DAVE RAYBURN: Your brand-new album, JULIANA HATFIELD SINGS ELO, is now upon us, so let’s begin with some nostalgia. What was the first ELO record you ever had, and what else were you listening to at that time?
JULIANA HATFIELD: Before I had any of their albums, I was mostly just listening to songs on the AM pop radio of the time (the 1970’s)—whatever was happening and popular. With ELO there was a string of never-ending hits: “Strange Magic,” “Telephone Line,” “Evil Woman,” etc, etc. But the first ELO album I got on my own was probably the “Xanadu” soundtrack, which wasn’t actually a fully ELO album but was a combination of ELO and Olivia Newton-John (and others).
DAVE: What role did ELO’s songs play in your youth, and what purpose do they serve you today?
JULIANA: They were part of my musical upbringing; they were a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood, always around, always in the air, always delivering jolts of pleasure and magic. I wanted to be part of that magic; I wanted to make my own music, and ELO were a major inspiration. I almost feel like they became part of my DNA. Everything I listened to when I was growing up embedded itself inside of me and it all gave me courage and hope and helped to make me what I am.
DAVE: Massive hits aside, you also chose to cover some lesser-known material, from albums that came out much later. What was your process for compiling a working list of songs to tackle?
JULIANA: I wanted to do songs that I could manage, for one thing! Some of them seemed too challenging. For example, I considered doing “Turn To Stone” but about halfway through the tune there is that crucial word-packed vocal break part and I just could not physically sing lyrics that fast, and I didn’t want to do the song without that bit, so I ultimately passed on that one. And then I picked songs that spoke to me in terms of subject matter—songs of loneliness and alienation and disconnection. And then I made a conscious decision to add some songs from later eras of ELO (“Ordinary Dream,” “Secret Messages,” etc.) that are maybe not as universally-known and ubiquitous as the 70’s hits. There is SO much great ELO/Jeff Lynne material outside of the realm of the gargantuan hits. I wanted to showcase that fact, for the casual fans.
DAVE: ELO is well known for its incorporation of orchestral elements in addition to elaborate production aesthetics. Can you talk about the challenges and creative choices you faced when reimagining their iconic songs in your own style?
JULIANA: I did have a few worrisome moments, wondering, “How the heck am I going to deal with the string parts?” I didn’t want to piss off any ELO fans in any way, by neglecting important elements in the songs. But I also didn’t want to just copy anything just for the sake of being pointlessly faithful. Instead, I thought about what each particular song needed or didn’t need, and then I worked with what I had and didn’t have, and made adjustments. On some songs I played certain string parts on guitar, or on keyboards. In others (“Bluebird is Dead” and “Showdown”), I sang the string parts, or parts of them. On some songs I chose to reinterpret in ways in which the strings were not necessary (for me) and would not be missed (I hoped). When I record any cover song, I like to play around with it at first, going over it and over it on an acoustic guitar until it starts to feel like mine, and in that process it becomes less intimidating to think of the original looming over me, and the song starts to organically become something that feels natural in my own hands, with my own style and personality. If anything feels awkward or forced during this early getting-to-know-the-song-vibe-in-my-hands period, I will let it go; I won’t force any song to be recorded by me unless it feels real.
DAVE: Who joins you on this record, and how was it recorded?
JULIANA: Ed Valauskas played bass and Chris Anzalone played drums (both are from the Boston area). I recorded everything else, on my laptop, in my bedroom at home. Ed recorded his parts in his basement home studio and Chris recorded his drums in his rehearsal room/makeshift recording studio. The three of us got together a few times in that rehearsal room to run through songs together and to get a feel for arrangements and for bass and drum parts. Ed and I were there when Chris recorded his drums but Ed and I both recorded our stuff at our respective homes, individually, after the drums were done. There was a lot of file-sending going on. After recording was done, we sent all the songs to Pat DiCenso to mix at his place and he did a brilliant job. He’d sent me first mixes and I had him tweak a few things but mostly he totally nailed it right away.
DAVE: What does your home studio set up look like, and how far back does your home recording history go?
JULIANA: I have a laptop and an interface, I have one microphone that I use on everything that needs a microphone, I have an old acoustic guitar and I have an electric guitar that I favor for recording and I mostly use built-in amp sounds from Garageband—some of them sound surprisingly good and usually I am too lazy to get out my amps and to try to get sounds and to mic them. I also have a little mini keyboard—a Microkorg—that I use mostly for its wonderful Mellotron flutes sound. But also, I used some gnarly organ on “Bluebird is Dead” and some other sounds for other bits. I only learned how to record into my laptop during the COVID lockdown. Before that I was using a clunky 8-track digital machine with built-in CD burner, and I’d mix songs onto CDs. This machine died shortly before COVID and they don’t make them anymore so I kind of had to finally force myself to learn how to record onto the laptop.
DAVE: What are your expectations for the dedicated ELO fan base regarding your tribute album, and do you believe it might serve as a gateway to a musical catalog that some of your own fans may not have explored before?
JULIANA: I just hope I don’t piss off any big ELO fans. I don’t think I will. I believe that I have shown the respect that Jeff Lynne and ELO deserve, by paying tribute to them the way I did. I made some choices to reinterpret things but not majorly; nothing is disrespectful, and nothing was done for the sake of novelty or shock; I have great reverence for the material. And I hope my album will make some people reconsider ELO, like I think my album of Olivia Newton-John songs got some people to reconsider her and her body of work. I consider these serious, important artists who made giant contributions to culture. There are people who maybe only know ELO from radio songs and don’t realize the breadth and depth of the catalog, and aren’t aware of Jeff Lynne’s groundbreaking and genius production work (of other artists).
DAVE: In the time since your 2021 album, BLOOD, have you been writing any new material of your own? Could another solo or group project possibly be in the works soon?
JULIANA: Yes, I am working on a new album of originals.
DAVE: On that topic, between writing, recording, and performing, which aspect of the creative process do you find to be the most personally satisfying.
JULIANA: Writing is probably the most thrilling and the most pure. It is just me alone with the music gods and it is really kind of a spiritual experience, very life-affirming and self-affirming to create (or be given) something that didn’t previously exist. To create it just for the sake of expressing something meaningful, true, beautiful. It might not seem important to the world for me to make songs, but to me it is the most important and fulfilling job. Recording is my next-favorite part. This is when it gets more complicated, like I’m trying to assemble a puzzle without a form or frame. But it’s when the magic starts to come and visit, bringing the songs to new places I had not envisioned, and that’s really exciting. Performing is where it gets even more complicated. Once I release the music out into the world it gets harder for me. I am distracted by everything around me, by all the different energies and reactions and responsibilities. I lose my confidence sometimes. I forget what I am doing and why. Things can get diluted, outside the writing/recording bubble. I don’t like having to sell or promote myself or my music. And there is the problem of having to sing and play guitar at the same time. Doing both together makes me feel like both my singing and my guitar playing suffer; neither gets the total focus it needs. But I need to sing and play the songs for them to sound like I sort of want them to sound. It’s a conundrum.
DAVE: Is there anything else that everyone should be on the lookout for in the world of Juliana Hatfield for the remainder of 2023?
JULIANA: I will be doing some solo shows in October and November and then I am going to try and get my new original album done, for release in 2024. Then my next covers album (maybe REM).
Special thanks to Juliana Hatfield and Joe Spadaro.
Available November 17, 2023!