Juliana Hatfield: ‘The past few years have really just turned over a big rock’

From its gory cartoon artwork to its nightmarish visions of a world “controlled by fascist blood-sucking thugs”, Juliana Hatfield’s latest record, Blood, is a vivid depiction of the era of Donald Trump.

Juliana Hatfield

If the singer-songwriter’s revulsion with the US president it was clear from her 2017 album Pussycat, here she looks in broader terms at the psychology and behaviour of American society.

“The album is a reflection of the difficult four years we’ve just lived through,” says the 53-year-old on a Zoom call from Massachusetts. “Some of us have managed to survive the last four years, but the last year in particular has been difficult for people.”

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Even now Trump is out of power, she feels cautious, given the corrosive forces he unleashed. “I don’t really feel too optimistic,” she says. “The past few years have really just turned over a big rock. All the rot has just been exposed and opened to the air.

“Maybe in the long term that will be good because I definitely think a lot of people’s eyes have been opened. There are people out there in this country who don’t realise how much corruption and racism etcetera there is here, and everywhere, probably.”

Elsewhere on Blood, Hatfield considers the corruption of the American Dream, while in Splinter she has a vision of winning the lottery and moving to the ocean to escape from “the monetization of every little thing”. She says she has felt such sentiments strongly in recent times. “There’s always a part of me that wants to escape and move off the grid, to not have to pay into the capitalist system and not to be doing commerce every day,” she says.

“I resent the way that people are forced into upgrading all their technology. I don’t like feeling manipulated that way.

“People think that being a citizen is being a consumer. There’s too much money involved in everything... Even before the past few years I’ve always had a part of me fantasising about disappearing, and some day I probably will, not into the woods but into the shore somewhere, maybe on a houseboat. Just take off and be off the grid, surviving quietly. It seems a really nice freedom. Quiet would be nice and not always having to think about commerce and exchanging money for things, or goods for money.”

Juliana Hatfield. Picture: David Doobinin

As with many of Hatfield’s 19 solo albums and other work with acts such as the Blake Babies, Some Girls, Minor Alps and The I Don’t Cares, dark lyrical content is counterposed by bright melodies. “If I look back at my catalogue of music I’m realising now that there’s a lot of violence in my songs from the very beginning, from the Blake Babies, my first band,” she says. “There’s a lot of anger, violence, revenge fantasies, justice fantasies.

“Then I love complicated, soaring melodies and lush stacked harmonies. I do have that desire to express the anger but also the beauty and the escape from all that, which is the music and the melodies, it’s a way to to counteract the ugliness.”

Growing up, she says she loved pop music before rock, as evidenced by recent albums of cover versions of songs by Olivia Newton-John and The Police. Next up, it would seem, is a collection of REM covers.

“I am contemplating it, but I’m pretty intimidated by the idea,” she says. “I keep trying to get started but they have so much material, it’s really hard to decide which songs. I am more familiar with the earlier part of their catalogue so I’m having to do a whole lot of listening and research.”

When delving into other people’s catalogues of songs, Hatfield says she’s looking for “the instinct” in their material. “I feel drawn to certain people who had a strong effect on me when I was younger and needing to connect to something – that’s what Olivia Newton-John was for me when I was young, she was the source of joy and beauty to me. When I recorded her songs I think I was trying to escape to a place that was beautiful and made me feel good.

“The Police was similar in that they were a band I loved when I was in high school, a little after Olivia Newton-John. I found that there is still a really visceral connection to the voices of Sting and Olivia when I sang along to them. The way that Sting phrased his melodies felt so natural to me.”

For someone who “thrives” on solitude, writing and recording an album at home during the pandemic has actually been relatively straightforward.

“I feel like I’ve lived my whole life in lockdown,” Hatfield says. “It is my natural environment. I feel for all the people who are having a difficult time, but I have no problem with lockdown and isolation. I’ve always lived alone and I work alone and now I can record alone, so I’m fine.”

Hatfield, who was also once a member of The Lemonheads, recently reflected that she spent too much of the early part of her career miserable about things over she had no control. Today, she thinks the turning point came with age and experience. “I think I just had to live through some things to get to the other side, and to realise that I can’t control everything,” she says. “I should focus on the things that I can control, which is just the music, which I’ve always been able to write and record.

“I’ve felt really powerless in terms of my life but I always feel like I have power when I’m making music, so I just try to hold onto that, and try to embrace my true self, which is a solitary self.

“I think part of my misery when I was younger was that I was trying to conform to societal norms of living. I thought that I need to partner up, I thought that pair bonding was a thing that everyone was supposed to do so I kept trying to do that, but it was not working. I finally realised that that’s not for me. I need to embrace solitude, which is a natural state for me. I’m more productive in solitude.”

Now she is happy being described as a ‘cult favourite’. “I tried to hard to help people see me as I really was,” she says. “To believe that I had some worth as an artist. I wanted respect more than anything, I think. More than fame or commercial success, I wanted respect and I feel like I finally have a little. There are people out there who get me and dig it, and I feel like I’ve earned some respect.”

Although Hatfield is not “dying to get out there” and play live shows immediately, she says: “It would be nice to be able to turn up the amps and make some noise in a room with other people in it. When an audience is in a room with a band there is this give and take of energy that you can’t recreate virtually. It will be nice to share the air, the space, the volume and the energy again.”

Blood is out on Friday May 14. www.julianahatfield.com