Petra Haden on Movie Themes, Music as Painting, and More
Heading to last September’s three-day FreshGrass festival in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was most excited about getting a chance to see guitarist Bill Frisell perform his musical work titled Harmony.
I had never seen Frisell live, and he was masterful, playing an indoor show after I watched several excellent outdoor sets by Railroad Earth, Brandi Carlile, the Wood Brothers, and Carrie Rodriguez.
Frisell presented a well-crafted, thoughtful and whimsical stew of folk, jazz, and popular American music accompanied by Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on cello and vocals, and Luke Bergman on baritone guitar and vocals. Dark, somber jazz noodling turned into beautifully sung and played classics like Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and the traditional folk tune “Shenandoah.” And when Frisell broke from the America theme and segued into an acoustic version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the audience smiled and laughed.
Each member of Frisell’s band provided colorful artistry, and Haden’s vocals were reserved, calmly powerful and beautiful. Having played with Frisell for many years, she sat comfortably, and her leads provided needed warmth to the set.
Four months after the FreshGrass performance, I ask Haden for the secret behind her musical chemistry with Frisell.
“We’ve been playing together for about 20 years,” Haden, the daughter of jazz great Charlie Haden, tells me. “Our first gig together was at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles as a duo in the late ’90s before we recorded our first album. I can’t talk about what the secret is, because it’s a secret! That’s why we play music.”
Haden says the songs she has most enjoyed singing while performing recently with Frisell are movie themes from his album When You Wish Upon a Star.
“I like singing the themes to Goldfinger and Once Upon a Time in the West, because I get to really belt out,” Haden says. “When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about being the lead vocalist in an orchestra, singing music by Ennio Morricone. There’s a song we’ve been playing recently called ‘It Changes’ from the movie Snoopy, Come Home, and I really love singing that one.
“We have a new project called Harmony with Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman,” Haden continues. “A lot of the songs are originals from Bill, and some are covers. Some of the songs we play don’t have lyrics, so I sing kind of like how a lead violin or a theremin sounds. I love imitating instruments. Other songs I sing in harmony with Luke and Hank. I love singing with them, because It reminds me of when I sing with my sisters Tanya and Rachel.”
Apart from Frisell, Haden has recorded solo albums, toured and recorded with the Decemberists, and contributed to albums by the Foo Fighters, Beck, Green Day, Luscious Jackson, Paul Motian, and Victoria Williams.
With her sister Rachel, she was a member of the 1990s quartet That Dog, a punk-pop band emphasizing harmony that released three albums. Petra’s first solo album, Imaginaryland, was released in 1996.
Her 2005 album Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out was an a capella interpretation of the classic 1967 album by the Who and was praised for its beauty by Pete Townshend. The 2013 album Petra Goes to the Movies layered Haden’s vocals to create personal reinventions of classic Hollywood film scores, including Rebel Without a Cause and Psycho.
In 2014, she teamed with her sisters to record The Haden Triplets, produced by Ry Cooder. The triplets and their brother Josh, who leads the band Spain, previously recorded together on their father’s autobiographical 2008 album Rambling Boy.
Two years ago, Petra Haden Sings Jesse Harris: Seemed Like a Good Idea was released — an album of songs by Harris, others she wrote with Harris, and Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
With such varied albums in the can, I ask Petra whether she approaches each recording as a painter might walk up to a fresh sheet of canvas.
“If I hear a mistake in something I record, I immediately want to go back and fix it,” she replies. “But sometimes a mistake becomes part of the character of the recording. I think that’s a similar approach to painting. Someone once told me that my Who Sell Out a cappella album reminded him of an art piece. At first, I didn’t really understand that, but now I know what he meant. There’s so much going on in the recording — lots of colors and textures, kind of like how a painting or a sculpture evokes a feeling. Some people get it, and others don’t.”
How does Haden, who plays the violin and some mandolin, classify the style of music she plays?
“That’s hard to describe,” she responds. “I sing a lot of a capella music, so a way to sum it up would be: experimental, jazz, and folk singer who enjoys a cappella singing and violin playing.”
Pat Metheny is one of her musical heroes.
“Every note he plays hits me with emotion,” Haden explains. “I feel that way about Bill Frisell, too. Bill has such a great imagination. He’s like a mad scientist of guitar playing — like Albert Einstein. Steve Reich is another musical hero, because his music puts me in a trance of eternal magic. Same goes with the singer Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins). She sings with such emotion and magic. I want to sing like that.
“Another musical hero is Shuggie Otis, because he wrote Strawberry Letter 23 when he was just 16, and he played that mind-blowing guitar solo. He is a musical genius. All of the people I just mentioned are, to me, musical geniuses.”
Haden says the best concert she ever attended as a spectator was one by the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir in the late 1980s in Los Angeles.
“My mom, Ellen, took me,” she recalls. “It was one of the most magical experiences, because hearing and seeing so many women ranging in all ages singing such intricate, gorgeous harmonies was mind-blowing. It was a time I was getting into dissonance and experimenting with different vocal sounds on my four-track, so the concert influenced me to write a capella pieces with lots of dissonance and harmony.”
Other concerts have also influenced Haden’s music.
“In the early 2000s, I saw Steve Reich perform in Los Angeles, and that was equally mind-blowing. The Steve Reich and the Bulgarian Female Vocal Choir concerts helped influence me to form my own choir in the mid 2000s.”
I ask Haden what she loves most about the music of her late dad, one of the greatest bass players in the history of jazz and an original member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet.
“I love how deep and spiritual his music is, and how it affects people in such a positive way,” she says. “Every day, I try to stick by what he said in an interview: ‘I want to take people away from the ugliness and sadness around us every day and bring beautiful, deep music to as many people as I can.’ That’s so important, because his music brings people hope.”
Haden says 2018 will be a very busy year 2018, because she is working on a lot of projects: with James Williamson and Frank Meyer, with John Zorn and Jesse Harris, and soon with Mike Watt. Plus, she’s touring with Bill Frisell in the summer and will be recording and touring with Megan Mullally’s band, Nancy & Beth.
And that’s not all.
“I’m also planning at some point to release another a cappella album called Sing Crimson — a collection of King Crimson songs I recorded on GarageBand over the past couple of years,” Haden says. My brother’s band, Spain, has a residency at the Love Song Bar in downtown L.A. (on the last Thursday of every month), and I sing and play with them when I can. They’re headed to the studio soon, and I’ll be recording on their new album.
“The Haden Triplets are also making a new album. We’ve been recording at Vox Recording Studios in Hollywood, and Woody Jackson is producing it. We have a lot of surprise special guests who recorded on it, and I’m really looking forward to finishing that up.”