Paying Attention to Juliana Hatfield

December 8, 2008 at 8:20 pm (Uncategorized)

I have a terrible, short attention span. Seriously, it’s bad. But I’ve grown to like it. I think I just get bored with things quickly and as a result have to always be moving on to whatever I find more interesting. And you know what? That’s OK. Instead of concentrating on one thing at a time, I have an odd ability to concentrate on many things at a time. Sure, I’m probably still much less intelligent than those people who actually have good attention spans and an ability to focus. But I do have a fairly unquenchable curiosity in all kinds of stuff. Basically, my mind gets more excited about breadth than depth. Rather than read one book closely and carefully, I’d rather sit down for an hour with, say, three totally unrelated books or magazines while watching a movie, listening to music, or surfing the net. Fortunately, I think this has helped my songwriting a great deal. When you write a song you’re basically trying to crunch a whole bunch of interesting ideas into a three to four minutes of melodies. So, this blog’s going to be filled with my musings on the many things that I’m intrigued by and, hopefully, how they relate to songwriting, performance, music, etc.  Those things will mostly be movies, CDs, bands, books, YouTube clips, and funny things that my friends & family say and do because, to be honest, that’s all I really care about. So hear we go.

Let’s start with books. I like books. They are the hardest things on earth to pay attention to, I think. I can pay pretty close attention to music books, political ones, and short stories. This week I’ve been reading When I Grow Up, which is a memoir by singer/songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire Juliana Hatfield. You may (or may not) remember her from Blake Babies and The Lemonheads. I became obsessed with her about two years ago after buying her CD Only Everything at a “Disc-Go-Round” for $.99.  My brother listened to her long before I did, but back then I never really gave her a shot because I was too busy trying to  prove to my friends that I really liked gangsta rap. I think I always knew she was talented. But the minute I heard Only Everything I was hooked. She has now become one of my top 5 favorite solo artists. I’d say….number 5. I think. Let’s see, let me make a quick list:

          1) Sufjan Stevens

          2) Evan Dando (aka Lemonheads)

          3) Tom Waits

          4) David Bazan (formerly Pedro the Lion)

          5) Juliana Hatfield

You’ve probably heard at least one of her songs. Such as:

My Sister:


Spin the Bottle

and one  of my personal favorites:

Universal Heartbeat


Yep, she’s number 5. That sounds about right. I love her because her guitar sounds like it’s taking an angry shit. Seriously, and I mean that in the best possible way. That is perhaps the biggest compliment I have ever given to a guitarist. Her solos are all grunty and raunchy and totally proud of what they’ve accomplished. To be honest, I don’t think she’s the greatest lyricist on earth. But she’s always got very creative concepts undergirding her songs. Like, she’s got that one early-90s hit song “My Sister” about an older sibling who takes her to great rock concerts but  is never very nice. And there’s another song about playing spin the bottle with famous people. Oh, and there’s a lesser known one off of Made in China (one of her best albums) where she talks about how she doesn’t like god very much but would gladly take money from him if he’s feeling generous. Anyways, her memoir came out about 2 weeks ago. Thus far it’s received some strong, well-deserved reviews. It’s seriously one of the most entertaining and helpful books on being a musician I’ve read in some time. Like her songs, Juliana shares some often embarrassingly personal information but with such honesty and sincerity that you can’t help but listen. For instance, she talks about how she often pees in cups when backstage at her concerts. Apparently this is a practice common to just about every indie musician at one point or another. According to her, most venues take horrible care of performers and don’t even offer them (or even have) dressing rooms. So peeing into cups is the only option. Aside from that, Miss (that’s right, MISS) Hatfield mostly talks about how depressive and bitchy she is, which is why most of her songs have such an angry edge.  From what I gather, she likes people well enough but finds them immediately annoying. She feels terrible about this, and much of the book is her apologizing for being such a turd to her friends, family, and fans. I am pretty sure that if I ever meet her I’ll be incredibly nervous and immediately assume that she thinks I’m an obnoxious sack of shit.

In the way of autobiography, there’s a good deal in here about the early days of her music career (Berklee, Blake Babies) and how she never planned on being anything other than a rock star of some sort. She also talks about her two or three years of mainstream fame. From around 1993-1995 she was a favorite on MTV (ie. “120 Minutes”), received constant critical acclaim, performed on The Tonight Show, palled around with all kinds of famous people, was basically a fashion model, and even signed fairly hefty deal with Atlantic Records. I always wondered if she made a lot of money during that time. Turns out Atlantic wrote her a check for $400,000 dollars. She says that “to some degree I’m still living off that publishing advance.”

What I like best about this book is that it gives such thoroughly practical advice to struggling singers/songwriters/performers.  For instance, she advises that you bring a lot of Cliff Bars and peanuts with you when touring because most venues don’t pay a lick of attention to your riders. She says they’ll sometimes buy you supper if you complain about their failure to provide a lick of food, but even that can take a while to get and are usually pretty piddly, so it’s good to have plenty of high-protein snacks to keep you from starving. She also suggests that you hire your own personal sound engineer to tour with you, especially one who is really good at making crappy sound equipment sound listenable. I guess even some of the more renowned venues have barely-working sound systems that the club owners usually don’t have a half clue in hell how to use.

Much to my disappointment, the very first page of the book dispels the myth that musicians get a lot of free beer. As she explains on page 1, “Some club owners and promoters opt to give the band drink tickets, good for complimentary beverages, instead of setting up a spread backstage. A long strip of those little generic ‘admit one’ tear-off tickets is given to the tour manager, who then distributes them to his charges. Usually we’d get about four tickets each…” I had always assumed that you could have 97 beers if you wanted to, based on the fact that I’ve never once seen a concert with a sober band. Next Thursday will be my first ever concert at a bar and, I must say, my high hopes of getting unlimited free beer have been crushed by my 5th favorite singer.  

Interestingly enough, Juliana doesn’t give a whole lot of advice regarding songwriting itself. That’s really not a bad thing, though. Songwriters are usually pretty lousy at articulating the craft of songwriting, as my blog will continually demonstrate. I guess Jimi Hendrix, when asked how he wrote songs, would go off about how animated cats would whisper lyrics into his ear and he’d immediately write them down. I would be entirely grateful if this happened to me but, I’ll be damned, it hasn’t yet. There is one particular page of When I Grow Up wherein Juliana talks about her craft and, seriously, it’s as poetic as it is helpful. Here’re the goods:

“Some songs are more consciously, diligently crafted, with hours and hours of dutiful, disciplined effort and will and sustained concentration and toil, like the metal a blacksmith pounds in to the shapes he has envisioned and then mapped out. But other songs–the dream songs, the phantoms of the netherworlds–are like woodland sprites that jump out from behind a tree and dare you to try to catch them as they giggle and run away, disappearing among the thick camouflage of the forest. They tease, but they don’t want to get caught. There’s a reason that the word ‘capture’ is used when describing what a writer is doing when he tries to get down on paper what he experiences. We writers are all hunters on a never-ending hunt. Hunting for the right words and chords and melodies.” 

Hunters. I like that. Thanks, Juliana.

Anyways, I think you should buy her book. I know the economy is in stellar shape thanks to our incredibly capable president, so you have absolutely no excuse to not purchase it at your local bookstore.


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