Juliana Hatfield on Deconstructing and Reimagining Songs of the Police for Her Latest Album
Juliana Hatfield has a prolific and versatile career, from her ‘80s beginnings with Massachusetts indie outfit Blake Babies to her post aughts involvement in bands like Some Girls, Minor Alps, and the I Don’t Cares, along with nearly three decades of solo output. She’s punk first and foremost, originally inspired by classic L.A. upstarts X, whom she eventually toured with. Yet, her music has always had a broad sensibility that borrows freely from various genres, ranging from charged, heavy onslaughts to more subdued folk-informed material, always with infectious hooks, cathartic lyrics, and a distinctive voice.
Over the years, Hatfield has taken on covers by the likes of Neil Young and Elliot Smith, with her version of the latter’s “Needle in the Hay” drawing critical acclaim. Recently, her penchant for reinterpreting other artists’ work has taken on new parameters with an ongoing series of cover albums. Last year, she released “Julianna Sings Olivia Newton-John,” a sincere tribute showcasing her rare ability to step well outside of her usual sphere and emerge with awe-inspiring results.
This time around, Hatfield shifts gears with her latest offering, “Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police.” Here, she sings twelve songs from various eras of the Police’s dynamic career, and reimagines them as no one else could. Performing all vocal and keyboard duties, as well as some drums and bass, she effectively captures the feeling of the originals while revamping them with a refreshingly whimsical energy that breathes new life into the songs. Her covers serve to remind us of how the music of the Police is as relevant today as when first released, and of how timeless and malleable the songs are both lyrically and musically. Hatfield spoke with Entertainment Voice about the art of the cover song as she sees it, and the processes by which she recorded the album, providing insight on the lasting appeal of the Police, and a glimpse into the nature of her new direction.
“Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police” finds you offering wildly original takes on twelve Police songs. What is it in particular about their sound, lyrics, and legacy that inspired you to record an album worth of covers?
I really always loved to sing along. Something about Sting’s voice, the way he phrased things, it just felt really natural to sing to, and he’s right in my range. I just love the melodies, and I love how the songs are deceptively simple. There’ll be a really simple chorus like, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stand losing,” but then there’ll be all this darkness in the song, whereas you think that it’s just a bouncy love song, but there’s actually a lot of darkness. I like the complexity of the ideas, the subject matter.
This is your second album of covers, following last year’s “Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John.” Considering how different the new source material is in its style, how did your approach and experience differ with this album?
The Police was more fun and easier. The Olivia Newton-John songs were much more challenging and complicated. She didn’t write her songs, the ones I recorded. They were written by professional songwriters, and the writing is actually pretty complex, crazily complex. You might not notice it by listening, but it was a lot of work to figure out. And also, her voice, her range, is very wide, and I think she’s actually very underrated as a singer. It was technically difficult to sing her songs because the range was just all over her place. But the Police, I felt more of a natural synergy for that music. It was just more up my alley musically, as a singer and a player, so it was more fun and easy to do the Police.
You’ve highlighted a few songs — “Rehumanize Yourself,” “Landlord,” and “Murder By Numbers” — as particularly relevant in today’s sociopolitical landscape, drawing on issues such as unsavory nationalism, insatiable greed, and sociopathic, alacritous bloodthirst, respectively. Do you attribute the current relevance to a timelessness of such concerns, or do you think we just happen to be at a moment when history has repeated itself?
I think greed and corruption are timeless. They’re never going to go away. The corruption and greed of the power elite is never anything that’s going to disappear. I mean, there are people always fighting it, you know, but there’re always going to be the political and economic villains that have a lot of the power. It is timeless, I’m afraid. That’s why the songs still work now, because that stuff is still happening. These people are not going away. There’s always — you know, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein. Those people are not going to disappear off the face of the earth. There are bad people, and there always will be. There are bad people, and there are less bad people. Nothing will ever change that. I don’t think so. We can elect different people, sure, but that’s not going to make the bad people disappear off the face of the earth.
Do you have any idea for a solution?
No, I mean — sabotage? No, I don’t have any solutions, really. I write protest songs, and I give money to people fighting the evil. Revolution? Revolution would be good, but I’m not a very good organizer of people, so I don’t know if I can lead a revolution. I would like to, but — um, sabotage. Sabotage!
You keep the surprises coming in your renditions — from the outrageously ‘80s synths on “Next to You” to the ringing distorted guitars on “Roxanne,” and on the shoegaze-ey stylings of “Hole in My Life.” What inspired the versatile directions that you took on the songs? And does any song stand out as especially thrilling in this regard?
I think that “Murder By Numbers” is the most different than the Police version. “Murder By Numbers,” totally changed that one. I think I just approached every song as its own little world. I work very intuitively, and the ideas for each song just came to me. “Next to You,” the original is so perfect that I just wanted to go very far away from it, because there was nothing I could add to the original, because it’s just right. So I slowed it down to half time. That was how I started it, and then I went from there. “Murder By Numbers,” I sped that one up and did it really punky, just because the subject matter seemed to make sense at a fast tempo. It just made sense to take the words literally, and not see them metaphorically, just to emphasize the, (laughs), violence and aggression.
You impressively played all guitars and keyboards on your own, as well as some of the drums and bass, and of course all the vocals are yours. What was especially challenging or exciting part of this recording process that comes to mind?
Well, some of the bass. On “Canary in a Coalmine,” I initially tried to play bass on that one with the drum machine, and I tried over and over again. I tried different things, and I couldn’t get it right, and so then, I had my friend Ed Velazquez come in, and he played bass really great on that one. Once in a while, I just can’t figure out how to do it.
It’s just little things that excite me. There are a whole bunch of little things that excited me throughout the recording process, like when an idea would happen and it just made sense. Oh, you know what I love is on “Canary in a Coalmine,” there’s a little breakdown for a few seconds where everything drops out, and on the Police version, there’s a little piano part. I just made up a new part there, and that was really exciting for me. I hit some piano chords and some guitar chords, and they’re kind of echoing each other, and I just really rewrote that little break part, and I like it better than the Police part actually. That was very exciting for me.
Another little moment was on “Hunger For You,” the one in French. There’s horns on the Police version, all throughout the song, and on the second verse, I deconstructed the horns, and I played a melody on the guitar with delay. So there’s one guitar playing a deconstructed version of all these horns with delay, and I was pretty excited about that, those little kinds of things.
Some of your covers are more faithful to the originals than others, for example “Landlord.” Do you think it’s an artist’s duty to reimagine songs innovatively, or are you also open to nearly indistinguishable recreations?
Well, I think it’s good to try both. I think that if you feel inspired to reinvent a song, then you should do that, but I also think it can be interesting when you’re really faithful to the original. It can be pointless and boring, but it also can be interesting. I like something like Weezer’s cover of “Africa.” It’s very, very close to the original, and you wonder like, “What’s the point?” But it’s also kind of interesting when it’s not exactly a copy, because, you know, Rivers has a different voice, so you get the different timbre of his voice singing it, and his phrasing, but it’s very close to the original. It’s kind of interesting if you’re the artist, because it’s a challenge to try to mimic things, but I don’t know if it’s always interesting for the listener when you’re doing a very faithful cover. I don’t have the energy to do things really faithfully to the original. It’s just too much work. I’d rather do my own thing, just because it’s easier to follow my own instincts than it is to try to copy something else that’s already been done.
A source of frustration for Police fans is when unthinking listeners sing, “Every Breath You Take / Every move you make,” and think, “This song is so sweet!” when “Every Breath You Take” is actually a song about an obsessed stalker written by Sting after parting ways with his first wife. Have you ever experienced this oversight and, if so, how did you react?
Yeah, I think people have misunderstood my music, or just not really listened hard enough. I can’t really think of anything in particular. There will always be lazy listeners or lazy critics who will say, “Oh, this is a nice love song,” when it’s not that at all. It’s actually a messy, (laughs), hate song. I’m surprised by how much people miss sometimes when they listen to my music, but at this point, it doesn’t really bother me anymore, because I know that there are listeners out there who are really getting it.
Though the new songs vary wildly in the styles that you dip into, they come across overall as more punk and angsty than the originals, in a decidedly feminine way. Did you set out with this aesthetic in mind, or did it come about naturally?
Well, I’m a female punk so I guess that makes sense. I consider myself a punk. I really was winging it in the studio. I knew the songs I wanted to do, and I had a vague idea of what I would do on certain tunes, but some of them I didn’t really know until I got to the studio. So yeah, winging it, just going song by song, and relying on the force. When I went in with the drummer to play “Murder By Numbers,” it was like five minutes before we set up that I decided to do it fast and punky.
Would you agree there is a lot of rawness to this album?
Rawness, yeah, definitely. Yeah, I underestimate my own rawness sometimes. In my mind, I’m like — I don’t know — a mainstream, super pop artist, but I know that that’s not really what I am (laughs). My aesthetic is pretty raw and sloppy, and my delusion is that everyone will hear it, and it will make sense, but I know that it probably comes across as pretty gnarly sometimes. It’s unpolished, but that’s really what I love. I love unpolished but super catchy music. That’s what I like about the Police. In the beginning, they were very raw, but it was also really catchy, and that, to me, is a really great combination.
Having recorded music for over three decades now, how would you say “Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police” fits into your whole oeuvre, and what might fans expect next?
Hmm… I think in the past couple of years, I’ve discovered my true calling. I think I’m really a covers artist. I think I play other people’s songs better than I play my own songs. I’ve always had this feeling in the back of my mind that I write good songs, but I maybe don’t perform them right. I feel like I’m not sure that I’m quite hitting the nail on the head with my own stuff. I think maybe I was actually born to sing and play other people’s songs, but I’m just realizing it now, (laughs), and that’s exciting to think about, because there’s all this music out that I can record that’s not my music. I’ll keep writing and recording, but maybe I’ll just do it for myself, and then I’ll give covers to other people. I’m kind of kidding, I guess, but I do feel like I have a knack for doing things with other people’s songs. Sometimes I can really tap into something and figure out a new way to do someone else’s song that makes people hear the song in a new way.
Have you been toying with any ideas about the next thing you want to cover?
Well, someone suggested to me Duran Duran, and I thought, “that’s a really interesting idea,” but I think I want to do an American artist next, because I’ve done an Australian and an English band. I think I’ll probably tackle something American next time. I have a couple of ideas, but I haven’t decided yet. I heard a Tom Petty song on the radio today, and that made me think of Tom Petty. He would be a good one, but maybe something a little more obscure next time.
“Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.