WRITING SOUNDS Petra Haden

The wordless melodies
of the gifted vocalist weave magic.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

In her latest, Hearts
and Daggers,
a collaboration with Miss Murgatroid (aka Alicia J. Rose),
Petra Haden loops baroque swaths of vocal sounds around the twining drones of
violin and accordion. There’s melody, emotion, depth and complexity there…but
almost no words.  

 

“Anytime I write a word, I hate it,” Haden admitted in a
recent phone interview, adding that she has only recently, in collaboration with
Yuka Hondo called If By Yes, begun to experiment with lyrics. Still, she is not
using words in the conventional way, to tell a story, to get a point across. “When
I say a word, it’s just something that I think fits. I’m not even thinking of a
theme. I’m just, the note that I’m singing, in my head, sounds like the word
‘silhouette.’  And that word ‘silhouette’
sounds like the note.”

 

But if Haden is just now figuring out the words, her
familiarity with music goes back much further. The daughter of free-jazz
bassist Charlie Haden, she remembers classical and jazz music playing in the
background since before she could walk. She started playing violin at 8, then
stopped for a few years in high school. In college, she  picked up her instrument again, just in time
to join That Dog with her sister Rachel. “I quit Cal Arts, and just ended up
going on the road and making records. And still, I’m kind of doing that,” says
Haden.

 

Indeed, Haden is juggling a full plate of projects, many
nearly a decade in the making. Her collaboration with experimental guitarist
Woody Jackson and the album with Yuka Honda are both near completion, and this
September, the Charlie Haden Family &
Friends,
finally came to fruition. Charlie Haden, the instigator, dusted
off a collection of his favorite Carter Family songs and brought the whole
family together in Nashville. He invited a slew of guests-Ricky Skaggs,
Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby and Pat Metheny.

 

“The best part was that I got to sing on a song with Pat
Metheny,” says Haden. “He’s my favorite guitarist of all time. ” There’s a bit
of hero worship in play. Haden admitted to spending long afternoons trying to
learn Metheny’s solos on a mandolin as a young musician. “He showed me his
arrangement. It was 13 pages long,” she adds. “He had his guitar, and   he just
started playing what he had laid out. It was perfect.”

 

Not that Haden usually works from charts. Her a cappella
recording of The Who Sell Out was
created mostly by ear, with Haden singing along to an eight-track cassette
recording that Mike Watt had lent to her. Watt had heard Haden singing a cappella
and remembered D. Boon’s plan to record his favorite Who album in this way. He
suggested that Haden give it a try, and she did, working at her kitchen table,
and mostly as a favor to a friend.  No
one was more surprised than she when Bar/None decided to release it.

 

Still, the experience stayed with her, and she decided to
record some of her favorite film music in the same way, this time in a real
studio. The theme from Psycho was so
high that she couldn’t talk for two days after singing it. But no matter, it
was a labor of love.

 

“I remember when I was in high school having this music in
my head all the time, Psycho and Superman,” she says. “I’m so close to
this music, that I almost feel like I’ve written it. I know I haven’t, but I
feel that way.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Onno Seimens]

 

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