Almost all the I’m Your Fan artists I spoke with waxed rhapsodic about their love for Leonard Cohen. No surprise there; I assumed reverence for the original artist was why a musician would contribute to a tribute album. To confirm this, I wanted to speak with someone who had appeared on many such records. What moves a musician to cover a song for a tribute album? How does he or she pick all those songs? Why would someone do many tribute albums?
No one made more sense to discuss this with than Juliana Hatfield. A veteran of the music business, she’s now in her third decade of appearing on tribute albums, spanning genres, labels, and trends in the tribute business.
Hatfield got her start in the late 1980s, and by the 1990s was a bona fide college-rock queen. A steady stream of albums—first with her band The Blake Babies, and then under her own name—earned her appearances on the covers of the cool-kids magazines like SPIN and Sassy and praise from the likes of Kurt Cobain.
Though in the 90s she occasionally dipped a toe into the mainstream with an MTV hit or prominent soundtrack placement, like on 1994’s Reality Bites (that soundtrack’s “Spin the Bottle” is still her most-played song on Spotify), since then she’s settled into life as a beloved cult artist who every year or two drops another critically acclaimed album. Counting an array of side projects, she’s up to her 25th record.
She’s proven almost as prolific on tribute albums. She’s done the big major-label tributes; her first was Ralph Sall’s 1995 Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. She’s also popped up on more esoteric indie tribute albums, reciting a Jack Kerouac poem here, singing her favorite song from a Wes Anderson film there. That last one even led her to her current label American Laundromat, where in the past couple of years she’s begun recording her own tribute albums: 2018’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John and 2019’s Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police. She promises more in the series are coming.
I’ve encountered few musicians with as rich and varied a side gig in tribute albums as Hatfield, so I wanted to ask her why she did them. From all those I’m Your Fan conversations, I thought I knew the answer: She adored the artists she was paying tribute to. As I promptly learned, I’d thought wrong. The truth turns out to be more complicated, and illuminates some murkier corners of the tribute album business.
Despite recording for so many, Hatfield doesn’t particularly like tribute albums. She rarely listens to them, even the ones she appears on. She echoes the complaints so many fans have about the format. “There’s always a few really great versions, but then there’s a bunch of other things like, is this really necessary?” she says. “There’s always people who I feel are not getting it and they’re not doing it right, or I don’t like their taste or their approach or something. I’m just a very picky listener.”
That pickiness extends to her own recordings. She’s quick to critique her contributions to various tributes over the years, starting with the very first, Sall’s 1995 blockbuster Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. To start with, she couldn’t have cared less about her cartoon, Josie and the Pussycats. The story I’d anticipated—she grew up loving the show, was honored to reinterpret the iconic theme song, etc.—never materializes.“I think that if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure that our version of the song is that great.”
“It’s not my favorite song in the world, but it’s also not the worst song in the world,” is about the highest praise she musters during our conversation.
So why did she do it? The money certainly never amounts to much on these. “I do everything on a whim,” she says. In this case, she imagines the selling point was recording with her friend Tanya Donelly, co-founder of The Breeders, Belly, and Throwing Muses. That was enough reason to cover a song she didn’t care about. Opportunities like that would come through her label at the time, Atlantic Records.
“When I was on the major labels, sometimes these things would come along like, ‘Hey, do you want to work with this person? Do you want to do this one-off thing for this movie?’” she says. “If I have the opportunity to go into the studio and do something on someone else’s dime, it’s usually a win-win for me because I like being in the studio. It’s interesting to work with materials I might not have chosen myself.”
The pair turned the silly cartoon theme into a grungy pop song, bringing some alt-rock edge to an earworm melody. To me, it’s a high point of the album, irreverent and loose but still insanely catchy. Hatfield disagrees. “I think that if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure that our version of the song is that great,” she says. “Number one, it’s a goofy song and at the time I was in a very depressed period of my life and I’m sure I did not bring the right attitude to the song.”
This thread runs throughout our conversation. She likes a couple of the tribute albums she appears on, to be fair, and we’ll get to those. But more often she did them for reasons that had little to do with the artist being tributed. For instance, for 1999’s Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, she and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads recreated Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s 1970s harmonies, revered by so many. But not Hatfield. She doesn’t like Parsons or Harris one bit.
“When Evan and I were living in Boston in the late Eighties and we were hanging out a lot, he was kind of obsessed with Gram Parsons and he would play Gram Parsons’ music all the time,” she says. “Whenever he would play the stuff with Emmylou, I would just think like, ‘Emmylou was so flat. She’s so out of tune. How did they not deal with that at that time?’It just always really drove me crazy. I didn’t like Gram Parsons on his own either.”
Again, her disdain for the music hardly comes across in her cover of it, a beautiful duet with Dando on Parsons’ 1974 song “$1000 Wedding.” She says she only agreed because legendary producer Glyn Johns was behind the board. She wanted to make him tell her stories about working with the Stones. Plus, Dando was a huge Parsons fan, and he wanted an Emmylou to his Gram. She agreed to meet Johns and to help Dando. “Also,” she thought, “I’ll sing it in tune.”
Two other records in her tribute album discography elicit equal ambivalence. She calls “Don’t Lie to Me,” the Big Star song she covered for 2006’s Big Star Small World, “not much of a song,” praising it only for being so dumb and easy that her band could bang it out quickly. And when I ask her about contributing a track to 2009’s Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy, where artists from Thom Yorke to The National covered the Polaris and Miracle Legion songwriter to raise money after his wife’s sudden passing, she professes no memory whatsoever of the song in question. She certainly didn’t know the artist’s work, but respected the other musicians involved and wanted to help the cause.
I’d expected Hatfield to tell me she covered these songs because she loved the artists. So far, it seems she gave me every reason but that one. But she does point to two tribute compilations where she did cover the songs for the reason you’d expect. More or less.
For instance, as a huge Jack Kerouac fan who in her twenties had tried to read everything the author ever published, she was thrilled to be asked to join 1997’s spoken-word-plus-music Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness. Even there, though, she cares little about the specific Kerouac piece she recorded, “Silly Goofball Poems.”
She felt more connected to the novels than the poems, she says. Plus, she wishes she’d demanded a Kerouac piece with some weight rather than a whimsical poem about animals. “I think I was probably pigeonholed by being given that one—or maybe I chose it, I can’t remember,” she says. “I was known for having this girlish voice and for being the ‘alterna-waif,’ quote-unquote. It was a little typecast-y.”
Hatfield only has unequivocally positive things to say about one tribute album: 2014’s I Saved Latin! A Tribute To Wes Anderson. She doesn’t care about Wes Anderson movies one way or the other, but she adored Elliott Smith, whose song “Needle in the Hay” appeared in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
“Just something about the way he recorded the songs was so striking and so powerful,” she says. “They’re very close. You feel like he’s singing right into your ear.” She did her best to puzzle out Smith’s idiosyncratic chords and guitar parts, and feels she nailed it. Two years later, her cover ended up appearing on a second tribute album, Say Yes!: A Tribute to Elliott Smith.
That and the Wes Anderson tribute came out on the record-label American Laundromat, a label primarily known for its tribute albums. After a good experience working with label head Joe Spadaro on the tributes, Hatfield now records for the label full-time. She releases her own albums there, thrilled by Spadaro’s willingness to release records as fast as she can record them.
Plus, after years of appearing on other people’s tribute albums with mixed feelings, she’s decided to just make them herself.
Despite her disdain for the format, she clearly appreciates the core tribute album goals: Honoring influences, introducing one artist’s fans to another artist’s work, reinterpreting music in one’s own voice. Now that she’s no longer beholden to other people and has full control over the projects herself, she seems much more bullish on tribute albums.
When Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John was announced in 2018, the indie-rock world didn’t know quite what to make of it. One of the coolest artists of the past couple decades covering songs by one of the least cool when she was a kid? Was this an extreme iteration of a Gen X’er’s stereotypical love of irony?
Just the opposite, Hatfield says. She adored Newton-John growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, and continued her fandom even as she entered middle age. In 2017, she planned to see Newton-John in concert, but the pop singer canceled the tour after a breast cancer diagnosis. If Newton-John couldn’t sing her own songs, Hatfield thought, she would sing them herself.
She hoped in the process to convince her peers to take the singer more seriously. “There are always people who wrote her off as a cupcake or something,” she says. “But I know from experience trying to sing her songs that she was a serious artist with serious chops. I think I did make some people go and listen to her again, maybe re-appreciate or learn how to appreciate her for the first time.”
Though planned as a one-off, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John proved such a pleasure that Hatfield released a sequel the following year: Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police.
Sonically, Olivia Newton-John and The Police seemingly couldn’t be much further apart, but Hatfield says she chose them both for a similar reason. “The Police were really important to me at a certain time in my life when I was in adolescence and high school,” she says. ”I spent a lot of time listening to them, reading about them, talking about them with friends, going to see them in concert. With this and the Olivia Newton-John record, [I have] been exploring things that were important when I was forming myself.” The first time she sang in front of a crowd came when she belted out “Roxanne” with a high school band.
She also thinks that, like Newton-John, The Police are underappreciated by younger generations. Seen as classic-rock dinosaurs with a frontman who gets constantly mocked (tantric sex, lute music, a reggae record with Shaggy), The Police don’t get their due as a killer power trio, she feels.As an artist who’s never shied away from making political music herself, Hatfield feels this helps her connect these songs to her own.
“When you go back and listen to the first three albums, it’s surprising how raw and unpolished they sound,” she says. “They just sound so fresh because they haven’t been all glossed over. It sounds like three guys banging out the songs in a room together.”
Even before she released the album, she felt it was a success: some of the recording studio’s interns had never heard the songs she played and went to seek out the Police’s original records.
To familiarize such listeners with songs beyond the classic-rock radio staples, she chose to cover some deeper cuts that resonate in the current political moment. She compares the context of “Rehumanize Yourself,” which the Police wrote in response to a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1970s, to the Brexit debacle and hears echoes of Donald Trump’s entitled son-in-law Jared Kushner in “Landlord.”
As an artist who’s never shied away from making political music herself, Hatfield feels this helps her connect these songs to her own. Though some may view these tribute albums as a side project or a novelty, she sees them as of a piece with her own work, and plans to continue issuing them even as she keeps recording her own compositions.
This, Hatfield feels, is her tribute album future. After joining so many different tribute albums for so many different reasons, doing them on her own feels more pure—and more fun. Though she never plans things too far in advance, she envisions R.E.M. as the series’ next chapter. At the rate she’s going, she may have added one or two more installments by the time you read this.
That said, don’t be surprised if she does pop up on some other tribute compilation in the future. “At this point, if someone offered me a lot of money to record a song that I was not emotionally connected to, I would probably do it,” she says. “I would try to find something in the song that was valuable or something interesting or some saving grace that made the song less than worthless. Like if you adopt a troubled stray dog, you just figure out a way to love it. You whip it into shape, you train it, and you turn the bad dog into a good dog. I could do that with a song, I think.”
Excerpted from I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Academic. Copyright © 2020 by Ray Padgett.