Here’s a conundrum: what do you do when the thing you love makes you sick? Juliana Hatfield has been trying to answer that question for a long time. In 2008 she put out a hopefully-titled album, How To Walk Away. At 44, she’s finally making her move. We met for tea recently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where Hatfield is enrolled in an intensive studio art program, to talk about closing the book on performing and starting a new chapter as a painter.
Q: How’s school going?
A: It’s going great. I’m not really ready to show my stuff to people. I feel like I’m just here at school trying to develop my skills and ideas. One of the faculty used the premature birth analogy. He said, “Don’t push your work out prematurely.” I don’t want to do that.
Q: How long is the program?
A: Just a year. It’s a post-baccalaureate certificate program. But a lot of people see it as pre-MFA training.
Q: Are you looking at it that way?
A: Well, I wasn’t. I really just wanted to learn and have a more intensive art school experience and just develop, but I think I’m going to apply to a couple of MFA programs, although I don’t know if that would be practical for me.
Q: That brings up the question of plans.
A: If I could afford to, I would just paint for the foreseeable future. It’s the way I saw music before. I only wanted to do that. Now I want to paint. That is probably going to sound so pretentious coming from someone who’s been a musician. It’s weird, no one even knows I’m doing this school. None of my quote unquote fans knows that I’m in school. I haven’t really told anyone.
Q: Why not?
A: I’m doing it for me. I always felt that I had potential but I put it on the back burner when I started doing music full-time. Now I’m trying to see if I can develop the skills that I have.
Q: It sounds like you’ve completely turned your energy away from music.
A: I’m focusing on school right now. I finished up an album, which was sort of a way to help me pay for school. The plan was to get the album out and then stop with music. I can’t really, what’s the word…It’s like this really strong creative urge is taking another shape right now. There’s all this stuff around music, you know. The whole thing about rock music, pop music, is it’s really for kids. The last show that I played was in August. I was up there with a bass player and a drummer and I felt like such an idiot. I’ve outgrown this. It is really unbecoming. I don’t feel that this is right anymore. I felt ridiculous playing electric guitar and singing songs.
Q: Because you feel too old? Because you’ve been doing it for so long?
A: I just feel like I’ve outgrown it, the performance thing, I’m really not feeling it anymore. I think I can keep writing songs, but getting up in front of people and playing just feels so weird to me now. So silly. I’ve lost that desire to play in front of people.
Q: My sense is that being on stage, in the spotlight, has never been a comfortable place for you.
A: Yeah, when I look back over the hundreds and hundreds of shows I’ve played I feel like maybe half a dozen, or a dozen, maybe two dozen, I’ve felt like, OK, this is really working well, I’m feeling really strong and it’s flowing and I’m at the top of my game and I’m connecting with the audience. Two dozen times of the millions of shows I’ve played.
Q: And the other shows?
A: The rest of the time I’m really uncomfortable. Physically hurting. Feeling anxious. Not putting on a good show, not connecting, saying stupid things between songs, awkward.
Q: That’s no way to live.
A: I know. I’m finally realizing I don’t want to feel like this anymore. It’s pathological.
Q: It’s also hard to let go.
A: It’s taken me years to be able to say this is really not fulfilling for me, I really don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve been trying to quit touring and performing for years. I’ve been talking about it for years.
Q: What’s stopped you?
A: Well, I don’t know. It’s like a weird grieving process, I guess. It’s hard to say goodbye to something you thought was going to be something more. It’s hard to let go of old dreams. It sounds so silly.
Q: But it’s true.
A: I know. It took me probably longer than it should have, but I still wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be a great performer, but I was always frustrated. People tried to tell me I was a good performer but I finally realized I’m not. Plus, my audience has gotten smaller. I can’t really make money on the road. A lot of people get to a certain age and they would like to stop, but they’re bringing in good money so they get in the cycle of touring every year. I’m not even making money on the road, so it’s doubly not worth it. And then the other thing is the past couple of tours I went on were so physically ravaging. I came home severely underweight. I would get these epic flus and bronchitis. I had insomnia, horrible anxiety, and anorexia. It was, like, why am I doing this to myself?