It’s a chilly afternoon in Boston and Juliana Hatfield is noticeably under the weather. But talking about guitars and her new album, Weird (American Laundromat), appears to be a welcome distraction. “I’m trying not to think about it,” she says between coughs. The sentiment fits Weird’s recurring theme of isolation. To paraphrase a line from “Do It to Music,” the album’s closing track, music is how she blocks out the world and its troubles.
Hatfield is best known for her alt-rock hits “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle,” both from the Juliana Hatfield Three’s 1993 album, Become What You Are, and for her stint in the Lemonheads the previous year, when she played bass on It’s a Shame About Ray. Those who jumped ship when the ’90s faded have missed a lot. In back-to-back releases like Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure, Hatfield expressed her love of pop songcraft and grimy blasts of distortion, respectively, a dichotomy she wields masterfully on her new, and 15th, solo release.
“I’m just trying to express who I truly am, and I’m a very conflicted person,” she says. “Even with my moods I’m like that. I go back and forth, and I’m always trying to figure out who I am and how to integrate my authentic self into one whole self. My music is just an expression of that.”
That’s evident on Weird. The album’s opener, “Staying In,” is about the virtues of solitude, while on the loping midtempo “Lost Ship,” Hatfield wants to “ride on the spaceship in my mind” as trouble threatens to invade her space. Sonically, the mellow vibe that runs under the album’s 11 songs is frequently disrupted by fuzzed-out guitars, giving the music a sense of both beauty and danger. “Why does it have to be either/or?” she posits. “What I loved about Dinosaur Jr. was that they were so heavy, but at the same time, the melodies and harmonies were so gorgeous. That was the revelation to me. It can be beautiful and heavy and melodic all at once.”
You’re known as a guitar player and songwriter, but you studied piano at Berklee College of Music before taking up bass. How did those experiences feed into the type of music you make?
I think that people with unique voices are born with those voices, so I don’t know how much Berklee helped me as a songwriter. It definitely helped me open up my ears — helped me to listen more carefully and more closely. I never really paid much attention to how the different elements in a song were working together. I was not well-versed in the language and with theory. All the ear training and learning to distinguish intervals and chords really helped me communicate to other musicians.
Were you already playing guitar at that point?
I was getting really burned out on playing piano, but I used my piano-playing background to get into Berklee. I don’t think they would have admitted me otherwise, because I had no vocal training and no guitar training. For one semester I studied jazz piano intensively. I learned how to comp and how to read a lead sheet, which ended up being really helpful to me later on. After that one semester, I could notate my songs, and now when I’m in the studio and I want to put a keyboard on a track, I can write myself a little lead sheet and play off of that. Then I started studying voice at Berklee, because I had never had any voice lessons. At the same time I was starting my first band, the Blake Babies, and I was very new at playing guitar.
On Weird, you layer elements like fuzzy riffs and solos onto a foundation of clean, articulate playing, which is something you’ve done on previous albums. Are you drawn to the opposite natures of those sounds?
They’re just little moments that are really exciting to me. Like on [1995’s] Only Everything, I really loved the solo on “Simplicity Is Beautiful.” I think it’s a couple of solos on top of each other. I was trying to capture that kind of feeling that a J. Mascis [of Dinosaur Jr] solo captures. It’s definitely not the same kind of dexterity with my fingers, but that was just a great moment for me. There are a lot of really cool guitar moments on that album, like how the solo in “Dumb Fun” develops. I think in the beginning of the song I was trying to be like Kurt Cobain, playing the vocal melody on the guitar like in “Come as You Are.” Then I went off in different directions, and it just became this really fun thing.
Were there times on Weird when you dug particularly deep into the guitar tones?
Yeah, there were lots of sonic experiments, like the solo on “Lost Ship.” We recorded the guitar solo direct into the Neve console. No amplifier. That’s how I got that cool sound.
That’s also how Nirvana did “Territorial Pissings” [on Nevermind].
Oh, did they? I love the sound of it. It sounds like something’s broken. In the song “It’s So Weird,” we did the solo through a Leslie speaker, which I haven’t done much on my records. My favorite pedal was a Zvex Fuzz Factory, which I played on some stuff on this album. It’s my new favorite pedal.
How else did you use gear creatively in the studio?
I am a creature of habit. I use mostly just one guitar and one amp, a little Ampeg Reverberocket. The base of everything was that amp and my First Act guitar. On top of that we would use different pedals and effects. I never play Fenders, and I usually don’t like them, but on “Do It to Music,” we used a Telecaster.
You played Gibson SGs for a long time.
I only have two electric guitars right now. I got rid of all my guitars except my custom SG from, I think, 1968. But I’ve gotten really fond of my custom-made First Act Delia LS guitar, which has two P90 pickups. They made it for me, like, seven years ago, and I’ve really fallen in love with it. It’s all over this album. It’s not too jangly; it’s not too rock. It’s just right in the middle, in a really good way. It’s like a magic guitar for me. That’s how I used to feel about this SG Firebrand, which I played for years and years. At some point I just woke up and I wasn’t in love with it anymore, so I got rid of it, and then I replaced it with this First Act guitar.
You’ve done several side projects, like the I Don’t Cares with Paul Westerberg and Minor Alps with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. What drives you to collaborate?
Emotional instability, I guess. What drives anyone who has obsessive-compulsive leanings? I can’t stop writing songs, and I have too many, so I have to find other people to record with so people don’t get barraged with too many Juliana Hatfield records. Plus, Matthew Caws is one of my favorite singers and songwriters. To be able to work with him was kind of like a dream, you know? If I’m going to have an opportunity like that, I’ll definitely go for it.
What about Paul Westerberg? Were you a Replacements fan early on?
Yeah. Huge Replacements fan. A long time ago in the ’90s, Paul and I were supposed to do a tour together. He was doing a tour for one of his solo albums, but he threw out his back and had to cancel the tour, so that never happened, but we were in touch. He had tons and tons of songs recorded. Some of them were just so great, and I would say, “Why don’t people know this song? Let’s work on this.”
You recently reissued your solo debut, Hey Babe, on vinyl. Does it feel different to pick up a guitar and write songs now than it did 25 years ago?
It does and it doesn’t. I mean, I still do it the same way. It’s still just me alone in a room with an acoustic guitar. But I’m less miserable now. I’m not so focused on my own anguish in my songs. I think my subject matter has shifted a little bit away from myself. The new album is still kind of inner directed, but I’m not as anguished as a songwriter. I’m more confident, maybe. I don’t know if that makes my work better or worse. Some people want their artists to be tortured and suicidal.
That’s very selfish. But some people are like that.
I know. Isn’t it? I just read this new book about Kurt Cobain, so I’ve just been thinking about him and how he rose so fast, and then it was all over so fast. And I wonder, if he had lived, what would he have been doing today? What kind of music would he be making now? Probably would have been really interesting to see him develop as an artist. Or maybe he would just be doing something else. Maybe he would just be a painter now. Who knows? We’ll never know.