Petra Haden’s got music in her blood.
“My father is a jazz bass player. My mother’s parents used to be in a mandolin orchestra,” she says.
The inventive and quirky Petra is a violinist, singer, an arranger and a perpetual student of the arts.
Now she’s bringing her captivating music to the masses through several albums, including her recent release “Petra Goes to the Movies.”
“I wanted to do something different,” she says.
Petra Haden was born in New York and grew up in California, where she spent her childhood listening to the music her parents would play for Petra and her triplet sisters and older brother.
She remembers singing along to Sesame Street and the theme to “Free to Be You and Me.” Mostly she remembers singing all the time.
“That’s how we learned harmony – just by being around each other and singing a lot,” she says.
At 7, she picked up the violin. “We chose our instruments,” Petra says about herself and her siblings (Tanya plays the cello. Rachel plays the bass. Josh plays in a band called Spain.)
Petra played in the school orchestra until she was 12 or 13, when she decided to quit.
“That’s the time when kids wanna be cool,” she says.
But she couldn’t stay away. After high school, a friend wanted to get a band together, and Petra decided it was time to pull out the old fiddle.
She started improvising and working with a music teacher while at Cal-Arts, where her father (bass player Charlie Haden) taught jazz. “I stayed there for a year, and when our band got signed, I dropped out.”
Her band, That Dog, released three records and toured internationally, opening for artists like The Wallflowers, Weezer and Beck.
Since then, she’s played violin with artists including The Decemberists and the Foo Fighters. She still plays to this day.
Petra didn’t start singing professionally until her early 20s, she says. She and her sisters had never had voice lessons; singing came naturally to the Hadens, Petra says. So she kick-started her vocal career by learning to use a four-track recorder gifted to her by her father.
“I would learn how to use it by just multi-tracking my voice,” she explains. “I started writing my own melodies. Not necessarily songs, but melodies without words. Eventually I had an album of all my voice.”
Those dreamy and playful memories became “Imaginaryland,” Petra’s first all-vocal album released in 1995.
“Imaginaryland” also includes a few covers, including a song by Enya, a song by Bach and one by Petra’s father.
“I would listen to my favorite jazz music, and I would imitate the sounds of guitar. I ended up making my voice sound like a guitar. That's when I started really focusing on a cappella. That's when I started using my voice as an instrument. I was experimenting,” she says.
Petra says she quickly learned the traditional structure of a cappella music, starting with the bass and building up.
“If you have the bass, it's like the anchor,” she says. “Once I sang the bass notes, everything else just fell into place”
She arranges all her own music and has a unique process she follows when writing and recording.
“I listen to the music like 100 times if I’m hiking or just around the house in my headphones,” she says. “I try to get it stuck in my head or until I’m comfortable singing it [on its own.] I rehearse all the harmonies; I memorize them. I sing the bass first, and I just sing along with the music until I take off my headphones.”
When writing, she says she uses her own method.
“I write it a special way, with lines going up and down and squiggly lines. That’s what I follow when I take the track out of my headphones [while recording],” she says. “It’s like my own language with weird symbols. I write a sad face for the minor parts. That’s what happens when you don’t stay in music school,” she jokes.
Her program of choice? GarageBand, although she does have ProTools; she’s just never learned to use it.
Petra’s next album, “The Who Sell Out,” which was released in 2005, drew praise from media including the L.A. Times and NPR. It also warranted a phone call from a big-shot celebrity.
“Pete Townshend called me. He said, ‘I can't believe you got the chords right! No one can do that!’ I was jumping up and down when I was talking to him on the phone,” she says.
She decided to get a small choir together – a group she called Petra and the Sellouts -- and bring her version of The Who to the East Coast and as the opening act for the Foo Fighters in Los Angeles, as she was playing violin for the rock band as part of its acoustic tour.
“People either love it or hate it,” she says of a cappella music. “Some people liked it, some were like ‘Get off the stage!’ I didn’t care. Maybe it bothered me a little at first, but once I started singing I didn’t care. As long as I like it, that’s what matters.”
That’s when things really took off for Petra in a cappella. In 2006, she became the voice of the Toyota Prius, singing her original melodies and a cover of the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” as part of the commercials for the hybrid car.
Soon after, a producer for NBC’s “The Sing-Off” got in touch with her and asked her to join the reality-competition show’s first season as a coach.
“I'd never worked on a TV show before,” she says. “I was really nervous.”
But her nerves were quelled when she was granted an a cappella coach to work alongside her: Deke Sharon.
“I was in awe of how he works with people,” she says of Sharon. “He loves working with people. I was so impressed. I don't really know how to sight-sing or read music charts. I was there making sure people were singing in tune. And I arranged a few songs.”
She says she did a lot of work with female barbershop quartet Maxx Factor, who sang her arrangements of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” She also arranged Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocket Full of Sunshine” and worked on the Queen/David Bowie opening number “Under Pressure.”
Working on “The Sing-Off” was a big step out of her comfort zone, she says. She was used to a more relaxed – not to mention, solitary – working environment, so getting used to the hustle and bustle of the TV show taught her many “valuable lessons,” she says.
“I had to learn how to speak up and be assertive,” she says.
After “The Sing-Off”, Petra decided to go back to a project she’d been working on since 2005: an album of movie music, which is now “Petra Goes to the Movies.”
The album, which was released in January of this year, is composed of all cover songs from her favorite movie soundtracks, including the themes from Superman, Cinema Paradiso and Psycho.
“I feel like I'm in another world when I listen to music and watch the movies,” she says.
Recording the movie music was “like a dream,” she says. “I always heard this music in my head, and I always wanted to get it out of my system. I got to sing all the great chords that I've always loved.”
The future is already buzzing with activity for Petra Haden, both in vocal and instrumental music.
Currently, she’s working on an album with her sisters, all based around classic, old country tunes.
After that, she says she’s looking forward to writing an a cappella album of all original music. She says she’d love to work with another musician on the project, though she’s not quite sure who would be her dream choice.
“Maybe someone like Thom Yorke. I want to make a record with that kind of sound. A mix between that and Sade. I really love her mellow records,” she says.
She also wants everyone to know that she would love to do another project like the Prius commercials.
“When they stopped playing [the commercials], I was like ‘what happened?” she says with a laugh. “I’m definitely open to more of that. Make sure to put that in there.”
Will do, Petra.
About the writer:
Andrea Asuaje is the social media program manager for CASA. She is an alumna and former music director of the University of Florida's No Southern Accent. Asuaje works as the social media coordinator for Tribut (http://www.tributapparel.com), a South Florida-based music-apparel brand focusing on classic rock, blues and soul. She blogs about her life at The Big 24 (http://thebig24.tumblr.com), where you can see pictures of the many cupcakes she loves to bake along with her year-long goals she hopes to achieve before her 25th birthday. She lives in South Florida with her rabbit Potter