Swinging Modern Sounds #75: The Petra Haden Story
What makes a great musician? Some of it is in the ear of the beholder, inarguably, and yet over the seven years of working on this column, I have come to see that there are aspects of musicianship that continue to call to me, across genre. There are things that I always love to hear. Originality, for example, a capacity to do things with music that are infrequently tried; unpretentiousness, too, an impatience with high art models of music-making; enthusiasm always registers for me, a true belief in what’s happening in the performance or recording; expression over celebrity, the right note as opposed to some performance of virtuosity; a willingness to try something new; an attraction to the organic; an awareness of the history of music-making as a form. These are all aspects of music that I continue to prize.
And so I think it’s inevitable that I would have found a way to talk with Petra Haden. In some ways, she’s a quintessential contemporary musician if adjudged according to the above standards. Haden was born into a remarkably musical family. Her father, Charlie Haden, was a childhood country music sensation, and then later an emphatic, moving, and well-known bassist and composer of the free jazz world (listen to The Liberation Music Orchestra, from 1969, if you haven’t already). Petra Haden is a triplet, and occasionally sings with both her sisters as The Haden Triplets, and her brother sings and writes songs in the rock and roll band called Spain. Everyone in her family seems to have chops! Like her dad, Petra Haden has also played with a great variety of other musicians, having gotten her start in the nineties in the band called That Dog (with her sister, Rachel, and Anna Waronker, and Tony Maxwell), and later having done a stint in The Decemberists. She has played with a great variety of jazz, rock, and experimental musicians of the West Coast, and if she is not quite as ubiquitous as her dad was, it’s only because her dad had several decades more in which to pack in his diverse accomplishments.
What moved me first, though, and most indelibly about Petra Haden, was her album Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out. As the name would imply, Haden covers the entirety of the seminal British Invasion album The Who Sell Out, which in itself would be ambitious, but not entirely outlandish. The catch, and it’s a very original one, is that she covers the entire album with her voice alone. As with such other galvanizing Bar/None Records releases as The Langley Schools Music Project, Petra Haden’s recording of The Who Sell Out is completely original, utterly unpredictable, and, strangely, oddly, more powerfully emotional than original (and I say this as a lifelong fan of The Who, and one who has written about them extensively). “I Can See For Miles,” for example, when sung in eight vocal tracks by a woman, is a far more outlandish and illuminating romantic boast, than when it is sung by Roger Daltrey.
At every turn, Haden’s decisions, while labor-intensive and rigorous, feel fresh, passionate, funny, and new. The model of art-making here is almost exactly like Pierre Menard’s attempt to reproduce Don Quixote spontaneously three centuries later. Haden’s version of The Who Sell Out, produced post-Y2K, and post-9/11, feels much less psychedelic and much more homespun, more a work of rugged individualism, and American ingenuity, than of Swinging London. There have been other recordings by Petra Haden besides The Who Sell Out, to which I later turned my attention—her first album, Imaginaryland, and her later all-vocal recording of film scores, Petra Goes to the Movies—both are just as formally daring and beautiful and funny and moving. She can, it’s true, play the violin exceedingly well, and on The Haden Triplets album (Third Man Records, 2014) she proves that she and her sisters can drill down into the old-time songbook with respect and palpable reverence, but for me it’s Haden’s a cappella singing that is most unusual, fresh, and moving.
Our conversation took place on Skype, and the occasion is the recent re-release of Haden’s first album, Imaginaryland, and Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out (on Bar/None Records). Haden was funny, open, easygoing, and willing to talk. It was a lot of fun, as I had figured it would be. If you haven’t heard her work yet, you should give it a listen.
The Rumpus: I’m wondering, having gone back to listen to Imaginaryland, your first solo album, just re-released, what first caused your interest in making a cappella recordings?
Petra Haden: Let’s see. I got a new 4-track cassette recorder a year or so after high school. For a while I would just stare at it thinking, how am I going to do this if I don’t play guitar or keyboards? How am I going to write and record a song if I don’t know how to play any instruments? I mean, I played the violin, but I didn’t know anything about how to work a 4-track. I just recorded in studios, you know, people pressed the buttons for me. So I just started recording the bass lines and guitar parts with my voice, covering classical pieces, or just making up melodies so I could learn how to use it.
So the first song I wrote was “Look Both Ways Before You Cross” from Imaginaryland. I started the song by singing a bass line, “hoo hoo hoo hoo.”
I didn’t write words so I just started singing “la la” for everything else. Eventually I had so many little melodies and ideas that, you know, that they were all songs to me and I threw in a few cover songs like Enya’s “Watermark,” Bach, and my dad’s song, “Song for the Whales.” I was really into movie music so that’s where the Enya song came in because I loved the music to that movie, Green Card, and—
Haden: I think probably I had just seen that movie, heard that beautiful song, and had to record it. And what else—Bach, of course, I love the Bach Prelude No. 2 in C Minor and had that stuck in my head: why don’t I put this on Imaginaryland? So I brought it to my friend Tom Grimley who recorded That Dog’s first record. I played him all my a cappella pieces, and he said, “P, you should really make a record, it would be great! You can record it at my studio and I’ll put it out!” He owned the label WIN Records with Devin Sarno and had a recording studio called Poop Alley in Los Angeles. It was this cool loft/warehouse/garage-like space where he lived. It’s a legendary place. He recorded so many great bands and music there on a 16-track 1” analog recorder. Also, I never punched in anything when I recorded Imaginaryland. Where the title came from is a whole other story.
Rumpus: I was going to ask that question, actually.
Haden: So, my sister Tanya has a pinkish-purple bear called Imaginary Bear, aka IB. He has a silly nose with a game inside. She performed puppet shows and did the voice for IB, which is very unique and funny. IB is this very unusual bear. He had a checkered past, but he cleaned up his life. He gave up the drugs and partying [laughs], and he became a clean, peaceful bear, moved to Imaginaryland, where everything is wonderful and full of rainbows, gumdrops, and sugar sprinkles. Oh yeah, he also knows EVERYONE. If you say, “Hey IB, do you like the Grateful Dead?,” his answer would be, “Oh sure! I toured with them and the dancing bears! Oh my, what a time that was!” Or if you showed him any kind of doll or stuffed animal, he would know everything about them. So I thought I should really name this album Imaginaryland. A lot of the tracks have to do with, if you were to visit Imaginaryland, and what you would see there. “Look Both Ways Before You Cross,” for instance, I made the sound car horns going by as you stand on the corner of Happy Face Street and Funny Avenue. There’s another song called, “Red” which is about Little Red Riding Hood. She was very skeptical about IB when she first met him. That’s why she has that look on her face. But he made his amends with her and they’re good now. But that look on her face never went away.
Anyway, the titles have to do with Imaginary Bear in Imaginaryland.
Rumpus: Was the solo album in any way a reaction against the That Dog experience?
Haden: No… When we were on breaks from recording and touring, I was kind of moping around, like not knowing what to do. It was hard to adjust back to normal life after being so busy. I thought about what I wanted to do besides playing violin and singing backup in a band. Don’t get me wrong, playing and singing in That Dog was really fun, but I wanted to work on other musical projects and sing more. So I started a vocal project, i.e. Imaginaryland. The solo album happened because I wanted to try and write on my own and sing everything. I was also listening to a lot of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir at the time, so that also inspired me.
I didn’t know how write a song, (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, bridge, verse), etc., and I didn’t know how to write lyrics, so that’s when I thought, well, I don’t have to write a song with all those verses and choruses or lyrics. I can just sing everything the way I want to. So I sang all the instruments with my voice and just went with it.
Rumpus: How is it you didn’t know how to write a song when there’s so much music in the family?
Haden: I know; that’s a good question. It’s weird. People are born with the knack to write poems and songs. I’m not a poet at all. You have to be a poet to know how to write a song with lyrics.
My forte is playing along and singing along to music I love. I mean, who knows, maybe I could develop that knack or develop that ability to write, and I do actually co-write with people and friends, which is fun, too, because then I don’t have to worry about writing lyrics, because for me writing lyrics is impossible. When I show some people my lyrics, they even AGREE. [Laughs]
But you know, “Look Both Ways Before Your Cross,” that’s a song, but I guess I was thinking more along the lines of songs like your standard basic, typical type of song, like you hear on the radio. I don’t know how to write songs like that.
Rumpus: How about influences for the a cappella approach? Was there stuff that you were interested in along those lines? I’m thinking of Meredith Monk, or Laurie Anderson, maybe, or people who primarily made music at that time out of vocal tracks. Was that kind of music on your radar or not?
Haden: Not really. Back then, I didn’t know who Meredith Monk was, and I knew about Laurie Anderson but I didn’t know her music that well. After I put out Imaginaryland, I heard a lot of, “Oh she’s copying Laurie Anderson,” and I was like, wait… but I don’t know her music! Maybe—didn’t she have a song called “Superman”?
Rumpus: Yeah, “Oh superman… [Sings]
Haden: It’s a cappella?
Rumpus: I think there are pre-recorded vocal loops that she sings against, and there’s a little bit of instrumentation, but it’s a lot of voice, yeah.
Haden: Right, well at the time I recorded my album I was listening to Steve Reich, The Cocteau Twins, Pat Metheny, The Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and movie soundtracks. That’s all I listened to.
Rumpus: So we’re talking about Music for 18 Musicians or something like that?
Haden: Yeah. Exactly. And I tried to record the vocal parts to Tehillim on my 4-track but I never finished.
Rumpus: As with the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, one of the things I love about Imaginaryland album is that there are these awesome stacked chords that you use. It’s not a pop sound at all. I feel there are 9ths and 13ths in there some almost jazz-like harmonies. Did the Bulgarians influence you harmonically? Do those harmonies just come naturally to you?
Haden: I think you’re probably talking about the song called “I’m Tired,” or “Red.” Because there is a chord right before I play the cello part, where there is dissonance, and, yeah, I’ve always been drawn to dissonance, so it’s easy for me to sing, and pick out—I don’t know 9ths and 13ths, diminished, and all those names. When I hear it, I can sing it, but I can’t name it. Sadly I didn’t finish music school, so I didn’t study chords and chord progression, circle of fifths, all that stuff. I can’t read charts too well—
Rumpus: Even for the violin lines?
Haden: Very little. I mean I played violin from when I was about eight to thirteen, so I could read a little bit, but if you put a piece of music in front of me now, I would probably know the notes, but not the timing, how they’re supposed to be played, and I just don’t know how to read chords. If I’d stuck with it, I’d probably have more jobs. [Laughs]
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Rumpus: I want to move to talk about The Who Sell Out record a little bit. So it’s true Mike Watt (of The Minutemen, The Stooges, etc.) gave you the album originally?
Haden: Yes, he recorded the album onto a cassette, put it inside the Tascam 488 Portastudio 8-track cassette recorder, and he put the album on the eighth track, with seven tracks left open for me to sing all the parts. It was D. Boon’s favorite album. I think D. Boon wanted to do a cover of it too. So Mike asked me if I would record Sell Out Imaginaryland-style. [Laughs] And I said, “Oh my god.”
Everyone knows about The Who, but I didn’t. I knew the popular songs like “I Can See For Miles.” So that was the first song I worked on because it was the catchiest and easiest. Before I started I had to listen to the full record three or four times to familiarize myself, and yeah, it’s weird. When you’re trying to sing everything, you have to really try and get every single note. That’s part of why it took so long to finish. And I wasn’t expecting to release this. I didn’t realize Mike wanted it out there. I just thought I was doing it for him. It was a gift for him. But when he heard it, he said, “Oh, it’s done; you should put it out.” I was like, are you serious? I used a shitty microphone, there was a lot of hiss and a lot of noise, but apparently, Bar/None Records heard it and they liked it just how it was. My cousin John Wells re-mixed it. He put it on to ProTools and took out a lot of the noise. I couldn’t believe how much better it sounded! I loved it! I don’t remember the exact year we worked on it, but it took, you know, a few years to finish.
Rumpus: Were the eight tracks a limitation or were they helpful somehow? You could’ve done it on sixteen tracks; you could’ve avoided the eight-track recorder altogether. I’m wondering why the 8-track was so important.
Haden: When he gave me the 8-track I was so excited! I thought, oh my god, I’m going to record these songs on a Tascam 488 Portastudio 8-track Cassette Recorder that Mike Watt gave me! I could control when and where I wanted to record. I don’t think ProTools was really around then? Was it around back then? I don’t know. There was no deadline and no pressure, which I loved. And the 8-track looked so cool to me. The sticker label on the tape Mike wrote on was so cool; everything about it was cool. I didn’t want to change anything. It sounded a little murky but I thought it was fine, and I liked it. It wasn’t until Bar/None wanted to put it out, it made me think, Hmmm… I don’t think the general public will like this. People want to hear clean sounds; they don’t want to hear coughing in the background, pages turning. But Pete Townshend heard it and loved it! So I thought, okay, that’s good enough for me.
Rumpus: Did he ever communicate with you directly about it?
Haden: Yeah, he called me and thanked me! I was grinning the whole time I talked to him. My face was hurting from smiling. I said, “Oh my god, you’re welcome!” So that was pretty neat.
Rumpus: I’m wondering if The Who only had eight tracks when they made it, because it was what, 1967 or 1968, and they might not have had more than eight tracks either.
Rumpus: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think anyone had 16-track at that time, because isn’t Sgt. Pepper no more than eight tracks? I think it might be four.
Haden: Oh my god, I didn’t know that.
Rumpus: They bounced all the time. Did you bounce or did you try to stick to the eight tracks?
Haden: I didn’t know how to bounce tracks. But when John mixed it there were a few songs that I added a couple more tracks to—like more drum sounds and more sound effects. But overall, for the most part, it’s eight tracks. Yeah, if I knew how to bounce tracks I would’ve. I use GarageBand a lot and I get so frustrated because I don’t know how to punch in, and that’s when people tell me, no, you gotta get ProTools, or Logic. You can’t use GarageBand. In GarageBand you can’t make any mistakes, and you can’t punch in; it’s so frustrating.
Rumpus: There’s something about your version of the album that’s particularly revolutionary because it’s a woman recording an album associated with the ultimate guy classic rock band. In other words, to me, there’s a real feminist angle here. Does that ring any bells, or is that totally an inadvertent after-the-fact kind of interpretation?
Haden: Yeah, it is inadvertent. [Laughs] After I recorded it, people would ask if I wanted to change any of the words, like, instead of saying “she” I would say “he”? But all I wanted was to get the music right, and the guitar solos. I wasn’t thinking, God, this is like dude rock. [Laughs] I wasn’t thinking that at all. Well, maybe dude rock is the wrong word. It is the wrong word. I just wanted to do my best at interpreting these songs in my own way and to make sure that it sounded good. I liked it, and I liked that Mike Watt liked it. [Laughs]
Rumpus: I’m not trying to lead you in a direction you don’t want to go at all, but it is additionally interesting that when you performed it live, you made the ensemble entirely of women.
Haden: Well, I wanted the voices to sound as close to the album as possible. So it didn’t make sense to me to have any guys singing. I thought it would just sound better with all women.
Rumpus: I noticed on your Twitter feed, there are a couple other recent covers, like “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin. And then there’s a King Crimson cover, “Frame by Frame,” from Discipline. To me, that’s in a way going further down the road of feminine appropriation of classic rock, dude rock, cock rock.
Haden: That song, “Going to California,” that’s not—
Rumpus: Those are some dude-oriented tracks, right? How did you come to do the Led Zeppelin song?
Haden: Um, I’ve always liked it—I’ve always loved the mandolin part and the guitar part. When I hear mandolins, I just love it. My grandparents on my mom’s side played in a mandolin orchestra. So when I hear mandolins, I automatically think of them. But I’ve always loved that song. I think the songwriting is just gorgeous. That song to me is just gorgeous.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/272538873″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Why I am doing these recordings? Maybe I should just make them for a new album? But I’ve already done two cover albums. I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to do another, but I just did the Led Zeppelin song for fun, and I thought I could do it kind of quick since songs that I love a lot I can do fast. Actually, that one took like a whole day, almost a whole day. But yeah, I really just did it because it’s beautiful, it’s a beautiful song, and it’s those kinds of songs that make me wish I could write like that, you know?
Rumpus: I want to see if I can make a connection between this work and the Haden Triplets project somehow. Do the Haden Triplets have amazing, close harmony singing capabilities biologically, or do you guys have to work at it?
Haden: Harmony has always come very natural to us because we started singing harmony at an early age. We heard a lot of different music growing up. Also, our dad played us a lot of old country songs by The Carter Family and he would sing along to it. I loved listening to him sing.
Rumpus: Didn’t he sing old-time music as kid?
Haden: Yeah, he started singing old country songs, yodeling and singing perfect harmony since he was three. We have a recording somewhere, where he’s yodeling and singing this song, I forgot the name of it. They called him “Yodelin’ Cowboy Charlie.” When we were kids we used to visit his family for the summer and listen to them sing. We sat around the house, ate homemade bread our Aunt Doris made, and listened to everyone sing. Every now and then my sisters and I would sing along, but we were usually too shy. I don’t know why.
Rumpus: Sometimes with close harmony singing it’s not the notes as much as the uncanny unanimity of the phrasing, how everyone starts and stops so perfectly together. The live stuff that I’ve seen of you guys—for example the NPR Tiny Desk concert video—you guys have that part down, too. That to me is what’s especially remarkable, not just, hey, these singers are triplets and they’re good singers, but the style, the sort of in-the-pocket-ness of the three of you really does sound like old-timey ensembles.
Haden: A song like “Single Girl, Married Girl,” we’ve sung for a while. Some of the songs were easier to sing than others. The phrasing of certain songs was tricky and it took us longer to work them out. Ry Cooder helped with that a lot.
Rumpus: He plays on the album, right?
Haden: Yeah, and he produced it.
Rumpus: Would the Haden Triplets ever sing contemporary music? Like would they ever sing like, you know, Carole King or something, or does it have to be old-time?
Haden: [Laughs] Yeah! We would sing a Carole King song! She did this children’s album that we listened to a lot when we were kids, Really Rosie. [Sings I’m really rosie, and I’m rosie real, you’d better believe me, I’m a great big deal] That’s a good question. It’s something that we still need to do! We should be recording another album. We want to record songs from the Haden Family songbook—my dad’s family had a country radio show in Springfield, Missouri, called The Haden Family, and this songbook had so many old country songs they sang on the show. We’ll choose some songs from that. But, we all get busy and things get hectic. It’s still on our minds though. Believe me.
Rumpus: What binds these projects together, your solo a cappella albums and the Haden Triplets recording?
Haden: Oh, I think harmony does a lot. My sisters and I love singing harmony. I think it’s the love of singing lots of harmonies.
Rumpus: So what are you doing next?
Haden: Well, I did an album I did with Jesse Harris and we’re gonna start to get busy with that again.
Rumpus: I didn’t hear that one.
Haden: Talk about great songwriting. Jesse’s one of the best songwriters I know. Originally, I asked him to help me write a solo record because I just love the way he writes and he has great lyrics. We ended up writing a few of the songs together, and since we had such a short amount of time to work, he suggested I sing some of his own tunes. So we decided to call the album, Petra Haden Sings Jesse Harris, Seemed Like a Good Idea. We released that on Sunnyside Records. And we’ve been touring off and on for the past year. I’m also touring with Bill Frisell soon. For his new record “When You Wish Upon a Star”.
Rumpus: Is there some other Petra solo project afoot?
Haden: I feel like there should be; maybe that’s why I’m doing all these covers for fun. Lately, I’ve been putting them on SoundCloud and YouTube. But I don’t know.
Right now I’m just taking it easy and getting ready for the upcoming tours with Bill and Jesse.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/272072263″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Rumpus: Well, that kind of concludes the questions I had. I would say before hanging up that I was really excited to talk to you. You’re the kind of musician I really admire.
Haden: Thank you! By the way, about the Laurie Anderson thing, I think the reason I remembered that song is because I always loved the movie Superman.
Rumpus: The one with Marlon Brando in it?
Haden: It’s my favorite movie.
Rumpus: Wow. Why?
Haden: Because it’s my favorite movie score and because I had such a crush on Christopher Reeve. The music made me love him even more. You know when you hear music in a movie and it makes you fall in love with the characters? That’s what happened. So I ended up singing the Superman theme for my movie album (Petra Goes to the Movies), but anyway, that’s how I heard about Laurie Anderson’s song, because of the name “Superman,” but I couldn’t even sing you her song if you asked me to. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Case closed.
Feature photograph © Steven Perilloux. Photograph of Petra with Imaginary Bear © Alicia J. Rose.