For years, Hatfield has been cataloging riffs and musical ideas on cassette tape. She drew on this archive to craft songs for Pussycat, and in the process rediscovered forgotten gems. “When I sit down and listen to those tapes,” she says,
“there’s stuff I have no memory of having played.” Photo by David Doobinin
It’s clear from the first few lines of Juliana Hatfield’s bold new album Pussycat that this is a record with a mission statement. In today’s political climate, it’s easy to guess the intended target of songs like “When You’re a Star,” “Kellyanne,” and “Short-Fingered Man.” But what makes this rich 14-song collection more than just a momentary reflection of the times is that Hatfield rarely succumbs to sloganeering or naked attacks (the song “Rhinoceros” being one notable exception). Instead, her words vividly illustrate the personal impact of attitudes and behaviors in stark, often jarring terms. The issues she tackles existed before 2016 and will continue long after Twitter ceases to be the bully pulpit.
Lyrical messages, no matter how cleverly drafted, don’t resonate for long without a musical framework. And Pussycat delivers there, too. Hatfield built her alt-rock bona fides long ago by being simultaneously tuneful and surprising. Both qualities are in full supply here. Starting with “I Wanna Be Your Disease,” the songs grab your ear before moving in unexpected ways, making you want to go back and listen again.
Written and recorded quickly, with Hatfield performing everything but drums, Pussycat is also a showcase for her deft rhythm, lead, and bass guitar playing. Using a surprisingly small arsenal of gear (sometimes aided by a Korg keyboard synth), she creates a range of textures—jangling chords, slamming riffs, and syrupy melodic solos—that sit perfectly with her voice and sometimes serve as a counterpoint to the sweetness of her vocal harmonies.
As a classically trained keyboardist and Berklee College of Music grad who emerged as a bass/guitar/vocal pioneer in the indie scene in the days when they called it “college rock,” Hatfield has always been an artist of many layers and contrasts. And despite the intensity of her subject matter, she was soft-spoken and introspective when we caught up on the phone earlier this summer. Then again, she’s never had to shout to get her message across. And as always, her guitar speaks loudly when she needs to wield the axe.
You wrote and recorded the songs on Pussycat in just a few weeks. Is all the material new or were you drawing on the archives?
Musically, there was stuff I was taking from who-knows-when. I have these cassettes just filled with ideas. I’ll sit down and turn the cassette recorder on and start playing guitar—just endless little bits of things developing in real time. So I was going back to things from a couple of years ago or even more. But at the same time, I was coming up with new things on the spot. It was a bit of everything, just trying to note anything that caught my ear. A lot of things I’d discarded in the past, I listened to with fresh ears. Anything that stood out, that was catchy or gave me pleasure in any way, I was like “I’m gonna use that!”
How did the relatively short production cycle influence your approach?
I did a lot less second-guessing than I normally do—a lot less thinking and self-editing. I just grabbed anything I thought was cool and worked with it. I was a lot more open to using things that in the past I might have thought weren’t interesting enough. I learned that I haven’t always been the best judge of what’s good or bad because I’m happy with all the music I chose from the archives.
To track Pussycat, Hatfield booked time in a pro studio. “I wanted to do it away from home where I couldn’t afford to waste time,” she says. “I have a tendency to over-think things and over-rehearse, and that can kill the spark.”
When I’m recording my guitar into my Walkman, you never know how things will turn out once you add drums and bass. I was really working on faith. I think that was a good lesson to myself—if you have the right attitude and believe in it, you can make anything work.
The songs are catchy, but they often go in surprising directions. How do you unlock those ideas?
I have two acoustic guitars I use for writing. One is in normal tuning, the other is in “weird” tuning. I’m too lazy to retune when I’m writing, so I just keep one of the guitars in “weird” tuning. A lot of the songs were written in that tuning, which is C–G–D–G–B–E.
How did you come up with that one?
I stole it after I tried out for a band called Verbena when they were looking for a bass player a long time ago. They’d made a record called Souls for Sale, and I was madly in love with it. I learned all the songs, and [Verbena guitarist] Scott Bondy showed me all the songs with this tuning. I borrowed it from him and I love it. Having a different tuning helps kick-start the writing.
The first three songs [“I Wanna Be Your Disease,” “Impossible Song,” and “You’re Breaking My Heart”] are all in that C–G–D–G–B–E tuning. I have to use my left hand in a different way to make all the notes work, and that limits my fretting. There’s not a lot I can do with my finger shapes, so I’m just moving up and down the neck and trying to find somewhere else to go—sliding around on the neck trying to make the song move. The limitations of the tuning really opened up the songwriting in a way, which proves my theory that limitations can be really freeing.
Do you use an extra heavy string for that low C?
I don’t do anything special, and I never deliberately tried to make it less floppy. But I did switch to .011 gauge sets in the past couple of years on the electric. I used to use .010s.