An Interview: Petra Haden Sings the Movies


Haden. The name’s Haden. Charlie’s a cappella-fetishist daughter Petra Haden follows up her acclaimed Who Sell Out re-creation with a tribute to Hollywood soundtracks.


For Blurt,, 2-20-13

Petra Haden, whose new album is Petra Goes to the Movies, has a name for the kind of music she makes – and makes better than anyone else right now. It’s called “a cappella voice collages” (according to her record label, Anti-) and Goes to the Moviesis a tour de force of it.

Taking mostly instrumental themes from her favorite films, such as Psycho, A Fistful of Dollars, The Social Network, Superman, and Fellini’s 8½, she has arranged them entirely for voice. Patiently overdubbing, she wordlessly “sings” the melody – sometimes by humming, sometimes by using choral and group-harmony vocal techniques – atop her masterful vocal mimicking of instruments. She does actually sing lyrics over her own vocal accompaniment on one a cappella number – “Goldfinger.” And there are three tracks on which she sings the lyrics of movie ballads while jazz musicians (including her father, bassist Charlie Haden, who recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Grammys) assist her.

But the pure collages are the standouts. They not only showcase the beauty of her voice and depth of her imagination, but also remind that a voice is a musical instrument capable of varied and inventive sounds. It’s not just a vessel to carry words. (She is indeed a lovely interpretive singer who coaxes a dreamy sense of reassurance out of the lyrics to Bagdad Café’s “Calling You” and Tootsie’s “It Might Be You.”)

Goes to the Movies follows several other heralded related projects – her largely a cappella first solo album, 1999’s Imaginaryland; her intimate 2003 project of covers with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and 2005’s landmark solo a cappella version of The Who Sell Out.


 I love singing and recording, and doing multi-tracks on my voice,” says Haden, during a recent telephone interview. “When Mike Watt gave me the idea to do the Who Sell Out record, it inspired me even more to record my other favorite music. I really enjoy it.”

Goes to the Movies came about because, in addition to loving to sing, Haden also loves movies. And she found the scores and title themes by famous composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver), Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke), Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars, Cinema Paradiso) and Nino Rota (“Carlotta’s Galop” from 8½) as moving as the films themselves.

“I’ve been listening to Herrmann since I was a kid, and Morricone the same,” she says. “I remember first watching these movies and immediately gravitating toward the music. And I remember thinking one day, ‘I’m going to play this in an orchestra or sing this.’ It’s like living a dream now that I finally did it and I’m really happy with it.”

Haden, 41, is one of bassist Haden’s three triplet daughters. In addition to singing on solo projects, she plays violin and has been involved with several rock bands, most notably That Dog with bassist/vocalist sister Rachel. She also is an active collaborator and session/studio singer – her a cappella rendition of the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” for a Toyota Prius TV commercial in 2009 was enormously popular. The Haden Triplets (also including sister Tanya) currently are recording an album of country songs for producer Ry Cooder.

Haden attributes her interest in chorale music to a love of the Bulgarian State Radio Vocal Choir, whose albums became popular in the U.S. when issued in the late 1980s, followed by a memorable tour. “I listened to them on my Walkman on my way to high school,” Haden says. “That always inspired me.” Another inspiration has been Steve Reich’s 1981 Tehillim, a contemporary classical work based on Hebrew Psalms and arranged for female voices. “It’s so beautiful I would just memorize it,” she says.

 This new project has a fundamental difference with Who Sell Out, Haden explains. “When I did the Who record, I was really nervous about singing the guitar parts and getting all the chords right. I wanted to sound like a guitar and that’s how I approached recording (it). But for the Goes to the Movies album, there aren’t really solos that stick out. There are just string sections and horns.”

So this project actually was easier for her, she says. “Something like Psycho was a little challenging because it has lots of different notes and I wanted to get it right. And also ‘Carlotta’s Galop’ from  required a lot of stopping and going back. I really wanted it to be perfect. Justin Burnett (co-producer with Haden) was just great working with, because he really gets my brain. And the same with Woody (Jackson), who recorded ‘Carlotta’s Galop.’ They were patient because they knew at some point I would get it eventually.”

Haden tried to hit all the notes naturally. But Burnett did have to raise the pitch a couple times, to achieve the high-violin sound on Cinema Paradiso and at the scary end of Psycho.

On “It Might Be You,” written by Dave Grusin and Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Haden sings lyrics straightforwardly while Frisell accompanies her on quiet, spare guitar. Brad Mehldau provides piano for Haden’s multi-tracked voice on “Calling You,” written by Robert Telson. And both Frisell and her father join for “This Is Not America,” the darkly ominous ballad – written by Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie – from the espionage thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.

“When I made my list of songs, I knew ‘This Is Not America’ was one I really wanted to do,” Haden says. “And my dad asked, ‘Can I play on it?’ (His Liberation Music Orchestra has recorded it.) So it was perfect.”

The hardest song for Haden to sing was the John Barry-composed title song for “Goldfinger,” since Shirley Bassey’s booming, brassy version has been seared into pop culture’s consciousness ever since first recorded in 1965. Haden sings it in a lower register than is normal for her, because she sensed that it sounded right. But it was difficult to arrive at that decision.

“That took me a long time to do,” Haden explains. “I’d sound like an idiot if I tried to sing like Shirley Bassey. I wasn’t satisfied with my lead vocal and I kept changing it. I even did a version as Edith Bunker just for fun. I was driving myself crazy and I thought, ‘Can I just get this out of my system?’ Finally I thought I’m going to sing this really mellow and relax, because I sing better when I’m not nervous.”

 Someday, maybe, that Edith Bunker version will be released.

(Thanks to Fred Mills, Blurt editor, for the great layout/design on the Blurt story.)

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