Think back to your first records: not the records your parents had sitting around, but the first albums you really wanted—the ones that made it on to your Christmas wish lists. At some point, you probably grew out of those records, or at least pretended to, abandoning them for the cooler, perhaps more detached, tastes of an older friend or sibling, or maybe the local DJ. But not me, and not Juliana Hatfield.
“I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John,” she explains in a press release for her new album, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. “Her music has brought me so much pure joy throughout my life.”
Pop music has long been reinterpreted by alternative artists, from Sonic Youth’s Madonna-inspired side project Ciccone Youth to Ryan Adams’s song-for-song reworking of Taylor Swift’s 1989. But Hatfield’s project isn’t intended as ironic. It’s a sincere tribute, and a perfect pairing of two distinct musical sensibilities.
Recently, we had a chance to talk about how she approached making the record as both an extended dialogue with Olivia Newton-John’s music, and as an internal dialogue with her own experiences and emotions.
The Rumpus: Can I start by telling you my favorite Olivia Newton-John story? I was in elementary school when Grease came out and it was huge. I remember there were these two girls in the grade ahead of me who always used to act out the big finale where Sandy and Danny sing, “You’re the One That I Want.” I mean they dressed up, danced, and lip-synced the whole routine in the schoolyard.
Juliana Hatfield: Oh, wow. After Grease I went to my friend Heidi Holbrook’s house, and she sat me down for like an hour with a curling iron and went around my whole head to try and make me look like Sandy at the end of the movie.
Rumpus: Did you know who Olivia Newton-John was before Grease came out?
Hatfield: I think she first came to America’s attention in the early 70s with a couple of country-tinged songs, like “Let Me Be There,” and even before that a movie and band called Toomorrow. But I was too young to be aware of any of this stuff. I do remember her Don’t Stop Believin’ album, which came out a couple of years before Grease. And of course after Grease there was Totally Hot, Xanadu, and Physical. I loved that whole album!
Rumpus: Why have Olivia Newton-John’s songs become such a lasting touchstone for you?
Hatfield: I think on one level it’s just that her music is very soothing to me. There’s something about her vibrato and her voice, it’s like milk and honey, calming but also uplifting. And then some of her melodies, like “Have You Never Been Mellow,” are really celestial. It’s almost medicinal sometimes—like a balm.
Rumpus: But there’s also often a really interesting dissonance. You have the levity in her voice and the melody, but then you also have lyrical themes that are actually kind of dark.
Hatfield: Yes, that’s definitely what saves her from being just sweetness. There’s an acknowledgement of the dark side that’s partly what I love about her. She doesn’t try to write it off or pretend it’s not there. It’s definitely in a lot of the music.
Rumpus: I think you can even see it at the end of Grease, in her transformation from Sandra Dee to Sandy, although it takes the form of a makeover and a cigarette and some spandex pants.
Hatfield: I choose to look at the end of Grease in a different way. It’s too depressing to think, Oh, you just have to whore it up and you’ll get everything. You’ll get the man. You’ll get the happiness. I think at the end of Grease it’s more like she’s acknowledging that this is just a role that girls play, it was a wink, and just playful. And I think that’s what saves the ending of Grease. It’s a role she’s playing, but we’re all in the know.
Having said that, I think another part of why I have such an affinity for Olivia Newton-John is because I have had my own struggles with being perceived as a “good girl.” She’s really seen as someone who’s cute and sweet, and people have put her in that box, and I feel like some people have wanted to put me in that same kind of box. Sometimes I also feel like I’m limited by my own sense of right and wrong.
Rumpus: Tell me more.
Hatfield: Sandy’s character was kind of cursed to be a good girl, not just being perceived that way, but actually that is her nature, and she can’t escape it. And I felt that way too, like I was an outcast in high school because my peers were drinking, and having sex, and doing drugs, and I wasn’t and I couldn’t. I still wanted to hang out with these people, and they were my friends, but I felt like an outcast because I was not breaking the rules.
Rumpus: Can we relate that to Olivia Newton-John’s broader catalogue? You know, in a lot of her other songs, like “I Honestly Love You,” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” she’s falling in love, but it’s never sunshine and rainbows.
Hatfield: It’s reality. These songs are not just sweet confections. They’re talking about real things, like pain, and not being able to connect.
Rumpus: In addition to this album, your solo debut Hey Babe has just been reissued. As I was preparing to talk to you today, I was listening to both albums side by side and I couldn’t help but notice some thematic similarities, let’s say, between songs like “Forever Baby” and “A Little More Love.”
Hatfield: You know, you’re right! I wasn’t consciously making those connections, but I’m not surprised that you see them because I relate to Olivia Newton-John’s songs—not just thematically but also melodically. Part of what I love about her melodic sense is that it’s so impeccable, so skillful. She has a real knack for melody—not to be conceited about it, but I think I’m good with melody too, even though I don’t have her skill as a vocalist in terms of technicality or power.
Rumpus: When did you start thinking that you might want to release an album of her songs?
Hatfield: She’s often been on my mind, you know, but for some reason, I never had seen her perform live. She was doing some tour dates last year, but not in my town, so I bought a couple of tickets for me and a friend to make it a fun away trip. But then her cancer came back and she had to cancel all the shows, and that was the moment when I knew I wanted to make an album of her songs because she was on my mind and I didn’t get to see her and I felt emotional because she was sick again. I think I just wanted to immerse myself in the beauty of her music and her spirit.
Rumpus: Did you immediately know which tracks that you’d cover and how you would work out the arrangements?
Hatfield: There were a few things that I knew I wanted to do right off the bat, but there was also a lot of listening I had to do. I did find a couple of deeper cuts like “Dancing Round and Round” that I knew I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to get into the really obscure deep, deep cuts. I also knew I wanted to do some of her hits because they were such great songs, and great recordings.
Rumpus: From there, what was your process like?
Hatfield: When I got into the studio, the bass and drums were done first, and then it was like a puzzle. It was really challenging for me to figure out what to do with some of these songs. I had to abandon one of them and I almost had to abandon a couple of others. I really struggled in the studio to figure it out, realizing how great of a singer she is, and also how incredible the recordings and arrangements are. The collaborations with John Farrar [Olivia Newton-John’s longtime songwriter/producer] were so stellar. It was daunting for me.
Rumpus: You’ve done many great covers before. I’m thinking about “Needle in the Hay,” “My Wife,” and “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” as some of my favorites. They’ve all captured the emotional essence of the original songs, and in the case of “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll,” you strip out some of the swagger so you can really hear the underlining vulnerability. But how is doing an entire album of covers different than doing a single song? What does it take to maintain that kind of dialogue with another artist over the course of a larger body of work?
Hatfield: I think it helps that I’m such a lifelong fan of Olivia Newton-John’s, and because there is such a wealth of great songs and songwriting, it was easy to stay engaged with the material. There are a lot of other artists I like, but not enough to keep going over say fourteen or sixteen songs and months of concentrated focus. Also, for me, with Olivia Newton-John’s music, it’s not just the lyrical content, but it’s more of a vibe that I’m translating. I don’t know her personally, obviously, but I think it must have something to do with her and her spirit and her character that comes out through in these songs. I just focused on translating that, you know, with my own feelings.
Rumpus: What was the hardest part of the project?
Hatfield: Olivia Newton-John is a “real” singer. She is a pro, such a great vocalist, and I’m more of a scrappy, sloppy kind of a singer. So I had to really find ways to boost my own confidence from within, to know that my own interpretations would be valid because my intentions were pure.
Rumpus: How did this play out?
Hatfield: Well, with “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” most of the instruments were recorded and I was trying to sing over that, and I just stopped and I was like, “What am I doing? This song is so iconic and perfect, how can I possibly add anything to it?” I felt intimidated and overwhelmed, and I was kind of down about it. But then there was this one night I took a fuzz pedal and doubled the vocal melody and chorus with the fuzz guitar and somehow it added the spark I needed to keeping going. I also have a new appreciation for some of the songs after having to learn them. Some of the writing is just really sick, so many chords, and it was almost comical sometimes. Me and my bass player were like, What the?! There’s something like eighty-seven chords in one of the songs. Oh gosh, and some of them were like math problems.
Rumpus: In addition to listening to the music from this album I’ve also seen some videos which were directed by David Doobinin. The first one was for “A Little More Love”—was that shot in Bensonhurst by the way?
Hatfield: Yes! That was David’s idea, and I didn’t make the connection until later that it was kind of an oblique reference to John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, who was from Bensonhurst.
Rumpus: In the visual narrative you’ve created around the song, you really get the sense that she’s waiting, anticipating. You can really feel the tension as she’s riding around on her bike, playing handball alone…
Hatfield: But I also feel like it’s a little bit sleazy, you know, like I’m in the trench coat, skulking around the streets, and that whole part asking where did my innocence go. And then I am a little older now. Where did my innocence go?
Rumpus: In “Physical,” I notice that you shot the video against the same backdrop Olivia Newton-John, and your suit is the same color as her tights, but from there it diverges.
Hatfield: I think David probably knew about the color matching, but it was totally unintentional on my part. I just had that raspberry suit in my closet, and until Stereogum thumb-nailed my video along with Olivia’s I didn’t notice the similarity. Where I think my interpretation of the song diverges from hers, aside from the fact that I’m not doing a fitness thing, is that for Olivia the song is a little bit of a goof, but I think lust is also a serious subject, and I just don’t think it’s very fun or funny. I think it’s more of a dangerous, damaging impulse. That’s what I’m exploring in my version of the song—lust as frustrating and unwelcome, me pushing against it rather than being playful about it.
Rumpus: Is there a particular song from Olivia Newton-John’s catalogue that speaks to you above all the others?
Hatfield: Not really. It’s more that when I listen to her music I’m absorbing the feelings. But one song that always moves me a lot is “Suspended in Time.” It puts a lump in my throat because it’s so gorgeous and sad and just an expression of the evanescence of existence, and how we’re isolated throughout our lives. The truth of that song really speaks to me.
Rumpus: For listeners who will encounter Olivia Newton-John’s music for the first time through your interpretations, is there a specific takeaway you want them to have?
Hatfield: First I’d like people to really appreciate the songwriting. She didn’t write the songs, but John Farrar, who wrote and produced a lot of them, is such a genius that I would like for people to appreciate that songwriting is big part of it. I would also like them to take her music more seriously. A lot of people write her off, but she’s a real artist, a very soulful singer, and when you look back at the decades, you see she’s been successful which is also a testament to her character, I think. She’s been so gracious, hardworking, and confident—quietly confident—not desperate for attention.
Rumpus: I think you’re really tapping into something here about her sincerity.
Hatfield: I don’t want to deify her, but she has such a welcoming and generous presence, and I think about how incredible it is that after all of this time in the public eye her reputation is untarnished. There haven’t been any scandals, not a bad word said about her. That says something.
Featured photograph of Juliana Hatfield © David Doobinin.