From her days as a member of indie anchors Blake Babies and Lemonheads up through her ongoing solo career, Juliana Hatfield has been a quietly steady presence in the underground pop-rock world. While it’s been a while since she hit the commercial heights of her ‘90s peak when the Juliana Hatfield Trio’s Become What You Are and her 1995 solo effort Only Everything landed her on the Billboard 200, she has maintained a dedicated fan base thanks to steady touring and a consistency of vision as she combines personal explorations with more universal concerns.
More recently, her 2017 release Pussycat was an album-length rebuke to our current president, with sharp lyrics and a welcoming musical jangle. Written and recorded quickly, the record was fueled by its creator’s anger and disgust at Donald Trump’s words and deeds, especially with regards to women.
Her upcoming album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (out April 13 via American Laundromat Records) is perhaps even bolder. As the title explains, the record features Hatfield’s renditions of 13 Olivia Newton-John classics, and is blissfully free of irony. Her loving takes on songs like “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “Physical” are done with joy and care. The arrangements and instrumentation are tweaked to fit Hatfield’s singing voice and aesthetic, but otherwise, she hews closely to the original material, basking in their heartfelt glow and romantic idealism. There’s also an altruistic element to this project, as a portion of the sales of the album will be donated to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Centre.
Billboard caught up with Hatfield to discuss her love of Newton-John and to look back at some of her earliest work, including her debut Hey Babe, which will be re-released on vinyl, and Become What You Are, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
When did you first become aware of Olivia Newton-John and become a fan of her work?
I feel like she was always there from as far back as I can remember. In my childhood, in the 1970s, her songs were there in the air. They’re on the radio. And then when Grease came out, I remember going to see it multiple times in the theater. I think six times in a year. I was drawn to her.
After that did you follow her career pretty closely then?
I guess I wasn’t really tuned into the concept of following anyone’s career. She was kind of ubiquitous. She was on the radio and movies. When the Physical album came out, there was even more of her. I feel like there was a period from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s that I was really interested. Then after Physical, I kind of lost interest, so it was definitely a period of maybe 10 years or something like that. That was my favorite period and my album of her songs is mostly from that period.
Was there a point where you came back around and started listening to her again?
I don’t think I ever really stopped listening to her. She was always someone that I could go back to and get pleasure out of listening to. I wouldn’t constantly have her records on but from time to time, I would revisit her music and it never felt or sounded dated to me. It was always refreshing to hear that. Some of the stuff she did after Physical, that I never really got into at the time, it does sound dated. The ‘80s did that to a lot of artists.
When did the idea of recording a tribute to Olivia Newton-John come to you?
It came to me in a flash. I’m not a very conceptual thinker and I don’t make long-term plans. I don’t intellectualize anything. What happened was she was on my mind a couple of years ago and I saw that she was touring. I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen her. Why have I never seen her live?” I bought a couple of tickets and I was very excited to realize that this was going to be my first Olivia Newton-John concert. And then her cancer came back and she had to cancel a bunch of the shows, including the one I bought tickets to. That was the moment when I thought, “I wanna record an album of her songs.” She had been on my mind and I had been listening to a lot of her albums in anticipation of seeing her live. And then she ended up rescheduling a lot of the dates and I was able to see her a couple of months ago.
How was that?
She was great. Her voice sounded great. And her whole presence was just very…it was wonderful. She’s just so positive and so engaging and welcoming and unselfish toward the audience. Her band was a little bit schmaltzy and there were a few medleys, which I was a little disappointed in because she only did little bits of songs that I really loved like “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Please Mister Please.” But I don’t want to complain about it because she did a lot of great stuff.
How was the process of recordings these songs? To hear the album, it sounds like it was a lot of fun to put together.
It was actually very challenging, especially after coming off of my last album. With Pussycat, the recording of that was really fast and seamless. This stuff was really challenging. The songwriting, for one thing. Some of it is pretty complex. A lot of chords and melodies. I wanted to do as many songs as I could in the original key she sang them in. Some of the melodies are just so sick, a lot of stuff is really high in my range which is kind of a weak spot for me. It was hard. There were moments where I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I almost wanted to quit because it was so challenging. For me, it was just a puzzle. What do I want to reinterpret? What do I want to copy?
Then there was the problem that some of the songs were so iconic, like “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” My first instinct was to just copy all of her vocal inflections exactly. But then I thought, “I can’t because it’s too iconic. There’s no way I’ll ever measure up.” It’s a little bit my own but I’m not disrespecting the original.
Were there songs you wanted to do but had to abandon because they were too hard to pull off?
There was the duet with Cliff Richard, “Suddenly.” That one has like a billion chords. It’s kind of nuts. We recorded the basic tracks and then there’s the question of who can sing it with me. I asked a few people. One person said, “No,” and a couple of others were interested. Then other songs needed my attention so I ended up abandoning it because it was just going to be too complicated. I hope to get back to it eventually and finish it.
Also coming out around the same time as your Olivia Newton-John tribute is a vinyl reissue of your first solo album Hey Babe. How was it for you to revisit this album? How have your feelings changed about these songs 25 years after recording them?
I have a much more forgiving attitude toward them. I say that because immediately after recording the album, I was really embarrassed by it. That was hard for me. I was on my own after being in a band and I exposed a lot of vulnerability that I didn’t necessarily intend to and I didn’t have any perspective on. I was kind of insane at that point. But now I’m really proud of myself. I’m proud of the album. It’s not something that I ever really listen to because it’s so earnest that it hurts me to listen to it. Also just the sound of my voice. It’s tough to listen to. It’s very strident and high. But as an idea, Hey Babe was something that I’m really proud to have accomplished.
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Juliana Hatfield Three album Become What You Are. It came along in the midst of that post-Nevermind period when the majors were snapping up tons of alternative bands like yours. What was it like to go through that at the time?
It was kind of fun just because everyone was getting signed. And they’re my friends and we’re all getting to make records with budgets and producers, which gave us a kind of freedom to do the things we wanted to do. To be able to spend a little more time in the studio. It was kind of exciting. We weren’t out there trying to sell ourselves as rock stars. It was very organic from our point of view. We were just doing our thing and people came around and started paying attention and let us stay. I mean, I was a miserable wreck, emotionally, but it was exciting to get caught up in this world and to feel like people were listening to all this weird, quirky music. It feels like something that could never happen again, you know?
Your last album Pussycat was this very visceral and thoughtful response to the election of Donald Trump. Now that it’s been a year since his inauguration, how do you feel about how things stand in our country these days?
You know, some days I think this country is failing, it’s a failing experiment. But then some days, I see the pushback and I see the ongoing resistance to everything that’s bad and I think that’s really encouraging. I almost don’t even want to play the songs from Pussycat anymore. I think that’s partly why I wanted to do the Olivia Newton-John record. I wanted to do something positive and a little bit escapist. I wanted to escape from all the horrible negativity and go some place that was beautiful.