Omnivore: Hatfield’s Quiet Farewell?

When indie-rock icon Juliana Hatfield puts out Peace & Love on 2/16, fans will find her usual well-crafted songs but a different approach—at 42, she isn't sure when, or if, she'll make another one.

Photograph by Jonathan Stark

Photograph by Jonathan Stark

On the title track, you sing, “I don’t want to be angry/It takes up too much energy.” The lyrics seem to contain wisdom based on reconciliation or resignation. Totally. I think it’s just a record of a person at a certain age, where you start to accept your limitations. That can be difficult and sad, but at the same time it opens up the world because you’re not fighting against yourself anymore. You become more grateful and humble because you realize you’re not going to be king of the world.

Many of your peers from the early ’90s, like Letters to Cleo and Buffalo Tom, have largely stopped releasing new music, and yet you keep doing new things.
People get married and have kids and families, and being a working musician gets harder to do—it’s a 24/7 job. I’ve been able to keep making music because I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and maybe that’s the difference. I do feel the flame is fading. This is the first record I’m not going to tour. Going on the road and aggressively promoting it takes too much out of me.

Do you see yourself ever giving up the music business entirely? Yeah. I’m thinking of [Peace & Love] as the last record I’m going to make for a while, if I even make another one. I wanted to do it for the people who still care, to give them something. And for myself.

MRB: I got the new album, Peace & Love, just a few weeks ago and have been totally digging it.

Hatfield: Thank you. It’s good to hear that because I haven’t heard from any real people about what they think of it. By “real people,” I mean people I don’t know. I have only given it to a few friends and the publicist. I have no idea how people are going to react to it.

MRB: It’s a bit of a different thing for you. Are you concerned about how people are going to react?

Hatfield: I’m not concerned at all. I mean I’m not concerned in that if people react negatively or that they’re confused or bewildered—that’s fine with me. I’ve stopped caring what people think of me. But, I’m curious. It is sort of a different thing for me; it’s 180 degrees from the last album I made, which was very glossy and very produced. So I’m just curious to see what people think.

MRB: What led you to doing the whole thing yourself?

Hatfield: Every album is a reaction to my last recording space. The last album, How to Walk Away, was done in a nicely equipped studio in New York City with a producer and engineers and musicians. …It took a long time and a lot of money, and I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t like to do the same thing every time. I just wanted to do something very different than the last record, which was you know, have no one involved and make it sort of dry sounding.

I’ve always had this fantasy of recording completely alone and I’ve never done an album like that. I’ve always been in studios or home studios with other people, with engineers. I’ve never done a record without an engineer before. I’ve always wanted to do something completely alone to see if it was a different experience, and it was. It was very freeing. I just felt really unencumbered by anyone else’s opinions or anyone sort of pointing me in any kind of direction. It wasn’t really planned, the end result. It just kind of came out of me, and that’s the dryness of it: The raw production is a result of me not really knowing what I was doing. Not using a lot of the technology that I could’ve used gave a new aspect on things. There is no reverb or anything on any of the tracks.

MRB: You mention it was really freeing. Was there any part that was intimidating? Was there a best moment—and then a moment where you had to throw everything down and walk away from it?

Hatfield: I had many of those moments. There are a lot of frustrations in the recording process, like with the song “Let’s Go Home.” I was initially working with this different arrangement, and I had a completely different rhythm. It wasn’t working, and I didn’t know why. Sometimes you get in these ruts where you are working on a song, you’re adding to it and it’s not working right, it’s not grooving and you don’t understand why, and you get more and more frustrated. So I had to throw it all away and start over, and I decided to start with a drum beat, and that completely changed the approach and I came up with this totally different rhythm and the song changed and it came to life. Just little things like that would happen.

But I was never afraid that I wasn’t capable of doing this myself. I have a strange confidence in myself when I don’t know what I am doing. I always believe that a person can learn so much by just jumping into something and trying to do it rather than having someone else teach you everything. You gotta learn by doing, and I already knew a lot. I mean, I have been making music for 20 years so I knew how to sing. I know how to write a song, I know how to play guitar, and I know what I like in terms of sound. It was just a question of getting it on tape—or on hard drive. [Pause] A really exciting thing for me was playing piano.

MRB: I noticed that, actually. I didn’t know you played piano.

Hatfield: Yeah, I played piano before I played guitar. I started playing piano when I was about five years old and I studied it for a long time. So I bought this eight-track machine and I brought it down to my mother’s house. She has a grand piano, and I got a piano tuner and everything. I’ve never miked a piano, so I really didn’t know how to go about it and I just experimented with my one microphone. It was a little bit frustrating because it took a while to get a good sound on the microphone, but I figured it out and that was pretty thrilling to record myself on a big piano. I loved that.

MRB: So aside from that—this record was mainly you, or was it all you?

Hatfield: All me.

MRB: Aside from maybe the piano, it was you in your apartment.

Hatfield: Yeah, in one little room. I call it the Back Room. My brother and his wife used to live in this apartment before they moved and he’s a songwriter also. He doesn’t do it for a living, but he used to write a lot of songs and record them in that room and he actually called it the Back Room, and that was the name of his studio. When he moved out, he left me the recording equipment and I just stayed and recorded in that room, the Back Room.

MRB: When it comes to your harmonies: Obviously you are overdubbing yourself, but how did you figure out all the harmonies, and did you just sometimes surprise yourself?

Hatfield: Well, harmonies come really naturally to me. I don’t have to labor too hard over them. I’ll sing a lead vocal, and then I will immediately have all of these other ideas for vocal harmonies. I think that some of the most fun parts of recording for me are the vocal harmonies. It’s so thrilling to me. It’s like building these wonderful, little, joyful creations. I don’t know, but something about adding vocals—there’s nothing better. I’ve wondered how I could do it as a job. Could I be the person that people call in to create the vocal harmonies? You know, I could do that. I think them up, and I can sing them, and it’s so fun for me.

MRB: I noticed that the lyrics throughout this record seem to have a real wisdom to them. They’re built on a combination of reconciliation on one side and resolution on the other side. I got it from one lyric in the first song, and maybe it influenced the rest of the way I looked at the record. You sing “I don’t want to be angry, it takes up too much energy,” and at the same time you are saying, “I want to believe in peace and love.” A lot of the record seems to have that same kind of feel to it. Am I on the right track?

Totally. The lyrics just come out of me—I just kind of let it happen. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what I am trying to say, and it’s hard to talk about because I am trying to understand, as I am listening to myself, what I was trying say. But, I definitely think that naming the album Peace & Love…. It’s complicated to explain because it’s not hippy-dippy, butterflies-and-puppies kind of record. Well, okay, actually there is a song called “Butterflies” and I have puppies in the artwork. But there’s a lot of darkness on the record and you definitely caught on to that sense of darkness.

It’s like I am reaching for peace and I’m not fully believing in love, but I want to and it’s like there’s kind of a world weariness and trying to accept limitations and trying to accept flaws in myself and in other people. But I’m also trying to be happy. I think it’s just a record of a person of a certain age, it’s like you’ve lived the life and you’ve gotten some wisdom, and you start to accept your own limitations, and that can be difficult and sad. But at the same time it opens up the world because you are not fighting against yourself anymore, you are not fighting against so many things. When you can accept limitations, you stop fighting them. I think that is what the record is about. I’m still grasping for happiness, but I am closer to it because I can recognize certain truths.

MRB: When you’re younger you think the whole world is there for you, but if you’re not getting it, then you think, “What the hell is wrong?”

Hatfield: Right. …And you realize at a certain stage, “Oh, maybe I’m not going to accomplish everything I thought I could.” At the same time, you start appreciating everything you have more. It’s a really interesting meeting of those two things, you become more grateful and more humble because you realize that you’re not going to be king of the world.

MRB: Looking back to the early ’90s, Letters to Cleo and Buffalo Tom and Belly all joined you in making a big Boston presence in the rock world. Nowadays, so many of the folks are still here, but they are not making new music. You stayed around too, and yet you keep making new music. How do you fit into this picture of your generation of musicians that came around at that time?

Hatfield: I don’t know how I fit. I don’t think I fit. I just feel I’ve always done my thing and I would have done it wherever I was. I don’t know, the scene—if it was a scene—is  dispersed now. I don’t know what’s happening anymore in the clubs. I never go out now or listen to music anymore. So I think I see myself not doing it as much. I feel like the flame is slowly fading, the passion for putting my music out there—the flame is getting weaker. I think that with a lot of those people you mentioned, the whole grind of it becomes really tiring after a while.

I’m not going to tour for this record—it’s the first record I am not going to tour. I just don’t have the energy. I realized after the last record that the whole going on the road and aggressively promoting an album, it takes too much out of me. Even just physically, it’s too much for me at this point. It just makes me really anxious and I’m not healthy, and I can’t handle it anymore. A lot of those people, they get married and have kids and families, and it’s harder and harder to do all the things that is required of them. A working musician is like a 24/7 job and people have to retreat a little bit if they want to spend time with their families. I think the reason I’ve been able to keep making music is because I’m not married, I don’t have kids. Maybe that’s the difference between me and a lot of those people. Music is a selfish thing. If there are other people you need to take care of, it’s going to take away from your music-making, because pursuing and creating music is a pretty selfish pursuit.

MRB: Are you planning on doing any promotion for this record?

Hatfield: I’m not planning on doing any shows, but that could change if something comes up that seems really worthwhile. I don’t know what would make me want to play a show.  I’m really sort of not feeling the urge to play these songs in front of people, and I’m trying to honor that feeling that I have to be true to it. But that could change.

MRB: When you say that the flame is slowly fading, do you ever see yourself giving up the music business entirely?

Yeah. The fact that I’m quitting touring—that’s a really big step for me, a big deal for me to say goodbye to such a big part of my life. I’ve been on the road every year for like 20 years, and it’s an adjustment to just stay home with myself and not escape on the road. It’s like I’m having to face myself in a way that I’ve never had before, and it’s scary, and at the same time it’s a necessary part of growing up, I think. And it would be different if I were hauling in a ton of money on the road; I think a lot of people stay on the road into and past middle age because they are making tons of money. I don’t make money on the road and so there’s less and less incentive for me to do it when I don’t have that adolescent desire for whatever it is, glory or fame. I don’t have that anymore.

I’ve done it for so long if people don’t know me by now than they’re not going to. You know what I mean? I’m thinking of this as the last record I’m going to make for a while—if I even make another one. I kind of wanted to do it to give the people who still care—to give them something. I almost didn’t even make this record. But I know there are a handful of people out there who are still following me, and they are aware of what I’m doing if I put out a new record. I wanted to do this for those people. And for myself, I wanted to record by myself. Something for me and for them.

If not music, then what do you see yourself doing?

There are some things—projects I’m working on. I don’t really want to talk about them, but I’m working on doing something that is non-musical, but it’s something I really care about. I’m also writing a second book, a second nonfiction book [after the 2008 memoir When I Grow Up]. That is what I’m focusing on right now. I’m trying to figure out what to do with my time, and there’s a lot of things that I’m thinking of. I haven’t settled into a new life or anything, but I’m writing the book and that’s a very nice transition for me. I’m still being creative.