Not counting the records she’s made as a member of the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, or Some Girls, Juliana Hatfield’s just-released How to Walk Away is the Boston-based alt-pop lady’s ninth studio album. A set of laid-back yet penetrating songs about reaching a moment of romantic (and professional) reckoning, it’s also her best, which is pretty unusual in a career-trajectory sense.
“Well, I’m unusual,” Hatfield, 41, admits. We’re sitting outside at a café off Harvard Square, near the Brattle Theatre, where she’ll conclude a brief East Coast tour in support of the new album on September 14. “I really think I’m a late bloomer, in every part of my life. Even in the beginning, when I was first making records, I always knew that I wasn’t giving my best. I knew that I had a lot of development ahead of me in terms of my songwriting and my singing and my playing—and my development as a person.”
As remarkably frank in conversation as she is in her music—remember “My Sister”?—Hatfield says that a few years ago, she discovered she’d ended up in a creative rut, writing the same kind of songs and playing them for the same kind of people at the same kind of venues. She describes this stasis in often-excruciating detail throughout When I Grow Up, a new memoir out this month in which Hatfield tells her life story around a Some Girls tour diary. “We were booked to play at a place called the Patio, in Indianapolis,” begins one chapter, chillingly.
To get off the plateau she says she’d inhabited for nearly a decade, Hatfield hired producer Andy Chase, whom she’d met back when she and Chase’s New York lounge-pop trio Ivy were both signed to Atlantic. “All of Juliana’s records had good songs that I’d gravitate toward, but I always felt like maybe she was capable of doing something more consistent,” Chase says. He pushed her to “focus on writing stuff where each song reveals an onion layer of who Juliana is.” Occasionally, Hatfield would present a tune that didn’t quite fit into the overall scheme, and the producer would (gently) reject it. “She’d be bummed,” he says, “but then she’d come back with something incredible.”
Chase also convinced Hatfield to sing in a register quite a bit lower than her signature little-girl voice, and that gives the songs on How to Walk Away a sexy, grown-up quality that Hatfield’s never mustered before. When I tell her it sounds like a very womanly album, she’s happy to hear it, and that gets us talking about Liz Phair and Sheryl Crow and Chrissie Hynde—acts whose best work Walk Away stands up to. “The first time I heard Juliana sing in my home studio, I did a little experiment and pulled the songs down a few keys,” says Chase. “I was like, ‘God, this girl has an insanely beautiful, textured voice—it’s just not coming through in her records.'”
After she and Chase completed it, Hatfield shopped the new album to several labels, but nobody bit, so she released it on her own Ye Olde Records. She’s happy with the arrangement, since it means she can tour when and for however long she sees fit. And it certainly suits the disc’s narrative of self-reliance. But it’s also scary. And expensive. “I don’t have any investors—it’s just my savings,” Hatfield acknowledges. “But I love being the one who makes all the decisions. No one can tell me what they think I should do.” She grins one of her half-grins. “Unless I ask them what they think.”
Juliana Hatfield plays Bowery Ballroom September 12