Twenty-two years separate the two albums by The Juliana Hatfield Three. That’s quite a stone’s throw, but Hatfield has hardly been twiddling her thumbs. The 47-year-old singer-songwriter has remained a consistent voice in alternative rock thanks to myriad solo titles and a handful of side projects that involve Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws (Minor Alps), former Blake Babies partner Freda Love (Some Girls), and her own label Ye Olde. Undeterred (and quite possibly comforted) by the lack of Evan Dando-esque popularity, Hatfield’s style and sound, with or without the Three, has changed very little over her career.
Now, Hatfield has reconvened the Three for Whatever, My Love, an intriguing follow-up to their 1993 debut, Become What You Are. The album’s 12 tracks sound and feel as if they were created in the chronological vicinity of the band’s first recordings, with lead single “If I Could” making the perfect bridge between the two albums. In anticipation of the reunion festivities, which include a national tour, Hatfield spoke with Consequence to Sound to discuss her unwavering sound, the gap between the two albums, and coming to terms with her own limitations.
I first heard you on the Blake Babies EP Rosy Jack World. I played “Downtime” and “Temptation Eyes” all the time. This new album takes me back, though not as far as Rosy Jack World. I think the best thing I can say is that it sounds like you.
Well, I don’t know what else it would sound like because I am me, and I’ve kind of always been the same. I’ve never done any radical reinventions of my sound or anything, so … I think it’s me, and I’m back with the guys I played with 20 years ago [bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Philips]. We haven’t really changed that much. I think we still have that sound that we had back then.
What was behind reuniting the Three now?
It wasn’t a big plan. I was thinking of making another album, a solo album, and I asked Todd if he wanted to play drums on it just ’cause I wanted to try something different, and he said, “Yeah, and why don’t you get Dean to play bass?” And then I thought, oh wow, that’s not a bad idea. That’s really how it happened. We were all available to do it. We had this window of opportunity in which we could record, and I just scheduled it and made it happen.
Did you have material already planned, or did you guys start from scratch?
No, I had everything, mostly everything written already. I generally don’t really write in the studio. I like to come in with the songs already written.
How was your approach to reuniting the JH3 different than when you, John [Strohm], and Freda [Love] revisited Blake Babies?
I guess maybe it’s similar, but with the Blake Babies it’s more of a democracy, where all three of us are equal members of the band. But with The Juliana Hatfield Three, I would say that I am more the leader of the band; it’s got my name on it. While the guys come up with a lot of their own ideas — I’m not writing out their parts and dictating everything they play — it’s more like I’m definitely able to guide it and make decisions.
You all are planning on playing Become What You Are in full. Is that a limited run or in addition to supporting Whatever, My Love?
The month-long tour in February-March will be Become What You Are in its entirety. In addition to that, we’re going to do some new songs.
Are you concerned that some may tack it on to what appears to be a ’90s alternative renaissance, or at least a resurgence?
No, I’m not concerned. I mean, if they do, I can’t control it.
You’ve had that attitude a lot. Looking back at articles from the past, you definitely had the attitude that if the media was going to run with something, you can’t control it. You seemed very cool and collected regarding that.
I just don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. I mean, I can’t control everything that happens around me. I can’t control the world.
Well, how do you avoid it affecting you?
Ignore it. Unless it’s something slanderous or harmful. If it’s a legal matter, I’ll definitely pursue it, but…
But if it’s something to just draw magazine sales…
Yeah. I don’t like to read comments or things like that to protect my own mental health. I just try to stay away from all that stuff.
It’s probably the healthiest thing you could do.
Dean Fisher worked with you on Only Everything, the follow-up album to Become What You Are, and you worked with Todd Philips a lot throughout the latter part of the ’90s and early ’00s. Why abandon the concept of The Juliana Hatfield Three after just one album?
I think I just wanted even more autonomy. I guess I was feeling somewhat constrained by the band … by the limitations of that band, a band, and I just wanted to go and I wanted to experiment. I wanted to play with some different drummers, and I wanted to play some bass of my own. I really just wanted to experiment. Plus, I wasn’t really getting along with Todd at some point. He was having some drug problems that were affecting his ability to do his job. Stuff like that.
Throughout your career, you’ve been involved in quite a few three-pieces — Blake Babies, Fruit Child Large, Lemonheads, Some Girls, Juliana’s Pony, and, of course, JH3. Is there something in particular that you like about the g-b-d combo?
Yeah, I do like it. It’s kind of classic and simple and hard to really fuck it up. It’s like there’s a comfort and simplicity in that sort of lineup, although lately I’ve been playing a lot more keyboards on the recordings. I’ve been getting back to playing keyboards. I just think it’s more fun to play a guitar live, because you can swing it around and bash on it and move. But with a keyboard you’re more rooted to one place. Also, I like how the guitar strings can bend, but the keyboard is more stationary and static, and you can’t … in a live setting, it’s kind of restraining.
You can get a keytar like Devo.
But still, the keys … when you hit the keys, they don’t bend, and you can’t make it do as much.
You’ve spoken about autonomy and having control of your projects. You’ve had two true solo efforts, Peace & Love and Wild Animals. How did those two projects differ from when you were working with other people, and how did they differ from each other? What did you learn for the second solo album from doing the first one?
Those two albums are different in that I made them completely at home in my back room on my 8-track recording machine, not at an outside studio. I was learning how to record without an engineer when I was making those records. With Peace & Love, it was learning how to do it completely alone with no help from anyone. With Wild Animals, though, that was more like … most of them were demos. I was making demos of songs, and I liked the demos so much I made an album out of them.
In recent years, you’ve started your own label, Ye Olde, and have released a lot of your material through it as well as using crowd sourcing to help fund projects. How has owning your own label made it easier for you, if it has? And how has the internet and effectively not needing physical media to sell albums helped you get your music out?
Having my own label just gives me more freedom, autonomy, and self-sufficiency. I don’t have to go through the machine, the promotional machine. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do. I can just slap the label on anything and put it out into the world and make it for sale. Done. I’m not going to let anyone down. No one has any expectations. I can just do whatever I want and not promote it if I want to.
I know that some people still like buying CDs. I have not stopped making CDs. But yeah, it’s easier. You can communicate, like with the crowd funding. You can communicate with people without the middle man. You don’t have to hire a publicist; you don’t need a record company. To promote the album, you can just let people know it’s happening, and then you can get it to them directly. I think the internet is good because it gives more — I keep coming back to the word autonomy — but it gives the artist more autonomy and self-sufficiency, and you’re not as beholden to all the other people that used to do all the jobs for you that you can now do yourself.
You say that you’ll keep releasing CDs. Are you partaking in the vinyl resurgence?
Yeah, I did on the past couple of albums. I did do vinyl.
One of your earliest solo singles, “Everybody Loves Me But You”, is still one of my top tracks of the era, but I read that you grew to hate Hey Babe [parent album and solo debut]. Why?
I didn’t grow to hate it. I hated it immediately. As soon as I finished making it, I hated it, and I was mortified, and I didn’t want it to be released. I was totally a little sick in the head. I couldn’t distinguish reality from what was not real. I had a very distorted view of things. I had this idea of myself as a rock and roller, and I thought I was going to continue this rock and roll tradition, but somehow it didn’t come out that way, and I didn’t understand. I didn’t like the sound of my voice. I thought it was too girly and young sounding. It just didn’t sound like what inspired it, ya know?
I’m sure you’ve come to terms with your voice over the years.
Yeah. I understand what it is, and I understand its limitations and strengths, and I have a much better perspective now, I think.
I saw that you once said your 2003 tour with Evan Dando and Chris Brokaw reminded you that you don’t really like playing bass. I can’t help but think of you as a bass player, and that’s probably because of The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray and the Blake Babies. Do you find a lack of freedom compared with the guitar?
I don’t remember what I was thinking when I said that. I just didn’t have a great time on that tour, I guess, because I do like playing bass. I enjoy it when I have the freedom to mess around and experiment. Like in the Blake Babies, you can tell, you can hear a crazy bass player; I was all over the place, and that was kind of fun back then. I think when I play bass now, in the studio for example, it can be kind of tedious because it can be like doing math problems, figuring out the bottom that will support the rest of the problem. It can be a brain pain, and I don’t like that part of it. I’m just lazy, I guess, and when I try to come up with bass parts, I can get kind of irritated, but once I figure it out, I’m happy.
You famously played bass on It’s a Shame About Ray, but when I saw that tour, you obviously weren’t on stage. Did you do any touring with the band on that album?
I can’t remember. I don’t think so. I was doing my own thing and came in to do the record, and he got Nic [Dalton] to play on tour. Yeah, I just play on the record, and then I went back to doing my own thing.
Did Evan approach you about playing with them when he revived the album in full in recent years?
Yeah, I was supposed to play bass with them on a tour they did with Psychedelic Furs. I was going to do it, but then Evan pissed me off, and I pulled out of it, and they got someone else to do it.
When your memoir came out in 2008, you said in an interview with PopMatters that you were “coming to the point in my life where I’m questioning my lifestyle and my job,” and in the book you questioned whether or not a grown woman should still be doing what you’re doing. Considering you’ve had six albums since that time, including Minor Alps and the new JH3, I’m guessing you’ve come to terms with your career choices. That also came around the time you crossed the 40-year-old threshold. Could that have had anything to do with it?
No, I don’t really think about the age thing that much. I think the more time that passes, the more you have to look back on to consider; you have more of a history to kind of put it into a perspective. Accept what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do.
You’ve said that you’ve been drawn to writing since before you thought about music as a career and that you’ve even been churning ideas for another book. What is it about writing, and why do you think that you never pursued it earlier despite its draw? Or maybe I should ask how was it that music was able to draw you away?
I don’t know; I guess I have some need for attention. I guess I needed to get some kind or reaction from people that I can see and feel. When you write, there’s long periods where you don’t have any kind of feedback, and I guess I needed immediate feedback. At this point in my life, I don’t need that anymore, so writing still holds a lot of appeal to me.