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On My Own Planet: An Interview With Musical Chameleon Petra Haden

Haden has played with the Decemberists, Iggy Pop, Paul Motian, and others. The ubiquitous, multi-talented artist shares her ideas on, well, almost everything.
Petra Haden
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

Since I interviewed Petra Haden over the phone a few weeks ago for a dazzling and exuberant hour and a quarter, frankly, her sound has been everywhere I turned. She has haunted me. Her voice, which manages to be utterly distinctive and a kind of chameleon at once, has formed a kind of soundtrack to May.

First, there is her remarkable album of chilly but gorgeous pop songs with Jesse Harris, Seemed Like a Good Idea. But I became increasingly enraptured by her recent collaboration with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell as both a singer and a singing member of the band on his latest treatment of various music from films, When You Wish Upon a Star. (If you love this, you can’t miss Haden’s prior record with Frisell from 2003, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell.) But better than the album, for me, is this film of the Frisell band’s shimmering concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room. Petra is the still and absorbing center of the show.

As great as these two Petra Things are, she’s much more ubiquitous. She has recently recorded with Iggy Pop and with Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek. She has a few songs coming out “recorded just for fun” with James Williamson from the Stooges. She has a neat, bluegrass-ish trio with her triplet sisters Tanya (the one who is married to Jack Black) and Rachel — and The Haden Triplets released a Ry Cooder-produced recording in 2014. Her two records with “Miss Murgatroid” (accordionist Alicia Rose) are weird wonders of quirk [].

In every sense, there are Petra Haden voices all around you. She is most famous for her sensual, disorienting, uncanny albums of overdubbed a cappella singing. The most recent, Petra Goes to the Movies, was delicious. And now Bar None Records has just re-released (on CD and on vinyl, for Petra Haden completists of the first order) her two legendary first efforts on this front: Imaginaryland (from 1996, a full 20 years ago) and the who-dreampt-this-up-wonderful Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out (2005). These records are more than minor marvels. The first is a soundtrack of sorts, tiny chamber pieces for voice and the occasional string, each of which begins with a kind of simplicity and then add layers, lines, textures, and a sense of wonder. Words? No. Pictures in your head make it poetry instead, as each little mechanism of sound seems to paint a picture. Part of the charm is Imaginaryland‘s low-fi core. It’s just a gal humming some stuff for you, casual and carefree.

Petra’s Who document is more of a classic, an act of love for the original, as she covers every little part from the original but in doing it with her voice lets you hear the original with fresh ears. “I Can See for Miles” seems like it could be a hit all over again. She recorded it all on an 8-track cassette machine at the suggestion of Mike Watt, almost … as a goof?

But, wait, here’s the secret: Petra is herself a charming lark of a sort. Funny, full of a disarming self-doubt, but also full of a huge passion for music, Petra made me wonder why I don’t live and breathe my passions every day, every week, month, year.

On the day of our conversation, she was nervous about playing “real jazz” that night in a gig with Anthony Wilson, the guitarist and composer (and, incidentally, like Petra, the child of a jazz legend: Gerald Wilson, whose band Anthony now leads). “Playing jazz violin, let me tell you,” she said, “that’s hard. That’s something I wish I had mastered. I don’t practice enough. It’s hard to improvise! People may think, it’s Charlie Haden’s daughter, and they expect me to play like Jean-Luc Ponty or something!”

At the end of our conversation, Haden said, “Oh, wow, I’m really not good at interviews.”

She is wrong about that. Here is the bulk of my delightful, giddy conversation with Petra Haden.

You are everywhere all of a sudden: you have the new record with Jesse Harris, your two “classic” a cappella/overdub records are being reissued, you recently played a huge role in Bill Frisell’s When You Wish Upon a Star. What am I missing?

Just played at Joe’s Pub last night with Jesse Harris — that was really fun. But, yes, there is more. Do you know James Williamson from the Stooges? We recorded two songs for fun and we’re putting that out this summer. It’s the beginning of something. I’m doing more stuff with him. There’s more Bill Frisell stuff coming up in October. But I’m always doing recordings on my own for fun, a cappella. It keeps me going. Every now and then I’ll hear a song I haven’t heard in ages and I’ll have this urge to do an a cappella version of it. Recently I was singing a Duran Duran song.

[Note: Petra’s Soundcloud account,, is full of this material, including a recent recording of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” that is eerie and true to the original. But her version of “Maniac” from Flashdance and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” are both treats of the first order.]

Being a musician, or any kind of creative artist, today seems to require a new kind of flexibility and entrepreneurship. Talk about how you keep yourself above water as a creative person in today’s environment. You seem to have had your finger in many pots for your entire career. It must be exciting … and exhausting.

It started when I picked up the violin. I quit for some years during high school. It was strange because I went to a high school that was focused on music and art. When I started playing in bands and sitting in with people and recording, I — how to explain it? — It just became this thing where I didn’t think of myself as rock or jazz or classical.

I’ve been frustrated in my career because I love everything and I don’t know where I fit in because I love everything. I love all styles. I’m learning now that is okay to really not know who you are. [Laughs] That’s not a bad thing. I just love music. I want to play with everybody that I love. I don’t really consider myself a jazz singer. I just think of myself as a person who loves music and who loves to play and sing with my friends and with people who I admire.

What you’re saying reminds me of what I learned about the word “amateur”. That word is kind of an insult today, but many years ago it was high praise because the word comes from the Latin root “amo”, love. An amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. You are, kind of, the ultimate amateur.

Yeah! It just makes you feel good, so … do it as much as you can!

Anyone writing about you will talk about your versatility. I am intrigued by what I want to call your anonymity as a musician — your ability to disappear into whatever you are doing. That sounds negative, but I mean it differently. You are a kind of a musical Zelig, You could be anywhere, playing any role. Rather than stamp a “Petra Haden” sound onto everything, you vanish inside the material. Talk about that, the mindset around that.

When I hear a song, music that I like, I automatically hear other parts in my head. I write parts to go along with the music I’m hearing. With The Who record, I added my own parts to some of the songs because when you hear a song that you love you just sometimes add your own part.. That’s what I do. That’s why I love movie music so much — there are so many parts, so much going on. It’s fun for me to pick it out and sing them. I remember when I saw Superman in the ’70s — I heard all the music. I remember thinking, I want to play violin in this orchestra, I wish I could play cello or bass and play all those parts. Since I can’t do that, I try to sing all the different parts that I hear, just to get it out of my system.

When I got a 4-track recorder in the early ‘90s, I learned to use it, I don’t play guitar or drums or bass, so I used my voice to make up for that. Then it became this obsession. I was listing to Steve Reich every day. I became obsessed with it, singing along. That’s around the time that I was writing the songs for Imaginaryland.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by your anonymity. I was listening to your recording of “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the new Bill Frisell record. It is a beautiful, controlled performance. But in a sense, you are the most vanilla thing in the track, allowing all guitar and bass to be the voices that stand out. By contrast, your “Windmills of of Your Mind” with Paul Motian has a different quality — it’s you, of course, but it seems more like we can hear you making choices about phrasing and timbre as you sing. Talk about these artistic choices.

When I sing live, I get a little more crazy. But when I record, especially the recent record with Bill Frisell, I was contemplating whether I should go off, but I didn’t want to risk doing another take and another. I just wanted to do it simple and listen more to everyone else and have that be my identity. I wanted to back them up and keep it simple.

The project with Jesse Harris is fascinating. It seems like a record where you are actually participating in “pop music” more explicitly. Here’s a guy who has written huge hits, and you’re crafting little pop gems with him. But there is that quality again, like your voice is floating over the tunes as much as participating in them.

Especially with the song “Seemed Like a Good idea”, the melody is so beautiful and I didn’t want to change anything about it. I didn’t want to do any fancy vocal things. It was so beautiful as it was, so I hardly moved around that melody. I wanted to keep it just how Jesse played it for me. The most I would do was to add ooohs and aaahs. Jesse’s songs are like that. You do not want to mess with them too much.

I don’t want to call this “ironic detachment”, because I don’t think you mean to be mocking in any way. But in your “Don’t Stop Believing” a cappella cover and in the Who covers there is a sense that your treatment is dissecting the original material, revealing it, X-raying it or something. You are a vocal/musical MRI machine maybe. We see the “bones” of these songs, maybe because you appreciate them?

I listen a lot. Before I record I’ll spend a day listing on my headphones, go hiking or something. With The Who album, I wanted to get every single note right. It’s hard to hear every single note. I try to put myself into the song. “Sunrise”, for example, is this gorgeous song. It’s more like a jazz tune to me — the way it’s written and the changes and everything. I just tried to make it my own. All the songs that I record I try to think, if this were my song, how would I do it? But I like simplicity. There’s so much going on in my head anyway. I just think about how beautiful melodies are. And I just want to stick to what I hear the first time I hear a song. I change my approach all the time when I’m performing, but mostly I like to keep it simple.

Let’s talk about the Who record for a moment. Townsend famously praised the record, saying that it made him hear his own music in a new way. I have the same reaction – and for me there is a gendered element to it. All those overdubbed female voices, yours, are so free to make different, not-stereotypically female sounds, and they make me hear the lyrics differently (Miles and Miles, for example). And it seems like the RAWK elements of the music are laid bare – the posing, the strutting, all that swagger. You do it, but you also make us laugh about it some. You flip the song on its head. It becomes about a woman. Does that make any sense?

When I recorded it, I wasn’t thinking that at all. I just wanted to record it like an art project. I was just painting with my voice. I don’t like to change a song, I like to keep it how it was originally. A song like “I’ve Got a Crush On You”, I don’t even want to change the gender pronouns. I just want to get the music right.

Ever since I was a kid, I did impressions of people, singers, actors, instruments. I would sing guitar parts and try to sound like an electric guitar. When I did this Who record I felt like a kid again. It’s just fun to do that stuff.

Well, let me give you another example. The recording on Youtube of you and an all-female group singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” makes me crack up. The song has all this male, rock swagger, and you guys are doing it as women. It just seems to gently mock that “rock” attitude.

That’s interesting to hear you say that. I don’t mean to make fun of anybody. When I do a song like “Don’t Stop Believing’”, I’m just thinking it’s a great song. I just love guitar solos from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The funnest thing for me to do is to sing guitar solos. Like, on my version of “Thriller” or singing the saxophone solo from the Men at Work song “Who Can It Be Now”. That is sooooooo fun for me to do.

I can see that it is pretty funny having an all-woman choir singing these rock songs. When I was putting the choir together I thought about having guys to do the bass parts, but it just wouldn’t work. I had to get girls who could sing bass.

I want to talk about your dad and your family a little bit. As a jazz lover, I was a huge fan of his and I’m so sorry that you — and all of us — lost him.

He was always so supportive, playing his records for his friends. He’d tell them, hey, Petra made this cool record and you have to hear it. He was so great.

He was involved in so much stuff that, within jazz, was so broad: music that was political in content and intent, music that was on the popular end of jazz with folks like Pat Metheny, music that was free or revolutionary, music with roots and connections to gospel, folk, and country. How did that inform your eclecticism as a musician?

I think it did influence me. Maybe I didn’t even realize it. I would talk to him on the phone and he’d say, Oh, have you heard this music, I want to play it for you. It would be Rachmaninoff, then the next day is was something different. When we would visit him, he always had music playing, all different kinds, and he just loved a variety, not just jazz — classical, country. He started singing as a kid with his family, and when he sings it’s really the Ozarks. And then he’d improvise with Ornette Coleman and it was completely free.

And I think that sense of freedom is why I want to sing all these different parts. I have it all in my head, all these harmony parts, all this music.

What lessons did your dad teach you about your career and your personal approach to being an artist? I’m just amazed that folks can make it as artists without regular jobs, frankly.

I can’t work in an office. I wouldn’t last a day. I tried taking a job working in an animal hospital because I love animals, but the job was doing computer work. I just couldn’t do it. The only thing I knew how to do was music. I love animals, but I just couldn’t do that job.

Do you teach?

I don’t. I don’t know how to read music. I don’t know how I would teach. I‘ve been asked to give vocal lessons, but I just wouldn’t know how to. I’m open to that, I would love to do that! I actually started taking vocal lessons not too long ago, but I couldn’t afford it!

I went to Cal Arts for a year, but the band I was in got signed and we toured, so I dropped out. I thought, this is what I want to do: play music and travel. But when I had to make sessions, it was hard. I play by ear. If you put a chart in front of me, I can sort of read it, but it’s hard.

Was it intimidating to play with Bill Frisell and Paul Motion?

Yes! I couldn’t believe when Bill called and said that Paul wanted me to sing on his record. I loved the song choices. I was looking forward to it.

Even though I’ve known Paul Motian since I was a baby, it was intimidating to make the record with him and Bill. Paul and my dad were incredible friends and had the same sense of humor, they cracked the same jokes. He was comforting to be with. But I was singing songs that Nina Simone sang, and I was really scared. I’m kind of reserved. We recorded live too. So I just thought: Sing it the way you hear it in your heart and do the best you can do. But I was really intimidated at first! The longer we worked, the more fun and relaxing it became. It felt like I was with family. It became easier every day.

It is just so neat to be able to work with such a range of musicians that I love. I play a lot with Mike Watt, and I recorded with Iggy Pop. There’s Bill Frisell, Sean Watkins, and tonight I’m playing with Anthony Wilson.

You just forge into these adventures. You don’t express yourself like someone who is cocky, but you must have a well of self-confidence to play with all these amazing people.

I have more self-confidence when it comes to singing. When recording violin I have more confidence because I have time to fix things and really go over it. But when I’m playing live, I get really scared. People may expect me to be some great violinist. But I’m not. I’m just a music lover. I’m just a girl who plays violin and loves music! I just love music. I’m not a jazz violinist. I can pretend – and that’s kind of what I’m doing. And it makes it less scary. And then I realize, hey, wait a minute, maybe I’m not pretending! This is real!

You want hear something funny? Jesse Harris said something funny the other day. He said, “You know the story of The Little Prince [the 1943 French fable]? Petra is like The Little Prince but with the Internet.” And it’s true! I feel like I’m on my own planet. I’m really spacey, and when I perform I still have stage fright. I don’t know how to talk to the audience. I don’t think of myself as a professional where you get up on stage and say, “Hey, everybody, how’s everybody doing tonight?” I just would rather get on stage and sing. But people like to hear stories on stage. I’m trying to get better about that!

Jesse Harris said something else funny the other day to an interviewer in Japan. The interviewer was asking about whether we brought different influences because he’s from the east coast and I’m from the west coast. esse said, “Petra isn’t quite from anywhere. She is an anomaly.” And that’s right. I am not a normal person!

Maybe that be should the title of this article: “Petra Haden: I Am Not a Normal Person.”

Ha! People may say, well, what’s normal?