Singer, songwriter, violinist
After toiling throughout the 1990s with marginal success as a member of pop group That Dog and a de facto performer in the Rentals, as well as a session player and collaborator, Petra Haden hit pay dirt with the release of Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out in 2005. An a cappella remake of the Who's classic 1967 homage to pirate radio in England, Haden recreated not only the vocals of Roger Daltrey, but the harmonies of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, as well as the guitars, drums, and bass of the volatile British band. The result delighted Townshend, who ignored his moratorium of the press to express his appreciation of Haden's efforts. "I felt transported back to the time we made the original album," he told Entertainment Weekly reporter Jason Adams. "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." Haden's vocal gymnastics on the Who cover album and on an album with jazz and folk guitarist Bill Frisell is only one aspect of her musical abilities, as she plays a myriad of instruments and has a special virtuosity on the violin. It is on this instrument that she has performed on several Beck albums as well as on Bella Neurox, a collaboration with Miss Murgatroid. Her versatile voice has also earned her harmonizing duties with such singers as Bette Midler, as well as a previous a cappella release, Imaginaryland.
Haden was born in New York City in 1971, the daughter of jazz bass player, band leader, and composer Charlie Haden. She is one of a set of triplets that includes her sisters and frequent musical collaborators Tanya and Rachel. She is also the sister of Spain member Josh Haden. The elder Haden's prominence in the music industry included a longstanding association with jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and he was also the leader of the highly respected Quartet West. Petra Haden began playing violin when she was eight years old, after seeing the instrument played on an episode of the children's television program Captain Kangaroo. She subsequently learned to play trumpet, mandolin, and keyboards. She sang and played with her siblings, eventually forming That Dog with Rachel, Tony Max-well, and Anna Waronker, the daughter of famed record producer Lenny Waronker. The group recorded three critically appreciated albums, but disbanded in 1997. The previous year Haden released her first solo venture, the a cappella Imaginaryland, and became increasingly in demand for session work as a vocalist and instrumentalist. In the late 1990s Haden collaborated with accordionist Miss Murgatoid on the instrumental album Bella Neurox.
Following the release of Bella Neurox, Haden's recording and performing career was halted in 2000 when she was hit by a car while crossing the street in Venice, California. She broke several ribs, her pelvis, and nearly lost an eye. Doctors inserted a permanent metal rob in her right leg. Her hospital stay and subsequent physical and cognitive rehabilitation therapy resulted in a successful recovery, but incurred astronomical medical bills. A benefit concert was arranged to help pay the bills, which included such performers as Beck, the Go-Gos, Tenacious D (featuring Haden's high school classmate Jack Black), and Charlie Haden. Prior to her accident, Haden had begun work on Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out. She worked sporadically on it following the accident, and eventually completed it in 2003. The impetus for the album was Minutemen and fiREHOSE bass player Mike Watt and Minutemen's front man d. boon, who claimed the Who's original as one of their favorite albums. Haden had met Watt when her father shared a concert billing with the Minutemen when she was 12 years old. Watt later helped Haden's brother, Josh, land a recording contract for his band the Treacherous Jaywalkers. Haden also contributed vocals and violin to Watt's 1995 album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat. After hearing Haden's Imaginaryland, Watt was inspired to pitch the idea to Haden. "I knew d. boon would've loved the idea too. Such a trip for us to see something reinvented that we knew so well … but in a genuine way, since Petra knew nothing of it before. That's what was in my mind—that Petra would bring an earthiness without any preconceptions and make it new for me."
Watt provided Haden with an eight-track Tascam cassette recorder. He recorded the original Who album on one track, and told Haden to duplicate what she heard on the remaining seven tracks. Haden would play back her work-in-progress to Watt over the phone, until she completed the project and played the entire tape to Watt in person. Haden eventually put one song, the John "Speedy" Keen composition "Armenia City in the Sky," on a friend's website. Irwin Chusid, a disc jockey at WFMU in New Jersey, found the recording on the website, and began playing the song on his radio program. Chusid recommended the album to Bar/None owner Glenn Morrow, who agreed to release it.
Critical reception for Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out was mostly positive, with one notable exception. "Roger Daltrey doesn't like my record, that's what I heard," Haden told L.A. Weekly reporter Matthew Duersten. However, Daltrey's bandmate Townshend was ecstatic. "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," Townshend told Boston Globe reporter Joan Anderman. "What Petra does with her voice, which is not so easy to do, is challenge the entire rock framework: the traditions, the processes, the décor, the accessories, the entirety of the established dynamics of traditional pop-rock…. Petra is the first analyst who heard the vocal harmonies as they were written and reproduced them properly…. I felt like I'd received something better than a Grammy." Townshend's appreciation for Haden's effort prompted him to recommend her to record an a cappella rendering of another British rock classic, the Kink's Village Green Preservation Society.
In 2005 Haden also released her duet album with Bill Frisell, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. The album contains covers of songs by Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, and Coldplay, as well as a cover of "Moon River" and a traditional Tuvan song, "Bai-la Taigam." Prior to the notoriety and fame of Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, Haden committed to tour with the Decemberists, and later joined the Portland-based group as a full-time member. In the first quarter of 2005 she announced plans to tour The Who Sell Out with ten female singers, including her sister Tanya and members of the band Sounds of Asteroth.
For the Record …
Born on October 11, 1971, in New York, NY; daughter of Charlie Haden (jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader).
Formed group That Dog with drummer Tony Maxwell, sister Rachel, and Anna Waronker, 1991; performed with the Rentals, 1994-99; released a cappella Imaginaryland, 1996; disbanded That Dog, 1997; seriously injured after hit by car while crossing street, 2000; issued Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out and Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, and joined the Decemberists for tour, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Bar/None Records, P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken, NJ 07030, phone: (201) 770-9090.
Imaginaryland, WIN, 1996.
(With Miss Murgatroid) Bella Neurox, WIN, 1999.
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, Bar/None Records, 2005.
(With Bill Frisell) Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, Sovereign Artists, 2005.
With That Dog
That Dog, DGC, 1991.
Totally Crushed Out!, DGC, 1995.
Retreat from the Sun, DGC, 1997.
Boston Globe, March 13, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, March 18, 2005.
L.A. Weekly, April 8-14, 2005.
Washington Post, April 10, 2005.
Creem Magazine, www.creemmagazine.com/BeatGoesOn/PetraHaden/SellsOut.html (April 18, 2005).
"Petra Haden," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (April 18, 2005).
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes of Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, Bar/None Records, 2005.
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