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Juliana Hatfield talks about ‘exciting challenge’ of covering Olivia Newton-John

When you think of artists who might cover pop star Olivia Newton-John, alt-rock luminary Juliana Hatfield probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind. When you hear Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, though, it all makes beautiful sense. Hatfield spoke with me by phone about her joyful new album, which is out today.

I understand the story of this album started last year when you realized that although you had always been a fan of Olivia Newton-John, you had never actually seen her live.

Right. I had gone through my whole life loving her music, but, never seeing her live. So I bought tickets. I saw that she was doing some shows, so I bought some tickets for me and a friend. She ended up cancelling that first show, and thats when I had the idea to make the album, making the first songs.

And then you eventually did get to see her.

Yes, she rescheduled. She was dealing with some health issues, that’s why she cancelled. She rescheduled a lot of the shows, so I was able to finally see her after decades and decades, and it was fantastic.

Every inch the icon you’d imagined?

Yeah. It was just really sweet. She was very gracious and generous, just exactly what you’d expect. Just such a breath of fresh air, and her voice was in really great shape. She’s kind of ageless.

I understand that a portion of proceeds from this album are going to support her cancer wellness and research center in Australia.

Yeah. We wanted to give something back, because I know she gives a lot into that center. So, we thought it’d be a really cool thing to be able to do: to contribute in some way to something that she’s passionate about. She herself has been through breast cancer, and so she is very dedicated to the cause.

What did your record label, American Laundromat, say when you called saying, “I’ve got this idea: Olivia Newton-John covers album!”

[Founder Joe Spadaro] was really into it. He’s pretty much very supportive of just about everything I do. He’s put out a few records of mine now, and he’s always very enthusiastic, and was just as enthusiastic about this. He’s really happy with how it’s going, he’s happy with how it turned out. He has a lot of experience with putting out covers: he’s done compilations of different artists doing covers.

So I’m sure he understands that contrary to whatever idea people might have that you can just whip up a covers album, that it’s easy, it was actually a challenge to adapt these songs to your style.

It was. Some of the songs were easier than others to figure out and to make my own, but there were some that were just very mechanically and mathematically tricky. Some of them had tons and tons of chords with interesting non-traditional voicing. At times it definitely felt like a math puzzle, trying to figure out how to play them, and also how to arrange them. There’s so much going on in her recordings — on some of them there’s layers and layers of keyboards and vocals and guitars and oboes and strings. It was a question of picking and choosing the parts, and then figuring out this puzzle.

Olivia Newton-John is certainly a pop culture icon, but maybe not someone who has had the musical cred that other actor-singers — like Cher, Dolly Parton, or Bette Midler — have had. Do you think that Olivia Newton-John’s musical reputation is due for a reassessment?

Sure, I think so. But then again, she’s got millions and millions of fans all over the world. I think that’s a testament to how well-loved she is. I think that maybe part of the reason people don’t take her as seriously as other artists is that she didn’t write most of those hits. She’s a singer, she does write songs, but the hits were written by other people and I think that has something to do with it, possibly.

Do you feel like you learned anything new about her style, her skills as a performer, in interpreting and recording the songs?

I definitely have a new and deeper appreciation for her skill as a vocalist. Having just labored over singing, I don’t want to make it sound like it was a chore, because it was a really exciting challenge. But it was difficult at times to sing some of them, just because some of the melodies go really low, and then they go really high — and my upper range and my lower range are both pretty weak. So, it was hard for me, technically. Some of the melodies move a lot, they swoop and sweep. It was difficult, but exciting.

Do you think that your fans listening might reassess your catalog as well, listening to it alongside these Olivia Newton-John songs?

Maybe they will discover, as I am, that I have been more influenced by her musically than I ever realized. I thought I just loved her music, but, now when I go back and listen to my stuff, I can see similarities in some of the ways that I layer vocal harmonies against melody, and the way I orchestrate some of the backing keyboards and guitars and things. I think theres a Olivia Newton-John influence in some of my music. Just melodically, I love really pretty, melodious tunes and that’s something I love about her. I love the kind of melodies that move a lot. Yeah, I think there are similarities between us.

Do you have any plans to take this material on the road?

I don’t have plans at the moment. Something could come together in the future, in the near future, but right now I’m just doing one hometown Boston show, and that’s it as of now.

I actually planned to ask you about Boston. I’ve been thinking about Boston, because I just read this new book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. I think one of Ryan Walsh’s goals in writing the book was to bring to light the role of the Boston scene in developing Astral Weeks and Van Morrison’s career. Do you think the Boston scene has gotten its due in the world? Are there things you wish that people knew about it?

I think it’s hard for people to write or generalize about it because there’s no real particular era and there’s no real particular “Boston sound,” so I think it’s hard to draw those lines around the Boston scene. I think it’s more like there are particular bands from particular times that were interesting and unique. There’s something about this city: it’s small enough, and uncool enough, that bands can develop an original sound without any pressure to conform to what’s popular.

And, you know, there’s a lot of free-thinkers. It’s that whole history of transcendentalism and the Tea Party. People are really independent thinkers, and so it’s a great environment for doing what you want to do, as an artist. There’s not that pressure from the industry — it’s not like New York or L.A. There’s no pressure to be a star, or hit it big. It’s like a laboratory, its a great laboratory to try ideas in, and there’s a very receptive audience.

That sounds a lot like what people say about the Minneapolis scene, as well. I know you’ve spent some time kicking around here.

Yeah. It’s not too big, and its a little bit removed, it’s a little bit cold. I like Minneapolis too, and there are definitely similarities. I like that it’s a little more remote and cold, and not too big. You can go outside of the city and it’s quiet and you’re close to nature, if you want to drive a little bit. Theres plenty of time and space to hole up and hibernate, and work on your art.