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Juliana Hatfield on life after the spotlight fades

“People are in the spotlight for awhile and then they kind of go away and people forget about you,” Hatfield said over lunch one day recently.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Juliana Hatfield’s Spinal Tap moment came at a club in Eugene, Ore., in 2003.

The alt-rock singer, whose songs “Spin the Bottle” and “My Sister” put her on magazine covers during the early 1990s, had booked a tour of cities where she hadn’t performed, figuring people would be eager for the chance to see her.

Big mistake. Out of sight is out of mind, and only a handful of fans showed up. That hurt, and Hatfield admitted wiping away a few tears in the dressing room. But she pushed aside her wounded pride and took the stage. Besides, she later wrote, “you need the money.”

It recalls the comical scene in “This Is Spinal Tap” where the band, on a career downswing, plays at a military base to a clueless audience.

That happens to more musicians than you know; you just rarely hear about it. Hatfield tells the story in “When I Grow Up,” a fascinating and remarkably candid memoir of a life in music that illustrates what happens when the 15 minutes of fame runs out.

“People are in the spotlight for awhile and then they kind of go away and people forget about you,” Hatfield said over lunch one day recently.

The cruel irony is that while the attention has gone away, Hatfield hasn’t. She’s just made an album, distributing it on her own label, that is better than anything she did while famous. Her songwriting is sharper, her guitar playing is better with practice and her singing is more confident and assured.

But if time has passed her by, will anyone notice?

When dreams become realityHatfield, 41, was still in her teens when first heard from in the Boston band the Blake Babies. She was a fixture in a fertile rock scene and, after going solo and scoring a big record deal, was lumped with Liz Phair and Veruca Salt as one of rock’s up-and-coming girls with guitars.

She had an unerring sense of melody to go with a little-girl singing voice and candid lyrics.

But Hatfield never really had the hits some expected from her. When her record company rejected one of her albums, and she had to cancel a tour due to depression, the arbiters of hip moved on.

“It’s interesting what happens when you have a dream and your dream comes true,” she said. “Then the dream coming true creates a new reality. You have to adjust to a new reality which is not exactly what you thought.”

The thrill of hearing your music on the radio and meeting your heroes gives way to angst about criticism and feeling pressure to top or sustain your level of success.

“You think you know who you are and then other people have these other ideas,” she said. “It gets confusing. You have to figure out what you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to do.”

“When I first started making music, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to write songs. I didn’t have a concept. I didn’t think it through. I was just flailing around doing what comes naturally,” she said. “It took me a really long time to step back and deal with what I was doing with any kind of perspective or self-awareness.”

‘At heart I am a librarian, a bird-watcher...’Her book was born when she decided to keep a detailed diary of a tour in the early 2000s. Through a writing workshop, she expanded the narrative to mix the stories of life on the road with her own story — her upbringing, self-esteem problems and both sides of fame.

They offer a compelling backstage look. What’s it like to get a note from a fan saying how much your music meant to them? To deal with cheap rock club owners who don’t want to buy you a drink? To find a place to urinate when there’s no bathroom backstage? To deal with an employee who’s drinking too much?

The book also reveals the painfully shy person behind the songs. “At heart, I am not a rock and roller,” Hatfield writes. “At heart I am a librarian, a bird-watcher, a transcendentalist, a gardener, a spinster, a monk. I was like a fish out of water in the modern rock world. That was why I was so often discontented and unsure of myself and my place.”

Same thing with the attitude-soaked rock boys in their jeans, sunglasses and leather. “I have seen the truth,” she writes. “They’re not cool, I’m not cool. None of us ever was. We are all secretly freaking out.”

She reveals her secret relationship with “R.J.,” a more famous musician whose identity she protects, that grew from a common font of insecurities. If Hatfield herself were a little more famous, the passages about “R.J.” might start a tabloid guessing game about his identity (there was a time she was in the middle of press storms, like after revealing in a magazine interview that she was still a virgin at 22).

Hatfield also uses the book to criticize reporters for setting up a false romance between her and Boston rocker Evan Dando, although she undercuts her point by admitting that “sure, Evan and I had fooled around a little.”

‘I make music and I can’t stop’Hatfield took a year away from music a few years ago when she felt burnt out. She returned more committed than ever.

“It’s just what I do,” she said. “I make music and I can’t stop. It’s a compulsion and an obsession and a curse. I can’t stop, and I was determined not to let the fickleness of the industry or the masses stop me. I know that I had something worthwhile. I have a knack for something. I have an original voice and I still have things that I want to say.”

She sounds more mature on the CD “How to Walk Away,” more sure of herself. Loneliness is a thread throughout the disc, but it’s no bummer. There’s no filler, and the melodies are sturdy. Highlights are “Just Lust,” where the man is the emotional needy one in a relationship, and the sophisticated “This Lonely Love,” about loving a man’s music but not being able to hold onto him.

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“It’s definitely weird to know that I am improving gradually but constantly but a lot of people don’t know that I’m still in music, or they know me from a record back in 1993,” she said.

Those records got more attention than they deserved, she said. Her newer ones deserve more.

“I will admit that I probably will be disappointed if it doesn’t get much attention,” she said. “But I’m prepared for that to happen because I’m used to that happening.”