we weren’t actually peers but we were fans.
SC How do you feel about yourself now?
JH I either have an inferiority complex or delusions of grandeur. It goes back and forth. I’m better than everybody and I’m a genius, or I think I’m this worthless piece of shit. It’s confusing.
SC How are you feeling at this moment?
JH I’m proud of the album right at this moment. I feel like I’m pretty good right now.
SC Tell me about the new album. How has your music evolved?
JH All I know is how it felt making it. I felt more confident. I played my guitar harder, but I was more relaxed at the same time. It was real easy to make, stress free and fun.
SC What instrument do you write on?
JH Usually acoustic guitar.
SC Do you write the music or the lyrics first?
JH Both. Sometimes I try to do it all together.
SC Your cover song, “Universal Heartbeat” . . .
JH It’s a Police song idea like “Message In A Bottle,” about how people feel that they’re alone in their misery but really everybody feels that way, they just don’t talk about it. And also, how it’s better to be able to feel pain, to feel something, than to be totally numb and shut off.
SC Are there songs on this last album that are really personal? More so than others?
JH Personal? Or autobiographical?
SC I like “Congratulations.” What’s that about?
JH I don’t know what that one’s about. It could be a song about lust and giving in to lust, or it could be a song about abstinence as godliness—not giving in. You could read it either way. They’re all pretty real. The one that’s not real is “OK. OK.” about a character having a fight with somebody.
SC Where does the inspiration to write songs come from?
JH All kinds of things. I steal a lot of phrases out of books and that will start me off on a song. Or things that people say will start me off writing. Movies and books are inspiration.
SC And how’s your relationship with your guitar?
JH I really do feel a lot more comfortable with my guitar, whereas I used to be afraid of being rough, or I thought that my guitar had control over me. But now I realize that I am actually the master and I can make it do things, and it will still love me.
SC So your musicianship has improved.
JH My attitude has improved.
SC What about as a songwriter?
JH I don’t think my songwriting has changed all that much. It needs to change on the next album because I still have these really pop habits: verses, choruses, melodies, and bridges. I want to get away from those conventions and be more experimental with the song forms and with the way I write. On the next album, I want to create songs with other people.
SC On a lot of Lemonhead’s albums, you sing with Evan Dando but he doesn’t seem to have appeared on your albums.
JH It’s a touchy thing really. I can be worked into his thing, but he has too strong of a thing to be worked into mine, or he doesn’t want to be, or something.
SC Have you ever asked him?
JH We don’t really talk about it, it’s understood.
SC You recently had a part in the television show,My So-Called Life. Are you considering a secondary career in acting?
JH No, but I did act in a video last week.
SC For which song?
JH “Universal Heartbeat;” I played two parts. A diva at a microphone, doing really out of character things with my arms and I played this sadistic, junky-looking aerobics instructor. It takes place at a health club, and the diva is on the monitors during the workout. I hope it works. It could be stupid, or it could be good. Again, I might have embarrassed myself badly, we’ll see. I like to do things that are hard, that I might totally screw up.
SC How involved are you with the conceptualization of your videos?
JH It changes from video to video. There have been some that were totally my concept, shot to shot. Those are my favorite ones. Then there are others where I had no ideas and just let the director take control. I find those boring. The new one is pretty much all my idea. The director is a friend of mine. I like working with him because he can make my ideas happen, but he also has really good ideas of his own.
SC What do you think about the whole music video phenomenon?
JH I’m conflicted, I love it and hate it. When I first did it, I felt like: This isn’t fair, I’m not an actor, why do I have to do this? They throw you in a situation that’s totally foreign. But I’d rather take the positive attitude and try to make it work, try to do something interesting with what you have rather than bitch about it. Because it’s a really cool opportunity. It’s another art form to experiment with.
SC Who are the people whose opinions really matter to you?
JH People I don’t necessarily know, but whose work I love or respect. People I look up to, whose work I appreciate.
SC How will you ever know what their opinions are?
JH If I meet them and they tell me their opinions, then I’ll know. But I don’t do it for anyone’s approval or seek anyone’s approval. Actually, it’s good when people just show up at shows. That’s important to me.
SC How do you prepare before a show? How do you get yourself psyched up?
JH I don’t do enough preparation. Usually I go on stage in a daze, and I don’t realize what’s going on. On this next tour, I’m going to try to be more aware of everything, take a couple minutes before we go on and meditate. All I’ve done in the past is try not to eat before I go on.
SC Is there interaction between you and the crowd?
JH I’m in my own little world, doing my thing, concentrating. I feel like I need to bond with the audience more, but it’s scary because when I make eye contact with someone, it always freaks me out. It’s too personal, I fuck up if I look at somebody. I have to get in control and use that energy rather than be intimidated by it.
SC Sitting here looking at you, I have to wonder where that song, “Ugly” came from.
JH Well, it’s not about physical ugliness, it’s about inner ugliness. If you don’t like yourself, then looking good isn’t going to help you. It doesn’t matter.
SC I guess that was written during one of your inferiority periods.
JH Yeah, that whole album was.
SC Your mother is the fashion editor of the Boston Globe. Was that difficult?
JH No, it was exciting as a kid. She would bring me along to fashion shows, which are a lot like rock shows, the spectacle: big bright lights, loud music, crowds, photographers, models with attitude and arrogance . . . it’s exciting.
SC I’ve been warned not to ask you about “women in rock.” Why is that?
JH I don’t want to be involved in that discussion because it’s so belittling. I’m insulted when I’m lumped in any category. I resent that I’m talked about in this group of women. Why can’t I be talked about in the group of all music, like all musicians in the history of music?
SC It’s been a typically male-dominated form of entertainment. At least in rock and roll.
JH I understand why people want to talk about it, I just don’t want to talk about it. It’s such a big thing, and people want me to have pat answers or philosophies, so I get roped into giving stupid answers and get myself into trouble.
SC There’s been a lot of talk lately about musicians being role models. And some musicians, like Kurt Cobain, never wanted that pressure. Do you ever feel that at all?
JH No, I’m pretty much a fringe character. Not enough people really know about me to put me in that position. No one really sets out to be a role model, do they?
SC I think it’s something that gets thrust upon you.
JH If people want to make a role model out of somebody, that’s their problem, it really has nothing to do with the person they’re looking up to. It’s all projection.
SC Tell me about a dream you had recently.
JH I have a recurring dream of being in a plane crash. But it’s always slightly different. I never die in the dream . . .
SC You can’t die in your dreams or you’d die in real life.
JH But some people do. I just met a guy who has a recurring dream where he’s wearing a white shirt and black pants and he gets into a red convertible and these riots start and he is killed. He’s had this dream all his life.
SC What do you think your plane crash dream means?
JH It’s a modern dream, a universal fear. It makes sense to be afraid of flying. I fly a lot, so I think about it a lot. It’s like the nuclear war dreams that our generation had.
SC They say that if you dream about flying, you’re actually dreaming about sex.
JH Really? But what about being in a plane that’s crashing? That’s not the same as a dream where you’re flying.
SC Maybe that’s about bad sex.
JH Every dream can be interpreted to be about sex.
SC At least in Freud’s mind. So . . . can men and women just be friends?
JH I don’t know, I think about that a lot. Wait, yes, I do think so, definitely, but not everybody. What do you think?
SC I think it’s definitely possible. I have some relationships with women where there’s no sexual tension. Anyway, are there songs on this album as there were on the last one that are risky or experimental?
JH For me, it’s relatively experimental. There are things I tried that I’d never done before like the song in French. And that beat, similar to a Manchester beat, a ’90s disco beat.
SC Where do the French lyrics come from?
JH They’re nonsensical, they mean something but it’s just a bunch of sentences, phrases, that are kind of silly.
SC I noticed “fin de siècle” being in there.
JH “Where do you live, at whose house? Maybe at the end of the century you’ll love me.” That’s that verse.
SC Are you thinking about the end of the century?
JH No, not really. Are you?
SC Typically, the end of a century is a decadent, crazy time. I feel like the world is on the cusp of some incredible changes.
JH I want to live through a revolution. People are really self-contained and apathetic about the way things are going. And meanwhile the world’s getting more and more violent, crazy, and lawless. It would be interesting if those people who felt solitary banded together and actually did something.
SC Where are you going to be on New Year’s Eve, 1999?
JH I don’t know. What about you?
SC I’m asking the questions here, (laughter) I would hate for someone to ask me that.
JH I’ll probably be home, watching TV by myself.
—Steven Cantor is a filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles. His documentary film, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, was nominated for an Academy Award last year.