Juliana Hatfield, the once-shy, self-loathing queen of indie rock, is going through a metamorphosis. Over the last several years, this rail-thin, pale-faced guitar girl has made a name for herself by singing about such “woe-is-me” topics as anorexia and failed relationships. But with her latest release, Bed (Zoë), it’s clear that Hatfield is clearing out the old baggage that’s grown too tattered to carry around any longer.
“In the past, all of my songs were about how I hated myself, or how I screwed everything up,” says Hatfield. “This album is a new concept for me because I wrote songs directed toward real villains.”
She’s not kidding. The opening track “Down On Me” kicks-off the record with an incautious kiss-off: “You’re so down on me/I think it is a fad/So I don’t feel so bad anymore.” And that’s just the beginning. “Swan Song” plays around with one of John Mellencamp’s most famous tunes by staging a just-dumped suicidal Diane against the asshole Jack, and “Live It Up” warns Top 40 slaves like the Backstreet Boys: “We fantasize of your demise/We lie in wait/We salivate, visualizing your head on a plate.”
According to Hatfield, a lot of the lyrics are personal, and directed toward specific people.
“Sneaking Around” is about someone, but then “Down On Me” is about a handful of people. It’s about all these people I felt liked to me and betrayed me.”
Although Hatfield may seem stronger on the inside, it’s hard to tell by looking at her. Her small frame slouches uncomfortably in her chair, and her hands fidget as she talks. During the photo shoot, she does her best to cooperate, even though it’s clear she’s still a bit uneasy about having her picture taken. But she draws the line when the photographer asks her to do some boxing punches for the shot.
“I can’t do that!” she says, laughing nervously. “I don’t want to do any of that goofy stuff.”
This struggle to find the balance between the old Juliana Hatfield and the new is obvious in many of her answers. She contradicts herself frequently. One gets the feeling that she hasn’t quite figured out where she stands, even on her own views. Yet she is earnest with every response, and makes a great effort to be understood even though she may not be totally clear about what she is saying.
“Writing and recording this record helped me a lot. It helped me get rid of a lot of bad feelings. It pretty much healed me,” says Hatfield. After a second, she scrunches her nose and looks as though she may not be satisfied with her statement. “But every once in awhile, things will bubble up to the surface and I still get really frustrated,” she continues, looking a bit irritated that she has once again allowed the left side of her brain to get its two cents in.
It’s not surprising that Hatfield is struggling with identity these days. It hasn’t been long since her messy split with Atlantic Records, the label she called home for the past few years. Tired of waiting for the label to release her fourth album (titled God’s Foot), Hatfield asked to leave. Although her wish was granted, Atlantic kept her album and has yet to release it. Jaded and angry, she swore off record contracts temporarily and searched for something that would give her creative license and freedom. With no luck finding the perfect situation, she created it by making Bed herself.
“I spent a few months writing it, then recorded and mixed it in one week. I didn’t have any money this time, so that was the main reason why I did it so fast,” says Hatfield. “But it was a challenge, and it was really fun. This record has a really cool energy because I didn’t have time to overthink anything. We only did three takes of each song, so it’s got that feeling of being by the seat of our pants.”
The approach worked in her favor. The album exhibits a back-to-basics, rustic indie sound with characteristics of a well-done demo. With so many gloss-coated alternative bands on the scene, Bed is a welcome relief. Still, it probably won’t sell millions and you won’t be seeing Hatfield’s pretty face plastered all over MTV. And that’s fine with her.
“I think the current music scene is horrifying and terrible. I can’t imagine that this can go on. It just seems like, in the future, there’s only going to be five bands and one company that controls everything,” Hatfield laments. “I think it’s horrible, especially for young bands, and I feel bad that they have to have a huge hit right away or their career is over. It’s like, what can they possibly do?”
Not that it would kill Hatfield to sell a couple million copies of one album, but she maintains that money or fame has never been—nor will ever be—the reason for her musical existence. She says she feels lucky enough to be in a position where she can tour and play her music.
“I’m better off than a lot of people. Like my friend in the Mysteries of Life; they can’t even [afford] to tour. It’s a pretty bad time for music. But then again, there is great music out there. It makes me happy to see bands that never get any radio or TV play pull in great crowds. Like in Boston, Meredith Brooks played there and she drew like 30 people and [her music] is like spoon-fed, like people are supposed to eat it up. But Yo La Tengo will fill a club, so it’s pretty cool to see that happen. It’s heartening that people in certain cities still appreciate good music and that they’ll seek it out rather than waiting for it to be broadcast to them.”
But even with her new-found freedom, Hatfield, staying true to her contradictory nature, hopes to find the perfect record deal. Because Bed is a one-off with Zoë Records, Hatfield will once again find herself shopping around when she decides to record a new album. Still, the experiences that led her to this point have made an impact on her music and her life. Some small changes are already obvious: the one-time seemingly hopeless girl is now a hopeful woman, and though unsure of where she is going, it’s clear Hatfield has found the path.
“I can’t depend on anything except for the music, which is OK,” she admits, with a nervous smile. “I just have to keep my fingers crossed and hope something good will happen.”