The Divisive Presidential Election Helped Indie Singer-Songwriter Juliana Hatfield Overcome Writer's Block


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  • Johnathan Stark
Singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield admits that bands had it good back in the '90s. Major labels took notice of the thriving indie rock scene and signed acts that probably wouldn’t be signed in today’s cash-strapped climate.

“I was not a happy person, so for me, it was kind of miserable,” she says in a recent phone interview. She performs at 8 p.m. on April 29 at Mahall’s 20 Lanes in Lakewood. “But it was great in that everyone was getting signed. Everyone had this chance to get their music to a large number of people. I feel very grateful that I had that opportunity. It came and went pretty fast for a lot of people. There were a lot of great bands here in Boston when I was starting out. Dinosaur before they were Dinosaur Jr. was here. I got to see them in small clubs up close. There were the Lemonheads, Throwing Muses, Galaxy 500 and the Pixies.”

Hatfield started with the Blake Babies before branching into the Juliana Hatfield Trio and then releasing albums and touring as a solo act. When it came time to sit and write the songs for a new studio album, she initially ran into a serious case of writer’s block.

“I often feel like that after I did an album and a tour,” she says. “I did a tour in 2015 and the I Don’t Cares record [with Replacements singer Paul Westerberg]. That was mostly his writing. I contributed a little bit but it was mostly his ideas. I felt like I had nothing to say, and that happens sometimes between projects. This time was different because I felt like I might have been at the end because I said it all. The outside world came over me and affected me so strongly that I suddenly had a lot to say.”

But then the presidential election inspired her to start jotting down some song ideas and she booked a 12-and-a-half-day session at Key Division in Sumerville to cut the songs that would become her latest effort, Pussycat. Hatfield produced and played every instrument other than drums on the album. 

“I, like everyone else, was in a very heightened state of emotions during the election season,” she says. “When it was all happening and when the election happened, my writing kicked in. It wasn’t really writing. It was more like vomiting. To call it vomiting doesn’t do it justice. There was crafting going on. It happened very quickly and very cathartically. Some of the music I had lying around, the bits and pieces of chord progressions. When I had these lyrical ideas and when I started to feel like I needed to express these feelings, I went looking for the music and put the songs together very quickly.”

She says the album’s title possesses a certain paradox that she likes.

“Sometimes, someone will talk about a person who appears to be gruff or harsh and say, ‘He’s just a pussycat,’” she says. “I was thinking about the duality of that and how cats can be soft and sweet, but if they don’t like you, their claws will come out. [The title] goes along with my image as well. I think some people hear my sweet little girl voice and think I’m a nice little pop singer, but I’ve always had these protest songs and these angry songs. People don’t always notice it or when they do notice it, they’re surprised and confused by it.”

Hatfield produced the album and played every instrument other than drums. She says that approach allowed her to make the album “more quickly and cheaply.”

“I didn’t have to discuss anything with anyone,” she says. “I just went to work. I had a great engineer who really helped. I’m not a good engineer so all I could so was just tell him what I wanted it to sound like. When I said I did it quickly, I think that’s a good thing because there was no time for me to overthink anything. I think financial limitations and time limitations can be beneficial creatively. You have to forge ahead in a semi-conscious manner. You can’t think too much so you get a rawness.”

She even shot the video for the tune “Short-fingered Man,” a song that benefits from a meaty guitar riff and a propulsive drumbeat, herself. It features her dancing by herself in a hallway in her home. In the clip, the spry Hatfield twists her hips like some kind of human Slinky. “You have to talk gently to him,” she snears mid-song, making an allusion to President Trump’s fragile ego.

“I was a competitive gymnast,” she says. “I do a lot of stretching and yoga, and I wanted to stay stretched out for my old age. I think it’s important to stretch your bones and your body. I think a lot of people have no idea that my hips move at all. The video works on different levels. I like that. I think it’s funny and that was important to me. It’s also a little angry. It’s a put down. It’s also sad. It’s a woman lamenting the fact that a man can’t satisfy her. Sixties dancing is so cool. I like old movies from the Sixties and I like the dancing from those movies. It’s so fun to watch.”

She whispers her way through another album highlight, the grunge-y “Wonder Why.”

“The song is kind of about escapism and where I go in my mind,” she says. “I go back to the things in my childhood that remind me of a more innocent place and time, not that my childhood is so ideal. There’s something about the era that signifies a more innocent time. I think about the TV shows and the music and the house where I lived. At Christmas time, my mom would put an electric candle in my room. It was so soothing. There is that grittiness. Today in these modern times, it’s harsh. The music I love as a child, I was drawing on Electric Light Orchestra and all that stuff from the ‘70s and the radio pop and I put a bit of an edge on it.”

Hatfield turns 50 this summer. In typical fashion, the introverted singer-songwriter hasn’t planned anything too extravagant to mark the occasion.

“I saw that Liz Phair turned 50 yesterday or today,” she says. “I feel some solidarity with her in a way even though we’ve never met. I feel connected to her in a way. I don’t have any plans. I’m not really a celebrator. I don’t party about things, but I might want to do something for myself. I might fly to some island. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there. I think it’s a date that I should mark somehow. I don’t know what I’ll do, but it will be something really private. I feel really good about it. I feel good about it physically. I feel like I did really well in certain ways to be where I am. In certain ways, I feel proud.”

Juliana Hatfield, Joyframe, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 29, Mahall’s 20 Lanes, 13200 Madison Ave, Lakewood, OH 44107, 216-521-3280. Tickets: $20 ADV, $25 DOS,

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