By Jamie Frey
Photos courtesy of Petra Haden
After hearing the Bar/None reissues of Petra Haden’s
two mostly a capella solo albums, the gorgeous,
transportive Imaginaryland (1996) and her revelatory
2005 vocal interpretation of The Who Sell Out,
I had the pleasure of speaking with this remarkable woman.
The Haden family is a virtual musical dynasty: Petra's dad
is jazz bassist Charlie Haden; and her triplet sisters include
bassist Rachel Haden (her bandmate in the dreamy baroque-pop
band That Dog) and cellist Tanya Haden. She’s also
contributed violin and vocals to many of my favorite records,
and probably some of yours too. She is or has been a member
of That Dog, Tito & Tarantula, and The Decemberists,
and has contributed to recordings by The Twilight Singers,
Beck, Mike Watt, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Weezer, and The
Rentals, among other. I spoke with Petra by phone and dived
right into the Bar/None reissues.
Q: Let’s start with Imaginaryland.
How did you start composing a cappella music?
Petra: It started with a 4-track my dad gave me, sometime
after high school. It was around 1991 or so. I taught myself
how to record on it by using my voice. I wrote “Look
Both Ways Before You Cross” as a trial run and that’s
when it all started. After that song, I experimented with
other sounds and melodies. There were some classical pieces
and movie themes I always wanted to do versions of- like
Bach Prelude No. 2 in C minor. And Watermark by Enya, which
I heard in a movie called Green Card. Before I knew it,
I had a lot of songs, ideas and melodies. I got together
with Tom Grimley who recorded That Dog, and played him all
my stuff and he said, “You should make a solo album
and I’ll put it out”. So I re-recorded the majority
of the songs at his place, “Poop Alley”. Oh
my god… all of a sudden I had a record. I had to think
of a name for the album. It was around the time my sister
Tanya was doing puppet shows and one of her puppet/stuffed
animals was this bear called Imaginary Bear- (from Imaginaryland).
I wanted to call it Imaginaryland and base it on Imaginary
Bear’s life. If that makes any sense. (laughs)
Q: I think that’s really interesting. I
listened to the album quite a bit, and part of it has that
twee thing, which is suggested by the toy bear on the cover,
and then a lot of it is dark and heady also. So it almost
creates this cycle of naïve, childlike wonder and then
it goes into a child’s imaginary fear of monsters
and otherworldly things, which is very cool. What were you
drawing from in terms of musical precedents at this time?
Petra: At the time I was listening to a lot of Steve Reich
and The Bulgarian Female Vocal Choir. I was really into
Q: What occurred to me is that the person who
maybe understands that dichotomy between childlike wonder
and adult terror the best is Brian Wilson.
Petra: Yeah. I never really listened to the Beach Boys
that much until I recorded an A-Cappella version of “God
Only Knows” in 2005. Before I recorded it, I listened
to their’s like 20 times and I was thinking, WOW,
I really love this song.
Q: So were you a big fan of The Who Sell Out?
Because I read the liner notes and it said the whole thing
was Mike Watt’s idea.
Petra: The Who Sell Out was Mike Watt and D. Boon’s
favorite album. When Mike asked me to cover it, I hadn’t
listened to them very much and didn’t own any of their
albums, so I was a little nervous to do it. He suggested
I do a cover of The Who Sell Out in the same style (laughs)
of Imaginaryland. He gave me his Tascam 488 Portastudio
8-track with a cassette of The Who Sell Out on
the eighth track. So I had seven tracks to work with. I
had to listen to the album quite a few times to get familiar
with it. I knew “I Can See For Miles.” So I
started with that one. I really started to enjoy singing
these songs! It took me a few years to finish because I
was very busy at the time, busy with different projects.
If I had known he wanted to me to put it out, I probably
would’ve been done sooner. I called him every time
I was done with a song just so he could hear it. When it
was finally finished, Mike said, “great, now you have
to put this out!” And I was like, “who’s
going to want to put this out? It’s so weird”.
I sang on a crappy microphone, you hear me scrambling papers
in the back ground, and it was full of murky hiss noise.
So I called my cousin John Wells, who’s an engineer
and sound mixer. He put it on Pro Tools, mixed it, and got
rid of a lot of the noise. I added a cople more tracks here
and there, just to fill it out- Like extra drum sounds and
some backward guitar sounds.
Q: I think it’s a beautiful record, and
Pete Townshend paid you quite a compliment.
I was a little embarrassed to realize I was
enjoying my own music so much, for in a way it was like
hearing it for the first time. What Petra does with her
voice, which is not so easy to do, is challenge the entire
rock framework ... When she does depart from the original
music she does it purely to bring a little piece of herself
-- and when she appears she is so very welcome. I felt like
I'd received something better than a Grammy. – Pete
Petra: I know. That was a shock. That left a smile on my
face for weeks. In 2005 I was on tour and one day the tour
manager handed me his phone and said, “Somebody wants
to talk to you.” I asked who it was and he said it
was Pete Townshend. So that was a trip, talking to Pete
Townshend on a tour bus. I was cracking up, it was so funny
and such a rock ‘n’ roll moment. I became a
Who fan from recording The Who Sell Out.
Q: I’ve probably put “She Looks At
Me” (by That Dog) on about a hundred mixes. I love
the moment when the strings build up. It’s one of
my all-time favorite songs. Can you tell me a little about
Petra: Not really, Rachel and Anna wrote that. It was fun
playing strings on it!
Q: It’s a tearjerker. Especially when those
strings come in.
Petra: Oh, that’s so nice!
Q: Another thing I’ve spent a million hours
with is Return Of The Rentals. In face my band just released
an album that has a Rentals pastiche on it. How involved
were you with that record, because it’s really Matt
Sharp’s record but there’s a lot of you on it.
Petra: There were so many people working on it. Matt asked
me to sing background vocals on it with Cherie Westrich
and Rachel. I did a lot singing but I never toured with
Q: I am such a big fan of the Rentals. There’s
part of it that echoes where Weezer was coming from, there’s
the synth-pop parts, but then there’s the harmony
parts, which I really think were way more influential than
Matt even knows.
Petra: He really liked That Dog, especially the harmonies,
I think that’s why he asked me and Rachel to sing.
But… I’m not working with That Dog anymore,
did you know that?
Q: Yes, but you have a lot of stuff going on.
As a Rock nerd, I think a lot about those great session
people like Hal Blaine or Carole Kaye… you’ve
been on a lot of great records. You even played on a few
hits, no? Like the Foo Fighters and other radio songs. Do
you know the biggest hit you ever played on?
Petra: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe Green Day’s
“Hitchin’ A Ride?” I play a sort of middle-eastern
violin intro on that one.
Q: Of all the sessions you ever did, is there
one that stands out as the coolest? Or one person you worked
with that you think is just the greatest genius? Or just
your favorite person to get in the studio with?
Petra: Everyone I’ve worked with, for sure. I really
don’t have a favorite.
Q: Do you have a dream person to record with?
Petra: Let me think about that one.
Q: Something interesting I learned is that you
hooked up with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. I watched that
program about the blue jean committee ("Gentle &
Soft: The Blue Jean Committee Story", on IFC’s
Documentary Now!) and it turned out to be you.
Petra: Yeah! Fred knew I was a huge fan of the show and
he asked me if I would be Bill Hader’s singing voice
in an episode. His idea was for Bill to have a really high-pitched
soul voice, and when he asked me, I said, ‘of course.’
I couldn’t help cracking up during the recording,
it took me a while to do it because I kept laughing. I hope
we do more!
Q: Are you working on a record now?
Petra: Jesse Harris and I put out a record in April called:
Seemed Like a Good Idea, and we’ve been playing a
lot of shows. We’re touring more in the fall which
I’m looking forward to. I recorded on Bill Frisell’s
latest album , “When You Wish Upon a Star” and
I’ll be touring in the fall for that. Bill Frisell,
actually to answer your question before, would be my favorite
person to work with. He would be hands down, one of the
best. He’s releasing a record of movie and TV themes
and that’s like my favorite thing in the world. Also,
I’m releasing a single with James Williamson this
summer. I’m really concentrating on those projects
now. But I’m always recording for fun. I just recorded
an A cappella version of Led Zeppelin’s “Going
To California” and Frame By Frame by King Crimson.
I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Maybe that should
be my next record.
Q: I would listen to it.
Imaginaryland and Petra
Haden Sings The Who Sell Out are available now from Bar/None
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