Juliana Hatfield on Her New Covers Album “Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, July 22nd, 2024  

Juliana Hatfield on Her New Covers Album “Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO”

Fits Like a Glove

Dec 18, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by David Doobinin Bookmark and Share

Isn’t it great when crazy ideas turn out to be the best ideas? Juliana Hatfield wasn’t the first artist to think, “Hey, I’m going to make an album of covers of just one artist!” Most of those plans fade with the hangover in the morning. Hatfield however stuck to it and has done it three times now.

Joining her tributes to The Police and Olivia Newton-John is her latest album—Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO. Even the harshest critic would admit that that’s a bold undertaking, especially for a three-piece band with not a trace of a cello or a violin. She’s turned (another) labor of love into a smart, credible alternative rock gem. Hatfield spoke to Under the Radar about this and her other two cover albums prior to her U.S. tour in the fall of 2023.

Ian Rushbury (Under the Radar): As someone who was born in Birmingham UK and as a consequence loves pretty much anything associated with Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, I was especially keen to hear your treatments of these ELO songs.

Well, I hope that I did them justice. I hope that the fans are okay with what I did.

Was it intimidating, picking through all those dense layers in every song, especially with such a small ensemble?

It was just me, a drummer, and a bass player. There were moments where I got a little bit scared. I would think, “What am I doing? What am I going to do about all of these strings? How am I going to deal with that and the choirs and things?” In a way, you just have to put blinders on. After I started recording and had done tons and tons of listening to ELO, as soon as I started recording, I stopped listening to their records. I just wanted to make the songs my own. What do I do? How do I strip this down? How do I change this? I took some of the string parts and I played them on a mellotron or I sang some of the string parts. I did that in “Showdown.” I sang the string part in the second verse. It’s just like a process of trying to work with the tools I have. I didn’t have access to an orchestra so I tried to make the songs my own rather than trying to recreate them.

You’ve picked a very interesting selection of material. There are a few songs here that one would expect somebody doing this sort of tribute to cover, but you’ve also got things like “Sweet Is the Night,” “Blue Bird is Dead,” “Ordinary Dream,” and one I was delighted to see: “When I Was a Boy,” which is a fairly recent Jeff Lynne tune. Does that song have a particular resonance for you?

Yeah, “When I Was a Boy”—I wasn’t a boy. I was a girl. But the sentiment really hits me. I can completely relate to the idea of being a child and being just obsessed with the magic of music on the radio. And ELO is one of those magical sounds that I would hear on the radio and I would be transported to a beautiful place. ELO and all the other things I heard on the radio in the ’70s made me want to do it myself and made me believe in the musical ideas that I felt inside of myself. And that’s what the song is all about, and I totally relate to that. I feel it.

Did you ever try any other material and just think, “Nope, I just can’t do that?”

There was a later ELO song called “Sci-Fi Woman.” Do you know that one? I love that. There’s this two-note part, which plays through the whole song, which I thought was so brilliant and cool. It starts at the beginning, plays through the choruses, the bridge, everything, all the way to the end. I tried to do that song, but it somehow just didn’t work for me. It didn’t feel like it had become a part of me. It just felt a little forced, so I had to abandon that one.

On the press release that goes out with the album, you said something that quite surprised me. You said, “Thematically, I identify with the loneliness and alienation and the outer space-ness in the songs.” I’d be amazed if that is most people’s takeaway from the ELO.

Well, that’s what I heard in the songs that I was drawn to. The missed connections, you know? Songs like “Ordinary Dream” and “Telephone Line,” all these songs about missed connections. I pulled the feeling of longing from these songs; of trying to get back someplace or feeling estranged from things and people. There are definitely other things going on in other songs, but I was drawn to the songs that I felt had those feelings.

Telephone Line” is all about sadness and loss. Just waiting in vain for somebody to pick up the phone.

That song pinpoints that feeling, doesn’t it?

When you’re working on these albums of other people’s songs, does that material kind of bleed into your writing and playing and make you think about new directions in your own craft?

Well, every time I go to make one of these cover albums, I hope that will happen. I hope that some of the genius of ELO will rub off on me or some of their techniques, but it never happens. When I record those covers, I’m trying to figure out how the magic is made. Maybe I’ll discover the secret to the magic, you know? It never affects my writing, unfortunately. I want it to, but I think I have a kind of shtick. And it’s not anything conscious, but I have a way that I write and a way that I play. I can’t seem to get away from it. I think my songwriting is like a part of my DNA and I just keep doing it.

That’s as it should be. You’ve got your own thing but you can still dip into other people’s bags from time to time.

I like to think that when I do covers, I’m making those songs my own because that’s what it feels like. It feels like at a certain point, after working out the songs and playing through them, that they start to feel very natural to me and like my own songs in a way. Which is the way it should be. When anyone plays a cover, it shouldn’t feel awkward. It shouldn’t feel like you’re trying to impersonate someone. The song should feel like a glove that fits you.

Has Jeff Lynne heard about the project?

I don’t know. But my bass player knows a guy. An Irish guy, who plays in Pugwash and knows Jeff Lynne.

Thomas Walsh.

Yeah! We sent Thomas the album, but I don’t know if he’s going to send it to Jeff or not.

When you do your recordings now, do you go into the studio or do you record at home?

Well, with this ELO covers album, we played through songs in the rehearsal space to get the drums and bass arrangements together. Then I would record some basic tracks at home; a couple of guitars, a couple of vocals. And then I’d send them to the bass player [Ed Valauskas] and the drummer [Chris Anzalone] and they would record on top of my basic tracks, send me back the bass and drums, and then I would continue recording.

That’s how a lot of people made their records during lockdown, and it’s a recording model that’s here to stay. Everyone records separately and then you aggregate all the parts somewhere.

When we were done with everything, we sent the tracks to our friend Pat DiCenso, who’s a brilliant mixer. I’m surprised and happy with how great everything sounds. And that way of recording works for me. I like it. I’m very proud of myself because I’m not technically adept. I’m not so great with the technology, but I did okay, I think.

With that home recording approach and working independently, do you ever miss a dissenting voice from other people working on the project, like Scott Litt, for example? Did you ever miss having somebody else to bounce ideas off?

Honestly, not really. Most of the time, I think that I have good instincts, but other people’s voices are sometimes good to hear. And I know that my bass player had a couple of ideas that worked very well and I took them into account. Scott Litt is obviously a great producer. He helped with my Olivia Newton-John covers album. I sent him a couple of songs and he ended up giving me a couple of suggestions for “A Little More Love” that were just genius ideas. I did those two things and they made the song 10 times better. So, I guess the answer to your question is yes, I will listen to other people’s ideas, but I don’t feel like I need them every step of the way. I feel like I have pretty good instincts.

Coming back to the Olivia Newton-John album, that followed Pussycat, which was a pretty aggressive and righteously pissed-off record, was the ONJ project a palate cleanser?

Yes, in a way, it was definitely an escape to a more beautiful and peaceful place after Pussycat. That was a very angry record, not sonically angry, not musically angry so much, but the tone of it. It was very pissed off: dark and ugly and reflecting the state of the United States and the world at that time. To escape into Olivia Newton-John-land was soothing. It was necessary. It was very helpful for me to go there after the darkness.

The great thing about that album was it made people reassess those songs. A lot of people would have thought, “Well, Juliana Hatfield’s a fan, so maybe we need to put our prejudices to one side.” It’s a lovely collection of the obvious and the not-so-obvious. Did she ever hear it?

She did. It was so great. She mentioned it a couple of times on her official website. She first mentioned that it was out and it was great and people should check it out. We did a thing where a percentage of the money that came in for each record was going to go to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Australia. So, part of the profits of that album was going to her cancer charity. She was very gracious about mentioning me and the fact that album sales were going to her Cancer Centre. She was so cool and gracious. I never met her though.

Is this going to be your schedule now, going forward? An album of original material followed by a covers album?

I do like that. I like that schedule. One covers, one originals. Right now, I’m working on writing my next album of originals.

When you go out and play live, do you integrate the covers into your set or do you have a section of your shows where you do a suite of songs from the ELO, The Police, or Olivia Newton-John?

I usually just work a few into my set. There’s no set way of doing it—no pun intended! When I go on the road in the fall, I’ll be doing a few songs from the ELO record, and I’ll probably do a Police song, or an Olivia song and then a bunch of my own songs. I won’t be playing all ELO songs on the tour, but I’ll definitely throw a few in there.

How do those songs go down with the people that come to the shows?

Pretty good, I think. The way that I do my sets, those songs blend with mine in a nice, seamless way. I can kind of make them feel like they’re part of the set and not just a weird novelty thing. I like to throw them in there. You can see people’s eyes light up when they recognize them. It’s a fun thing to do.

I was surprised at how not jarring they are, in the context of your own original material

Can I use that in my blurb? “Not jarring: Ian Rushbury.”

What a ringing endorsement that is.

Thank you. I don’t like to make a big deal about it. Like, “Oh, check out my cover song. It’s a goofy novelty.” It’s more like, “This is just a great song among a whole bunch of other great songs.” I like to make it part of the whole of the set. I don’t want it to jump out like a hiccup or something.

You’ve got a great show coming up in a few days. You’re appearing as part of the 50th anniversary of Nuggets. This article is going to come out after that show, so no spoilers, but what are you doing as part of that?

I’m going to be doing “I Cannot Stop You” by The Cherry Slush, which is great—I love that song. And then I’m going to do “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I’m curious and excited to see how it goes down. Who’s going to be playing with whom and everything. I’m really excited. Kind of nervous too.

I have to ask—who’s going to be number four in the cover album series?

I don’t know yet, but I keep thinking about R.E.M. Yeah. I may try to tackle that. I’m kind of putting the cart before the horse, but that has always been in the back of my mind.

Well, you can have a chat with Peter Buck at the Nuggets show…

Yes, I may do that.


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