A couple of years ago, Stephanie Hatfield was loading in equipment for the Crawdaddy Blues Festival at the Mineshaft Tavern in Madrid, New Mexico. A man saw her carrying an amp and told her that it was really sweet of her to help her boyfriend at his gig. The 46-year-old guitarist and bandleader recalls this anecdote while standing at her kitchen counter, drinking a mug of green tea and rolling her eyes. She’s used to such assumptions about women in the music industry, but it’s only started bothering her recently.
“I don’t know that I paid attention to it because it was just my life. I was used to people dismissing me as a musician,” she says.
Hatfield, who has been belting it out in her church choir since she was 8 years old, has a new album, Out This Fell, and an increasingly wary perspective on the world that asserts itself in the songs. That is not to say that her lyrics are cynical or even jaded. They are emotionally hard-driving and backed by sonically lush instrumentation. The songs are about love, heartbreak, despair, and anxiety in equal measures, which Hatfield says is a product of age and a recent desire to be less guarded about her needs and feelings.
“I’ve been independent all my life,” she says. “I used to race motorcycles and fix my own car. I’ve done search and rescue. I’ve done body recovery. If someone had a bone sticking out of their leg, I was the calm one. But I don’t think I want to do any of that anymore. I’m tired of holding my own.”
To celebrate the release of Out This Fell, Hatfield performs at the Jean Cocteau Cinema on Saturday, Jan. 25.
Hatfield has a willowy, elfin quality and yet she also looks like she could throw a mean punch if she needed to. Although it’s not the main thing she’d want mentioned about her, she has unusually large and striking blue eyes. She lives with her husband, the musician and recording engineer Bill Palmer, 46, in a house off West Alameda where she teaches music lessons and he runs a studio. They’ve been together since 2009, when she hired him to make her first album, Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess, which was also the name of her band at the time.
That band name is a thing of a past, she says. In 2009, when the members got together, “I was a hot mess and so was everybody in the band. We were all going through major life changes, being careless and reliving our youth.” But after her second album, Tracks, in 2011, she was in her late 30s and outgrowing the desire to present herself as a troubled party girl. Inspired by the confidence and social awareness of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, Hatfield decided that it was time to let her name speak for itself.
“She goes by her name. I needed to take ownership of my music, my creation.”
Getting to the music she’s making now was a somewhat circuitous path that began in church choir on the outskirts of Detroit in the 1980s. She studied classical voice and piano at Michigan State University and then moved to Santa Fe just after graduating from college in 1996. She found work singing show tunes at La Casa Sena and performing at other local venues, which she did for three years. It was the bridge she needed between the choral works of her classical training and a more rock-and-roll destination.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a classical musician sing pop music, but it’s really silly,” she says.
Among the friends she made when she first moved to Santa Fe was the musician Boris McCutcheon, who has since become a popular and well-respected touring musician. She says he taught her how to play guitar by example. “I learned by watching his hands and following along the best I could,” she says.
When told that Hatfield credits him with the beginnings of her guitar-playing, McCutcheon sounds flattered and surprised. “We would sit around campfires and play,” he recalls. “She had an amazing voice — perfect pitch.” He says that Hatfield has developed as a songwriter since getting together with Palmer, who he thinks helped her find her voice. “They’re one of the most positive musical forces in Santa Fe,” he adds.
Hatfield said she fell in love with Palmer when they were laying tracks for that first album. She promptly asked him to join her band. He was involved with three other bands at the time, but a few months later, “all my bands had broken up, so I joined hers,” he says. They have been playing together ever since: He plays guitar for her band and she plays bass in his band, the TV Killers. He says that in the time he’s known her, she’s grown tremendously as a musician, a solo performer, and as a bandleader. As a lyricist, “I think she’s become a better storyteller. She’s putting more into her songs than just emotion. She’s talking about the human condition.
“When she was younger,” he says, “she was going on raw rock-and-roll energy and sexuality — the things we all use to sell our art. As we get older, it becomes a deeper craft. She’s coming in with experience and wisdom, and she’s able to embrace herself aging and becoming more conscious and wise.”
The new album’s title, Out This Fell, comes from a line in the fourth song, “In Those Woods.” The music has the quality of a person running down a lonely, treacherous path, their heart beating fast and hard. Hatfield said the song was inspired by an emotional breakdown she had about a year and a half ago while on a later-summer camping trip. She recalls a photograph she took just before the dark wave overtook her. She and Palmer were driving through Northern New Mexico, “and it was super stormy up ahead. There was a bolt of lightning.” Not long later, “Everything felt like that, like it was falling out. Just the idea that I have my shit together, that I’m totally able to cope with everything. No. Not at all. In that moment, I shut down. I broke.”
One of the most shocking things to her about the breakdown, short-lived as it was, is how all-consuming it felt. It opened her eyes to what people with mental health issues experience — an issue about which she’d previously been rather glib. “I had all sorts of stupid opinions,” she says, mocking her old ideas. “ ‘Maybe if you exercised, you’d feel better.’ ‘Maybe if you changed your diet.’ I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“The sky opened up and out this fell,” she sings. “I know this feeling all too well. Fractured into pieces too small to retrieve. What is left is what I’ll believe. Pull me in, leave me be, I can’t feel a thing. Rain falls, sky’s dark, wind quit howling. I hear you now, I heard you then. Be it still, be it cold, deliver me an end.”
She’s not sure what ultimately led to her catharsis that night, but the uncertain political times were a contributing factor. “Just thinking about who’s in the White House is so horrifically devastating to me as a woman,” she says. It helps her to know that she’s not alone. “Certainly, #MeToo has meant being able to put words to things I’ve felt forever. To be able to identify that I’ve been assaulted and harassed and discriminated against. I’m exhausted. I just can’t be this hard anymore.” ◀