Stephanie Hatfield's upcoming release Out This Fell is an album that could fit well into any number of genres: Indie, folk and solid-gold country, for example—Neko Case fans, line up, because this will be right up your alley—but there's more to Hatfield's newer songs than a collection of well-crafted singer-songwriter jams. Sitting down to speak with her about the experiences that influenced the album reveals a woman in transformation, and Fell shows a singer ready to forge into unfamiliar songwriting terrain.
"Like so many other people who haven't been touched directly by mental illness or disorders, I held it at arms length," says Hatfield of her new direction. "I had as much compassion as I could muster for it, but I didn't understand it at all."
Then everything changed. In the midst of a camping trip in the high mountains with her husband, local troubadour/producer Bill Palmer, Hatfield confesses that something within her snapped—leaving her near-comatose for hours. Maybe it was initially caused by the inclement weather or the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet, but there was more to it, according to Hatfield.
"I think there was a build-up of my entire life," she says. "Of people-pleasing and having a Type-A personality, keeping my mouth shut in situations where I didn't want to, being a woman in this society—or feeling like my voice didn't matter."
That moment served as the principal inspiration for the song "In Those Woods," a winding dirge of a track that sort of sets the tone for the rest of the album.
"I leaned into the stillness, blackness crossed my path," she sings with fervor in the bridge of the song, creating a feeling that this might be the linchpin for new depths in her lyricism.
"I've always been pretty intimate with my expression in my compositions, but a lot of times they're about love and heartbreak," Hatfield explains. "I'm finding inspiration in different things now."
The album will be sonically familiar to those who are already fans, but there is a wholeness of experience that sets Out This Fell apart from her previous efforts. Hatfield herself puts it best, saying that it came from "a desire to be fearless in expressing the range of human emotions." Writing music, she says, doesn't have to be all about love and heartbreak, it can also encompass "beauty, sadness, longing, straight-up desperation, confusion, admiration in terms of friendship. All of these emotions are worthy of a voice."
Take "Not Her," a song written about her mother's experiences growing up in Detroit and the feelings of abandonment and urban desolation as people left the city. Or "Michigan," wherein Hatfield croons, "When it hurts most, it's the right thing." While this feels very much about her own hometown exodus, it could very well be about any townie who has experienced the bittersweet moment of watching their hometown sink away in the rear-view mirror.
Still, in some ways, Hatfield continues talking about love and heartbreak—what songwriter doesn't plumb those emotions?—but there's a difference between singing about breakups and love, and singing about love for a city someone must leave, or the grief and fallout of a nervous break on a mountain. While those songs still exist on Fell (see the saccharine closer "Like Sweetness Does"), Hatfield says writing her new material was a needed break from the past, that she needed to "do something a little bit more representative of who I am in a daily existence."
Beyond the thematic and compositional evolutions, Out This Fell marks the first time Hatfield has taken on a larger role in the production side of things.
"It feels like this has been a huge growth opportunity," she explains. "At the beginning, I was terrified of any choice I made. What if it all falls flat? What if I make the wrong choice?" But as she dove into the production world, she quickly found herself asking "What do I have to lose? Just try it, throw something against the wall, make it stick."
This record feels special. Maybe it's in the lyrics that speak simply about grand ideas, or Hatfield striking gold with her collaborators (her duet with Future Scars' Eliza Lutz on "Day or Decades" is serendipitous, and I hope they continue to work together), or maybe it's just because Out This Fell doesn't try to hide behind a wall of pretense while it wrestles with the topics it presents. It's real in a way so few records are these days.
Stephanie Hatfield: Out This Fell Album Release:
7 pm Saturday Jan. 25.
$20 (includes a copy of the album).
Jean Cocteau Cinema,
418 Montezuma Ave., 466-5528