I recently reviewed Juliana Hatfield’s latest album, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, an unapologetically affectionate fourteen-track tribute to the legendary singer’s expansive catalog. While Hatfield’s homage encompasses Newton-John’s most commercially successful period, catalyzed in the US by her ascent to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in October 1974 with her signature ballad “I Honestly Love You,” her formal recording career dates further back to 1966 when she recorded and released her first single “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine” for Decca Records in the UK.
I’ll leave you to read a more detailed analysis of the record in my review, which contains a lot of well-deserved bouquets to both artists. Meanwhile, I encourage you to dig into this lengthy interview Hatfield and I did last month, which, as you’ll see, is actually much more of a conversation than a transactional question-and-answer. These moments when I really connect with an artist based on our mutual admiration of another have been some of my most rewarding journalistic pursuits, and I think that heartfelt sentiment made for a great discussion.
Whether or not you’re familiar with or you stylistically appreciate Newton-John’s repertoire, Juliana Hatfield Sings… is worth exploring for Hatfield’s own unique perspective, not to mention the tangible chemistry between her and her band in the interpretation of these classic songs that comprise a pop music legacy that’s endured nearly five decades.
Grant Walters: So, when do you remember first hearing Olivia’s music and recognizing that it had a significant impact on you?
Juliana Hatfield: I don’t remember any one particular starting point, I don’t remember when it began. I just remember the earliest memory I have of her in my life is that my record collection had a copy of the Don’t Stop Believin’ album, and there’s a photo of her on the back and she’s wearing a shiny red jumpsuit on a wooden horse—a wooden rocking horse. That was in my record collection as a child, so I’m not sure—I think that came out in the late 70s? And I don’t remember how I acquired it, if I’d asked my parents to buy it for me or what.
But, yeah, that album was the first one that I had, and after that it was a period of maybe ten years when I was just eating up every new release. What was it, Grease, after that one? It was Don’t Stop Believin’, Grease, Totally Hot, Xanadu, and Physical. Those were the five big things for me.
GW: For me it was hearing “Magic” when I was about four years old. I’ve talked a lot about how I heard most of the music that made an impression on me from a very early age in my parents’ car, and I remember that particular song coming on the radio a lot because it was a huge hit that summer. Beyond that, it was probably “Heart Attack” that came next, and everything else I sort of discovered over the years.
JH: Yeah. I wish I could remember the first time I heard her. I don’t remember, I just know that she was always in my life. And she was ubiquitous on the radio and stuff, right? So, she was just sort of always around and always in the air. I started really focusing when Grease came out. That’s when I actively went to see the movie in the theater a bunch of times and actively asked for the album.
GW: Can you pinpoint precisely what it is about her and her artistry that’s generated the affection you have for her music?
JH: My love for her is multifaceted. It’s hard to explain. Basically, it’s just the feeling I feel when I hear her voice. It just feels good. Something about the sound of her voice just affects me like a drug, a pleasure pill or something like that. It’s the combination of that plus her melodic sense and the way the songs are arranged, and the harmonies, and all that. I’m also a big fan of John Farrar.
GW: Oh, absolutely. John Farrar is one of the great Australian songwriters.
JH: Yeah, as a writer, producer, and arranger. He was a very big part of the sound of the Physical album, and the sound of that album, to me, was magical and kind of mysterious. There are some odd noises and otherworldly sounds on that album that make it all seem really dream-like to me when I think about how it was when it first came out.
And so that’s part of it. But it’s her whole…and I hate to be one of those people who call her sweet and innocent because she’s so much more than that. But part of what I liked about her was that she seemed so—how do I say this—pure in a way. And I don’t mean virginal, but there was a purity about her in that, from the beginning, she just seemed like she had her shit together. That she was never flailing around, or trying desperately to prove herself to anyone.
She just had this quiet, solid, modest confidence, and that was so refreshing. It was like ‘oh, here's a woman who knows she has something real, something good, a very positive thing to offer to people and she didn’t really have to compromise her sweetness and positivity.
GW: I completely agree with that. And I’ve never met Olivia, so I don’t have any personal basis for this statement, but she just comes across as a genuinely good person who seems kind and unpretentious.
JH: It’s something you can sense, and of course you can’t really know anyone just through their music. But the fact that she’s been around for so long and her reputation is pretty much completely untarnished says something about her.
GW: And she’s also had her share of challenges with her health and some of her relationships that have fluttered around the media over the years, and from all accounts she’s handled those with a gracious persistence and aptitude.”
JH: Yeah, there’s an innate grace and good sense that I was really drawn toward, I guess.
GW: From my perspective, Olivia’s an incredibly underrated singer. Her voice has this unique timbre that I haven’t heard anywhere else, and it’s so nuanced. On one hand, she can be brazen and confidently sexy if I think of a song like “Deeper Than The Night” or “A Little More Love.” But she can also be sensitive and unassuming when you consider tracks like “Have You Never Been Mellow” or “Please Mr. Please.” There really isn’t another voice like hers.
JH: She is unique, I think. Yeah, I agree that she’s an underrated vocalist. She’s also got a lot of soul in her voice, at times. And I’ve just sung all of the songs and I can attest to how technically difficult they are. Her range is really wide too, as I learned as I was recording these songs. It drives me crazy when people call her, like, a cupcake or something.
GW: I often think that pop artists like Olivia have sort of been at the mercy of the time or era they represent, and when her musical contributions are chronicled or discussed, there’s this backhanded acknowledgement that gives her conditional credit for her work. “Olivia’s music was great, but…the outfits!” Or “She’s a great singer, but…ugh, the 70s!” There just seems to be a hesitation to just say “Olivia Newton-John is a talented vocalist with a deep catalog that was popular for good reason.”
JH: And massively popular.
GW: Absolutely. And she was innovative. I’ve often pointed out that she broke ground in consistently and successfully stepping over the line between country and pop. Years before anyone else did it. If you listen to an album like Totally Hot, those styles sit very comfortably next to each other.
JH: I know, and she doesn’t really get credit. And people talk about Taylor Swift and how successful she’s been at crossing over. And Olivia already did that, you know? She’s proven to have real lasting pop staying power. I mean, her legacy…I still listen to her, too, and it’s not for the purposes of nostalgia. I just enjoy a lot of the music. If you listen to something like “If Not for You” or an early single, it sounds really fresh and kind of raw in a cool way with the really loud slide guitar, or whatever that is.
GW: And now that the singer-songwriter vibe is really back in vogue and artists are reverting back to the organic arrangements that fuse all those influences together, it’s funny to hear people talk about how original and edgy that is. But if you listen to Olivia in 1975 or 1976, you hear those same concepts.
JH: And her voice is pretty timeless. I would admit that maybe some of the visuals around “Physical” and some of the later ‘80s stuff is a little dated, you know, like the headbands and leg warmers. But sonically, these songs and her voice are pretty timeless.
GW: And so considering how well those compositions have aged and how personally important this project was to you, what was your vision as you started arranging and recording the tracks for the album? Because, for the most part, you added flavor to the originals rather than completely deconstructing them and making them unrecognizable.
JH: Well, I knew that I just had to choose a handful of songs, and I would just apply my organic aesthetic to them. And I guess my aesthetic is a little sloppy. So it’s not like I had a clear vision of what I was going to do overall. I just knew that if I chose songs that I liked and thought I could reinterpret and would paint them with my personal brush, I knew it would work because I’d recorded a bunch of other cover songs.
When I feel a connection to a song, when I love a song, when I start playing and feeling it enter my body, when I learn a song, it’ll come back out with my personality on it. It’s not like I need to try too hard to make that happen. I don’t sit down and say “hmm…I’m going to take this funk song and make it punk.” It’s more like a natural, organic process. So, I just had to choose songs that I liked and knew I could bring something to.
There were some songs I just loved and wanted to record them, like “A Little More Love.” It’s a magnificent song. And “Have You Never Been Mellow” is gorgeous, it’s just an amazing song. And then there were a few songs where I didn’t really love the Olivia Newton-John version, like “I Honestly Love You” and “Dancin’ Round and Round.” I think those originals are a little bit sappy and maybe a little bit too slow. I almost didn’t record “I Honestly Love You.” It was a bit of an afterthought because I didn’t really like the song and didn’t really like the perversion of it. It was only at the end of the recording of the album that I took another look at it and decided I could fuck it up a little bit.
GW: [Laughs] And I love it and think it turned out great. You’re right, though, I think at its core it’s a pretty song, but it’s…
GW: Yeah. Absolutely.
JH: And it’s the same thing with “Dancin’ Round and Round.” It’s just slow and sad…it’s overly sad or something. A little too dramatically sad. And so there were a few of those that I thought I could work them over in a major way and make them into something different and something that suited me better.
GW: You did a bang-up job. I’m curious, have you ever had a chance to meet or interact with Olivia?
JH: I’ve never met her, no. There’s been a couple of sort of quasi-interactions with her since the album’s been getting out there. She’s tweeted a couple of times about it, and she’s been really gracious and supportive. There’s something on her website about it, too. But before when we were preparing the album for release, my record company was in touch with the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre just to make sure they were cool with us mentioning that we were going to give a portion of the money to them. They were great about it and even let us put their logo on the album. So, some of her people knew that it was happening before it came out.
GW: If you think about Olivia’s catalog, what would you identify as maybe the raw, undiscovered gem that most people might not have known about and should discover?
JH: Well, all three of the songs I forgot to put on the album. There was another song that I wanted to do that I just completely forgot about—the song called “Never Enough.” It’s a pretty song [sings] “it’s never enough…never, never enough…” I forgot about it, and I may need to record that one someday.
Hmm…I don’t know. So many of her songs are known. I guess “Dancin’ Round and Round” wasn’t super well-known. I just really liked the idea of someone going out and dancing the pain away. It’s sad dancing, and I can relate to that [laughs]. It’s like dancing and crying or trying to obliterate heartbreak in the arms of someone you don’t really care about. I just kind of liked the imagery in that song and that it proves she’s not just a cupcake. There’s a lot of darkness and sadness in her music that she doesn’t get credit for.
GW: She did take risks artistically. I remember the Soul Kiss album that came out, maybe it was 1985, after she’d had a hit with “Twist of Fate.” And it didn’t do as well commercially, but it was a little more unconventional than her previous albums, by comparison.
Sort of along that vein, you commented before that her songs are structurally and technically complex. Were there specific tracks that were cause for pause, creatively, or that you maybe had to wrestle with more than others?”
JH: It was actually really challenging to make this album. A lot of it was very tricky. Some of the songwriting was challenging to learn. For example, there was a song that I abandoned because it was just going to be too complicated—the song “Suddenly,” which was a duet with Cliff Richard.
GW: Oh! Great song.
JH: It’s got so many chords in it!
GW: I agree with you. There are a lot of ebbs and flows melodically, and then that big key change in the middle. I could see where it would be difficult to arrange, especially for one voice.
JH: And there are a lot of things going on and a lot of different keyboard parts and stuff. We got the basic tracks done, and it took a while. And then I was trying to figure out where to go with it from there, and I realized it was just going to be too complicated and it was going to take a long time, so I put it away for now. I just couldn’t handle it with all the other stuff. There was just a lot to figure out, and the album was a big puzzle to put together.
The original songs have a lot of instrumentation and I spent so much time listening closely to all the parts and trying to learn particular ones note-for-note, and then figure out how I wanted to reinterpret some of the parts to copy them or change them.
GW: I could see how that would be a struggle, especially with some of the later material that was pretty synth-heavy and busy. But I think you and your band did such great work in making those feel organic with the fatter drum beats and the live guitars in place of the electronic stuff. You nailed the transposition, as difficult as it must have been. I mean, “Xanadu” alone is just a gigantic waterfall of keys and vocals.
JH: Oh, thank you! And no one knows what all the background vocals are on “Xanadu!” None of us could figure it out. Even the other night when we played it live, there were a couple of people singing background vocals. And some if it when I was recording them, some of them I just had to write out phonetically, you know. So all the stuff like the…[sings a couple of vocal lines from the verses]. I mean, I don’t know exactly, but you get when I’m saying.
GW: I do. And there are a ton of layers there. You have Olivia’s lead vocals and harmony vocals, and then Jeff Lynne’s background vocals in a countermelody.”
JH: Yeah, some of the Jeff Lynne words I couldn’t figure out. And if you look online, they’re all wrong. Someone will post the incorrect lyrics on one website, then every other lyric website will pick up and post the same incorrect ones. You can’t rely on the internet.
GW: All said, your appreciation for Olivia and her music is what really shines through, and your interpretation of these songs without cynicism or irony is what makes this album so incredibly enjoyable to listen to. I worry that some of these important pop music catalogs are going to disappear because they aren’t being cared for or cared about, and I love that you invested in hers so unabashedly.
JH: I kept thinking ‘I don’t want to disrespect the music.’ I mean, I didn’t really think there was any danger of me doing that, but I didn’t want any of her hardcore fans to have the perception that I was trying to disrespect her music. But I have such respect for her and for the songs, and my love for them is so pure. I worked really hard on it, I really did.