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'Become What You Are' — How An Album, Born Out Of Boston’s Early 90s Music Scene, Became A Gen-X Anthem

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Juliana Hatfield Three’s Become What You Are just turned 25. It's hard to believe that one of Boston's most beloved albums is all grown up (and old enough to rent its own car). Reliving our own summers of '93 through the album sent us down the rabbit hole – and right to Ms. Hatfield's door.

Juliana Hatfield grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Berklee. By the time she formed the Juliana Hatfield Three with bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Phillips, she had already been musically involved with the Blake Babies and the Lemonheads, as well as having a solo career. But the Juliana Hatfield Three birthed Become What You Are – and with a little help from some of the best (you just had to be there) minutes from the 90s, it charted on the Billboard 200, and its single, “Spin the Bottle," charted on the Mainstream Top 40. The album also turned Hatfield into a cultural icon, a hero for a generation of women that didn’t always see a place for themselves in the alt-rock boom of the early 90s.

It's 2018, and Hatfield is still at it. She just released her 15th studio album, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, and will be performing at the WERS Wicked Good Festival on Saturday, August 18. We caught up with her to recall the memorable Gen X moments that came from that first studio album – and the difficulties of being thrust into the limelight as a female artist, where commercial success did not connote respect.

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As a solo artist, Hatfield was uncomfortable being the center of attention.

With Hey Babe, and with the whole experience of leaving Blake Babies and becoming a solo artist, it felt like I was thrown into a whole other place where I had to be the leader. I was unprepared for that. I wasn’t very good at navigating the world of people and I think I was struggling with a lot of insecurities and fear... and also, unrequited love.

She wanted to be a part of a group again, and formed The Juliana Hatfield Three.

It’s like having your friends around you, for safety and consistency, I guess. I wanted something like that. I was writing all the songs and I was the face of the band, but I wanted people to acknowledge that I wasn’t the only person in the band.

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The Juliana Hatfield Three: Todd Phillips, Juliana Hatfield, Dean Fisher

Writing Become What You Are was an existential experience for Hatfield...

It became less about [Hey Babe's theme of] unrequited love and more about just feeling like, what is this all for? Why am I here? Why am I depressed? It was more about the bigger picture. I was trying to take some control over my life and my feelings.

… and it turns out she does not have a sister.

‘My Sister’ is a song exploring the idea of sister. You know, what is a sister and what would that have been like for me? I was thinking about a lot of things; I was thinking about what my brothers think of me and some of the song is from their perspective. Like ‘she has got a wall around, no one can climb’ – I was thinking my brothers think maybe I’m a little aloof but they don’t understand that that’s just me protecting myself.

I was also thinking about this woman [Meg] who is a few years older than me, who came to live with my family when I was a teenager and she was a really important presence for a little while. My family was always kind of tough and we didn’t tell each other we loved each other, and we didn’t really hug. We fought a lot. But Meg was a more benign, tender and welcoming presence, and she kind of was shoulder for me to cry on and was someone who would try to make me open up and be vulnerable and let out some of my pain.

And also she brought her kick-ass record collection when she came to live with us, and that was how I discovered all kinds of great stuff like Blue Placements and X, and a lot of Boston underground bands. She was like the big sister that I never had.

Become What You Are was Hatfield’s first major label album...

I was able to work with a producer that I really liked, Scott Litt, who has made albums that I love by The Replacements and REM, and others. We were able to work and take the time we needed.

… and she’s grateful that she was able to make the music she wanted to make.

Going to LA to make a record for a major label was a little scary, but I felt that the people around me, the guys from the label and Scott, were very much on my side. They definitely never pressured me to change my music in any way and that was the most important thing for me. I was an artist that wanted to make my music the way I wanted to make my music, and I was always allowed to do that. I really felt that nothing bad was going to happen and no one was trying to exploit me in any kind of distasteful way.

Hatfield was sent the script for Reality Bites.

They were like, ‘hey, check this out, they are making this movie and they want to use a song, can they use your song?’ And I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘yeah, I would love to have my song in this Generation X movie that has Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Janeane Garofalo’.

I don’t know if the term ‘Generation X had even been invented yet but it became kind of this touch tone movie for Generation X issues.

Ben Stiller directed the music video for 'Spin the Bottle', and he brought in actors from the movie to be in it.

Janeane Garofalo was in there, and Ethan Hawke and Steve Zahn and Scott Thompson – wait I don’t know what he was doing there. Was he in the movie? (I don’t remember.) We were such fans of Kids In The Hall, it was like ‘Scott Thompson is here! Holy Crap! That’s amazing! He is so funny.'

It was kind of weird. Like, ‘wow, all these people are here for my video!’ It’ so funny how stuff like that happens in LA.

Then producers from the most 90’s sitcom of all of the 90’s (My So-Called Life) came knocking ...

Someone reached out to them [Atlantic] interested in having me write a song for their Christmas episode. It was something that had not been broadcast yet, and they send me the first few episodes on video cassette so I could get a sense of what the show was about and what I might be getting into. I watched them and I was like, ‘this is totally great.’ This is amazing and it seemed special, different. And I really related to the character Angela. She reminded me of myself in high school.

… and Hatfield met with the show creator to talk about the opportunity.

I wrote this song, ‘Make It Home’. And at some point after, they asked me if I wanted to play the character who sings the song (the homeless angel). Initially they were not offering me that opportunity, they just wanted a song. But then I guess after they met me, they saw something in me that they thought would play well in the role.

Soon, more and more regional bands started to get signed to major labels...

People outside of Boston were really picking up on all of the great music that was being made in Boston. It was kind of great because it felt like we were all being noticed because the music was interesting and it wasn’t because we were trying to be famous. It felt and it seemed like it was about the music.

... but many, including Hatfield, struggled with all of the attention and media.

I mean, we all were kind of naive and innocent. We didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything. I just knew that I had to make music and that was all I cared about. I didn’t know how to present my image to the public. I didn’t know any of that stuff.

She felt supported by her main publicist, Bobbie Gale...

She was always respectful of my own limits and boundaries. I was a very shy and modest person. She understood me and she understood that I wasn’t going to go out there and wear a push-up bra in front of a photographer, and I wasn’t going to ‘make love to the camera.' That wasn’t my vibe and so my publicist (and the label) never tried to make me do anything that would make me feel uncomfortable.

… but at the same time, everything made her uncomfortable.

Just being in front of a camera made me uncomfortable, and anything a photographer wanted me to do made me uncomfortable. If someone told me smile, I was not comfortable. I felt like I didn’t have power, I wasn’t good at being a public person.

“I wasn’t good at being famous.”

I was getting a lot of press and I was getting a lot of attention, and I really didn’t know how to handle it. I retreated into myself and I guess that was all kind of self-protective because I was trying to ignore the things that were said about me, that were mischaracterizing me, or that were demeaning me.

Hatfield struggled to be respected as an artist.

It was hard because of a lot of factors, like the sound of my voice really put some people off and that immediately skewed people’s perceptions of me. It gave people a certain image of me that I didn’t think was who I was. That was not always easy just because of the way the world is, and the way the industry is. The way every industry is, actually. And I felt frustrated because I felt that a lot of the people were not respecting my artistry. But that was their problem and not mine.

She feels like she could have done better...

That’s just me. I always think nothing is ever as good as they wanted it to be. I didn’t know how to talk to the media and I probably wished that I had kept my mouth totally shut, not said anything. I couldn’t translate my emotions into coherent thoughts or philosophies, I just was kind of swaying a little bit with my inner troubles.

… but at the same time, she’s really proud of how she handled herself and the work she created.

I have always kept my head down and made my records. And I’m proud of my work ethic. I’m proud of all the work I did and my integrity. I tried to never do anything that made me feel like a sellout – and I’m proud of that.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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