Since the start of Juliana Hatfield's solo career 15 years ago, the artist's music has swung on a pendulum between polished expressions of beauty and innocence and raw, primal rock'n'roll.
Since the start of Juliana Hatfield's solo career 15 years ago, the artist's music has swung on a pendulum between polished expressions of beauty and innocence and raw, primal rock'n'roll. In 1999, she even went as far as releasing two simultaneous albums, "Beautiful Creature" and "Total System Failure" (Zoe/Rounder), one a collection of plaintive demos and the other chock-a-block with punk guitar missives.
With her new album "Made in China," the first release on her new label Ye Olde Records, Hatfield has swung back toward the visceral side of the spectrum. The set was recorded quickly with minimal editing and features the ragged playing of Hatfield and the Martha's Vineyard group Unbusted (guitarist Joe Keefe, bassist Ben Smith and drummer Sebastian Keefe). It marks a stark contrast to Hatfield's 2004 release "In Exile Deo," whose expansive, polished sound fulfilled a two-album label deal.
"My contract with Rounder/Zoe expired after my last record," Hatfield says, "and I just decided it was an opportunity to start my own label, which was something I've been thinking about for years. And it's exciting to just have total freedom. I wanted to see how self-sufficient I can really be."
Ye Olde Records has a distribution deal through Redeye, and Hatfield is also taking orders for the new album via her official Web site. The artist recently used that site to post a lengthy open letter to fans about her mindset making "Made in China," the cover of which shows Hatfield's naked torso, and the title of which refers to the inevitable commercialization of art. She muses in the letter, "What does it mean to a person whose identity is very wrapped up in the music she makes, if her worth is measured by how many records she sells?"
Hatfield experienced a good deal of commercial success as an artist early on in her solo career, when singles "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle" hit it big in 1992. She references the dichotomy of her past and her place in music now on "Made in China" tracks like "What Do I Care," with its chorus "What the f*** / it's a miracle / I'm even here / you're over me / but I'm alive / so what do I care?"
"That one was written unconsciously," Hatfield says, "and I figured it out later -- I'm talking about my place in the world and my culture and the industry. And my place right now is a lot different from the place it was 10 years ago. As much as I try to ignore that fact, I can't ... and as much as I say and really believe that I'm much more comfortable being out of the public eye, it affects me. It hurts to be ignored sometimes."
Especially on this new record, Hatfield has tried to capture her honest feelings in song, without clouding the writing process with too much conscious thought.
"I still have the basic [songwriting] process," she explains, "which is sitting down with a guitar and playing around, getting a chord progression and then adding words to it. But with lyrics, I've been trying to get out of the way more. In the past I'd spent a lot of time trying to say something and trying to whittle down the words to the specific. Now, I'm much more open to letting the unconscious come out without stopping it, and once I have all these words I don't edit them as much. I just let them be. It's letting me really try to access that conscious or give it an outlet."
But as much as this process would seem to overexpose personal feelings, Hatfield's theory is that her songs actually become more universal through tapping her own unconscious.
"I think everyone's pretty much the same underneath," she says. "The collective unconscious is a real thing. There's only a few emotions, and we all have them. There's like seven emotions. So personal is universal. Everyone experiences confusion, joy and pain, just in different forms."
Hatfield is happy that with "Made in China," she's going to get to experience an album release on her own terms, and is looking forward to simple things like selling her own records directly to fans from the Web site.
"It just gets me more in touch with the aspect of what I do," she says. "For so many years I ignored the aspect that I'm a product and there's money involved and there's people buying the record. It's good and empowering to be directly involved with the people. There are people who would rather buy it from me than from a chain store. I like that people have that choice, and they will be directly helping me ... I can take the money and put it into my next project. They can feel like they're directly supporting the work of an artist. They're my patrons."