In a restlessly eclectic, wholly unique musical career that spans two and a half decades, Petra Haden has established a singular reputation for creativity and versatility, and a unique niche that’s allowed her to apply her multiple talents to a dazzlingly diverse array of music.
As a singer, instrumentalist and composer, Haden has built an impressively varied and accomplished discography encompassing her work as part of the beloved alt-rock quartet That Dog, her collaborations with a broad array of acts, and a series of her own releases, which often showcase her unique talent for constructing complex, evocative a capella arrangements by inventively layering multiple tracks of her own voice.
What Haden’s far-flung creative endeavors share in common is a consistent sense of adventure and expression, along with a playful sensibility that gives her projects a consistently uplifting, inventive spirit that marks them as uniquely hers.
As one of the triplet daughters of the late, legendary jazz bassist and composer Charlie Haden, Petra was literally born into a life in music. She first picked up the violin, at the age of seven, after seeing a young female violinist perform on TV’s Captain Kangaroo and seeing older street musicians playing violin on the street.
Petra’s early fascination with the violin and other instruments led her to develop an uncanny ability to use her voice to recreate the sounds of the instruments she heard, and to develop elaborate pop, jazz, blues and classical arrangements based on those sounds. While she was in high school, her father bought her a four-track recording deck, on which she taught herself to overdub multiple vocal tracks.
Petra first gained widespread notoriety with the ’90s quartet That Dog, which also included her sister Rachel, and whose three albums of hook-filled, harmony-laden punk-pop won the band an enthusiastic fan base and considerable press enthusiasm. Petra was still a member of That Dog in 1996, when she released her first solo album, Imaginaryland, which introduced her method of layering her vocals in unexpected and wonderful ways.
After That Dog disbanded (they would reform in 2011 and remain sporadically active), Petra took advantage of her new solo status to apply her talents to a wide variety of musical challenges. Her 2005 album Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out reimagined The Who’s 1967 classic through her tour de force acapella interpretation. The complexity of Petra’s massed vocals belied the fact that she constructed the tracks at home while recovering from some serious injuries from an auto accident, recording on an eight-channel cassette recorder given to her by friend Mike Watt.
Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out’s admirers included The Who’s Pete Townshend, who commented, “‘I heard the music as if for the first time. I listened all the way through in one sitting, and was struck by how beautiful a lot of the music was. Petra’s approach is so tender and generous. I adore it.”
Thanks to these and other projects, Petra’s skill for vocal harmony and instrumental accompaniment led to her voice and/or violin appearing on albums by the likes of Foo Fighters, Green Day, Beck, Tegan and Sara, the Twilight Singers, Cornelius, Sunn O))), Luscious Jackson, Paul Motian and Victoria Williams. She also spent most of 2005 touring and recording with the Decemberists, and the following year joined the Foo Fighter’s on their Skin and Bones tour.
“I’ve layered vocal and violin tracks on practically all the projects that I’ve done,” she notes, adding, “One day someone called me to record, and they asked me to ‘Petra-fy’ a song. Now, when I hear someone ask for that, I know they mean lots of vocal tracks. Whenever I collaborate with someone, my goal is to put a part of myself into it, and to make it sound unique and different. If I think a track needs a horn section, I’ll just sing it myself.”
While remaining in demand as a singer and musician for hire, Petra has still found time to maintain a prolific output of her own music. She won substantial acclaim for 2005 Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, which matched her vocal inventiveness with the vision of master guitarist Frisell on a set of pop standards ranging from Gershwin to Tom Waits. In 2014, she teamed with sisters Rachel and Tanya to record the widely celebrated The Haden Triplets, produced by Ry Cooder. The three sisters (along with their brother Josh, who leads the band Spain) had previously recorded together on their father’s autobiographical 2008 album Rambling Boy.
Haden’s 2013 album Petra Goes to the Movies was a typically ambitious effort that reflects her lifelong fascination with film scoring. On it, she layered her vocals to create personalized reinventions of classic Hollywood film scores ranging from Rebel Without A Cause to Psycho. Petra also put her scoring skills to good use on assignments for various film, TV and commercial soundtracks. In 2010, for instance, she scored a trio of Toyota Prius commercials, composing and recording her own acapella originals for two and creating an inventive acapella version of the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” for the third.
“I used to love watching Peanuts and Looney Tunes cartoons and Laurel and Hardy shows when I was a kid, and still do,” Petra says, explaining how soundtrack music has been a touchstone through much of her life. “Those shows drew me in not only because of how funny and crazy they were, but also because of how the music affected me. They’re what showed me that music had the power to make me laugh or cry, and that’s what inspired me to try and do it on my own.”