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Juliana Hatfield: The Pencilstorm Interview - by Jeremy Porter

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Juliana Hatfield has been on a roll. Her last three records have arguably been some of the best work of her 33-year music career. Pussycat (2017), was an unplanned rally-cry against the Trump regime, sometimes more subtle than others, but never without her signature pop overtones and cutting lyrics. Weird (2019), her most current release, leaves the political sentiments behind in favor of a modern indie-pop-rock sound.  And the …Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018) covers collection, a nod to her musical hero, was nothing short of a masterpiece.  And then there’s the back catalog. Her first band Blake Babies were a bit less refined and polished, but brought a real charm to the table with that innocence, and her early solo records – including her commercial high-water mark The Juliana Hatfield Three – Become What You Are (with her biggest hit single “My Sister”) were staples of early 90’s alternative rock and MTV’s 120 Minutes.  

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The 20 years between this recent renaissance and her early alt-rock success were a little quieter for Juliana, in the world spotlight at least.  She delved into some side projects – Some Girls, Minor Alps (with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf), and The I Don’t Cares (with Paul Westerberg). There were Blake Babies and JH3 reunion albums and short tours, and a string of solo records and EPs that often cast-aside the ear-worm poppiness for a darker, more sparse and spacious sound. Her touring schedule slowed down considerably, and while she never disappeared from the public eye, sightings were certainly less frequent. In 2009 she published her auto-biography When I Grow Up: A Memoir, a revealing and compelling look into her career, anxieties, and personal life. 

On Friday night, Juliana will return to the Detroit area for the first time in 18 years, by my calculations, for a show at The Magic Bag in Ferndale (Get your tickets HERE!). It’s a short, 10-city US tour on the heels of a UK tour in May, and we can’t wait!

We were lucky to catch up with Juliana recently to chat about her recent resurgence, her history in the Motor City, and if we might ever get that follow-up to the I Don’t Cares’ record. 

Jeremy Porter: You seem to be on a great roll with the last couple records – Pussycat, Sings Olivia Newton John, and this year’s Weird.  You’ve been consistently active and busy, but this recent string of releases seems exceptionally inspired, and now you’re playing out more than you have in quite a while. What brought on that change and do it see it carrying forward? 

Juliana Hatfield: I just feel time moving faster than ever before. I feel an urgency to keep producing work and not stopping because the world is hurtling toward destruction, or something, and it will all be over soon so I may as well push really hard until we all hit the wall as a species. Plus, I have gotten to the point at which I have streamlined my life to accommodate work and not much else.

JP: Pussycat was a personal response to the political climate after the 2016 election. Looking at it a couple years later, where do think we’re at now?  Are we still in the same boat or can you see any rays of light on the horizon?

JH: I don't even like to think about it. I don't think things look very good.

JP: JHSONJ was my favorite record of 2018 and the reaction seemed universally positive. We’re you surprised at the reaction to that record?  Did anything unexpectedly special, personally or musically, come out of that experience? 

JH: I was surprised at the love it got, yes. I was afraid that people were going to think I committed sacrilege on her catalog or that I tainted her legacy, because Olivia is so loved and such an icon. But I am really happy that people responded positively to what I did. They understood that I just wanted to show how much love I feel for her and her music, and to share that love. It was wonderful and unexpected to hear from Olivia, personally. A couple of times she tweeted to and about me and the album. That was pretty great, to get her public seal of approval.

JP: Weird feels like a natural transition from Pussycat and JHSONJ – not so much lyrically but musically.  The guitar tones,  arrangements and riffs have a nice growth but a consistent feel that sort of takes your natural pop vocals and vocal melodies and puts them above a musical bed that weaves somewhere between 70s classic rock and indie-pop-rock. Do you approach the writing process with a direction in mind? Or do you just sit down and whatever happens, happens?  Can you expand on that a bit and how it might relate to the feel of this trilogy of records as compared to some of your previous releases?

 JH: I never have a direction plan when I sit down to write. I have an open mind. But I do have habits and things that I tend to do over and over again. I can't change my instincts. I have a certain aesthetic preferences, and I have a certain natural, personal style that I have settled into and I produce all my own stuff which is why my stuff lately tends to have a sound and a feel. It's raw and unpolished but also really melodic. I am also in love with the mellotron flutes sound on my Microkorg keyboard that I acquired about five years ago so that sound ends up on everything I do these days. No matter how gnarly the guitars get, I always like to mix in some keyboard flutes. It sounds good with everything.

JP: The recent reissues of Hey Babe and Only Everything were really well done, as was the Blake Babies Innocence and Experience, from the remastering to the packaging.  How closely were you involved in those projects?  Any plans to follow up with the `93 JH3 album or The Blake Babies’ Sunburn record (hint hint)? 

JH: I had nothing to do with the Only Everything re-release. The company doing it did not inform me that they were doing it, nor did they send me a copy. I don't own those masters ("OE") so that's how that was able to happen without my involvement. American Laundromat Records handled the other stuff, and they are great and I am personally in touch with them about all the other re-releases. I hope to do more re-issues with them. I want to do "Bed" on vinyl but I can't find the master tapes. I'll keep looking.

JP: The I Don’t Cares record really seemed to come out of nowhere to a lot of people, a wonderful surprise. Was that just a one-off or is there a possibility for further collaboration with Paul Westerberg?  We heard from him a bit around that release, but not so much from you – care to talk about that project a little?  

JH: It was a one-off but it could conceivably happen again in the future. It is up to Paul. I didn't talk much about the project in deference to Paul. It was mostly his songs and I thought I should step back and not be the mouthpiece.

JP: When you played in Detroit quite a few years back, at the Magic Stick, if I recall correctly, you mentioned during your set that your father was from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I am from Marquette, in the UP, so I have always wanted to follow up about this! Can you talk about that a little?  Where in the UP?  Have you spent time up there?  .  

JH: My dad was raised in Indiana but later in life ended up living in Houghton, Michigan. He got a job at a hospital up there.  That's where he died, in Houghton. My mother was raised in Detroit. I used to visit my grandparents in Birmingham when I was a kid.

JP: The Magic Bag Theater is a really nice room in Ferndale, Mi.  Great sound and an intimate vibe. What can we expect when you come to Detroit (Ferndale) in June?  Who is in the band, and will the setlist be pulled from your entire catalog?

JH: I am not sure yet who all will be in the band. But I know we'll be playing songs from all over my vast catalog.

JP: Any special stories, recollections, or feelings about playing or visiting Detroit or Michigan over the years?

JH: I've had some good show experiences there. Lots of fun times. Playing with Jeff Buckley was fun.

JP: What's next for you after the tour?  I think I saw some recent photos from a recording studio? 

JH: I am in the studio now trying to finish up a new album before I go to Europe at the end of May.

JP: Thanks Juliana – we’ll see you in Ferndale! 

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Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos - www.thetucos.com

Follow them on Facebook to read his road blog about their adventures on the dive-bar circuit -
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