Five years ago, singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield embarked on a project that she had thought would be a one-off. She did a tribute record, covering the music of Olivia Newton-John. After years of participating in bands like Blake Babies and Some Girls, and collaborating with members of Nada Surf, the Lemonheads, and Paul Westerberg, she has shaped a sound that is both cosmic and cool. That sound infused the music of Olivia Newton-John in ways that even caught Newton-John’s attention. It was a critical success, and prompted Hatfield to tackle her next act, the British trio the Police. While she initially had intended for the third record in this series to feature American rock band R.E.M., she instead decided to put her attention on Jeff Lynne and the music of Electric Light Orchestra.
The result is Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO, perhaps her best covers project yet. Slated for full release on November 17, with a couple of tracks now on streaming services, the record is not a “greatest hits” package. Instead, it contains carefully curated songs that span the band’s entire discography. Sure, there are songs from the 1970s like “Telephone Line” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.” But there are also songs like “Ordinary Dream” from 2001’s Zoom that will surprise and delight even die-hard fans.
Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO, album cover.
As on previous albums, Hatfield is again joined by Ed Valauskas on bass and Chris Anzalone on drums. But Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO, unlike the first two was almost entirely made on GarageBand in her bedroom. There is certainly no shortage of covers records out there. But few take such a thoughtfully fresh approach to their subjects and almost none bring forward arrangements that are as clever, and in many ways, daring.
Copper caught up with Hatfield to talk about the process of making these records and how it inspires her own music. She is about to announce a series of fall dates where this music and more will come to life as only Juliana Hatfield could possibly make happen. Along the way we learned of how deep her regard is for the people she covers, and how precious she considers their material to be when it is on loan, in her hands.
Ray Chelstowski: When you first decided to do a “covers” record, did you know then that it would become a series?
Juliana Hatfield: No. I can’t plan that far ahead. I’m always focused on the thing at hand. It was all about Olivia Newton-John, and that was all I was thinking about. It became such a gratifying experience for me that I decided to keep doing it. Now I want to keep going.
RC: I read that you first thought about doing a Phil Collins’ record, not Olivia Newton-John. Is that one still kicking about? Also, you had said that an R.E.M, covers record would follow the Police, but in the end decided upon ELO. Is R.E.M. still possible?
JH: I think I’ve moved on from the Phil Collins idea but I’m definitely still contemplating R.E.M. That is one that I do want to tackle. But it was too big of a project when I was thinking about it the last time, mostly because there is a lot of material that I don’t know. I stopped listening to their music at a certain point, for no reason other than my brain got too full of other things. That can happen when a band is around for a long time. You can sometimes drift away. Reckoning and Murmur were major events in my life so it’s really the early stuff that hit me the hardest. Of course, there’s a lot of great stuff that followed those records and I want to make song choices that are part of the entire oeuvre. Then I had an idea that I could do an R.E.M. volume 1 and then do a volume 2.
RC: You have followed the covers records up with studio albums. Do these covers projects impact your own writing?
JH: It does, but unfortunately not in the sense that any of the music style of the band I’m covering will rub off on my writing. I was hoping that doing covers would pull me out of my writing and singing habits. But those things seem to be in my DNA. I can’t get away from it. My style is built into me and when I try to get outside of it things sound awkward and forced. With the covers projects I am really trying to get at what makes these songs so magical.
Juliana Hatfield. Courtesy of David Doobinin.
RC: Do you make these records in a studio?
JH: For Olivia Newton-John and the Police, we did the record in the studio. The pandemic was something that forced me to learn how to record directly into my laptop. So, with the help of my friend Jed Davis, who is like my remote 24-hour tech support, I learned how to work GarageBand. I’m using like one percent of its capabilities but I was able to do most of my album Blood on it. Then I got more comfortable with it and that was a huge accomplishment for me. With this ELO record I did everything at home in my bedroom. There were days where Ed, Chris and I would meet at a rehearsal space to work on arrangements. Chris recorded drums there and Ed recorded bass at his home studio and they worked off basic tracks I had made at home. They’d then send their tracks to me and I finished everything at home. Then when it was all done Pat DiCenso mixed everything at his place.
RC: You include songs here that many fans may not be aware of. Do you enter the project knowing which songs will be on the final cut?
JH: I never know everything at the beginning. Even if I think I know what I want to do, things change during the recording process. You can’t really control these things that closely. There were songs that I knew I wanted to do like “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and “Telephone Line.” But “Sweet Is The Night” (the album opener) is maybe my favorite. I just love that song so much. With ELO there wasn’t as much material that I wasn’t familiar with compared to R.E.M. But I discovered later albums like Zoom through the process of making this record. I really wanted to have familiarity with all of the material, not just the songs from the 1970s. I wanted to respect Jeff Lynne enough to listen to all of his material.
RC: Have you ever run these projects by the people you are covering?
JH: I don’t know any of these people that I’ve covered personally. But Olivia Newton-John was very gracious when the album came out. She talked about it on her website and mentioned it on Twitter which was really cool. My record company was actually in touch with her people before the release because we wanted to mention her cancer charity, because we agreed to donate one dollar to it from each [record] sale. So she was able to help us promote it.
RC: Nicole Anguish has done the cover illustration for all three of these records, and she’s created a real signature look to the series.
JH: She’s done all three album covers as well as gig posters for me. After she did the first two album covers it just made sense to ask her to do this one as well. She’s really good at finding that one thing that helps it make sense. In this case she knew that the sunglasses were a great connection and putting a profile of me in their lenses just seemed brilliant; obvious, but brilliant.
RC: Are you going to do any live dates in support of the record?
JH: I do. It’s coming together. We’re doing it in chunks. There are going to be some shows in October, then some shows in November; maybe some in December. We’re just finalizing them now and we hope to announce them shortly. Keep an eye on my website!
Header image courtesy of David Doobinin.