Friday, January 25, 2013

My Dream Date with Petra Haden

[photo by Steven Perilloux]
The Los Angeles indie-music world has its crushes, its chanteuses, its artists who make hearts go flippety-flop, but Petra Haden may be in a special category all by herself. At 41, she is L.A.'s perpetual little sister and a member of SoCal royalty: along with twin sisters Tanya and Rachel (with whom she's currently recording an album of old Louvin Brothers and Carter Family chestnuts) and brother Josh, she's one of the many talented offspring of Charles Edward Haden, one of modern jazz's most mercurial bassists; she's sister-in-law to Jack Black and BFFs with the likes of Mike Watt, Bill Frisell and Sean Ono Lennon; she's sung with the L.A. Philharmonic, toured with The Decemberists, and sat in with actress Megan Mullally on everything from torch songs to Cypress Hill covers.

She's also a bit of a glamourpuss. Just check out the cover for her new solo album Petra Goes To The Movies, which dropped Tuesday:

A sequel of sorts to her 2005 record Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, where she recreated an entire classic album by Pete Townshend & Co. using just her multi-tracked voice and strange powers of aural mimicry, Movies is a (mostly) a cappella song cycle constructed from sixteen fragments of scores from such films as Psycho, , Big Night, and The Social Network. It is Haden's valentine to Filmdom's great composers and dedicated to, in her words, "all composers around the world who help make images on a screen come to life." She even called in some of her famous friends like Frisell, pianist Brad Mehldau and—for the first time on one of her solo records—Haden paterfamilias.

Recently the Beast sat down with "Pet" at Du-Par's diner at the L.A. Farmer's Market to discuss her lifelong love affair with these invaluable artists who most moviegoers couldn't pick out of a police lineup. And we tried not to make an ass out of ourselves.

Do you think you're musical outlook has been influenced by growing up in a movie town?
I don't know, maybe so. It certainly seems like I would be. When catch those old Hollywood films on Turner Classic Movies, it reminds me of when I was eight or nine and my dad would take us to the Movieland Wax Museum. I was obsessed with how weird all the Hollywood stars looked in their hair and clothes and makeup. There were even some figures like Joan Crawford or Christopher Reeve who didn't look anything like how they did in real life. I thought, "Wouldn't they take the time to get it right?" I wish I was a sculptor because then I could work there. I'd put as much concentration into that as I put in my music. [laughs] Music is what I'm better at.

Do you like those old noir music scores?
Oh yes. My dad would call me, "You have to turn on Turner Classic Movies; they're showing The Big Sleep!" And of course the music is the first thing that jumps out at me. The same with David Raskin's music for that film Laura. I wanted to buy that score right when I heard it! Recently, I saw The Old Man and The Sea, which I know is not a noir film, but I noticed that the music was going on throughout the whole movie. That's what I love about those old movies, that the music is like a constant companion. Even in scenes that aren't particularly dramatic, like a woman checking her watch, you hear the music as a comment on that action.

Sort of like the old classic cartoons...
Yeah! Since I've been little I'd hear Carl Stallings' music for Looney Tunes and I thought, "Man this is deep!"

The music was just so funny and sophisticated and silly and smart. Those guys were so ahead of their time. It moves along so quickly and there's so much going on. I remember seeing it as a kid thinking, "Wow, I want to see this performed in concert!"

You've had some previous experience doing music for films and TV commericals. Did that in any way inform this current project?
Yeah. When I was recording my first solo album Imaginaryland, I was listening to a lot of movie scores. There's this movie called Delusion that I was obsessed with because this band Miranda Sex Garden had some of their songs in it. Their music was a cappella with some instruments, and it reminded me of Steve Reich. So I covered a song of theirs for Imaginaryland and that sort of put it my head: "Well, as long as I'm on this roll I might as well go ahead and do that Bach piece I love so much." Then there was this movie called Green Card...

The one with Gerard Depardieu?
Yeah. I love Andie MacDowell. [laughter] There was an Enya song they had at the end credits called "Watermark" that just blew me away. So I always related my favorite music to the movies. That's when I got planted in my brain: "Why does every time I see the move I want to sing every part or be in the orchestra playing that score?" For me, playing the score for Leonard Rosenman’s "Rebel Without a Cause" or one of the Looney Tunes cartoons would be pure ecstasy." So I thought, "I’ll just pretend I’m my own orchestra and sing all the parts.”

That's the approach you took with The Who Sell Out. Were you unprepared for all the attention you got from that?
Yeah, I don't know really why it got the attention it did. I still kind of want to re-record it in a real studio, but that's the past and I just love it how it is. It shows a certain spontaneity, that I didn't care to make it sound perfect, which is what I like about it. Of course after it came out I was beating myself up about it...I wanted the music to be right, that's what I get really paranoid about. But it was so exciting for me to have all this positive reaction to a record that I started five years earlier. Then in the middle of recording it I got hit by a car and that slowed me down...

 As getting hit by car will do, I hear.
Yeah, but once I felt better, Mike Watt would call me: "Pet! How's it goin'? You finish that record yet?" "No Mike, but I will, I promise!" I finally finished it and played it for him and he said, "Now you should put it out." "Put it out? I recorded it when I was sick, I got some of the lyrics wrong because I wasn't really paying attention and a I didn't know how to work the 8-track!" [laughs] Luckily, Bar None [Records] heard it and they liked it just how it was.
Was there any pressure to do a follow-up or sequel of sorts?
Not really, although Pete Townshend called me to tell me how much he liked The Who record, and he suggested I cover an album by the Village People.
No, no, I'm sorry. I meant that record by The Kinks...

"We are the Village Green Preservation Society"?
Yeah, that one. [laughter] Although the Village People would be interesting, wouldn't it? I know people asked me a lot if I was going to do a solo record with my own original music, which I want to, but the original songs I write come from working out melodies on Garage Band or something. Like with Imaginaryland, I was still figuring out how to use my 4-track, and those songs just developed organically. I didn't write out anything, I just sang, and out of that a melody or a bass line would sort of reveal itself. Like for the movie Hurlyburly, the composer Steve Lindsey and I developed the song "A Small Resurrection" with instruments and I remember thinking, "Oh man, do I need a band!"

Not surprisingly, your selections for Petra Goes to the Movies are pretty eclectic. I was excited when I saw you included that Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross song "Hand Covers Bruise" from The Social Network. That's the tune that plays in the beginning when Zuckerberg is running from the bar back to his dorm to invent Facebook, right?
I loved that movie but it was the music that kept paying more attention to. The music so informed those scenes and what they meant. That was the last song I recorded for the album. It's so simple yet so amazing: that one note just hovering over this simple piano line. I felt a sense of history when I heard it -- like the whole world is about to change and no one knows it yet.
It sort of reminded me of John Carpenter's music for Halloween, especially in that opening scene where young Michael Myers creeps up on his sister.
Yeah, that synthesizer part with the piano over it. I see that now!

Do you like scary-movie soundtracks, by the way?
Oh yeah! After I did the theme from Psycho I thought "I should do something so shockingly scary that it will blow people's minds." My engineer Justin Burnett suggested, "Why don't you do The Exorcist?" So I did [Mike Oldfield's] song from that movie but I had to leave it off the record.
Wait, you did "Tubular Bells" but didn't put it on the record?
Yeah, I know. [laughs] I had so many songs by that point. When I added "Hand Covers Bruise" I think it bumped the track list up to sixteen songs. But I wanted to do more. I wanted to do twenty!
Are you planning on releasing any of the b-sides online, like you did with your cover of "God Only Knows."
I should. I'll have to discuss that with the label. I also did some of David Shire's score for The Conversation with Gene Hackman, which is another one of those deep movies I love so much. I watched it and thought, "Man, they got the best composer, the best producer, the best director [Francis Ford Coppola], the best actors -- how did they get it so right?" Can we have more of that happening now, please?
What was the first song you did for the record?
I think it was Ennio Morricone's score for Cinema Paradiso...My dad covered it with Pat Metheny a long time ago. It's an important song for my family and it's a part of me, so I felt I needed to do it.
You also cover Bernard Herrmann's "God's Lonely Man" from Taxi Driver. Which one is that?
It's in the scene where De Niro is driving though Times Square and he's reflecting on how disgusting and gross the streets of New York are -- "someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum of the streets," that one -- and he says, "I'm God's lonely man." The whole time he's saying this you hear this slow, pulsating chord that just builds and builds and then the ending chord comes -- BOOM! -- and then it starts over again. Listening to it feels a lot like a wave. Those are the easiest to sing for me, because I relate to things like that. You know how when you're in a theater and the lights go own and before the film starts there's the studio logos with the animation and the music, like for "Tristar Entertainment" or "Miramax Pictures"? I always wanted to cover those little studio jingles because some of them are so beautiful.

Do you have a favorite?
The one for Columbia Pictures [sings the theme] It's a lot like "God's Lonely Man" in that there's sort of a building of notes that sound like waves and there's always dissonant notes that I really like -- the song "The Planet Krypton" [from Superman] has that too. I actually wanted to open the record with me covering one of those studio-theme songs, but we decided to use "Rebel Without a Cause" instead.
So there's a method to the track sequencing...
Yeah, I'm so bad with sequencing, but I'd go hiking and I would listen to the record in different playlists and orders. I had sent my version of "Rebel" to Pat Metheny just for him to check out and he said he loved how powerful it was. He said: "Well, you should start your record with that."
The NYU Symphony Conducts "Rebel Without A Cause"
Which song was the hardest to re-create?
The beginning of "Rebel Without A Cause" is really hard to do...I actually wasn't going to do it because it was so challenging. The melody is really easy to remember and sing, but you have to get past that crazy beginning. It doesn't last long, so I thought, "Whether I like it or not, I'm gonna figure this out."

You also chose a song from the film My Bodyguard. Weren't you like seven when that came out?
I cry every time I see that movie, especially when Linderman reveals the hard life he had groing up. And the music really made me understand that. [The composer] Dave Grusin also did the music for Tootsie. I had no idea I liked Dave Grusin so much before I did this record. [laughter] They should do a remake of My Bodyguard, especially with all of the bullying going on now. It would be perfect. I actually reached out to the agent of Adam Baldwin, who played Linderman, because I wanted him to be in a photo for the record. I did photo stills from eleven movies, like Superman, Cinema Paradiso, and Goldfinger, and I wanted to have that shot of Chris Makepeace with Linderman standing behind him -- "You should talk to my bodyguard" -- and Matt Dillon and his friends are all pissed off. Either that or the shot of the two of them on the bike. I emailed Adam Baldwin's agent -- "Hi, I'm kind of a nobody but I'm doing this record of movie themes..." -- but no one ever wrote back.

"You should talk to my bodyguard."

For Goldfinger, did you paint yourself gold like Shirley Eaton?
Yeah! I wanted to do what did with The Who record, like that shot of me in the bathtub with the beans. I thought. "Why not just go all-out with this one?"

Petra as Janet Leigh

That theme from Goldfinger is a pretty iconic song to boot. How did you tackle that one?
I wasn't sure if I wanted to sing the lyrics or just do it instrumentally with my voice. I tried it a few different ways -- because how could I possibly keep up with Shirley Bassey? I ended up singing it an octave lower, which I'm not used to doing. But it worked and I liked it. I even have a version I did as a joke where I sing it like Edith Bunker -- "GAWWDLFINGAHHH!" [laughter]
There's a smattering of foreign films scores on here too, like Fellini's 8½...
That another crazy movie that's all over the place...I love how mysterious it was, and the score is almost like circus or carnival music. I wanted to do something off the wall like that. It's so crazy and wacky it could be a Looney Tunes song now that I think about it...My friend Woody Jackson, who recorded it, had a taken-apart trumpet hanging on his wall and he let me sing the song though the mouthpiece. Jut to get that brassy feel that the original has. Hal Willner suggested I do the song "Carlotta's Gallop" because he's a big Nino Rota fan.
What was the first movie you remember seeing, by the way?
I think it was Benji.


This is the first solo record of yours that your dad plays on. What took so long?
He always wanted to play on something of mine, but it never seemed to work out...I played him my version of "It Might Be You" [from Tootsie] and he said, "Man, that sure could use some bass! If you can think of anyone who’s interested..." [laughs] “I said, ‘Daaaad, of course! I want you to play on it, it'd be perfect!" But then he heard my version of "This Is Not America," which Pat Metheny had written for The Falcon and The Snowman and my dad covered with the Liberation Music Orchestra, and was like, "This is the one I want to play on." He did and he made it a hundred times better. It made sense. Every single note he plays is beautiful.

Petra Haden and her 18-voice choir will be bringing Petra Goes to the Movies
to life in selected L.A. dates in the upcoming weeks, including shows at
The Getty on 1/26 and the First Unitarian Church on 2/9. Not to be missed! 

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