A Conversation With Petra Haden

If By Yes is the latest project from the multi-talented Petra Haden. The band’s debut, Salt On Sea Glass (Chimera), took almost a decade to make and features Haden collaborating with Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) and Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu and Yuko Araki (Cornelius), as well as guests such as David Byrne and Nels Cline (Wilco). Haden is the daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden and the sibling of musicians Rachel, Tanya (the sisters are triplets) and Josh Haden. Though she has played with a who’s-who of alt-rock and jazz artists over the past 20 years, Haden is perhaps best known for her fantastic 2005 a cappella interpretation of The Who Sell Out. Haden will be guest editing all week. Check out the mix tape she made us in 2008. We recently caught up with her via email.

MAGNET: Not that you care, but you and your sisters were born two days before me in 1971. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” was the number one song in the U.S. and U.K. And John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released the day you guys were born. Not too shabby, huh?
Haden: Whoaa. Cool!

What was it like growing up in such a musical family? Was there ever any doubt you would end up doing it as a career? Was there ever any rivalry between you and your sisters and brother, even in jest?
Growing up in a musical family made learning music fun. Since I was little, I knew that I would be playing music for a long time because I enjoyed it so much. There was never any rivalry with my siblings. We’ve all liked working together, and it’s great to be involved in their projects.

The list of artists you have played with is staggering: Green Day, Beck, Queens Of The Stone Age, Weezer, Foo Fighters, Mike Watt, Decemberists, Victoria Williams, Bill Frisell, Bette Midler, etc. Is there anyone else you are dying to collaborate with? What do you think it is about you that makes people seek you out to work with?
I can’t think of anyone I am dying to collaborate with, because I love seeing what comes next for me. So far, the artists I’ve worked with I’ve always wanted to work with. So I like being surprised. I don’t know what it is about me that makes people seek me out.

You started writing with Yuka almost a decade a ago, but the If By Yes record just came out. What took so long? Can you explain the creative process of you working with Yuka?
There’s no real reason why it took so long. Sometimes things take a long time. It just happened that way. The process of working with Yuka started with us writing songs in her apartment in NYC. She came up with song structures, and I would write melodies, which I later recorded.

You recorded the album in NYC, L.A. and Japan? How long did the actual recording take? It was done last year, right?
Over a period of about eight years. Some of the songs were recorded in NYC. And a lot of the songs were done in the last couple of years. “Still Breathing” was remixed in Japan by Keigo Oyamada, and I recorded my vocals there, too.

You sing with David Byrne on the album. What was that like?
It was a lot of fun! I listened to his music in high school. Back in the day. So it was an honor to work with him.

Can we expect another If By Yes record down the road? Any lives dates?
Although I enjoyed my time with If By Yes, I am not continuing with them. I think it’s important for me to concentrate on my own work now.

What was it like getting the thumbs up from Pete Tonwshend for Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out? That must have been an amazing feeling. But then you said you heard Roger Daltrey didn’t like it. What’s that guy’s problem? I’d offer to rough him up for you, but he looks like he’s in pretty good shape these days.
Getting the thumbs up from Pete T. was very surprising to me! I was so excited when I heard that. I recorded the album on a cassette eight-track Mike Watt gave me. So at the time, I thought it sounded like shit, with all the hiss and extra noise in the background. But then after a while, all the noise kinda grew on me. I have to remember that the most important part of that whole experience was having fun. All the worrying about how it sounds and messing up while working the eight-track kind of gives it character. I was just happy he liked what I did, and I was happy singing it.

Back in 2008, you told MAGNET you were working on an album of a cappella film themes, tentatively titled Petra At The Movies. How is that progressing?
Yes, that album is done for the most part. I’m still not sure of the title, but be expecting some interesting surprises. I will let you know the release date soon!

You sing on the upcoming album by 80-year-old jazz legend Paul Motian. Was that at all intimidating?
No, it wasn’t. He is a lot of fun and made me laugh the whole time. He’s known me since I was a baby. Now, singing some of those songs was intimidating. They’ve all been sung by the best, so I was a little nervous.

What do you have planned for the rest of 2011?
Working on getting my record out. And putting together another Sellouts choir.

Speaking of movies, I’ll tell you a funny story about my brother-in-law, some surfer dude from Jersey named Tom, if you tell me one about your brother-in-law, Jack Black.
He was re-enacting Peter And The Wolf for his kids one day, while the music and story was being played. It was funny to watch him impersonate all the animals!

—Eric T. Miller

“You Feel Right” (download):