Juliana Hatfield, the prolific singer-songwriter from Boston, has just released her second collection of cover songs on her latest LP, Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police. Hatfield released her seventeenth album, Weird, earlier this year, which was preceeded by the first album in her series of cover collections, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, in 2018.
Recently, AQ sat down with Hatfield to discuss the work of The Police, how she goes about reinterpreting the music of her subjects, and how covering other peoples’ songs allows her to break her own habits as a songwriter.
This is the second album of covers by a specific artist that you’ve done. The first was Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. When did the idea for these projects first come to you?
Well, I think [with] the Olivia Newton-John album, I had the idea and it came to me when I was going to see Olivia Newton-John in concert for the first time ever in my life. I realized, ‘Wow, I need to go see her while I have the chance.’
Right, because she is not well, currently.
Yeah. So a friend and I bought two tickets to see her, I think it was in Ohio, because she wasn’t coming to Boston. We just went to the place that was closest. Then she canceled all her shows when she got sick again. So, when she canceled the show, that was when I had the idea to make an album of her songs, because I guess she was just on my mind and I had been listening to a lot of her music leading up to the concert that never happened…. Her getting sick again made me rethink about how much her music had meant to me and my life, and I wanted to pay tribute to her…. That experience of making the album was just a really great experience for me, and it made me want to do more of it, so that’s when I started thinking of it like, ‘Oh, this could be an ongoing project. I could do a series of these different artists and different artists’ material.” And so I’m going to continue to do it because it’s been really fulfilling for me.
That’s what I was curious about: if this was the beginning of a bigger project for you?
Yeah, definitely. I want it to be something that’s continuing, and it’s exciting for me because I’ve always recorded and played live cover songs here and there. I’ve always done it and I feel like I have a knack for bringing something new to someone else’s songs. I think I have a knack for sort of embodying someone else’s song and really making it mine. Now, I’m thinking of so many artists I would love to do and that’s very exciting for me and it’s a way for me to keep making music when I’m feeling like I don’t have anything to write about. Sometimes I feel like when I’m trying to write songs, I feel like I’ve said everything. That’s when it’s good to turn to other people’s [songs] because then I can continue to keep making music. And while my ideas are sort of still generating and trying to be born, I can be working on other music.
Are doing these records a way of decompressing from your own records?
I don’t know if decompressing is it—it can be really challenging. It’s not relaxing. Like, the making of the Olivia Newton-John record, [it] was very, very challenging to try to tackle all the songwriting, which in some cases was deceptively complicated. And also the singing—her voice and her range is pretty wide. So, it was technically difficult to sing the songs. I guess The Police songs were easier and more fun from a technical standpoint to sing and play. I felt like I had more of the natural musical affinity for playing The Police songs than I did with Olivia Newton-John stuff. So it’s pretty sophisticated when you think about it.
The Police started out [with] a quasi-punk sound—not to complicate it. In a way, it’s a relief to record someone else’s songs. The pressure is definitely off in terms of the fact that the song is already there. There is already structure there and I just have to add to the foundation that’s already there, which is the song.
With the Police record, I read that you wanted to choose songs that resonate with the present moment. What exactly did you find when you dug into that catalog, and what exactly did you want to bring forward with your song selection?
Well, when I say the present moment, I really mean my present moment. I needed songs to feel real to me now at this stage in my life. And that meant not doing the straight up love songs or the straight up love sick [songs]…. Something like “So Lonely.” I couldn’t really relate to that because it’s just about like ‘Oh, I’m so in love with you!’ That’s not where I’m at right now. And you know, there are other songs like that—I do like the twisted, dark love songs. Like, “Every Breath You Take” is more like a stalker song and something like “Can’t Stand Losing You” is also really dark. I can appreciate that darkness of the human condition and the way that people are so insane. Like, I get that, and I feel that. Then there is stuff that felt really culturally relevant in terms of the state of the world, the stuff that talks about the abuse of power, like “Landlord” and “Murder By Numbers.” That’s still really current.
I think that’s always one of the most interesting things about The Police: Sting’s lyrics. I think because there were so many hits and the band was so popular, people tend to miss the underscoring narrative of the lyrics. And I think Sting is—especially with The Police, at least—a master at that.
Yeah, that’s what I really like about them. [With] those lyrics, there are depths of darkness if you want to go into them, but you don’t have, you know? I think a lot of that stuff flies over peoples’ heads because they’re just so tuned into the really catchy courses, you know? It’s easy to miss some of the darkness if you’re not paying attention. It is interesting to me, because there are different levels to their songs and they’re not boring in terms of the subject matter.
I think a perfect example of that on the record is your rendition of “Roxanne.” You completely deconstructed and reinterpreted it in much darker context. It sounds as though you were really trying to underscore those lyrics and the narrative as well as you could.
Well, actually I think I didn’t really have a clear concept when I went to record that. I was thinking that I can’t do reggae. I’m not a person who can play reggae authentically or anything like it. I’m not going to even attempt to go there, because it would seem false and poser-ish. I was just thinking like, ‘Oh, take away the band and just make it really stark and it’ll be like me talking to my friend, the prostitute, and trying to help her out of the life of the street.’ And really, that’s the whole concept. Just break it down so it’s like me pleading in a way with her, like, ‘Come on, you can have a better life.’ It’s sort of supposed to be like a conversation between me and my friend, Roxanne, the prostitute. It’s very raw. The situation is very raw, and to me—I don’t want to make a big thing about it, because I think that sex workers have a right to do that kind of work—but when I do think about prostitution, I just think like, ‘Ugh… what a harsh life that must be.’
It’s an interesting construct because with the original version, it’s a man speaking to a woman, and with your interpretation, it’s two women having a conversation with each other. I don’t know what the right word for it is, but it seems—I don’t want to say that Sting was disingenuous—but the patriarchal nature in which Roxanne’s plight is narrated by a man is different than how you presented the theme.
I think it’s more sympathetic coming from me. Because in the Police version, it is certainly a john who’s in love with a prostitute, and he’s just really selfish and jealous. Like, he doesn’t want this person that he’s in love with to do it with any other men. And it’s really selfish, I think. My version is not selfish; I’m trying to help my sister out of that life rather than just be like, ‘I don’t ever want you to [see] any other men.’ It’s about being better to yourself.
Do you speak French naturally, or was it something you learned for “Hungry for You (J’aurais toujours faim de toi)”?
No, I just studied it for a lot of years in school, starting in seventh grade. It was just my language of choice to study in school. Though, if you set me down in a French speaking country, I’m not fluent. Like, I can like sort of find my way around, probably, but I am definitely not fluent…. The engineer I was working with, James, he was asking me when I was singing that one, ‘Oh, what is the song saying?’ And so I went line by line and I kind of translated for him. And then, as I was translating it, he went online to look at a translation just to see if I was translating it right and he was like, ‘Yeah, you got most of it right!’ I kind of know what I’m singing about on it. It’s not the most complicated French song, but I can kind of get most of it.
You spoke a little bit before about The Police’s early, very strong reggae influences, and how you really didn’t want to touch that because it’s really not your wheelhouse. You opted to put a straight beat on some of the things—“Hole in My Life” is a perfect example. When you interpreted those songs, what about the originals would jump out at you and allow you to take it in your own direction?
Well, all the guys in the band have unique, original styles, and so I didn’t want to step on toes at all. I didn’t want to get anywhere near trying to mimic what Stuart Copeland was doing, for example, because his style is so original and unique to him. So, I knew that if I tried to get in someone who could try to mimic those parts, it would just be a pale comparison and it would be kind of pathetic. So, I decided I’m going to go in that totally other direction. I’m really going to totally strip it down, deconstruct it, go in the other direction, so that no one can accuse me of trying to copy Stewart Copeland and nobody can accuse me getting anywhere near there. Plus, just trying to do something different with the songs, I felt I needed to get away from some of the grooves to try to make them my own.
You’ve been writing, recording, and performing for quite a while now, and you typically release an album every two years—if not every year. You had a lot of mainstream success in the nineties with Become What You Are, but you’ve remained active ever since. So, how do you feel about yourself as a songwriter these days, compared to the songwriter that wrote Hey Babe and Become What You Are?
Hmm…. I don’t know how to answer that. I guess I feel more secure now. I feel like I have a knack for what I do. Like, I feel two ways: I feel like I have a certain knack for writing songs, but I also feel like I write the same type of song over and over again. I have habits as a songwriter, and I feel like I’m a little bit stuck. I never really do anything radically different than anything I’ve done before, and so that’s why it’s nice to record other peoples’ songs, because it forces me to get away from my own habits as a writer.
Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police (American Laundromat Recordings) is available now wherever music is streamed or sold!