Hatfield's melodic mosaic

February 11, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Who is Juliana Hatfield, really?

That's not as easy a question as you might think. Caught onstage with her band, the Juliana Hatfield Three, she seems focused, energetic, in command; seen in a video or photo shoot, she can be glamorous, confident, alluring.

But put her in an interview situation, and she appears awkward and uncomfortable, more like a self-conscious schoolgirl than an established rock singer. Her voice trails off to near inaudibility at the end of sentences, and she often answers questions by talking to the floor, distractedly picking at loose threads in her battered jeans. Even her moments of enthusiasm have a hesitant, guarded quality to them, as if she were consciously keeping herself in check.

It's tempting to think she dislikes being in the spotlight, but Hatfield insists that isn't so. "I love playing in front of people," she says. "I feel powerful, 'cause I don't have to really say anything -- I'm just singing. It's just I feel a little uncomfortable in [interview] situations, because I have to watch what I say."

It's hard to imagine what a lack of caution might lead to, considering some of the things Hatfield has said to the press. Last year, for instance, the 26-year-old touched off a feminist firestorm by seeming to suggest that women were biologically ill-equipped to become great guitarists; the year before that, she induced alterna-rock titters by telling Interview that she was still a virgin.

But Hatfield is neither as honest nor naive as those statements might suggest. "It looks like I'm being honest," she says. "I learned a lot over the last year doing interviews. Sometimes I don't say anything. It doesn't really matter, because no one's going to get the right idea anyway during the interview."

Still, Hatfield gets asked about her private life a lot. "Isn't that strange?" she says. "But I sort of like the attention, just because I'm, uh -- I'm lonely," she says with an embarrassed laugh. "I kind of like it, in a weird way. I like people wanting to know about me."

Given the seemingly confessional nature of her songs, it's easy to understand why journalists and fans would be so curious about Hatfield's private life. Her current album, "Become What You Are," is full of songs that seem snatched from childhood memories, like "My Sister," with its mix of youthful adoration and sibling resentment, or "Spin the Bottle," with its images of unspoken crushes and playful flirtation.

Yet Hatfield seems appalled by the thought that her fans might think she's writing about her own life. "God! If they could see me writing a song, they'd change their minds," she says. "It takes so long, you know? A week, sometimes a month. It's craft and work, and they're all pieced together. Songwriting is like editing. You write down all this stuff -- all this bad, stupid stuff -- and then you have to get rid of everything except the very best.

"People think I'm letting out all this emotion that's in me. But it's just craft."

Take "My Sister," for example. "I don't have a sister," Hatfield explains. "I was just interested in the concept of having a sister. I just started writing, and that's what happened. Some of it's about different people that I know, and some of it's about me, like I am the sister that I'm singing about.

"I think most of my songs are like that," she adds. "When I start writing, I'll have a vague concept or I'll just have a title, and the song just goes on its own direction. Usually it goes in many directions, within each song. They get really convoluted sometimes.

"But I don't always know what I'm trying to say in songs. Some of the songs, I can't explain them."

Hatfield, though, is more interested in melody than in lyrical content, and worries less about what her songs mean than how singable they are. "I write stuff that's a struggle for me to sing," xTC she says. "The singers that I like, a lot of them, are really great singers, you know? I like that kind of stuff, so I guess I write like that."

Trouble is, Hatfield's voice tends to be too high and girlish to pull off the kind of bravura effects she admires in others. "I like my voice," she says. "I like it for its originality. I like how I don't really sound like very many people.

"But I get really frustrated with it. Not because of the tone of it, but because I'm technically sort of limited, although I studied voice and really tried to get better. My voice isn't naturally very strong, and my range is pretty narrow.

"If I could sing a much more simple melody line, I'd probably be better off. But I like to push myself."

Become what you hear

Juliana Hatfield's songs may seem like convoluted confessions on the surface, but the real heart of her music is her gift for sturdy melodies and simple, catchy choruses. Listen to excerpts from her current album, "Become What You Are," by calling Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; 836-5028 in Harford County; 848-0338 in Carroll County. Using a touch-tone telephone, punch in the four-digit code 6126 after you hear the greeting.

Juliana Hatfield Three

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Hammerjacks Concert Hall

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door

Call: (410) 659-7625 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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