by Kevin Finn
As a high school senior in 1993-1994, The Juliana Hatfield Three’s Become What You Are proved to be one of the handful of albums that had a profound impact on my musical tastes. It not only represented one of my initial excursions into non-mainstream rock, but it also opened me up to both the richness of the Boston music scene and the idea that women could rock out just as well as men. For a kid on the verge of entering college in the city, these were great gifts.
Therefore, I was obviously quite elated when the news broke last year that Hatfield was getting back together with bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Phillips for a series of shows playing Become What You Are in its entirety. I was even more excited to hear that they were working on a new record to be entitled Whatever, My Love. Released in February, the album did not disappoint, managing the difficult trick of staying true to what fans would expect, while avoiding coming off as nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
Juliana was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about these exciting developments.
Noise: Obviously, the big deal is that after twenty years apart, you’ve put out a new record with The Juliana Hatfield Three. What drove you to get the band back together?
Juliana: It was really just curiosity. I’m always trying to figure out what I can do differently from the last time. I make a lot of records very quietly. I was getting a little bored of myself. I had all the songs written, and we booked the studio time not having played together in over twenty years. We prayed, crossed our fingers and hoped that it would work, and it did. It worked really well.
Noise: I was at the Sinclair show in February, and I thought all three of you seemed to be having a great time up there. It seemed like a natural fit. Were you guys able to pick up where you left off, or was there a bit of an adjustment period?
Juliana: It was surprisingly easy to get back into the groove with them and surprisingly fun. It was like riding a bike. The chemistry was still there.
Noise: I’ve followed your whole career. I have all the smaller releases, and I’ve seen most of the local shows you’ve played. So it was really cool to hear songs like “Little Pieces” and “Feelin’ Massachusetts” that I hadn’t heard live in quite some time. As you were going through the material fromBecome What You Are was there anything that surprised you, or perhaps something that you liked more than you remembered?
Juliana: You mentioned “Little Pieces.” There was something about the ending that we just couldn’t make work right, so after a few shows, we just chopped it off. I couldn’t remember how I played the chord voicings. I think that’s part of why it wasn’t sounding right. That was the only song that we had to change. All the other ones felt great, but “Little Pieces” is tricky. Even back in the day, I don’t think we played it very often.
Noise: It was nice to hear these songs and go down memory lane a little bit.
Juliana: It was fun for me, too, to go back and play the songs I thought I’d never play again.
Noise: From having seen you so many times over the years, I feel like your concerts tend to stay very much in the present.
Juliana: Yeah, but doing the old record made me rethink that whole thing. I think if I ever go on tour again with a different band, I might play “Feelin’ Massachusetts” or “President Garfield” or something.
Noise: You’re playing with Dean and Todd for the first time in a while. What do they bring to the table that perhaps wasn’t in other bands you’ve played in?
Juliana: It’s their personalities, first of all. They’re really funny, which isn’t to say other people I’ve played with aren’t funny. But there’s a particular way we interact that’s fun and humorous. I forgot how easy it is to be around them. We get along really well.
Noise: I was away for the Somerville show, but I was intrigued that you had Northampton’s Potty Mouth on the bill because I love that band. How did you get connected with them?
Juliana: We were getting ready to play the Bowery Ballroom in March, and my booking agent said to check them out because we were looking for a band to open for us there. I thought they were cool, so we put them on the show. Then after that I asked if they could get on the shows in April because it was such a good fit. They were so good, and it was fun to hang out with them.
Noise: When you were writing the songs for Whatever, My Love, was there a challenge to honor what people perceive to be The Juliana Hatfield Three sound while avoiding sounding like a rehash?
Juliana: I just felt like whatever we played with that lineup would sound like that lineup. Also, I chose a few songs that I had written back in the ’90s that I never put on an album. I thought it would make sense to record the songs I wrote back then with the band from back then. I think a good song is timeless, and it really shouldn’t matter how old it is. If a song sounds dated, then it probably wasn’t a great song to begin with.
Noise: A couple of the songs were on the Minor Alps record, Get There, you did with Matthew Caws from Nada Surf. What made you bring those back?
Juliana: With “I Don’t Know What to Do with My Hands,” I just wanted to try a different approach because I wasn’t totally satisfied with the Minor Alps version. I felt something wasn’t quite right about it. It’s great, but I felt like it needed another try in the studio. I do that sometimes. I’ll re-record a song because I feel like it can go in a slightly different direction. I think it’s totally okay to do that. There are a lot of classic songbook songs, and they’re just recorded over and over again by different people. If there’s a good song, then it ought to be recorded a bunch of different times.
Noise: A couple of my favorites on the new record are “Invisible” and “I’m Shy.” I know there can be a danger in assuming a song’s narrator and writer is the same person, but is there a challenge in putting songs with such personal emotion out there?
Juliana: No, that’s easy. The hard part for me is to display emotion in real life. It’s easy to put it in a song. You’re safer expressing things in song because you’re not actually one-on-one. You’re not truly vulnerable when you’re singing a song. There’s that remove; there’s distance from yourself to the other person who’s receiving that information.
Noise: Do you feel that way when you play in from of a crowd, too?
Juliana: I feel totally protected. By the time I’ve written and recorded a song, I’ve let go of the feeling, so when I’m playing it live, I’m really not thinking about what the song is saying. It’s more like a sport. Playing a show is physical. It’s like math and sports together. I’m trying to play and sing at the same time and remember the parts, using my body to play and sing. I’m not too emotional when I’m playing. I mean, I’m feeling something, but it’s more vague. I’m not really focusing on the lyrical content at that point.
Noise: It would probably take a lot out of you if you felt that strongly every time you played.
Juliana: You see some people like Patti LaBelle cry when they’re singing. They can get really emotional on stage, singing through tears. I’m in awe of people who can be crying during a song and are still able to sing it. I can’t do it. Crying makes me unable to breathe right or something. I don’t want to get too emotionally involved on stage because it will mess up my performance.
Noise: The last several things you’ve released have been through Pledge Music. What are some of the advantages you see of using a fan-supported model?
Juliana: You’re promoting the album as you’re making it. By the time the album’s done, you don’t have to worry so much about promoting it. People have been made aware of it already.
Noise: I know as a fan I like getting the updates as things are progressing, and some of the extras you include like the press kits and tour diaries are pretty neat. Have you held on to a lot of those things?
Juliana: Yeah, although my supply is running low because I’ve sold a lot of them on Pledge Music. A year ago I had to move out of one apartment into another that’s smaller, and I realized I had way too much stuff. It’s been good to get rid of a lot of stuff. I don’t need piles and piles of contact sheets and press kits. I’ll keep one of everything, but that’s it.
Noise: I feel like in general over the last several years, you’ve been pretty active about making a connection to your listeners. You’ve had blogs about song meanings, really small concerts at Q Division, and a good friend of mine won an acoustic guitar from you in a poetry concert. Is it important to you to feel that your listeners are making that more personal connection with you?
Juliana: I think it’s a way for me to keep people engaged. People expect stuff like that these days. They demand a more personal connection with the artist. You can’t just do the fan club membership anymore. It’s part of the more modern way. It’s sort of giving people what they want.
Noise: What do you have on tap for the next project?
Juliana: I think we’re going to take the band to Europe in October, and then I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ll probably start writing soon.
Noise: Thanks, Juliana. Can’t wait to her what you come up with next!