Photo: David Doobinin
Juliana Hatfield On Independent Thinking, Living In A Nuance-Free World & Her Unflinching New Album 'Blood'
Being a singer/songwriter doesn't just entail coming up with catchy melodies and lyrics. For Juliana Hatfield, who's written songs virtually nonstop for decades, freedom of thought is as crucial to her craft as anything.
Want a digest of Hatfield's thoughts on the matter? Consult her new song, "Mouthful of Blood," from her new album, Blood, which came out May 14. "If I say what I want to say/It might just get me killed," she warns. "There's no freedom in expression." (The song title alludes to what can happen after biting one's tongue.)
"I'm not necessarily on the side everyone thinks I am," Hatfield tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I'm not registered as a Democrat. I'm not registered as a Republican. I'm registered as an independent. I want the freedom to think independently, but it seems that more and more people are being punished for thinking independently."
Blood is heavy artillery against moral absolutes and a sword against scolds; its wealth of melodic information acts as a Trojan Horse for expressions unvetted by the cancel-culture brigade. Hatfield finds it tough to express the meaning behind "Mouthful of Blood" in particular. "Even when I try to talk about the song and what it's about, I stumble because I can't even talk about it," she says. "It feels dangerous."
But she does articulate her thoughts on the subject of censorship—along with so many other topics, internal and external. GRAMMY.com gave Juliana Hatfield a ring about freedom of expression, mining romantic dysfunction for lyrical gold and the inspiration behind every song on Blood.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your record gets me excited about guitars again. For me, that excitement comes from how the vocal melodies interlock with the chord changes. Who are your favorite melody writers?
Well, the guy who wrote a lot of Olivia Newton-John's material, John Farrar. He's one—also, Jeff Lynne. I feel like the '70s were a great period for melody-writing. I don't know; I'm just going to keep saying things from the 1970s, because when I was a child then, that's the stuff that got locked into my brain. Also, people like Carole King and James Taylor. Carole King's a master at that kind of thing.
You can list as many people from the '70s as you like!
You know, just all the stuff that was on the radio then. I would listen to the radio and there were all these melodies, and I'd sing along without even paying attention to the lyrical content. The lyrics were just a melody delivery system and all I cared about were the melodies.
So many great melodies! Carly Simon's theme from The Spy Who Loved Me. "Nobody Does It Better." That's a great melody. Also, the theme from Mahogany—Diana Ross. That's a great melody. [quietly sings hook to herself] The melodies just go all over—up and down and all around. Great stuff.
Do you think of melodies in theoretical terms, or is it just your ear?
It's just my ear. I think of music theory in the same way I think of math, and I always hated math. Having to actively use my brain—I don't enjoy that. That's partly why I never listened to lyrics for a long time until I was well into my adulthood. I never paid attention. Because when I have to think about what I'm hearing, it disrupts the listening experience.
But I figured out how to pay attention to what the lyrics are saying because it does matter. I mean, obviously. And I think as I've learned how to be a better listener, I think my lyric-writing has gotten better.
How did "The Shame of Love" come about?
I was figuring out how to use GarageBand and how to record into my laptop as I was making this record. Making this record was my learn-by-doing experience. And I was encountering problems along the way because I hate engineering and I hate computers and I don't like digital technology.
This friend of mine in Connecticut named Jed Davis was walking me through whenever I would encounter a problem with GarageBand. He was helping me get past all the little bumps in the road. I told him I had all kinds of little snippets of chord progressions and riffs that I didn't know what to do with, and he said, "Send me whatever you have and I'll play around with it." So, he ended up putting some stuff together and that helped me finish it.
"The Shame of Love" started when I sent him a short video of me playing acoustic guitar into my Photobooth camera on my laptop. It was [those] chords [that ended up] at the beginning of "The Shame of Love." He took that very recording and used it as the intro, and then he treated it a little bit in the rest of the verses. He programmed the drums. Another little chord progression riff I had sent him, he built and structured into a chorus.
Then, I was able to write lyrics and melodies over it and add some more guitars and things.
How about "Gorgon"?
"Gorgon," that was more a lot of me doing that one at home. Adding drums at the studio later when the studio opened back up.
It's a continuation of my thoughts on intimate relationships. I'm not really a believer in that sort of existence. The norm, you know, of being partners with someone intimately over a long period of time. That's always been something that doesn't come naturally to me. It doesn't make sense.
I'm talking about that sort of thing. How what the other person expects and wants are things that I don't feel have anything to do with who I really am. The song twists the idea of a Gorgon, like Medusa, and makes the snakes into the other person's fingers.
It's like being touched when you don't want to be touched. When you're in a relationship, the other person assumes some freedom to reach out and touch you whenever he feels like it, but when you don't always necessarily want to be touched. The unwanted fingers in my hair are like snakes in my hair.
But also, [the song is about] feeling like I'm the person who turns my partners into stone because I'm not what they want me to be. I'm not the nurturing, attentive person that I'm always expected to be.
What can you tell me about "Nightmary"?
That was just about looking around me and being so disappointed with the way people [behave]—the lies and corruption and greed. It's totally exposed. It's all out there in the open. No one's even pretending. The liars aren't pretending they aren't lying. The greedy people aren't pretending they aren't caring only about money. The racists are being racist out in the open.
And how about "Had a Dream"?
It's another song about wanting the bad guys to be punished. I don't name names. It's nonspecific so I can think of whoever I want when I sing that song. Whoever I'm most angry at, I can envision that person as the one being punished in the song.
It's violent imagery, but it's so violent that it's kind of cartoonish. It's pretty over-the-top. [The line] “It was a very American dream” is a reflection of the violence in our culture and our country. That's what the song is about, also: The fact that there are more guns than people in this country.
How about "Splinter"? What can you tell me about that song?
That one's pretty resigned to things being discontented and exploring my own feelings of disappointment in myself. Feeling a little bit trapped, like there's no way out of this existence.
It sounds like you've been taking a lot of mental inventory these days.
Yeah, I have been. I mean, I've always been writing about what I'm thinking and feeling, but I think I'm taking a wider perspective. I'm coming to terms with things, which is probably good.
I have such conflicting things about almost everything. That in itself is an eternal subject for me: Conflict. That's what drives … well, every f**king movie is conflict. It's always going on inside of my head. Most of the time. Unresolvable conflicts.
Considering both sides of the equation seems to be out of vogue these days. We're all expected to take sides in some sort of moral binary.
Yeah, that's what "Mouthful of Blood" is about. How there's no room for any nuance. Also, no one can step out of line at all these days. Everybody has to choose a side and there are all these rules about what you can say or can't say if you're on either side. Even when I try to talk about the song and what it's about, I stumble because I can't even talk about it. It feels dangerous.
You're expected to have a certain set of beliefs depending on what side you're on. But I'm not necessarily on the side everyone thinks I am. I'm not registered as a Democrat. I'm not registered as a Republican. I'm registered as an independent. I want the freedom to think independently, but it seems that more and more people are being punished for thinking independently.
It must be so hard for people starting college today. It must be such a minefield out there in terms of trying to navigate all that stuff. Even some of the stuff we had to listen to when I was in Blake Babies in the early days, driving around in the van on tour.
You know that [Frogs] album, [1989's] It's Only Right and Natural?
Juliana Hatfield. Photo: David Doobinin
I don't, actually.
It's about gay supremacy. Kind of like joke-folk, but all of us were all so into it. We'd sing along and laugh our asses off. It was this secret cult thing that certain musicians knew about and were mad about. But I feel like nowadays, we couldn't even sing those lyrics out loud. It couldn't come out today. It came out in the '80s on Homestead Records.
Now, it feels so weird even mentioning it. I'll probably get in trouble for even mentioning it. It's a unique piece of work. You should check it out. I don't even know how it would sound, or how it would come across today. The album is kind of a masterpiece. It's like nothing you've ever heard.
Can you talk about "Suck it Up"?
"Suck it Up" is more specific to the idea of a creative person—an artist—going to a bank and trying to get a mortgage. This whole society is based on certain things: marriage, cohabitation, capitalism, consumerism, and also including homeownership. People are bred to believe that owning a home is something everyone should aspire to.
But it's not for everyone; that's one thing. If you're the type of person who doesn't have a weekly paycheck, no matter how much money you have, it's going to be difficult for the system to approve you for a big loan like that, because you don't have a steady weekly paycheck. That's exactly what the song is about.
It's kind of like "Mouthful of Blood" in the way that the system doesn't allow for nuance in speech or thought. Also, the financial system doesn't allow for nuance in ways of living. You can't just call and have a conversation. They punch your data into the computer, the algorithm feeds it back in numbers and you either cut the mustard or you don't.
Then, we have "Chunks."
It kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?
One thing I realized after I wrote it was that you could see it as a song from a feminine perspective. What it's doing is commenting on the way that men in this culture and other cultures—society in general—want and need and expect women to be friendly and pleasant and polite and quiet and demure. To obey. To follow the rules.
When a woman gets out of line and messes up her hair—screams, expresses anger, even intelligently—there's so much hostility. People try to destroy wild, angry women. That song is kind of describing that—what people want to do to women who step out of line. Any woman who is alive will tell you she's been told to smile. "Why don't you smile? You'd be a lot prettier if you smiled."
And how about "Dead Weight"?
I feel like I'm here, I exist to make music. I feel like I'm not good at anything else. The song "Dead Weight" is about how bad I am at relationships. I can never understand how anyone claiming to love me could love me. That's a completely serious feeling. I mean it. I would question it anytime anyone would claim to love me. I couldn't believe it! And that's what the song is about.
Some people might say it's self-hating, but I think it's really just being honest about who I am. As an artist, the personality traits that make me able to persist with making music are the traits that keep me isolated and alone.
Finally, how does "Torture" fit into the puzzle?
"Torture" is really specific to my hatred of computer life and modern technology in general.
[While] sending files to Jed Davis or the studio via Dropbox or whatever, on the screen, it would say "Upload will be done in eight minutes." And then 20 minutes later, it would say, "Upload: Two minutes left." Then, two minutes later: "Upload: Three minutes left."
It's lying to me. The time they're projecting on the screen is a total Kafkaesque gaslighting situation. Total lies being said to you. That's what the song is about: "What the f**k is going on?" It's maddening to me. It's just feeding you lies as truth.
What I'm trying to do with my life is to always get at the truth and sometimes it's not easy.