JULIANA ON FRANK SMITH: “It surprised me like any good music does, because I hate everything."
Juliana Hatfield just compared herself with Bob Dylan. The veteran Boston singer-songwriter is sipping on an iced tea at 1369 Coffee House — which is near her home in Central Square — and talking about her recent collaboration with Frank Smith, the Boston-birthed alt-country-ish six-piece who relocated to Austin in March. (They return to town to play downstairs at the Middle East this Saturday.) “This is just like Bob Dylan and the Band. It’s just like that,” she says, shooting a wry smile to indicate that she’s joking. After years of recording as a solo artist with groups of individual musicians backing her, she says it was refreshing to play with a pre-existing band. “You can’t really impose that chemistry on a bunch of musicians taken from different places. You can hope for it, but you can’t count on it.”
The fruit of the partnership — a six-song EP, Sittin’ in a Tree . . ., which Hatfield released on her own Ye Olde Records imprint last Tuesday — is a toothsome cocktail, the marriage of Hatfield’s “peppy, poppy” songs, as she describes them, with Frank Smith’s country-rock sensibility. Hatfield wrote the tunes — leftovers that didn’t fit on her forthcoming solo album, which she’s been working on with Ivy’s Andy Chase in New York — and handed them over to the band to be arranged. “I trusted them to make the songs cool because their music is so great that I knew that their producer-arranger instincts would be good. So I let them take over.”
Frank frontman Aaron Sinclair and guitarist Scott Toomey took on the role of producers, tweaking the songs, sometimes radically. Hatfield cites “If Only We Were Dogs,” a creepy, subdued banjo-driven affair. “When I brought that one to them, it was a rocker. It was heavy guitar with the riff” — here she demonstrates with her voice and air ax. “They totally changed that around so it’s much darker and more sparse now.”
Did she never find it hard to accept such changes? “I made a choice to go with the flow. I’m pretty good about letting go of stuff when I trust somebody, and I trusted the songs with them. And I liked that they changed them because I wanted as much of Frank Smith in the songs as I could get. I didn’t want to impose my Juliana-ness — I wanted to absorb all the Frank Smith–ness I could.”
Which is amusing when you consider that the first couple of times she saw Frank Smith play — at the urging of numerous friends, including the band’s manager, Jeff Goodman — she found them “kinda boring.” Goodman had given her their 2005 full-length, Think Farms, but she never listened to it. Later he gave her an advance copy of their 2006 album, Red on White. “At some point I listened to it and I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is really good. It’s really good.’ It surprised me like any good music does, because I hate everything. And then I listened to Think Farms, and that was really good too.”