Mouthful of Blood: An Interview with Juliana Hatfield

On May 14th, American Laundromat Records will be bringing out Blood, the nineteenth studio album from the accomplished and fearless singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield. It’s a rollicking, untamed set of songs — highly danceable until you catch yourself actually listening to the lyrics as opposed to just hearing them. Hatfield describes Blood as her most misanthropic record to date, and I had the chance to speak with her via phone to talk about the thematics of this record, her outlook on the present state of things, metaphorical violence, and more.

Vincent Scarpa: How has your pandemic been? I’m curious to hear how it’s shaped your creative practice. Blood is testament to the fact that you were, in fact, able to produce music, but I wonder if you could talk about how — if at all — these disorienting times came to affect that process.

Juliana Hatfield: It didn’t really affect the writing process too much. I guess it just slowed the recording process, because I had to figure out while I was doing it how to record into my laptop when the studio, I like to work in closed down. I wanted to keep working, so I had to record at home. That was a big learning curve for me. A lot of frustration figuring it out. But I was able to learn what I needed to know by doing it. Engineering kind of wiped me out. It depletes me; the non-musical part of recording saps my energy. Some days I would work for very short amounts of time on the actual recording. So, yeah, the process of recording the album was drawn out because of that.

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But creatively, I feel like I’m impervious to anything, nothing stops me. I’m actually inspired by limitations and challenges. I feel more free when I have more boundaries. For me, if I have financial limitations, in terms of the amount of studio time I can book, I’m forced to make creative decisions quickly and sometimes that’s really great, because I can’t second-guess and overthink. I’m working in this space that’s half-conscious, half-unconscious, so my instincts are really guiding my choices, and that’s always a good thing.

photo courtesy of American Laundromat Records

VS: Were there surprising benefits to recording outside of a studio proper?

JH: Well, I have recorded at home in the past. I used to have a great eight-track machine that finally broke, but I made a couple of albums on it — the Wild Animals album and the Peace and Love album. But those were mostly acoustic stuff, and this was something different. I put off learning GarageBand for a long time, I just sort of scoffed at it. GarageBand, it’s gonna be so dumb, it’s not gonna be cool. And the built-in sounds, I’m sure they gonna be crap and nothing like the real thing. But when I was trying out the guitar sounds, there were a couple that I actually kind of liked, and I used them a lot. There’s one guitar sound — I think it’s called “world’s smallest amp.” It’s got this sort of cruddy-sounding, slightly muddied, distorted sound that I like. Being able to use the built-in sounds, just to plug my guitar right in, was convenient for me because I do feel self-conscious making loud noise in my apartment with my neighbors around me. But I couldn’t get all of the sounds I wanted inside of GarageBand, so I was glad when the studio opened back up and I was able to overdub some stuff there with loud amps and drums, real drums.

VS: And you play the drums on this record, right?

JH: I play a bunch of drums, but there are a few songs that also have some programmed drums that were done by my friend Jed Davis in Connecticut. He helped out with some of the recording, and he built up some pretty elaborate drum tracks on a few of the songs. The ones that I play on — when I record at home, I like to start with a really minimal drumbeat and then I start adding onto that; one that plays the same loop over and over again. And then I like to go into the studio and add real drums on top of that. So, when I’m playing drums, my playing is very minimal groove. You can tell which of the tracks I’m playing on, because Jed’s programmed drums are much more elaborate and involved.

VS: One of the things that strikes me about Blood is the stark contrast between how the music sounds and how the lyrics land. It’s a rewarding record to listen to in that respect, in that we’re continually asked to examine the intersection between melody and mood — which creates which, and to what extent can one lull the other into abstraction. It seems purposeful on your part, the decision to have these fun, danceable melodies stand in opposition — or is it opposition? — to what you’ve called the “damaged lyrical content.” Can you speak to that dichotomy a bit?

JH: It’s really not so purposeful. I seem to have a knack for these buoyant melodies that come from some joyful, innocent, incorruptible place inside of me, and there’s a bottomless well of those melodies that come bubbling up. So, I just like to take advantage of them and use them, that’s what comes naturally to me. But, yeah, I guess there’s also a rebellious side to me that wants to defy expectations that a song with dark lyrical content has to have dark musical accompaniment. I just think that’s dumb, and it’s a cliche. They’ll teach you that in music school — they teach you about genre, about style. How to play in certain styles. This is how to play R&B, this is how to play jazz, this is how to play country, this is how to play rock. And I think that’s all just so dumb. I don’t like genre and classification. I like the idea that my songs end up sounding so bubbly and pretty while, you know, talking about sticking a knife in someone’s neck. I think the rebel in me likes that juxtaposition. There’s something boring about darkness and darkness together. And I’m also not 100% dark in my outlook, and the especially violent songs on this record are comical because they’re so over the top. And if they sounded dark or dirge-like, that would just take all the comedy out of them.

VS: I want to talk about violence a bit, too, which can sometimes exist alongside rage. You seem to be looking at a precise kind of violence in your song “Had A Dream,” in which you chronicle a visceral and vicious dream — importantly not referred to as a nightmare, as in your song “Nightmary” — and remark that “it was a very American dream.” Can you unpack that song a bit for us?

JH: Well, some of the violence is old-timey, you know, quartering someone. It’s historical punishment. What I really meant by “it was a very American dream” is that this is a really violent country. There’s more guns than people. And just look at the news lately: there’s a mass shooting every day. There’s violence all around us, everyone has a machine gun — that’s all I need to say really. That line is a reflection of how much violence there is out there, and how it’s just la-dee-da. I mean, the number of guns — it blows my mind that there are so many people who are buying guns and are so la-dee-da about it. It’s a violence-filled country.

VS: I admire that you never treat that violence as banal, as it so often seems to be treated in this country. It takes a certain kind of perseverance to stay alive to the fresh horror of it, and you do.

JH: If you see violence in person, how can you be immune to it? Fortunately, I rarely encounter real violence in my life, but when I do it’s always so shocking and disturbing. I don’t even like it in movies; I have to close my eyes.

VS: Is there any sense of catharsis in channeling that disturbance in these songs?

JH: I guess there is, yeah. With the over-the-top violent imagery. And then I can sing it and think of whoever I’m most angry at. I can insert anyone into those violent fantasies, and it’s soothing in a way, I guess. But in real life I don’t want to do violence to anyone.

VS: It’s interesting to see this record and Pussycat as bookends of the Trump era, though of course they’re so much more than that, and about more than that. (I’ve long argued for the political nature of all your music, whether it be front and center or a more covert kind of personal politics.) Were you still feeling some of the rage we talked about when we spoke together in promoting Pussycat? How had your outlook changed, if at all, as we approached the end of the Trump presidency and entered the present one, into which this album is being released? A song like “Nightmary,” in which you describe “hour after hour bombarded by lies / it’s a desecration of your mind,” seems to testify to some lingering — and certainly justified — rage.

JH: The album is definitely inspired by the last four years and all of the ugliness and all of the dirt that floated to the surface. Now it’s all out there, floating around. All the rocks that have been overturned, all the scum that floated to the top. And now we’re living with it, and we have to deal with it — or not. I’m really glad that there’s new leadership, but I don’t feel like that solves anything, really. Well, it solves one big problem, right? But most of the bad guys still need to be punished. And the songs “Chunks” and “Had a Dream” are about that; about wanting those guys to be punished. And that still has to happen. There’s a lot of unfinished business, and ongoing corruption and lies and murder and greed. It’s not ending because we have a new president.

I think this album is my most misanthropic album of all of them. I’m not kind to my own self on this record. I think I came out of the past four years with this feeling that it’s more clear to me than ever that people are not going to leave this world a better place. People can’t be trusted to do the right thing. People are selfish. Humanity, as a whole, is going to ruin this world. It’s happening. And we can try to do the right things, we can try to change, but ultimately you have to contend with the fact that people are selfish and we’re on kind of a downward spiral. We can make little fixes, elect different presidents, but it’s a Band-Aid on a deep wound.

VS: I love, love, love the single, “Mouthful of Blood.” I think it’s one of the best songs in your catalogue now. And what I love about it is that the song gets to have it both ways — yes, the chorus is “I bite my tongue, my mouth’s full of blood,” but you’re singing that very line, open-mouthed. I once wrote, of you, that your radical audacity was precisely this: that “even if her mouth is full of sutures, Juliana Hatfield finds some way to still and always be singing.” So, it was happy-making to encounter this song which seems to posit exactly that. There’s an expression of reticence, of fear, of withholding, but there is still expression. Does that resonate with you?

JH: I think with that song I was trying to defend myself preemptively from criticism of “Chunks” or “Had a Dream,” because those are the songs that I think are going to get me in trouble, if anything gets me in trouble. [“Blood”] is also talking about how there’s no room for nuance anymore. You have to be on one side or the other, and everyone just pounces on a side so they can defend their position. So, I guess I am trying to have it both ways, but I guess that’s what artists get to do. I’m in a lucky position because I don’t have so much scrutiny on me. Like, I’m not Taylor Swift. So, I can be a little more free with my expression because I don’t have the eyes of the masses and the mainstream media looking at me very closely, or at all. And that’s a unique position — one that allows for metaphorical knives in necks.

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