Juliana Hatfield may have just released one of the best pop albums of the year — if not the best — with her latest record, Pussycat. Incongruously perhaps, it was written not in the least part in response to our current U.S. President.
This is far from the first time Hatfield has grappled with controversial topics — from her early days with the Blake Babies in the ‘90s to her solo work. “A lot of us are just feeling so much rage and confusion. I had an outlet,” Hatfield says of the writing process, which was rather fast and furious. “I was able to direct this rage and confusion into music and into these nice little three-minute fists. Each one was a little fist.”
Pussycat is fourteen songs (or fists) that run the gamut of messy emotions, from the almost uplifting track “Impossible Song,” which pleads for its listeners to find some common ground and get along, to the absolutely disgusting yet horribly danceable “Rhinoceros,” a deceptively upbeat track about a woman named Melania having sex with the title creature. Do with that what you will.
“It’s a really nasty song, but it’s a really nasty subject,” Hatfield says. “I’m not sure what to say about it. I guess, yeah, that’s the one that is full of the most disgust maybe of all of them. And it’s sympathetic — I’m not the only one wondering what it must be like for her to sleep with this rhinoceros.”
Although Hatfield uses the name “Melania” and calls another track “Kellyanne” (an excellent song about destroying a toxic popular girl), she largely dances around specifics. President Trump’s name, for example, is never mentioned — although he is alluded to, perhaps most prominently in “Short Fingered Man” and “When You’re a Star,” which turns an infamous bit of audio into a seriously catchy chorus. The latter song is actually more about Bill Cosby, though, according to Hatfield.
“There are other people named Melania,” Hatfield says. “It’s really just a woman’s name — and same with Kellyanne. The song about Kellyanne is really about my own feelings and reactions toward this person and not so much about her. It’s about…why do I react the way I react to stuff? There’s a long tradition of songs that are named after women, like ‘Rosanna,’ ‘Michelle,’ and I feel like ‘Kellyanne’ can just be a part of that tradition.”
Despite the subject matter, writing the record has been a kind of release for Hatfield, whose Twitter feed has been choked with politics for months before and since the election. “It gave me something to focus on every day rather than just spewing anxiety and anger,” she says. “A few months ago, it was just so awful, and I know it was the same for a lot of people. The anxiety levels were over the top really unhealthy. It became physically unhealthy, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate.”
Now, Hatfield can finally release all those feelings into the world — in the form of a truly excellent album. To usher in Pussycat, we asked the singer-songwriter about some of the records that make her tick.
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X: Under the Big Black Sun
I think that X’s Under the Big Black Sun was a really important record for me. Before I heard X as a teen, I guess I was looking for something that I could relate to and I couldn’t find it. I felt like I was stuck between two things. I felt like there was rock and there was pop. There was Joan Jett and there was Chrissie Hynde — and then there was Olivia Newton-John and Marie Osmond, and I didn’t feel like I was either one. I felt like I was a mixture of both. I was looking for something, and then Exene came along and she is just so unique and original and she kind of brought all these together. She’s gnarly, kind of raw, but also melodic and playful.
She just looked so cool; she didn’t look like anyone I’d ever seen before. She’s kind of scary and weird, but also cute, and I felt like she was a really good role model for me. She was kind of weird and I felt like I was kind of weird and like I didn’t fit in — and I also felt that especially when I was at Berklee, a really good music college. I felt very insecure as a singer. I felt like I didn’t have a very technically strong voice. There were all these women around me who called themselves “vocalists” and I felt like I was not a vocalist singer; I just sang. I’m not vocalizing; I’m singing. Exene sounded pretty untrained and raw and I really loved that about her. She seemed tough and I liked that about her. She was just breaking all the rules and I loved that about her because I never wanted to follow the rules and I thought rules were stupid – musical rules.
Carole King: Tapestry
I love Carol King’s Tapestry album. Obviously her song range is really solid. She was known for writing all types of pop hits in the sixties. Her voice, again, it was good — like one of those voices that were so unpolished and unpretentious. I feel like Carole King’s singing is like Ginger Rogers’ dancing. Ginger Rogers is kind of scrappy and casual, but there’s depth — like very able and very talented but not polished and that’s what I love. Carole King is just like one of my favorite voices of all time.
A lot of bands that I like have front men who are kind of weird-seeming — not a showy showbiz kind of front man, but I think more thoughtful and introspective. Kind of a weirdo with his hair in his face. I’m really, really into that. I think I’m a quiet person, thoughtful, and I guess I was relating to that because I wanted to be a singer in a band, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I was not a take-charge kind of performer. I was never going to be the type of person who would stir up a crowd like “Hey! How are ya’ll doing tonight? Put your hands together!” I wasn’t the kind of a performer that was going to throw beer on stage.
The melodies were so pretty [on Murmur], all those open-tuned chords and the jangliness. It sounded so new and so fresh. I’d never really heard anything like that before. Very pretty, very poppy, but, again, it had this kind of raw edge to it, which is so appealing to me. It didn’t fit any category that had come before.
Dinosaur Jr.: You’ve Living All Over Me
When I got into them they were still “Dinosaur,” before they had to change their name. [The record] blew my mind. Totally blew my mind. I was living in an apartment with my band, Blake Babies, and we’d all sit in front of the stereo and our minds were just blown. It was so heavy and yet so beautiful. It was gorgeous and it was so heavy and I loved how those two things mixed together. J Mascis’ guitar playing had so much grace and so much beauty. He’s still one of my favorite guitar players of all time. I could watch him solo for an hour, a series of hour-long guitar solos, and I would not get bored.
I once went skiing with him and Evan Dando. Everyone knows Evan and I were pals and he was friends with J. We were all in Massachusetts, so one day we took a trip to Vermont somewhere and we all went skiing and I noticed that J skied like he played guitar. He skied really fast and kind of reckless, and yet really gracefully. He was so fast he was always on the verge of wiping out, but he never did.
The Replacements: Let It Be
It wasn’t that all the songs were so great. Even “Sixteen Blue,” I’m not totally into that song. Like I can never relate to that one; it just seemed like Westerberg was trying to write a certain type of song, like a genre type of song. But what really struck me was something in Westerberg’s voice quality that seemed so recognizable to me. Some kind of yearning quality in his voice. I really connected with it and felt like I understood what he was trying to convey through the songs that weren’t always perfect songs. They’re announcing their flaws, saying, “We’re not perfect. Deal with it. Or celebrate it, even.” They’re celebrating imperfections. That was a cause I could really get behind. I think perfection is boring.