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Juliana Hatfield's well-made Bed

By Jonathan Perry

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  It would be easy to mistake the queasy lurch of noise that opens Juliana Hatfield's new Bed as an indication -- along with the album's title -- that its author's feeling a tad under the weather these days. And that assumption would be entirely understandable, given who we're talking about. Aside from last year's one-off EP, Please Do Not Disturb (Bar/None), the last anybody heard from Hatfield for any duration was three years ago, on 1995's Only Everything, an album that proved to be her final release for Atlantic. The label ultimately opted to let her go after deciding not to release her intended follow-up -- a project titled God's Foot that she had toiled on for two and a half years, at a cost of about $180,000. Speculation surrounding the project suggested an alterna-rock equivalent to the head scratching that accompanied Brian Wilson's aborted Smile opus. The notoriously confessional Hatfield herself provided a glimpse of the dark clouds swirling around her on "Sellout," the impossible-not-to-read-as-autobiography first track from her '97 EP, where she sang: "It's not a sellout if nobody buys it/I can't be blamed if nobody likes it."

But that was then, this is now. Hatfield's feeling fine these days -- better than she has in ages, in fact. And if Bed, on Rounder Records' new Zoë/Mercury imprint, attracts even half the audience it deserves, she probably won't have to worry whether anyone likes the album or not. Not that she's worried, anyhow. She's done enough of that over the last couple of years.

"No, I feel no pressure at all, because Bed was done so quietly and quickly. It was recorded when I had no label and no one breathing down my neck," Hatfield says when we sit down to talk over a bowl of chili at Newbury Street's Trident Booksellers and Café. "It was conceived and created completely for myself. If anything, the pressure was, 'Can I really make this album happen in six days?' I allotted six days of studio time because I was paying for it myself and I didn't have a lot of money."

Enlisting her friends Mikey Welsh on bass and longtime drummer Todd Philips, Hatfield literally camped out last March at Sound Station Seven, a converted old firehouse turned recording studio in Providence. "We rolled out of bed and started working, and that made it easier to do in six days because it cut out all that driving time to and from the studio," says Hatfield, who played all the guitar and keyboard parts and sang as well as produced. "It went amazingly smoothly. We had rehearsed the songs for a few days before we went in, but some of the guitar leads and overdubs were thought up on the spot. I didn't allow myself to think too much about the amount of work that had to be done. But it was a blast. It totally gave me my confidence back. I saved myself and pulled myself out of this hole that I was in. And I'm really proud of that, that I used music to make me feel better."

On Bed, Hatfield transforms personal experience into art that transcends the specifics of that experience. Much of the new material explores a recurring theme of powerlessness, of struggling to hold onto something -- a relationship, an identity -- that's fast disintegrating. But as a songwriter, Hatfield's also drawing strength from documenting those battles. It soon becomes clear, for instance, that the cacophony of feedback that pitches into "Down on Me," the album's opening track, is expressing not sickness or confusion but rather noisy, hard-won liberation. A shaking off of the shackles. "You're so down on me/I think it is a fad/So I don't feel so bad anymore," Hatfield sings in the chorus before proclaiming, with all the swagger her light voice can muster, that she's going to "walk away unscathed, gonna take you off my thank-you list." Elsewhere, on "Swan Song," she sings, "You can't fire me because I quit."

Meanwhile, the sinewy Stones-ish vamp of "I Want To Want You" and the unadorned acoustic snapshot "Running Out" illustrate, each in its own way, the stripped-to-the-bone, raw-nerve quality of both the recording sessions and Hatfield's state of mind. Like Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, this is wounded, scrappy music, simultaneously tender and resilient. "In the middle of writing these songs, it became clear to me that they were thematically linked. I've never written an album where the songs all went together like that. I like the idea of capturing a moment in time, when I was feeling really frustrated and down and capturing that."

But it's a fun album, too. Hatfield indulges her habit of name-checking bands (this time it's Spacemen 3 playing on the radio in "Backseat") and FM staples ("Dear Jack I hate you, love Diane" pops up in "Swan Song"). And on the gorgeously unsettling "Sneaking Around," she nods to Tom Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" with her opening salvo: "Baby you come whispering at my back door/What do I open it for?"

"Yeah, I think the radio's in my subconscious," she admits. "Radio songs are part of my blood, and they just pop up sometimes in my music like little homages." The speed with which Hatfield made Bed also had something to do with being inspired by what she was listening to -- namely the raw rock and raunch and live-in-the-studio vibe of Verbena's Souls for Sale (Merge), which she says she couldn't bring herself to pull out of her CD player. But part of it was also a response to the endless, interminable recording sessions for God's Foot and the emotional spiral that followed.

"It was completely a reaction against that. It just seemed like forever until I was free. And once I was free, I just wanted to get the next thing done." When asked about the circumstances leading up to her departure from Atlantic, Hatfield takes a deep, measured breath. And seems, suddenly, somehow smaller sitting there.

"It was a very typical scenario at the label, where the president [Danny Goldberg] who had supported me for Become What You Are left, and I knew as soon as he left that things were going to be different for me and I wasn't going to get as much support. Then the next record came out [Only Everything], and it didn't do as well as the one before it. So I went in to do this God's Foot album and, y'know, I spent a long time on it and I thought it was real good, and I turned it in to the label and they said, 'We don't hear a single,' and I said, 'Okay, I can go and try to write some more.'

"And I did. I wrote some more and recorded some more and gave it back to them and they said it again. They still didn't hear a single. So I wrote some more and recorded some more and then after, like, three times I said I just can't do it. I've tried. So I asked them to let me go somewhere where I was more wanted and they agreed, which I'm thankful for. A lot of labels would hold on for no reason, just because they can."

At this point, Atlantic owns God's Foot because, as Hatfield points out, "they paid for it and that's understandable." Although she could buy it back, Hatfield says that's not a purchase she can afford at the moment. Bed's a different story, however. Hatfield owns her new disc outright -- she paid for it, after all -- and she's licensing it to the Cambridge-based Rounder, which this summer launched its new pop/rock-oriented Zoë imprint. The major label Mercury Records is handling distribution.

Although she insists the God's Foot fiasco was worthwhile because it forced her to write (and write and write), Hatfield says it also left her struggling to make sense of her place in a music industry that had suddenly, without warning, become very cold. "I was pretty naive about everything up until that point. Until then, I had been kind of coasting, doing what came naturally, and no one ever really questioned it. Having done all this work and having it not be appreciated was a real blow to me, and I felt alone and stranded when I left Atlantic. People in the music industry who said they'd help me out when I left disappeared. It was also hard to realize that I'm perceived as this thing that's not new anymore, and that I'll never be new again."

But age -- Hatfield just turned a hardly wizened 31 -- can bring certain benefits to a songwriter, like subtlety, sophistication, a richness of perspective. The 10 songs on Bed represent some of the most vital work of a career that saw her emerge with her late-'80s outfit the Blake Babies before going solo. Unlike her earlier material, which was sometimes marred by a precious pose, the songs on Bed are honest without being self-pitying -- the work of a mature artist ready to emerge from her retreat. And that's ultimately what Bed's been for Hatfield -- a sanctuary of sorts, a refuge.

"A lot of really important, intimate things happen in bed," she reflects. "It's where you dream and where you pray and where you cry and where you have sex, and it's where I have my greatest ideas. Oh, and it's also the place you go to get better when you're sick. And this album is kind of what I did to make myself feel well again."

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