Wednesday, April 20, 2016

INTERVIEW: Petra Haden

Your debut album, "Imaginaryland" is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  I remember playing your cover of Enya's "Watermark" on my college radio station and thinking, "I can't believe that this is the same woman from that dog.!" (her band with sister Rachel, Tony Maxwell, and Anna Waronker) When did you realize that you could create such arrangements with your voice?  

I started writing little vocal ideas and covering songs using my voice when I got my first 4-track cassette recorder, I think around 1992. I taught myself how to use it by singing the guitar and bass parts of songs. I loved doing it so much, that I ended up recording enough material for an album.  I played the music for Tom Grimley at Poop Alley Studios (who recorded That Dog’s first album). And he suggested I re-record some of the songs at his studio. Some of the songs on I.L. come straight from the 4-track.

Also, some people might not know this, but I’m not in That Dog anymore.
You're also in the process of re-releasing your a cappella reimagining of the Who's "Sell-Out".  I've always found that such an interesting work.  The original was ahead of its time in so many ways (its content and commentary on the commodification of rock, the use of interstitials), and you are essentially looking back on it and interpreting it through the oldest possible musical medium, the human voice.  It's so fresh for being something so familiar!  What went into your decision to cover it?  Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?

The idea came from Mike Watt. He called me one day and asked me to record The Who Sell Out in the style of Imaginaryland. He gave me his 8-Track Tascam 488 cassette recorder, put the Who on the 8th track and left 7 tracks empty for me to fill with my voice.  I hadn’t heard this album before I started working on it.  I Can See For Miles was the song I was more familiar with, so I started with that one. I was so amazed at how imaginative the commercials in between the songs were and couldn’t wait to tackle those. When I was a kid, my sisters and I used to record ourselves doing impressions of people, and we used to imitate those toys from the 70s and 80s that talked, so it brought back memories of me doing impressions of Miss Piggy and 2-XL. So I guess I am a little nostalgic. :)
Growing up in a family steeped in music, was there ever a time when you thought your career and life might take a different path?  Growing up with your father's playing and you and your siblings' various musical careers, I have difficulty picturing you doing anything other than what you are.

There wasn’t really a time when I thought my career would take a different path.  Since I was very young, I knew I wanted to sing and play music. I loved watching my dad and the musicians who played with him at his concerts. I remember how beautiful the music was and how good it made me feel.  I remember thinking, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Your solo works are fairly insular, but you have such varied experiences collaborating with and supporting others - how do you find an artistic balance between the two?  What are some of your fondest memories of the projects with which you've been associated?  

I loved recording on Paul Motian’s album, The Windmills of Your Mind, with Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. I got a call from Bill saying that Paul wanted me to sing on his record. I flipped out! Paul was someone I had known since I was a baby.  He and my dad were very close friends who worked together a lot and they had the same sense of humor.  Not a day went by in the studio where I wasn’t laughing. I remember wanting to add harmonies and more vocals to some of the music, but he wanted to record it live, with no added voices.  It was really fun for me to switch gears, and not add any vocals like I was so used to doing. It made me realize that sometimes, one voice is perfect.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others.  But let’s say you are forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particularly proud to have written or that is special to you?

That would probably be “Look Both Ways Before You Cross” from Imaginaryland. It was the first song I wrote on the 4-track.  I gave it that title because throughout the song, I sing in a way that reminds me of the sounds car horns make as they drive by fast.

You provided the singing voice for Bill Hader's character, Clark Honus, on the Blue Jean Committee episode of Hader and Fred Armisen's "Documentary Now".  I'm not sure I actually have a question about it; I just don't think I've laughed quite as hard at anything as I did that in years…great job!

Thank you so much! That was one of the funnest times I ever had. I had to look at Bill on the screen as he was singing to try to match him and I couldn’t stop laughing. There were a lot of vocal takes that day.
What's on tap for you next? 

I recorded an album with Jesse Harris called, “Seemed Like a Good Idea”, that’s coming out April 29th on Sunnyside Records. We are touring the West Coast in May, opening for Sean Watkins and we have some shows in Asia coming up as well. Our record release show is at Joe’s Pub in NYC, May 4th. 

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