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Angst and the Artist

 
  Juliana Hatfield '90

A glimpse into the lives of revered artists - from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Dickinson to the members of Aerosmith - leads me to wonder about the correlation between artist and angst. Movies, books, and songs have long romanticized the familiar plot line featuring the gifted artist who leads a tortured personal life out of sight of his fans.

And with her memoir When I Grow Up, alternative rocker Juliana Hatfield adds her story to that file. Hatfield's book offers an eloquent and unvarnished account of the highs and lows of her career and personal life. As a fledgling artist brimming with talent and promise, Hatfield put her all into music. The drive to create songs expressing her deepest feelings and the natural high of performing prompted her to push past personal problems on the road to stardom. But Hatfield could continue for only so long before she reached an inevitable crisis point that forced a reassessment. Happily, Hatfield's story ends on a positive note as she learns to cope with her demons and graciously accepts what music has given her.

In her memoir, Hatfield reveals that she is a private and complex person, a bit uncomfortable in her own skin. She candidly details her battles with self-esteem, depression, anorexia, and her inability to form lasting love relationships. Ironically, such issues have only added to the mystique of countless stars. Hatfield's case is no exception. She vividly describes the internal tensions of her role as an artist: While she craved the intoxication of creating and performing music before an audience, she also kept that audience at a safe distance. "Music was a lifeboat on a deep dark angry ocean, to me," she writes. "Without it, I would have drowned. And I thought that without an audience to listen, it would have been like dying alone, my death unnoticed. Like a tree falling in the forest."

The Cost of Success

Hatfield found success in her early twenties, and her memoir confirms that building a music career is a young person's game. Beyond the requisite talent, the enterprise demands the vitality of youth and a farsightedness to look past the seemingly endless road trips, countless dingy clubs, the shabby hotels, and short money. The quest for large-scale acceptance of one's art, peer respect, and even fame exacts a toll that those girding for the mission can never fully calculate.

During the late 1980s, Hatfield broke into the business with the Blake Babies, a group formed in 1986 in Berklee's rehearsal rooms with fellow students Freda Love '87 on drums and John Strohm '87 on guitar. In the Boston college circuit and elsewhere, the group created a buzz and released three critically acclaimed albums. But after artistic differences emerged in 1991, Hatfield broke up the band. Producer David Kahane (then affiliated with Columbia Records) had produced a demo for the trio. Hatfield liked the polished and radio-friendly sound Kahane had sculpted, but Love and Strohm didn't. Deciding to go it alone, Hatfield regrouped and in 1991 released her first solo album, Hey Babe. College radio and MTV picked up the disc, which sold 60,000 copies and Hatfield found herself on the covers of national magazines such as Sassy and Interview. In 1992, she signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records and accepted a huge advance for a publishing deal with Zomba/BMG. In 1994 her song "Spin the Bottle" was chosen for the soundtrack of the movie Reality Bites. Ben Stiller directed the song's video.

Despite reaching numerous high-water marks, Hatfield remained unconvinced that the fanfare was merited. "I never got used to the shock of turning on the radio or the TV and hearing or seeing my song come on the air," she writes. It was a thrill, but it also seemed a bit surreal. "The Juliana on the radio was a disembodied voice separate from me, a whole different entity that had a life of its own, apart from me."

During those years, Hatfield rode a wave of pop culture. As she crisscrossed the nation in a tour bus and her audience grew, her inner battles roiled. She viewed success as a fantasy, an escape from the recurring letdowns and disappointments of reality. Her record company pressured her not only to churn out radio-friendly material but also to surpass her previous achievements. But Hatfield's new songs fell short of the chart position of her hit single "My Sister," and her career suffered. "My success was bound to slip away eventually," she writes, "because I didn't think I really deserved it, and I didn't grab onto it very hard or try to cultivate it in earnest."

By 1996, Atlantic declined to release her album God's Foot. So Hatfield freed herself from her contract to pitch the album in which she fervently believed elsewhere. Sadly, it still sits in Atlantic's vault. "It took a long time for me to recover from the shock of this new reality wherein certain music is never heard, never loved, never sung," she writes. "I was always determined to make sure that all the music I recorded found an audience - some small audience, at least - and God's Foot never did. It never had the chance because it wasn't released."

Things hit bottom when nagging self-doubt made performing increasingly harder and Hatfield found her thoughts frequently gravitating toward suicide. She canceled an upcoming European tour and sought help. "I was always aware that wanting to be onstage in front of people was sort of like a pathology," Hatfield recalls in a recent phone interview. "It's a strange thing to need approval and love from strangers rather than trying to find it in private life. It was a way of getting something that I needed from the audience. I guess my depression is part of the whole thing. Playing music was a way to try to feel good."

Hatfield continued to release albums and tour, but after two exhausting decades of the cycle of writing, recording, and touring, Hatfield took the year 2006 off from music: no tours, no songwriting, and nothing to prove to anyone.

"It was just me and myself getting to know each other really well, learning how to coexist. And what I found was that I liked myself a lot. And I didn't need anyone, nor did I need anyone's approval. . . . I wasn't lost without an audience clapping and propping me up. In fact, I found myself away from the crowds. I saw the real me, clearly, without confusion, and it turns out I am a pretty normal, likeable girl after all."

Hatfield had invested five years in writing her book, and its publication coincided serendipitously with the August 2008 release of her 10th solo album, How to Walk Away.

The book and CD testify that Hatfield has returned to music as a healthy, mature artist with a lot to say. "It's still really important and necessary for me to write music," she emphasizes. "But I don't feel the desperation I used to have about it. I don't feel like I'm going die without it. Now I just feel like it's a really good, faithful companion." Hatfield shows us that the artist can make peace with angst and still continue to make a valuable contribution.