Cover tunes in the music industry are not new. ELO covers are also not new: witness Weezer's "Mr. Blue Sky," OK GO doing a live rendition of "Don't Bring Me Down" and a concert version by Umphrey's McGee of "Showdown." But how about an entire album's worth of ELO covers? Welcome to the stage as Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO, releases November 17.
Hatfield is not a newbie to this concept. Her 2018 Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John and 2019's Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police are proof positive that however eclectic the subject matter, Hatfield has gone all in with a mindset of making it her own and infusing the songs with her particular style of wistfulness, simplicity and also outright benevolence.
While retro-futurism may be the thing that holds it all together, Hatfield couches it in childhood mysteries of space and time. Not coincidentally, she and I grew up within the same geographical sphere of the Top 40 transistor wavelength known as 'The Big 68' WRKO-AM. And that's where we dial in for this conversation.
This album brings me back to my youth, listening to WRKO in Boston.
Yeah, totally. That's how I got to know ELO in the beginning. WRKO. It brings it back in the sense that it was music that we were hearing at a time in our lives. I had this little transistor radio that I would bring into bed with me. I'd get under the covers in the dark and put the little speaker up to my ear and listen to AM pop radio and I remember it was just like being transported to another world. The music was just so magical to me, and ELO especially was really transporting. It made me feel like I was going to another planet. All the strings and the choral vocals and some of it was so eerie but also beautiful.
And so I think when I was recording these songs, there is a part of me that's trying to go back to my childhood. I'm trying to recapture that feeling of wonder and the feeling of just being innocent and open to new things and trying to absorb some of that magic once again. And yeah, there is a nostalgic thing, but at the same time, I'm going into it as an adult songwriter with a career. I'm trying to figure out what was it that made ELO so mysterious and magical and how can I get my hands into that and figure it out and make sense of it all?
So it's a matter of catching a feeling and making it your own. There's this beauty to it, even in the video you did for "Can't Get it Out of My Head."
It is. I love that. I love that phrase catching a feeling. I feel like there's no point in trying to get everything note for note the same way ELO did because there's no way I could recapture their energy because they were them and I'm me.
I go at it with my own instincts and my own aesthetic, which is a little bit unpolished, I would say. But unpolished means to me being open to the accidents of the musical universe and being open to whatever influence and energy gets into the music, without trying to beat it into submission. The director of the video, David Doobinn, has that kind of approach too. He's really good at capturing my own awkwardness but also my grace, and I think that's what my music is about. Trying to be honest and true to my awkwardness and insecurity and whatever grace I possess.
Plus you included [your dog] Charlie at the end.
I'm so glad David was there to just capture her on film. [Quietly] She died soon after that.
It's mostly a deconstruction, adding in your particular brand identity. Did you find that came easy?
In the beginning, it's pretty daunting. When I first started working on it, it was like "Oh my gosh, how am I going to do this? What am I going to do about all the string parts?" I can't hire an orchestra and a studio to fit them in. I don't have the capabilities to do that. So then it just becomes a process of 'I'm going to work with what I do have.' Whatever toolbox I have personally.
Once I start getting my hands into the songs and learning all the chords and playing through them, I try to make it my own. I feel like I'm an archaeologist and I'm digging for the bones. I'm trying to do something really honest and natural and organic with the song, without it being too heavy-handed or too forced, because I don't really have the tools to pile too much onto them. My limitations actually turn out to be a blessing.
Like you said, there's no sense in trying to recreate this sound. That chugging steam pipe associated with the vocals? 'No, I'm going to remember how it resonated with me back in the day. Let's hack it down right to the marrow.'
Jeff Lynne is such an accomplished and smart songwriter that when you break the songs down there are really good bones, to use the archaeologist analogy again. You can't say that about every hit song of every other artist. But that's a real benefit to working with ELO songs. The songwriting is great and strong. Solid.
Have you felt that at some point you would do this type of album? Having an attachment to the ELO aesthetic?
When I was thinking about what artist I wanted to cover this time, after having done Olivia Newton-John and The Police, I was thinking of doing R.E.M. I started to research and then I changed my mind. The idea [for ELO] floated into my mind and breathed, and it made sense.
There's a sort of beauty about it that lends itself when you strip it down and listen to Jeff's vocals. Sort of melancholy, sometimes wistfulness. Where it hangs in the air and you're like 'I can understand this. This is why I connect.'
Totally, and that's what it's really about. For me, it's a feeling that comes through in the sound of his voice that really speaks to me. The loneliness and alienation and the songs and the difficulty in communicating. I really feel all that comes through in the sound of his voice. There's a recording you can find on YouTube. I think it's from a few years ago. It's Jeff Lynne with his acoustic guitar and a pianist. That's how I figured out how to play some of them by watching him in that stripped-down situation. It's great without all of the band and the strings and the layers of vocals. That's just a testament to how great his voice is and how well-built the songs are.
When you're either in a band or with someone like Paul Westerberg, do you disappear and just behave in a fashion that works in that collaborative atmosphere, rather than listening to ELO and getting a more personal connection?
Every situation is a little bit different, but I always try to. When I'm making music, I want to express something that's true and real for me, things that are hard to express in any other way other than musically. It's really about truth and beauty, trying to express something that's beautiful and universal and human and otherworldly.
When I was in the room with Paul Westerberg recording vocals or something, I did defer to him a little because I felt his voice and his songs and playing were the main thing in The I Don't Cares and I was adding a little bit to it. So I definitely felt I was holding back a little on that project because it wasn't all about me. If I'm doing a whole album of ELO songs on my own, I feel I can dive a little bit more deeply into it. But whatever I'm doing, my own personal voice is going to get into the mix. I can't really fake anything.
What was it about the [majority of] '70s choices for the ELO covers?
It was when I first heard them. When I was first discovering music and exploring the sounds of music. I guess it was the most formative and the most important in my development because all the stuff that I heard on the radio in the '70s was becoming part of my DNA. It was like forming me as a person and a musician. That stuff was the most influential to me, I think, because of where I was at that time of my life.
This is your third covers album. How did it come about? Where did it germinate?
Each one had a different thought process. But in the beginning, when I did the Olivia Newton-John album, I was not planning on doing any other artists. I had always loved Olivia Newton-John but had never seen her in concert. And then she had this history of dealing with cancer.
She was in remission for a long time and then I heard the news that her cancer had come back. I saw that she was touring and I thought "This is the time! I got to go see her. I might not have the chance again." So my friend and I went to see her in Pennsylvania, which was the closest place to me. My friend was coming from North Carolina, I was coming from Boston and it was outside of Pittsburgh. So we flew out and we met and we went to see her play and it was great and I was so happy to have seen her.
After we saw the concert, I thought "I want to record an album of her songs." I just love her so much and I don't know how long she's going to be with us and I want to pay tribute to her.
It was really just like a whim. So I did it and it was challenging, but it was also really fulfilling. That's how the whole thing started. And some people seem to really like it and Olivia was so gracious and she acknowledged it publicly and told her fans about it and then, as we all know, she passed away fairly recently. But it made me so glad that I seized that moment and it was so fulfilling that I decided to do it again.
I did The Police, who was another big influence on me, and that led to ELO.
If people took the global overview of your work, they would say, 'Ah, The Police. That seems a natural.' But something has happened with this album. I don't want to bring up the pandemic, but am I right or wrong? What happened?
I don't know if I can really answer that right now. Sometimes it takes a few years for me to understand things that I've done. I can look back now and start to understand things that I didn't understand before in terms of my own work. I'm not an intellectual artist or conceptual artist. I'm an intuitive artist. So I'm always working in a state of half-consciousness and I'm just really flying by instinct. What do you think about the difference?
I think the presentation with The Police is more direct, more forward. There doesn't seem to be a need to dig around it and understand why did I do this song. [With ELO] It was more personal. Maybe that's a condition of our generation: we don't want people to forget this is what inspired us.
I think you might be onto something. It's funny, though, because I always felt like I had more of an emotional connection to Sting and his body of work and I felt a kindred spirit in terms of the way he sang. When I would sing Police songs, it felt like I was singing along with my brother. But with Jeff Lynne, I always felt like he was an enigma. I didn't really know anything about him and I didn't feel that personal connection to him.
But I think I'm going through something at this stage in my life. There's definitely a part of immersing myself in ELO that has something to do with the things I'm trying to work through from my childhood. I'm trying to go back and figure out, not just the mystery of how ELO got into my brain, but the mystery of my childhood and of my life.
It's so easy these days to look on Wikipedia or Google something and I don't know if people understand the breadth and the depth. They just want instant gratification.
There are all these decades when I was between my 20s and my 40s when I probably didn't listen to ELO at all and it was the same with TV. I remember when I got into my 40s, I started to go back and I would look for The Rockford Files and Charlie's Angels.
Seeing these as an adult really brought me back to my childhood in an emotional way. I don't know that people growing up today will ever have that experience because they have access to everything at their fingertips and they can immerse themselves in whatever, whenever. But for us, there was this gap of decades. You feel the emotions and it's very intense.
There's this overwhelming consciousness that once you get past a certain age in life, you don't care about new music. I can definitely understand not willing to open your ears. Yet you do have artists who are well past that, who do perform and compose new music. So we're stuck in this weird vortex of appreciating our nostalgia but also trying to forge ahead.
I don't think about what I'm supposed to do or what anyone thinks I should do. I really do whatever I want and I make new music and I make covers. It's all worthwhile to me and it's all part of my process. I'm always trying to get to a point of making really good work and I'm always trying to get to the place where I'm getting better and it's all the same to me. I don't think of it in terms of what I should be doing or what's nostalgic or what's new or old. I just make music.
It's not like you're gonna just give everything up.
When I don't feel inspired anymore, when I feel like I have nothing to say, I will give it up for sure. There's no reason for me to not do it if I didn't feel really inspired.
What was the thing about you going back [to school] and doing that post-baccalaureate for painting [in 2012]?
I just felt like sometimes I just get a little burned out on everything. I get really worn out touring physically. It kind of ravages me. And then I got tired of promoting stuff and I just wanted to get off the road, get off the promotion cycle and go to school. So I got into this year-long full-time program at the [School of the Museum of Fine Arts] in Boston. It was a lot of work and a lot of time but it was also very good for me. I was resetting. Painting gave me something else to focus on and then I was able to get back to music.
Oh! I'm so sorry. I have to wrap this up!
You can just tell them that you were stuck in the '70s and it took a while to get out.
I will say that, thank you.