In Her Own Voice

Juliana Hatfield has a new album, the pop-rock
Juliana Hatfield has a new album, the pop-rock "How to Walk Away," and a memoir coming out this month titled "When I Grow Up." (By Jonathan Stark)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 5, 2008

For a long time, Juliana Hatfield was uncomfortable with her voice. The indie-rock legend always wanted a tough, raspy, rock-and-roll voice, but she was born with a high, girlish soprano. She even smoked for five years in an effort to coarsen her singing voice. It didn't work.

"I gave it up when I realized it would take a lifetime of smoking for me to sound like Marianne Faithfull," she says over the phone from her home in Cambridge, Mass. "I was kind of tortured for a long time, because I wanted to have a low, cool, serious voice like Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith. I thought people wouldn't take me seriously otherwise."

In fact, Hatfield's voice was a major asset in a career that began as one-third of the Blake Babies in 1986 and continued when she went solo in 1992. On her best-known song, "My Sister," a confession of both admiration and resentment for an older sister, the very sweetness of Hatfield's soprano enabled her to embody a teenage girl's romantic hopes as they crash into the reality of the adult world.

"I've finally learned to love my voice for its uniqueness," she says. "With the new album I had a breakthrough. . . . I just went into the studio, and my voice went places I didn't know it could go."

The new album, "How to Walk Away," is an unabashedly pop-rock project with more keyboards and vocal harmonies than any of her previous releases. Just as Hatfield no longer fights the nature of her voice, she no longer resists her gift for melody.

"From the beginning, I've always had a knack for catchy melodies," she says. "But I went through a period when I was trying to be rock-and-roll and have a rock-and-roll attitude. I was fighting my nature by trying to play really hard and sing really hard. But at a certain point, I realized that I loved syrupy pop music with tons of harmony."

In her memoir, "When I Grow Up," to be released this month, Hatfield, 41, retells the story of the Blake Babies' breakup in 1991. The catalyst, she says, was an argument over Wilson Phillips, whose sound she loved. But her two band mates, Freda Boner and John Strohm, dismissed the music as a "shamelessly commercialized pop product." It wasn't the argument that broke up the band, but rather what the disagreement revealed about the friends' diverging musical goals.

Hatfield wanted to make pop music, and she would do it as a solo artist.

Her first solo album, "Hey Babe," came out in 1992, with "Become What You Are" following the next year. The songs "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle" became popular videos (the latter directed by Ben Stiller) on MTV, with "My Sister" playing in rotation with Guns N' Roses' "November Rain."

"I had nothing against Guns N' Roses," she writes in her book. "It was just that me and them seemed so fundamentally, philosophically unlike one another. They knew that rock 'n' roll stardom was their birthright, that they deserved to be rock stars. As for me, I seemed born not to raise hell but to doubt everything. Did I deserve my current success? Did I fit the role -- fill the rock star shoes -- like they did? It was open to debate. And I, for one, was decidedly skeptical."

The book in large part consists of undigested journal entries from Hatfield's 2002 tour with Some Girls, a trio (now on hiatus) that included Hatfield, Freda Love (the former Freda Boner of the Blake Babies) and Heidi Gluck. Throughout the tour-diary entries, Hatfield is painfully honest about her struggles with her voice, her guitar playing, her love life, her family, her tour mates, anorexia and severe depression.

"I just can't stop myself," she says. "I'm kind of an emotional exhibitionist. . . . By laying myself so bare in the book, I know I'm going to get criticized, but I still do it. I feel some kind of duty to be really, really honest as a writer. The same is true of my songwriting."

The book ends with Hatfield taking a one-year break from the music business in 2005 to clear her head. When the year was over, new songs started pouring out of her, and those songs became the basis for her new album, which was named in honor of that time off.

One of the album's key songs is "Such a Beautiful Girl," inspired by an incident described in the book. After a show in Minneapolis, Hatfield was approached by a girl who said the singer's music was a lifeline in a home full of drugs and abuse. Hatfield mumbled something in response but felt the words were inadequate.

It wasn't until she wrote "Such a Beautiful Girl" with her brother Jason that she came up with a satisfactory answer. Over a minimalist drum loop and a menacing thump, Hatfield's whispery soprano croons: "She's such a beautiful girl, and she lives in an ugly world/They want to knock that smile off her face, so she shuts her door and writes and dreams."

By the time her multi-tracked vocals swell in Wilson Phillips-like harmonies at the end of the song, it's clear that Hatfield is singing about herself as well as the girl in Minneapolis -- and that she is finally comfortable with her voice.

Juliana Hatfield Appearing Tuesday with the Spoils of NW at Iota (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington). Show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets:$15, 703-522-8340

© 2008 The Washington Post Company