Photo: David Doobinin
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: Juliana Hatfield Goes Deep On Her New Police Cover Album
"I'm starting to think I may have finally found my true calling. I think this might be my thing and I'm really enjoying it," Juliana Hatfield mused, with equal parts dry wit and keen self-awareness. This confessional observation comes from the seasoned singer/songwriter/bandleader reflecting on her newest musical endeavor—splitting up her standard album releases with cover albums entirely devoted to a single artist or band.
Following 2018's widely celebrated Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John and this year's Weird, she has once again picked an inspirational muse from her early years around which to craft a lovingly loud collection of guitar-graced tributes.
For the second edition in her newfound cover album project, she revisited her formative years' fascination with British rock trio The Police to create Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police. For this engagingly inventive 12-song set, she cleverly balances some of the GRAMMY-winning band's most iconic hits like "Every Breath You Take," "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You," with some of their lesser known (yet equally emblematic) album cuts and B-sides.
Hatfield has always shown an enthusiast's flair for reinterpretation over the last three decades with Blake Babies, The Juliana Hatfield Three and as a solo artist. Yet the ability to move beyond the single nod of recognition found in a one-off cover song to the full-on deep dive of a full album dedication has allowed the brilliant guitarist and multi-instrumentalist to dismantle and reassemble a legendary songwriting catalog (or two) through her own creative filters.
Recently, the Recording Academy spoke with the vibrant artist to find out what it was that so deeply drew her to The Police (both as a young fan and as the focus of this album) and how she picked which songs to cover. She also explained what it was like to step into each of the multi-genre musical shoes of Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland—she performed all of the vocals, guitars and keyboards on the album, as well as over half of the bass and drums.
Juliana Hatfield: Almost immediately after releasing the Olivia Newton-John album, I started thinking about who I should do next. For a while, I was actually thinking of doing Phil Collins, both his solo songs and also his time in Genesis. I had already started to make a list of his songs when one day I was listening to "Long Long Way to Go" from No Jacket Required. Sting sings background vocals on that song and as soon as I heard his voice, I was immediately struck by the thought, "Wait, I should really be doing The Police."
I have much more of a connection to The Police and was a bigger fan of them than I ever was of Phil Collins. Apart from two Genesis albums that I really love, Duke and Abacab, Phil Collins is more of a singles artist to me. But growing up, I was truly fanatical about The Police and had all their albums and knew all the deep cuts. I just switched my brain over to Police mode and that became the new concept.
Once she set her sights on The Police, it might've seemed like the possibilities of whittling down their renowned catalog to just a single LP's worth of cover songs would be a fool's errand. From 1977 to their contentious split in 1986, The Police were regularly atop the singles and albums charts, all five of their studio albums went platinum and they won six GRAMMYs. Their final, 1983 album Synchronicity even knocked Michael Jackson's Thriller out of the top spot on its way to a 17-week stay at No. 1. At the apex of their fame, The Police were often cited as being the biggest band in the world.
However, while Hatfield's song selection process could've been bloated by the riches embodied in The Police's musical successes, she actually had the reverse problem when it came to deciding on the finalized tracklist.
Juliana Hatfield: It was actually a little hard to get the track list up to 12 songs. While there are plenty of great Police songs to choose from, it's kind of intimidating trying to work with most of them. It was hard to get some of those songs to obey me. "It's Alright For You" or "Rehumanize Yourself;" those two were really tricky. The Police versions are so energized and I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to reach the same intensity.
What was created when those three specific guys played together can never be recaptured. With Olivia Newton-John, it was more about highlighting the songwriting and the melodies. With The Police, it's really more about the chemistry between those three guys and that was intimidating to feel like I was never going to capture the right energy.
Since Hatfield played all of the instruments for the majority of the album's tracks, she had a firsthand experience of the interworking of what made The Police's instrumental interplay so unique. Her approach was to sometimes stay true to the eclectic vibrancy of the individual performances and to sometimes completely strip them down to just their essential components.
Other times, as with the case of her punched up, punked out take on the lounge jazz B-side "Murder By Numbers," she reinvented the song completely. It all depended on what the song seemed to be calling for and what performance style rang the truest to her musicianship.
Juliana Hatfield: Sting's basslines are a lot of fun to play. Sometimes they can be very simple, like "Hungry For You," and sometimes they can sound really simple, like "Canary In A Coalmine," but the groove is really tricky to nail. I tried to do that one like a million times but I eventually gave up and asked Ed Valauskas to do it because he's more of a pro bass player than I am. I really love that bassline but it was just too much for me.
Also, some of Andy's guitar parts were challenging because I was playing way out of my comfort zone. Playing the reggae upbeats on "Canary In A Coalmine" or "Rehumanize Yourself"—the rhythm guitar is playing on a syncopated upbeat and that doesn't come naturally to me. Sonically, I also ended up using a cool effect on my guitar that came from a Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier because I was trying to get that signature Andy Summers chorus effect. I'm really into that effect now and I never used to be.
As recognizable as Sting's bass and Summers' guitar work can be, it was Copeland's powerfully distinctive drumming style that imprinted most fully on The Police's overall sound. Dynamic mixed-metered grooves, jazz-infused snare and hi-hat work, punk-fueled fury and syncopated polyrhythms are just a few of the hallmarks of Copeland's wide-ranging skillset that have made him one of the most memorable drummers of the modern rock era—a fact not lost on Hatfield when she was deciding how to approach the drums for each track.
Juliana Hatfield: Starting the whole album off with a drum machine on "Can't Stand Losing You" was my way of saying, "Don't worry. I'm not going to step on your heroes' toes or try to compete with their legacies." It was always weighing on my mind; "How do I interpret Stewart Copeland's beloved, iconoclastic drumming?"
I was worried about pissing off his fans. I knew I was going to have to really strip the drums down and not try to do anything even approaching his style. If you try to mimic him, you'll fail every time.
Along with assessing the notable musical elements of potential songs, she also let the lyrics and subject matter drive the decision for some inclusions. Whether it was the real world, day-to-day themes of systematic oppression and abuses of power or the way that the band dealt with existentialism and romanticism, the longtime alt-rocker picked a few of the songs based on their intense relevancy—both to the current sociopolitical atmosphere and to her individual life.
Juliana Hatfield: I was looking for songs that seemed really relevant and ones that felt current, like "Landlord" and "Murder By Numbers." Those songs spoke to my anger and sense of frustration about how the people with the power and money are totally f***ing everybody over. There are songs about the evils of the ruling elite on here that make me feel murderous and like I just want to punch someone in the face, so I tried to convey that musically.
Also, some of the songs I ended up not doing—"So Lonely' for example—were because I didn't feel like there was enough substance there. "Hole In My Life" is also about being lonely but its way more existential. It's not about missing a specific person, it's about an existential angst. I can still relate to that. The love songs, at this point in my life, I can't relate to them at all. I just don't have those inclinations anymore. I pushed all of those love songs to the side because they weren't speaking to me at this stage in my life.
For the drum and bass duties that she didn't handle herself, she called on Chris Anzalone (Roomful of Blues) and Ed Valauskas (The Gravel Pit) to help her wrangle the right grooves for her reinterpretations. Some of the songs even went through multiple iterations before she achieved exactly what she was looking to accomplish with this musical love letter to her longtime inspirations.
Luckily, after all of the instrumental elements were sorted out, Hatfield was able to focus on the fun of recording the vocal parts that she had been committing to heart-memory since her youth. She even got to whip out some of her high school French for "Hungry For You (J'aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)."
Juliana Hatfield: When I look back at the whole project, it was really fun. However, when I try to analyze the individual tracks, I realize that it was all pretty tricky. A couple of the songs I had to start over after I already had the basic tracks recorded. For "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Next to You," I already had the live drums, bass and guitar recorded and I had to scrap it all and start over with just a drum machine and my own drumming.
I redid all the bass for those as well because something just wasn't working with the original tracks. It was like a puzzle trying to get everything to fit together. Singing them was second nature though. That was the fun part. I have such an affinity for those melodies and know them all by heart. Most of them were even in the range I like singing in.
View this post on Instagram
The lady who works in the post office recently read an article about me in which I talked about my new all-Police covers album and also about wanting to cover an as-yet-undetermined American band for my next/future project (since I had done an Australian [Olivia Newton-John] and now an English band). So the postwoman and her husband made a list for me of bands that they think I should consider doing next... and here is the (awesome) list!
With an album concept like Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police, there are immediate "who will be next" questions that naturally follow. While there are always interesting contenders that easily bubble to the surface of conversations with Hatfield, flipping the question inside out—"What band would you like to record a cover album of Juliana Hatfield songs?"—prompted a wonderfully reflective pause and gleefully wishful response.
Juliana Hatfield: I think it would be R.E.M., yeah definitely them. I would want them to do it. In fact, I dare them to do it. They wouldn't, of course, but that would be an absolute dream come true. I would love to hear that in my lifetime.
Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police is currently available on CD, cassette and multiple vinyl variants from American Laundromat Records.